Falcon Heights harpsichordist awarded McKnight Fellowship


Asako Hirabayashi fondly recalls when she first fell in love . . . with a harpsichord.

“I was a college student, majoring in composition at Aichi Art University in Japan,” said the Falcon Heights resident. “I liked performing piano but I was getting bored with it.”

At the time, one of Hirabayashi’s former instructors, renowned harpsichordist Eiji Hashimoto, was teaching at the College-Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati. He returned to Japan briefly to tour and gave a harpsichord concert that Hirabayashi attended.

“This was 20 years ago,” she said. “At that time, Japan was slowly adopting the harpsichord and other early instruments. I was really impressed by his performance and also by the harpsichord. I had never seen one before. He was playing Bach and Scarlatti on the harpsichord, and it was so different from the piano.”

The harpsichord evokes the Renaissance and Baroque periods, when the instrument was popular. But it was surpassed by the piano and nearly disappeared from the musical landscape until the 1960s, when it experienced a revival. Today, the harpsichord is used in both classical and popular music, but it’s still an uphill battle when trying to promote this quirky instrument.

“Some say the harpsichord has a small sound,” Hirabayashi said. “They say that it’s not very expressive, but it is. A famous conductor once said that the harpsichord sounds like ‘two skeletons copulating on a tin roof.’ But it can make very romantic and rich sounds.”

Hirabayashi was so enchanted with the harpsichord that she left Japan and moved to Cincinnati to study with Hashimoto at the Conservatory. From there, she went to Juilliard, where she received a doctor of musical arts degree in harpsichord performance in 1998.

Along with performing, Hirabayashi is a composer.

“There is not much contemporary music for the harpsichord, so I write for my instrument,” she said. “I’ve also written pieces for the harpsichord with other instruments, such as the violin and fortepiano. I write in impressionist, romantic, avant-garde and pop styles.”

Hirabayashi made her Carnegie Hall debut in 1996, has won numerous awards for her compositions, and has lectured and performed around the world.

She credits her family for encouraging her musical gifts when she was a child.

“My family liked classical music, but they didn’t have musical training,” she said. “They took my sister and me to music classes when we were young, and my mom found that I was better in music than other kids. My mom didn’t play an instrument, but she started studying a music theory book to help me. She knew my gift and she encouraged me. That was great.”

Hirabayashi relocated to the Twin Cities in 2001, when her husband, Thomas Stoffregen, received an offer to teach at the University of Minnesota.

“I remember it always because it was a week before September 11,” she said.

Since she has two young children (9 and 11), she decided to work as a freelance musician, and she enjoys the variety and flexibility.

“Each day is completely different,” she said.

Hirabayashi has performed with other freelancers, as well as musicians from the Minnesota Orchestra. She recently recorded her first CD, with Gina DiBello, principal second violin with the Minnesota Orchestra, and pianist Gail Olszewski, who is on the faculty of the MacPhail Center for the Arts. They hope to release it in about four months.

Hirabayashi has performed in the Schubert Club Courtroom Concert Series at Landmark Center, with the Bach Society of Minnesota and recently on NPR’s A Prairie Home Companion.

“That was a lot of fun,” she said. “I loved the improvisation.”

Hirabayashi will perform a solo recital in Sundin Music Hall at Hamline University in the spring of 2010.

Last May, Hirabayashi received a prestigious McKnight Fellowship for Performing Musicians, which includes a prize of $25,000.

“This was my third time applying,” she said, “First time, I was a finalist. Second time, it didn’t go that far, and this time, I won. I’m really happy! This will help promote me and support my work. To win the McKnight is also a very good advertisement.”

With the McKnight in tow, Hirabayashi hopes to make the oft-neglected harpsichord even more mainstream and reach a wider audience.

“I want to do a number of things, including performances,” she said, “and also offer master classes for adults and kids. The harpsichord is never considered a solo instrument, but I want to show that this can be done and encourage other people to learn it.”

For more information and to hear samples of Hirabayashi’s work, see www.tundradogsmusic.com/Asako.htm.