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Portrait of the artist: Mitsuko Uchida, pianist

'A French critic once said I played like a sewing machine. I'll always remember
that'

What got you started?

During the second world war, my father somehow got the idea that his children
should learn the piano. After the war, my mother picked him up at Tokyo harbour he
was a diplomat and had been away for six years, first in Germany, then in America, where
he was imprisoned for three months. The first thing he said was: "Why aren't the children
having piano lessons?" So my sister and brother started. Then, aged three, I did too and
never stopped.


What was your big breakthrough?

Performing the complete series of Mozart piano concertos in London and Tokyo, and
then recording them. It was very much a matter of timing: the record company had
wanted me to record Schubert, but [the film] Amadeus had just come out, and Mozart was
very much in vogue. Without Amadeus, perhaps nobody would have been interested.

Why do you think some people have difficulty with classical music?

Because they haven't started early enough. The earlier you start with classical music,
the more you understand it. But it is also our responsibility, as musicians, to draw
audiences in to express what it is in the music that's so moving and touching and
specific.


Is there an art form you don't relate to?

Anything noisy. Even visual art can be noisy. It's not just a matter of colour: there are
some fantastically colourful artists who are wonderful Van Gogh, Rembrandt and his use
of light. But there are other, noisy artists.

What has been your biggest challenge?

Sudoku number 10. That is the highest grade of sudoku and it's bloody difficult. I am
at number nine.

What work of art would you most like to own?

I don't want to possess anything that is important I want it to be somewhere that
everybody can go to. But if I were forced to, I'd choose The Little Street, a teensy painting
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by Vermeer, or one of Van Gogh's paintings of clogs. They're self-portraits, really. I
couldn't face his face every day, but I'd like to face his shoes.


What one piece of music would work as the soundtrack to your life?

Mozart's Marriage of Figaro. It has everything that's central to people's lives: joy,
sorrow, disaster, jealousy, longing and stupidity. Only birth and death are missing.


What's the worst thing anyone ever said about you?

A French critic once said about one of my Mozart piano concertos: "She plays like a
Japanese sewing machine." I'd been told before that I was boring, and many other awful
things, but I'll always remember that.

In short

Born: Atami, Japan, 1948.

Career: Has made acclaimed recordings of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Chopin.
Performs Schubert's final three piano sonatas at the Royal Festival Hall, London (0844 875
0073), on 23 April.

Low point: "My mid-20s. I was winning competitions galore, but I knew deep down
that I was nothing."

High point: "My late 20s onwards. I found my voice now every day is a day of
discovery."

London mayor: your ideas on the environment

As part of our project to create a new vision for London, we're crowdsourcing
views on making the capital clean and green

The ideal of a clean, green sustainable city is one to which every serious mayoral
candidate subscribes. That's a measure of how important the environmental agenda has
become in the capital, helped by Ken Livingstone placing it at the centre of his mayoral
terms, with the Green party, in the form of its London Assembly members, as allies.
Liberal Democrat members too put the environment high on their agenda. Conservative
mayor Boris Johnson, a former climate change sceptic, has recognised his continuing need
for some green credentials. Last week he welcomed the government's decision to base the
financial transactions wing of its new green investment bank in the capital.

But any appearance of a vast, verdant consensus conceals a very wide range of
shades. The issues too are hugely varied, with some likely to be more prominent than
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others as the election campaign intensifies. London's contribution to combating climate
change has slipped down the pecking order as a campaign theme compared with 2008,
though Johnson's 2008 commitment to cutting London's carbon emissions by 60% by 2025
is an interesting example of continuity between the Livingstone and Johnson
administrations. This decline reflects the times, with bread-and-butter cost of living issues
dominating debate. Should the manifesto of our model mayor turn that decline around?

At the other end of the scale is a cluster of what some serious environmentalists call
the "soft" green issues but have everyday resonance for Londoners, as they do for urban-
dwellers everywhere: stuff like trees, parks, gardens and waterways. Boris Johnson's nine-
point plan for London includes restoring green space and planting 20,000 trees to add to
what he claims he's already achieved. However, a London Assembly report expressed
concern about future funding and what might be happening at borough level.

Strong feelings are aroused by too much commercial and antisocial use of London's
many precious public parks. Shouldn't these be places of tranquillity? Last year the mayor
was given a measure of control over the capital's eight royal parks, promising that
Londoners' views on their use would be better taken into account. What advice what you
give the Royal Parks board? Boris Johnson has expressed enthusiasm for taking control of
the capital's network of waterways. Good idea? With the capital's numbers of boat-
dwellers increasing, what, if anything, should be done to change how those waterways are
run?

Other parts of the environmental agenda overlap substantially with transport issues.
We dealt with road management and congestion last week, but don't let that stop you
from addressing the subject again here. The same goes for encouraging cycling and
walking, though bear in mind that these two travel modes will have the whole of the
coming Thursday dedicated to them.

Of central interest here, though, is the general issue of air pollution, which could
well have some campaign traction. Johnson has attracted fierce criticism from political
opponents and the Campaign for Clean Air in London for slow progress in encouraging
electric vehicle use and diesel-electric hybrid buses, and for delaying and fudging
measures to bring London's air quality up to the required EU standards.

His defence on the latter has been that some of the measures required would
damage London's economy, especially small businesses requiring vans, when the capital
was battling the recession. How should a model mayor square this circle? A bolder idea
for fixing our air quality has come from London Lib Dems, who've proposed a central
London clean air zone, which the most polluting vehicles would be excluded from.

There are many other environmental issues our model mayor needs to take a stance
on, from local food production, which even some of his opponents think Boris Johnson has
had a small but significant success in, to waste management, to home insulation, to
planning for a second Thames barrier against floods. Please raise any of these topics and
others that I am sure to have forgotten. As we enter the second week of our manifesto
project, I'm greedier than ever for your ideas.