Kanako and Mariko Shimasaki on stage for the first time in Springfield


Mariko and Kanako at the Dayton City Paper photoshoot.

By Tim Walker

At the age of 4, most Ohio children are starting preschool and playing with blocks. Kanako Shimasaki was a bit different, however. Born and raised in Springfield, Ohio, she was taking her first tentative steps down her future career path by learning to play the violin. Her sister, Mariko Shimasaki, also from Springfield and just as well-known in the world of classical music as a violinist, began following that same path just a few years later.

“Mariko started three years after me,” says Kanako, sitting with her sister at the office of The Dayton City Paper. “Our mom wanted to start Mariko at as early an age as I did, but she used to be a pretty wild child.” Both sisters laugh. “She was always running around, climbing on things. It didn’t seem like violin playing was really her thing when she was 4.”

Now violin playing is certainly the “thing” for both sisters, and the two of them are known worldwide for their brilliant performances on their chosen instrument. On Saturday, January 20th, the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, under the conduction of Peter Stafford Wilson, will present “Nightlights II”, a musical program featuring the talents of Kanako and Mariko Shimasaki at Kuss Auditorium on S. Fountain Ave. in Springfield. The evening’s program, which begins at 5pm, will include the sisters performing on Johannes Sebastian Bach’s “Double Concerto” and, for their first time, Astor Piazzolla’s tango-inspired “Four Seasons in Buenos Aires”. Osvoldo Golijav’s “Last Round” and Georg Philipp Telemann’s “Don Quixote” will also be presented as part of the evening’s concert.

Chosen as one of 11 Yamaha Young Performing Artists in 2013 – and the only string musician chosen that year – Kanako Shimasaki, now 24, has previously been featured on Dayton’s Discover Classical 88.1 and at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall in New York City and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C. She has appeared as guest soloist with the National Symphony Summer Music Institute Orchestra, CCM Philharmonia and Artaria Ensemble, the Great Wall Soloists, and previously with the Springfield Symphony Orchestra. A veteran of the Springfield Youth Orchestra, Kanako earned her Bachelor of Music and Master of Music degrees from the University of Cincinnati, College-Conservatory of Music. She is currently pursuing her DMA, or Doctor of Musical Arts degree, there. She has won a number of competitions, and also currently serves as a teaching assistant and is on the faculty in the CCM Preparatory Department.

Mariko Shimasaki, who is 22, began playing the violin at the age of five. She was also a Yamaha Young Performing Artist in 2014. For seven years, she was a pre-collegiate of the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, where she studied with Dr. Won-Bin Yim. Throughout high school, Mariko was enrolled in the Starling Preparatory String Project, a specialized honors program that trains young string students who have professional potential. Recently, she received her Bachelor of Music at Juilliard, and she is currently pursuing her Master of Music with Mr. Lewis Kaplan at the Mannes School of Music, as a full scholarship student. Mariko Shimasaki has performed throughout the United States, Japan, and Europe. Additionally, she has appeared with the Miami Valley Symphony Orchestra, the Dayton Philharmonic, and the Starling Chamber Orchestra.

Mariko is a graduate of Kenton Ridge High School in Springfield. Both sisters are pursuing post-graduate degrees to master their craft in violin performance. “Performing is our main goal and aspiration,” says Kanako, “Not necessarily the scholastic side of the degrees, if that makes sense.” 

As if all of that education and performance isn’t enough to keep them busy, the two sisters have also somehow found time to form a trio with pianist Luke Gillespie, Professor of Piano and Jazz at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. Calling themselves “Three”, the trio have played in concerts all over Japan and the United States, most recently appearing at the Millennium Stage in DC, the John Legend Theater, and the Kyoto City International Foundation. The trio’s debut CD, “Vol. 1 Libertango”, was released just last summer and contains eight tracks, ranging in style from traditional pieces to jazz to another piece composed by Astor Piazzolla, “Libertango”. 

Kanako and Mariko Shimasaki, masters of the violin, already world renowned for their talent and dedication to performance, were happy to take a break from their busy schedules and answer a few questions.

DCP: So did you both decide to play the violin independently? 

Kanako: “The story we often tell is that, like any curious child, Mariko would open up my violin case without permission, and she would knock off the bridge, or knock off the sound post, completely messing up my instrument. So eventually we went to the shop where we started renting our violins, since we had to go back there to get our instruments fixed. From there my mom just got her one as well so she didn’t’ mess with mine. So that’s how this all got started.” 

DCP: Were your parents instrumental — pardon the pun — in your choice to pursue a musical career?

Kanako: “Honestly, it’s like your everyday story. Our parents are not musicians. Like any parent, they wanted to get me started with an extracurricular activity. Mom is really great friends with the Smarelli family in Springfield. They’re a very intellectual, music educator family in Springfield, and in Ohio in general. From them, she got the suggestion that maybe violin lessons would be a good start.”

DCP: They say that most musicians develop an attachment to a particular instrument. Do either of you have a particular violin that you are used to or fond of?

