Interview Nobuko Imai

The world famous violist (and DVS Honorary Member) Nobuko Imai turns 80 tomorrow. In this interview, she tells us about her teaching career and her long-standing special relationship with The Netherlands, having lived and taught here – albeit on a part time basis – for more than 40 years.

by Kristofer G. Skaug, DVS

On a brisk late-January day, we meet in her daughter’s house in Amsterdam, only a few minutes’ walk away from the Concertgebouw. We are seated in the living room with a cup of tea.

DVS: More than 5 decades of teaching Viola at the highest level. Tell us how it started, and what has kept you going.

It started in America, where I became a member of the Vermeer Quartet, named after the Dutch painter, of course. The quartet was founded by Shmuel Ashkenazy (violinist) at the Northern Illinois University near Chicago, so I started teaching there, I was about 30 years old. I stayed there for 5 years. I didn’t know much about teaching, it was “learning by doing” for me, and I liked it very much.

Later I started teaching also at the Royal (Northern) College of Music in Manchester, as well as in Utrecht and The Hague (at the Royal Conservatoire). And then I taught in Detmold, and in Amsterdam, and at the Kronberg Academy (near Frankfurt), in Madrid, and in Geneva… that’s a very short summary of my teaching career.
Unfortunately I never had a teaching position in Japan, although of course I was there frequently, performing and giving masterclasses.

DVS: Do you hear yourself quoting your own teachers when you teach?

The thing is, I always want to create something. I don’t want to repeat, there has to be something new. Even practicing scales can be done creatively. If you have a weakness, you need to work on it – but you should use your imagination to improve, to create your own scales. That’s the way, I think, avoiding routine. I always find something new, and then I get very excited. I never grew bored of teaching.

DVS: So you regard teaching as a kind of collaborative exploration?

Yes, that’s how you survive 50 years of teaching. As a violist you have to have your own sound. And the viola comes in so many different shapes and sizes, you need to find out how to best “manipulate” your own instrument. You have to investigate.

DVS: What circumstance first brought you to come and teach in The Netherlands?

Well, initially it was because I met a Dutch music lover, after the Geneva competition. He told me he had a big house in Heemstede and I would be welcome to stay there whenever I was in Amsterdam for work or leisure. So I did come, on and off, but never really lived there a long time, a few months maybe. Then eventually I got married to a Dutch man, so that was significant (laughing). But I was still commuting a lot between my different schools.

DVS: Do you see any characteristics of Dutch viola culture or music life?

In my experience, the Dutch are very international in their orientation. They are receptive to new information, and adapt well. In Japan, for example, or Germany, things are quite different in this respect.

The teaching culture at the Conservatory of Amsterdam is strong, I very much appreciate Francien (Schatborn) and Marjolein (Dispa), we’ve been cooperating and creating together. We work together without interfering, creating something bigger. It would never happen quite like this in other countries.

DVS: Are you retiring now from the Conservatory?

I will stop regular teaching in Amsterdam now because of my age, but I hope to continue doing seasonal masterclasses.

DVS: For 15 years now you have been hosting the bi-annual Amsterdam Viola Festival. Looking back, how do you feel about it and what would you hope for the future?

Last time (November 2021), the Amsterdam festival was dedicated to Hindemith, and we had a special recital consisting entirely of Hindemith and Bartók duos. It was very enjoyable getting to know the younger students at the CvA this way, we were giggling a lot (laughs). I hope there could be more programs like that in the future, involving everybody.

DVS: These Bartók duos, by the way, were also special to you.

Yes, I went to Hungary to learn about Hungarian folk music and to play with folk musicians. We ended up travelling to Japan together to play some of this music. Their rhythm and intonation takes a real effort to learn. I spent quite a lot of time with those people. Later, I thought of playing the Bartók duos on the viola. They are not hard, almost beginner level. But I didn’t transcribe them, so we play them in the original (violin) key, which makes it a bit more difficult, but keeps more of the original sound.

DVS: On Sunday (March 19th), you will celebrate your 80th birthday with a special concert in Het Concertgebouw. Tell us about this concert.

I thought it would be nice for my students to meet again, so that’s the idea behind the celebration here in Amsterdam. We will play various pieces for viola ensemble. For example we’ll play the 1st movement of Bach’s 3rd Brandenburg concerto, transcribed for a maximum number of violas. And we’ll play a viola orchestra version of Händel’s “Arrival of the Queen of Sheba“. We may have to remove the 1st row of chairs to fit everyone on stage!

Many of my students are now renowned violists in their own right. For example Timothy Ridout, whom I taught at the Kronberg Academy. He is such an open personality, he’s curious about new repertoire and always finding music in it, an inspiring role model for young people. And Diyang Mei, he’s currently the principal violist of the Berlin Philharmonic, he will fly in from Berlin on Sunday just to play the Paganini “Gran Sonata“, and then fly back the same evening. Just to name a few … it will be a great reunion! I’m looking forward to see them all, and I’m grateful that they make time to come here, even from Japan or Taiwan.

DVS: Final topic: Viola Societies! We were elated that you promptly accepted an Honorary membership of the DVS back in 2013, when we were freshly founded. How do you view the role of Viola Societies?

I first encountered a Viola Society when I was in the U.S., in a festival where female composers were highlighted. I have contributed to several International Viola Congresses since, most recently at the Rotterdam congress in 2018.

Viola Societies are meaningful to a lot of people, but it takes a lot of dedication to run them. I think the Dutch Viola Society has a particularly fruitful climate (mentioned above) to prosper.

DVS: Thank you for your time, and thank you on behalf of the Dutch viola community for all you have done! We have been so lucky to have you here all this time, and we look forward to celebrate with you in Concertgebouw on March 19th!

(P.S. Sunday’s concert (link) is completely sold out – but the DVS will be there, and we will post a report by early next week!)