• Music

Japanese Pianist Masaya Kamei Taking Giant Steps in the Music World

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Masaya Kamei poses at Yamaha Artist Services Tokyo’s piano salon.

Masaya Kamei’s piano playing sparkles like light. The winner of the 2022 Long-Thibaud International Competition, he released his debut album “Virtuozo” at the end of last year and is presently preparing for his first national tour in May.

I recently interviewed the young musician to get his thoughts on music and playing the piano.

When he was born, Kamei’s hands were so large that the mittens bought for him didn’t fit.

As an adult, his fingers are long and flexible, and he can span from C to the G some 12 white keys away, helping him play even notoriously difficult pieces with technical ease.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Above: Masaya Kamei poses at Yamaha Artist Services Tokyo’s piano salon; Right: Kamei’s hand can stretch 12 white keys.

When the 21-year-old Aichi Prefecture native was a child, he preferred messing around with piano-like toys rather than playing outside. On his mother’s advice, he started taking piano lessons at the age of 4.

“I didn’t like being told to practice,” he says with a laugh. Kamei explains that he was able to continue playing with interest largely thanks to his teacher, who allowed him to tackle pieces he was interested in, unconnected to his age or skill level.

At the age of 10, he could play Liszt’s “La Campanella.” And, as a sixth-grader, he gave his first solo recital, performing Chopin’s “Heroic Polonaise” and Rachmaninov’s “Vocalise.”

In junior high school, he began to seriously consider a career in music.

“My father and grandfather wanted me to take regular courses [in high school],” he says. However, Kamei was set on studying music history and other related subjects to deepen his understanding of music and entered the music department in high school.

In his first year, he won the high school division of the Student Music Concours of Japan. His performance at the competition led him to skip his third year of high school and enter Toho Gakuen College Music Department.

“On the last day of my second year [in high school], my classmates composed a choral piece and sang it for me,” Kamei recalls. “It was very moving; I still remember it vividly.”

Enthralled audience

Although he was lonely living away from friends and family, he was in a perfect environment to devote himself to the piano.

In 2019, the year he entered the college, he won the piano division of the Music Competition of Japan and the PTNA Piano Competition — considered gateways to success for young musicians. Kamei was the first contestant to win both competitions in a single year.

In both contests, he played “Saint-Saens’ Piano Concerto No. 5,” which he says is “my favorite piece and the work in which I can most express myself.”

“At first, people around me were worried, saying, ‘Are you sure you can win with this piece?,’” he remembers with a laugh. “But it’s a surefire composition for me.”

Kamei also played the piece in the final round of the Long-Thibaud competition last year. It proved to be the right choice and the audience was enthralled by his striking performance.

“There are moments when I ‘get into the zone,’ and my heart is moved by the notes I’m playing, leading me into the next melody, with the performance surpassing my mental ideal,” he said. “I had that feeling when playing in the Long-Thibaud competition.”

People may think that everything has been running smoothly for the young musician, but he confesses that things don’t always go according to plan.

“There are times when I haven’t been able to play as well as I’ve wanted to,” he says. “I’ve been able to address that when practicing, but not in actual performances. It often happens. Also, I sometimes fail to make it out of competition preliminaries and don’t reach the national finals. However, when things go well, I think deeply about the underlying reasons.”

Kamei participated in three international competitions last year, including the Long-Thibaud competition, but he didn’t always play as well as he could, he notes.

“At one time, I focused so much on playing accurately that my body became stiff. Another time, I played too roughly. It’s difficult to find the right balance,” he explains, with a hint of frustration.

For each piece, he thoroughly studies the score, thinks through every note and fashions the piece in such as way as to share his conception of the music with the audience. When he gets it right, results follow naturally.

Chopin competition challenge

Kamei graduated from college in March and plans to study in Europe from autumn.

One of his upcoming goals is to compete in 2025 in the Chopin Piano Competition, one of the world’s three major piano contests.

To help prepare for the all-Chopin event, he has been working on the composer’s “Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise Brillante” and “Fantaisie” for his national tour that begins in May.

©Corentin Schimel
Masaya Kamei performs in the final round of the Long-Thibaud International Competition.

“The Long-Thibaud competition feels like a thing of the past,” Kamei says.

For the 21-year-old, who is already looking two years ahead, winning a prestigious competition only a few months ago is already a distant memory.

His fans will be keeping a careful eye on his promising future.

Kamei’s 12-date nationwide “Masaya Kamei Triumphal Recital Tour 2023” will start on May 28 at Symphony Hall in Osaka and conclude Aug. 9 at Suntory Hall in Tokyo.