Kendzsi Tanaka: Classical pianist seeks connection with Kenya music community

Japanese-Hungarian classical pianist Kendzsi Tanaka at the Kenya Conservatoire of Music during rehearsals for his concert on Feb 4, 2024. PHOTO | BILL ODIDI | POOL

On Monday this week, classical pianist Kendzsi Tanaka was at the Conservatoire of Music for his first rehearsal session in Nairobi after arriving early that morning from Copenhagen, Denmark.

“We were shuffling around seeking directions to the rehearsal room,” he says. “But once I sat on the piano and started playing the keys, then I was immediately at home. Music is truly universal.”

That rehearsal was for his concert this Sunday, 4 February 2024, at the Kenton College, Nairobi, organised by Chamber Music Kenya. “The fact that I can fly thousands of miles and be so welcome here, is a fascination, a mystery. My aim is to develop a connection with the Chamber Music Kenya and the music community here in Nairobi,” says the 28-year-old.

Tanaka was born in the town of Szeged, Hungary to a Japanese father and a Hungarian mother. His parents then moved to Hawaii, US, where he started his schooling, but his mother fell terminally ill when he was nine, and the family returned to Hungary.

“The story of my starting to play piano is that I received bad grades in music and my father said, “This can’t be, the child has to get some lessons,” he recalls. By the age of 14, he had decided that he was going to have a career in music.

At 18, he enrolled for his Bachelor’s degree at London’s Royal Academy of Music. “Moving from a small town in Hungary to the hustle of London was overwhelming, so after graduation in 2017, I had a friend in Denmark who said, “You should come, it is quite chilled and you can do your Masters here.”

So, he moved to Copenhagen and was admitted to the Royal Danish Academy of Music to study for his Master’s Degree in Piano Performance. He graduated a year ago and since then has been seeking opportunities to showcase his style of music around Europe and the world.

He believes in making classical music more accessible to a wider audience through experiments with contemporary music and jazz. During examinations for his postgraduate studies, he explored the works of German composer Johann Bach in an electronic context with a performance that included a self-playing piano, hooked on to guitar effects pedals, an analogue synthesizer, and a harpsichord.

“I love to play jazz though it is very difficult for me to improvise as a classical musician but I am working on it. I would like to bring my audience up to understand the music,” says Tanaka. “Sometimes you need to play the music simpler, it doesn’t mean it is easier to play or it is a lesser product.”

The pianist interacts with the audience by sharing the history and context of the music, anecdotes, and a little humour, “because people imagine that classical music is so serious so I want to bring people together and be very relaxed.”

He explains: “When I show my personality outside the music notes and I can make the audience take one little thing away from each piece, then we will have achieved a lot. The people who understand a little bit about music will know the personal touch I add to the music to make it different from recordings or other performances.”

Tanaka will perform a specially curated programme of music for his concert through the works of the iconic Hungarian composer and pianist Bela Bartok. “As children in Hungary, we grew up singing folk songs, and Bartok’s melodies like the Suite for Piano Opus 14 and his Sonata are greatly influenced by folk music. I think people of Nairobi will appreciate the nice rhythms of the music.”

A highlight will be a performance of Njane Mugambi’s Trio for Clarinet, bassoon and piano featuring guest performers Philip Maina on clarinet and cellist Masala Sefu, the latter as a replacement for bassoon. Tanaka describes Njane’s piece as “rhythmically, vibrant and lively” and is eagerly anticipating performing the works of the well-known Kenyan composer and music teacher. “I am looking forward to having a conversation with Njane to find out about his inspiration for the piece,” says Tanaka.

The concert programme also includes Frederic Chopin’s Opus 69 No 2 and two pieces from French composer, Maurice Ravel, La Valse and Piano Trio. “Ravel’s music is always so exciting with influence from jazz and Oriental music,” explains Tanaka.

When he is not playing the piano, Tanaka spends time making furniture at his workshop, or coding and web design. “If I take any hobby as seriously as I took piano, then nothing bad can come out of that,” he says. “People need to go out and experience other things so that they can get better at their music.”

Kendzsi Tanaka will also hold a piano masterclass on Saturday 3, February 2024 at the Kenya Conservatoire of Music.

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