Akron gave the world-class pianist the chance to live openly as a gay man. He lends his gift every year to help other LGBTQ people do the same.
By Ken Schneck
Quick pop quiz: What do you see when you envision a piano?
The promise of music? The joy or dread of an upcoming lesson? The backbone of a faith-based service?
For world-renowned pianist Tatsuya Nagashima, the instrument represents more than most of us could possibly imagine, and so much more that we can’t. Embedded in the wood and ivory is his family, his hopes, his struggles, his true language and an incredible backstory that started both many years and many thousands of miles away from his Akron home.
Born in Taiwan to a well-known opera singer mother and a father who was arguably the most famous pianist in the country, one wouldn’t think that Tatsuya had much choice in career direction with that caliber of music running through his veins. He had barely started lessons at age 3 before his mother’s untimely passing, an event that would shape not only his relationship to the piano, but his entire life.
“When I first came to the United States and enrolled in conservatories, it felt like gay people were in the majority for the first time in my life. I suddenly didn’t feel so alone.”
“Playing piano became my prime way of connecting to my mother,” Nagashima says. “My father gave my brother and me a choice: Either live a wealthy, comfortable life in Taiwan or move to Japan where we would have nothing, study piano, and make our mother proud. We chose Japan.”
Childhood in Japan was spent squarely in the public eye, with his professional debut performance at the unbelievable age of 9 in Yamaha Hall. The only problem: Tatsuya was bit of a rebel, especially compared to his more conservative piano-playing brother. At one point, he dyed his hair a spiky red, a change much covered in Japanese tabloids and which only served to cement his brother’s status as a thoroughbred and Tatsuya’s national reputation as the black sheep of the famous musical family.
Eventually, his father encouraged him to leave the country to escape the media attacks, resulting in his move to the United States at 17. It was a transition that broadened both his musical reach and his ability to express his sexual orientation.
“I knew I was gay from as far back as I could remember, but it’s almost like being gay didn’t exist in Japan,” recalls Nagashima. “When I first came to the United States and enrolled in conservatories (Julliard, followed by the University of North Carolina School of the Arts), it felt like gay people were in the majority for the first time in my life. I suddenly didn’t feel so alone.”
The world-class musician moved to Akron, he says, because of Northeast Ohio’s own musical pedigree. He considers the Cleveland Institute of Music, Oberlin Conservatory of Music and the Cleveland Orchestra among the world’s best. A number of musician friends already lived in the region.
Although he felt freer in the United States, Nagashima still kept his life as a gay man separate from his life as a classical pianist. And his career took off to stratifying heights. As a guest soloist, he has performed with world’s leading orchestras, including the Royal Philharmonic in London, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchestra Berlin, the Czech National Symphony and the American Symphony Orchestra in New York.
The trophy case soon filled to bursting as he had to make room for the Vittorio Giannini Award and the National Society of Arts and Letters Award in the United States, the Cultural Award from the government of Taiwan, the Japan Performers Association Award, and even an honorary doctorate from the Kharkov Institute of Music in Ukraine.
But in 2007, his private and public lives came crashing together in a scenario feared across the LGBTQ community: He was the target of a brutal gay bashing. After performing in a charity event in Northeast Ohio, he went to grab a drink at Adams Street, the now-closed Akron gay bar, wearing a full tuxedo. He barely took notice of six youths outside the bar, thinking they were enjoying a cigarette following a recently passed smoking ban.
“All I kept thinking about was protecting my hands. My head was cracked open, I was bleeding really bad, but my hands were OK, so I was happy.”
When he reached for the door, they pulled him back, threw him to the ground and started kicking him repeatedly, all the while spewing vile antigay epithets.
“All I kept thinking about was protecting my hands,” he remembers. “My head was cracked open, I was bleeding really bad, but my hands were OK, so I was happy.”
As he was recovering, Nagashima started researching LGBTQ support services. He found out that the Akron Pride Initiative, the local LGBT center, was in dire financial straits. He resolved that he needed to throw a fundraising event to support its work.
With the assistance of local businessman David Glenny, he organized his first charity recital.
On Tuesday, May 29, Nagashima will celebrate the 10th annual Piano Concert Benefit at Club Bricco in Akron, with the proceeds benefitting CANAPI, the organization that was created when the Akron Pride Initiative merged with the Community AIDS Network in 2010. The audience not only will be treated to the piano stylings of an internationally recognized and respected artist, but also will bear witness to the gift of a fellow community member who is sharing his own identity through music.
“I genuinely hope the listener will get the broad message of what I’m trying to convey through my performance that they can then connect with their own story,” says Nagashima. “When I’m playing, I may be thinking about my mom or about love. I want the audience to hear my emotions through the notes and feel inspired to build on them in their own lives.”
Ken Schneck, PhD, is the author of “Seriously, What Am I Doing Here? The Adventures of a Wandering Gay Jew” (2017) and the forthcoming “LGBTQ Cleveland: Images of Modern America.” He is the producer/host of “This Show Is So Gay,” the award-winning radio show/podcast, and an associate professor of education at Baldwin Wallace University.
To learn more about Tatsuya Nagashima’s life and career, and to hear a playlist that includes Beethoven, Liszt and Mozart, visit tatsuya-pianist.com.
To hear Nagashima play Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 and Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-Flat Major, and to hear some of his students as young as age
7 play some pretty incredible music, look through TN Piano Studio on YouTube.
Follow Nagashima on Facebook at Tatsuya Nagashima, Pianist to keep up with his tours and travels.
CANAPI, the Community AIDS Network/Akron Pride Initiative, is Akron’s combination HIV/AIDS services organization and its LGBTQ community group. Its programs include housing and food assistance, HIV testing and prevention, and support for LGBTQ teens. Visit canapi.org for more information and to learn about volunteer opportunities.