Kanako: “Yes, we both have our one instrument that we both have. It may have taken a year or so for both of us individually to find a particular instrument that works for us. Our instruments are both from violin shops in Chicago, actually, and there was a lot of going back and forth, having a few months of trials with instruments. Eventually, both of our deciding factors were what instrument’s sounds fit our characters, and what kind of sound we like to produce. For instance, Mariko is more of a passionate, assertive kind of player. It’s a very outgoing kind of playing, so for that she wanted more of a bright sound.”

Mariko: “Yeah, a bright sound. And something with like a real kick to it -a really strong core to it.”

Kanako: “And for me, my playing is more peaceful, when compared to Mariko. My playing is more…”

Mariko: “Mellow?”

Kanako: “No, not mellow. More lyrical… it has more lyricism. So, for me, it was about finding a violin with a warm sound that projects. So things like that were a huge deciding factor when we were looking for instruments.”

DCP: What are your mutual educational goals as far as music goes?

Mariko: “Like a lot of my colleagues in school, we don’t have anything set in stone right now, especially while we’re in school, because plans can always change. What I enjoy doing now, I like to teach a lot. It teaches me a lot as a violinist, like sometimes I’ll say something to my students that I don’t do in my own practice…. And it helps me to realize that ,‘Oh, I should do that as well.’ It sounds really silly, but it gives me a new perspective on how to be a better musician and things like that. So I definitely want to incorporate teaching in my future career. And I think that getting my master’s degree right now will help me be a better teacher and be the best that I can.” 

Kanako: “We both privately teach a lot of students. For me, the age range of my students goes from 5 up to students in their early forties. So it’s a huge range.”

Mariko: “It’s really a lot of fun.”

DCP: What can you tell our readers about Three, the trio you’ve formed with Luke Gillespie?

Kanako: “We’re very proud of this project. Luke is the professor of jazz piano at the Indiana University School of Music, so he knows everything, basically. He helps the group by basically educating us in general, but the group is something completely different from what we do at school during our daily lives. Our main goal is experimenting a lot with well-known classical pieces and making them our own. We do a lot of adding and rearranging to give the pieces a twist of our own. He was actually here a few days ago to rehearse with us – we have a concert in Japan in June. Since we’re not all together – Mariko is in New York, I’m in Cincinnati, and he’s in Bloomington – we don’t get to see each other very often. So, we take advantage of the breaks and figure things out, figure our repertoire out, figure out arrangements for two violins and piano.” 

Mariko: “Most of the things we play aren’t arranged for two violins and piano. They’re arranged for orchestras. We also play some jazz standards.”

Kanako: “We’ve dabbled in some opera, and other things like that. It’s like either jazz tunes with a classical twist or a classical piece with a jazz twist, if that makes sense. We just released our CD in Japan this past June, and we’re selling copies. We’re hoping to sell copies at the upcoming concert in Springfield, too.”

DCP: To what extent do you envision live performance as part of your collective future?

Mariko: “I think that, as long as we’re artists, I think that performing is essential. It’s an essential part of being an artist. Maybe not with an agency, and having a concert every week – not like that. But we could come up with projects, like our trio, Three, where we’ll have concerts in Japan, but we don’t do them throughout the year. We definitely do want to keep performing as much as we can.”

Kanako: “We want to use our performances as a way to spread classical music to a bigger audience. I think that’s a big part of the trio, especially. To make it all a little bit more relatable to people who may not have any classical music background – there are so many people who have never been to an orchestra concert, or any type of classical music event, and it’s often that people shy away from them because they feel like they don’t know about it. But we want to break down that barrier, so that classical music stays relevant forever.”

DCP: Staying on that theme, of helping people to developing an appreciation for classical music, are there any particular composers whose work the two of you enjoy performing?

Kanako: “You know, we’re playing the Piazzolla [“Four Seasons in Buenos Aires”] piece, and his works are so amazing. He adds that Latin flair, and his writing allows violinists to expand their techniques – I don’t know if you’ve heard it before, but the piece that we’ll be playing, there are a lot of percussive techniques that are involved in the violin playing. Intentional scratch sounds, or intentional slides…”

Mariko: “This is our first time playing this particular composition. We’ve played Piazzolla, but this “Four Seasons in Buenos Aires” is our first time, and every day up until the concert we’re going to keep experimenting with what all we can do to give it our own flair and make it our own.”

DCP: Any composers or styles of music that you don’t like? Anything you’re not too fond of?

Mariko: “The only style of music I really dislike is metal music. I just do not do well with that. Maybe one day I’ll grow to like it.”

Kanako: “Maybe you just need to find the right artist.”

While rocking out to some heavy metal tunes may not be in either Kanako or Mariko’s future concert schedule any time soon, one thing is for sure: the Shimasaki sisters have already made their mark on the world of classical music. And with both of them still in their early twenties, the sky is definitely the limit when it comes to how much they can still accomplish – and how many new fans they can bring to the world of orchestral music.

Kanako and Mariko Shimasaki sisters will be performing “Nightlights II” at Kuss Auditorium on 300 S. Fountain Avenue in Springfield, OH. For more information about tickets, call 937.328.3874.

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Tim Walker
Tim Walker is 51 and a writer, DJ, and local musician. He lives with his wife and their two children in Dayton, where he enjoys pizza, jazz, and black T-shirts. Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Walker at TimWalker@DaytonCityPaper.com

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