What do you do after winning one of the most prestigious cello competitions at the tender age of 21? Jet-setting around the world on a prizewinner’s tour? Well, not in the case of Japanese cellist Haruma Sato, winner of the 2019 ARD International Music Competition in Munich. He is back in Berlin continuing his musical studies at the University of the Arts Berlin. When we talked, he was preparing some new repertoire for a recital tour in Japan that had been booked before his success in Munich.

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Haruma Sato
© Daniel Delang

Haruma has been living in Berlin for three and a half years now, studying with Professor Jens Peter Maintz, who incidentally was also a winner of the ARD Competition 25 years ago. Asked what he likes most about living in Berlin, Haruma says: “I love the tempo of German life, which is slower and less pressurised than in Japan. I feel there’s more space – the streets are wider and there is a lot of greenery and nature, which is an ideal environment for my music-making. Here, music comes to me naturally.” On the other hand, he does miss the quality of the food culture in Japan. He tells me that the most shocking thing he has experienced in Berlin was eating lunch in the university canteen (“Mensa” in German). He giggles and confides that he has never been back to eat there and he often makes his own lunch.

Haruma was born in Nagoya, Japan, a city that is known for producing many fine string players. His parents are both schoolteachers (teaching Japanese), but they like music and met in the university orchestra – his father played the double bass and his mother played the violin. Haruma started on the violin at the age of four, but he soon became fascinated with the sound of the cello, which his older brother was learning, and he switched to it at the age of six. His brother eventually pursued a different road, but Haruma has never looked back. “Playing the cello was my daily routine from childhood and it occupied so much of my life that I couldn’t really envisage any other career than becoming a musician. But what really made me want to become a professional cellist was hearing Japanese cellist Nobuko Yamazaki play Elgar’s Cello Concerto in Nagoya, so I decided to go to Tokyo to study with her.”

Watching the video streaming of Haruma’s performance of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto no. 2 in the final round of the ARD Competition, what impressed me most was his keen awareness of what the various orchestral parts were doing while he was playing, and his exceptional ensemble ability. No doubt this stems from his experience of playing in the NHK Nagoya Junior Orchestra for six years, from the age of eight. “Yes, until then I was always practicing on my own at home and suddenly I discovered the joy of playing with other like-minded children. I was always looking around to see what other people were playing – and having this kind of “antennae” has helped me when I play chamber music and also a concerto with orchestra.”

Surprisingly, he tells me that he almost prefers playing chamber music, such as a string quartet, rather than playing solo, but because the way of producing sound for chamber music is totally different to performing as a soloist, for now he wants to concentrate on producing a solo sound. Haruma currently plays on a beautiful instrument made by Italian luthier Enrico Rocca in 1903, on loan from the Munetsugu Collection in Nagoya. “I fell in love with the instrument when I first played it about two years ago. Unlike the Stradivarius or other vintage instruments, this cello has a robust and straight sound, which is what I am aiming for. Also, this cello is thicker than a regular instrument, which gives it its powerful tone. I am enormously grateful to be able to play it.”

In the last couple of years Haruma has competed in several high-profile competitions such as the Lutosławski Cello Competition in 2018 (first prize), the Tchaikovsky International Competition in 2019 (second round) and the ARD Competition in 2019 (first prize). He says that he has been taking part in international competitions since coming to Berlin because he wanted something to show his achievements. He wasn’t too sure about participating in both the Tchaikovsky and the ARD in the same year (they rarely coincide) but his teacher Maintz encouraged him, saying he also did both in 1984.

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Haruma Sato and conductor Eun Sun Kim at the ARD Competition
© Daniel Delang

“The ARD competition was the most challenging of all because there are a total of four rounds, including two rounds with orchestra: playing and directing Haydn’s Cello Concerto no. 1 with the Munich Chamber Orchestra and the final concerto round with the world-class Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Eun Sun Kim. So preparing the repertoire took a lot of work. Also, when I decided to apply, I was really surprised by the unusual choice of concertos offered for the final, which were Schumann, Elgar, Martinů’s Second and Shostakovich’s Second. I didn’t know Shostakovich’s Second Concerto at all, but when I started to study it, I became fascinated with it and I decided to take up the challenge of choosing this work. I knew that a couple of the jury members had recorded this concerto, but I avoided listening and tried to come up with my own interpretation.”

How did he maintain his motivation and concentration throughout the ten days of the competition? “Actually it was my co-performers that helped get my motivation going. In the first two rounds my pianist Naoko Sonoda, whom I know well from Berlin, encouraged me both on and off stage. Then in the semi-final, it was such a joy to perform with the Munich Chamber Orchestra! I had such fun at our rehearsal the day before, which gave me the motivation for the performance the next day. In fact, that semi-final performance of the Haydn was as perfect as I could have hoped. In every round, I was so inspired by the musicians that various ideas came to me during the performance and it was a really enjoyable experience.”

“At the ARD competition, I was particularly impressed by the enthusiasm of the Munich audience. For example, the second round was really full and I could feel that they were genuinely enjoying the performances and applauding eagerly. It felt like playing in a concert rather than a competition and that was very encouraging. I really felt that Munich is a very musical city.”

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The ARD International Music competition finalists: Friedrich Thiele, Haruma Sato and Sihao He
© Daniel Delang

Cellists on the whole are known to be a friendly bunch, so even in such a highly competitive environment there is certainly room for friendship and camaraderie. Haruma says he usually prefers to be alone, but during this competition he went out for lunch and dinner with fellow competitors (including his mates from Berlin) and also with Japanese musicians friends studying in Munich. His favourite eatery is AOI Ramen Izakaya (he recommends the Yuzu-shio Ramen!) and he even took his fellow finalist, Sihao He (who won third prize), for a bowl of ramen too. Eating well is obviously very important to him. When I asked him if he had any pre-performance rituals, he said he didn’t have a ritual, but he can never play well on an empty stomach so he makes sure he isn’t hungry before going on stage.

Unlike some other major competitions, ARD doesn’t provide a prizewinner’s tour as part of the awards, but as a result of his success, Haruma has had several offers of concerts from individual venues and promoters and he has already appeared in three such concerts. He is particularly looking forward to giving a recital at the Schwarzwald Musikfestival next June. The streaming and radio coverage of the competition has been hugely beneficial too, not least because his family and friends could follow the competition in Japan.

In fact, he is happy that he doesn’t have to rush into a busy concert schedule just yet, because he has many things he wants to study, such as performance of Baroque music, and he also wants to widen his repertoire to include more French and Russian music. “As the result of the ARD competition, I definitely feel that my musical career has opened up and I’ve also been able to develop as a musician, tackling a wide range of repertoire. I would recommend the ARD competition to any aspiring young musician who wants to develop and widen his/her opportunities.” He plans to stay in Berlin for the next few years and ultimately he hopes to base his career in Europe.

This interview was sponsored by the ARD International Music Competition.