/Richard Clayderman: Sentimental Journey

The TOMORROW beyond 3.11 television documentary series presents perspectives on the March 2011 disaster

Japan's national public broadcaster NHK and its Great East Japan Earthquake Project present TOMORROW beyond 3.11, a television documentary series on the March 2011 disaster and recovery from the perspective of artists, filmmakers, thinkers and athletes from around the world who are supporting the well-being of survivors.

Richard Clayderman in Japan

If the appeal of classical music is translatable to a broader public audience, it would have to be said that French pianist Richard Clayderman is one of the musicians who has made it so. Both loved and derided for his romantic, easy-listening repertoire, few would dispute his standing as one of the most popular pianists in the world.

Richard Clayderman at an early age

And with 267 gold and 70 platinum recording discs to his credit, it's no wonder that his signature melodies are ubiquitous as background music in cafés and hotel lobbies the world over.

Clayderman at an early age
Richard performing

Born Philippe Pagés in 1953 to a piano-teaching father, Clayderman started learning to play the piano as a young child. He entered the national conservatory of music in Paris at the age of 12 and was viewed as a promising classical pianist, but his attraction to popular music and the need to make a living steered him onto a different path. Working as an accompanist and session musician, he built a reputation playing with a variety of French singing stars until, at the age of 23, he was invited by the record producer Olivier Toussaint to an audition to record a piano ballad written by Toussaint's partner Paul de Senneville. That tune was Ballade pour Adeline, named for de Senneville's newborn daughter, and it launched the young, blue-eyed, blonde pianist on a solo career he says he had never imagined or sought for himself. With his name changed to Clayderman for easier pronunciation outside France, his soaring record sales generated continuous worldwide demand for concert performances, particularly in Asia, where young piano students still strive to mimic his romantic playing style.

Clayderman talks about the disaster

In Japan, Clayderman has performed a concert tour every year without fail for the past 30 years. When the earthquake and tsunam hit last year he was in the midst of touring Germany and watching reports of the disaster on television. He says he was determined to go ahead with his scheduled Japan tour later in the year. "Since my audiences were waiting for me to arrive and play, I didn't want to cancel, whatever happened," he said. "I also thought there might be some people who wanted to try and forget their hardships, just a little, through my music." In the episode, For the Love of Music, part of the NHK television documentary series on recovery and reconstruction, TOMORROW beyond 3.11, Clayderman explains that the disaster was all the more real to him because he had been coming to Japan once or twice a year for most of his career. "Bringing people music is really the only thing I can do," he says. The program follows Clayderman as he interrupts his concert tour of Japan in May this year to visit Sendai.

No safe venue

With a population just over 1 million, Sendai, the capital of Miyagi prefecture, is the largest city in the northeast. Clayderman had performed there to celebrate the 30th anniversary of his recording debut and he was keen to return, but there was no safe venue after the disaster to hold a major concert there. Rather, he wanted to see how the recovery was progressing and try to bring some comfort to people in the areas affected.

Richard visits the area

After arriving in the city, he travels to the Pacific coast where more than 100,000 homes were washed away. At Nakano Elementary School in Sendai's Miyagino ward, just over a kilometer from the sea, he surveys the damage from the tsunami waves that rose to the school's second floor. All of the students were able to escape to the roof, but the damage to the school building and its contents is irreparable. An organ left behind in one of the classrooms is caked in mud. Its keys, cracked and broken, are painful for Clayderman to see. Gazing out from the school roof at the surrounding emptiness, he imagines what life must have been like there. "Until the disaster, people were living happy lives," he says. "People lost their homes, and treasured musical instruments too." The stark reality still has the power to shock. But Clayderman's spirit is lifted when he later visits a local charitable organization working to replace the many pianos that have been lost or destroyed.

Damaged pianos
Richard meets Michiko Shoji

Piano Donations for Japan Disaster Affected Public Schools is led by pianist Michiko Shoji. The idea for the project occurred to her about 50 days after the tsunami. She had just given a concert in the devastated town of Minamisanriku and a child approached her at the piano saying their own piano had been washed away. "I really wanted to do something," she says. One year later, her organization has delivered more than 140 pianos in support of the recovery. The donated pianos are tuned, polished, and kept in storage until recipients are ready to receive them.

Touched by charity

Clayderman plays on a refurbished piano

Clayderman is shown the many photographs and letters of thanks and joy expressed by recipients whose lives have been touched by the charity. Seeing the refurbished pianos, he is compelled to sit down at one and play. His hands roll over the keys to the tune of Jerusalem, theme song of the 1981 film Chariots of Fire about the fortitude of two Olympic athletes. It is an apt commentary on the strength needed to persevere and rebuild after a natural disaster. Invariably, it is the human kindnesses, small and large, exchanged between people that make it all worth doing. Teruaki Wako owns the local haulage company that donates its services to deliver and install the donated pianos. While making a delivery to a chorale group in Soma, in neighboring Fukushima prefecture, he says he always enjoys installing a new piano. "Looking back, one year has already passed since March 11. When I think of how things were then, its wonderful that people can now get together to play the piano, laugh out loud and sing," he says. "Seeing that happen delights me the most."

Clayderman visits the concert hall
Richard practice with students

Clayderman's final stop is the small concert hall in Sendai where he will give a performance. The hall is part of the local Yamaha piano school and a couple of students are there in a classroom, practicing. Clayderman joins them at the piano, playing the harmonies of their simple tunes. Gaku Kobayashi is in third grade at elementary school and Maika Suzuki is a first year student in junior high. Both of their families had to relocate after the disaster and they were unable to practice playing for a year. Maika delights Clayderman by playing Ballade pour Adeline, the melody that launched him to stardom and that he celebrated 30 years later with a concert in Sendai.

Warm reflections

Later that evening, Clayderman performs for an audience of 50 people, many of them resident in a nearby temporary housing compound for survivors. After performing many of his signature tunes, he offers his version of Lullaby of the Wind, written by Japanese songwriters Shinji Tanimura and Tatsuya Ishii for a project supporting children who have lost their parents in the disaster. Audience members leave the hall looking sated and soothed. Pianist Michiko Shoji, the force behind the piano donations, says Clayderman's warm sound caused her to reflect on everything they have managed to do so far.

Clayderman leaves Sendai

Leaving Sendai to return to his Japan concert tour, Clayderman says the visit has shown him that the rebuilding is progressing but the scars remain. He says the trip was an unforgettable experience for him. "Even though everyone still has so much to do, they seem so full of energy and so full of life." He says he hopes everyone can come together to overcome the difficulties lying ahead.

Susan Bigelow

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