THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: S.F. pianist and teacher Florence Takayama Iwamoto’s life of musicality


bioline_Greg RobinsonA number of my recent Nichi Bei Weekly columns, some written together with Jonathan van Harmelen, have focused on Japanese Americans in classical music in the mid-20th century. My initial columns focused on those few artists, including Yoichi Hiraoka, Tomi Kanazawa, Hizi Koyke and Agnes Yoshiko Miyakawa, who managed to achieve fame on an international level. Yet, even beyond these exceptional individuals, there is a larger community story to tell.

It is striking to note the numbers of young Nisei singers and instrumentalists, many of them women, who were active musically during this time, joining ensembles, entertaining at festivals, or winning prizes at solo competitions. It is equally fascinating to note how much interest and support there was for them in West Coast Nikkei communities, with artists being invited to perform at community events, and local Japanese consulates playing an important role as sponsors.

Even more surprisingly, in a period when nonwhite performers were barred from many mainstream institutions (the Metropolitan Opera, for one, was notorious for its color line) a number of Japanese American musicians were able to acquire first-rate training and to perform in celebrated venues, in addition to their community and church presence. A number of them joined progressive political groups or supported civil rights initiatives.

One less-known but intriguing individual is Florence Takayama (Iwamoto), a successful pianist who became a renowned teacher.

Takayama was born in San Francisco, one of four children of Yozo and Shika Takayama. (While much of her early publicity claimed her birth date as 1920, according to her own later testimony, she was born on June 4, 1918). She attended the Raphael Weill School near Japantown, and later Girls High School. A musical prodigy, Takayama enrolled at the San Francisco Conservatory, most likely in 1927, where she studied piano with Ada Clement, the school’s co-founder.

Takayama’s musical ability was so prodigious that by the spring of 1928, she was playing at public events organized by the local Japanese Civic Association. Soon afterward, she gained widespread attention when she performed at San Francisco’s Kinmon Gakuen Hall at a welcome ceremony for a group of visitors from Japan. In 1930, she excelled in a citywide competition for young pianists. Although she finished a close second, she received a perfect 10 score from multiple scoring committee members. She later won the citywide prize for her age group in 1932 and 1934, and after the latter was invited to broadcast excerpts over radio station KYA.

Takayama held her first recital in December of 1932, under the Conservatory’s sponsorship. The program featured selections by Franz Joseph Haydn, Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, Frédéric François Chopin, Edward MacDowell and Felix Mendelssohn. She also performed the “Melody” by Ernest Bloch, the Swiss-born composer (and former director of the Conservatory) of whose music Takayama would remain a particular partisan.

In March 1935, Takayama played a second recital at the San Francisco Conservatory. She then performed in a series of programs in Los Angeles, including one to honor the local Japanese consul. In 1936 she performed a piece on the KFSO radio program “Music Hour” and was the guest artist at the Girls’ High School graduation. In February of 1937, Takayama presented another recital at the conservatory, with works by Bach, Chopin Bloch and Claude Debussy. During this period, she played recitals before local organizations such as the Laurel Club, the San Francisco Musical Club, the Nippon Club and the YPCC.

In May of 1937, Takayama won a prize in a Music Week contest sponsored by the Federal Symphony, a New Deal-era government-sponsored orchestra. Her prize was a concert engagement with the orchestra, in which she played the Chopin E minor concerto, under the baton of Ernst Bacon. A critic, writing in the San Francisco Examiner, described the concert as a “great success” and lauded her playing: “(Takayama) performed dexterously and with an ample, fine musicality.”

In the following months, Takayama took on the role of accompanist. She joined first the French-Japanese tenor and composer Yoshinori Matsuyama in his U.S. tour. In August of 1938, Matsuyama and Takayama performed before a capacity crowd at the Gyosei Hall, in an unusual Japanese community-backed concert sponsored by both the city’s Japanese dailies, Nichibei Shimbun and Shin Sekai, plus other groups. According to the San Francisco Examiner, they also entertained the San Francisco Brunch Arts Club. The two then performed a concert in Sacramento. After Matsuyama’s departure, Takayama took up the role of accompanist for Canadian Nisei contralto Aiko Saita. The two performed at Gyosei Hall in January of 1939, and appeared at a reception at the Opera Ballet School organized by celebrated dancer Michio Ito. The following month, Takayama accompanied Saita at a reception for 500 people at the San Francisco Japanese consulate. In March, they played a sold-out recital in Salinas sponsored by a local Nikkei group.

In April of 1939, Takayama presented a third recital under the auspices of the San Francisco Conservatory, at Sorosis Hall. In addition to selections by Bach and Brahms, she performed a set of works by lesser-known Baroque French composers. Critic Marjory M. Fisher, writing in the San Francisco News, praised Takayama’s performance: “Throughout her concert the young pianist revealed a virile, powerful tone, a clear finger technique which disclosed strong supple fingers that seemed almost too strong at times. Miss Takavama gave a well-studied performance from both the technical and musical aspects.” While singling out for praise Takayama’s graceful performance of “Sepia sketches,” a piece by Ernest Bloch, Fisher did complain of an overall lack of warmth in the pianist’s sound.

By this time, it was clear that the young virtuoso required more advanced training. In the summer of 1937, Takayama had won a scholarship to attend a summer session at the Lamont School of Music with the distinguished pianist Josef Lhévinne (who had judged the contest).  During the session, she performed on a nationwide NBC radio broadcast.

Two years later, after completing high school, Takayama was awarded a fellowship to study at the Juilliard School in New York City — one of just 12 selected out of 99 applicants. Along with the singers Florence Ahn and Carol Brice, she was one of the only nonwhites at the school (Nisei pianist Teruko Hirashiki, violinist Ernestine Teranishi and soprano Mario Mukai would later join them). Before heading east, Takayama was feted at a joint reception in San Francisco with pianist Miwa Kai.

Once at Juilliard, Takayama began studying under Rosina and Josef Lhévinne. Around this time she performed Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” in a private recital for the blind-deaf activist Helen Keller, who felt the music through the vibrations from the piano. Takayama later described the event as a highlight of her career.

Although Takayama attended the Japanese Student Christian Association’s Eastern Student Conference in the fall 1939, she seems not to have taken a leading role in community activities in New York. In 1944, she played a pair of violin-piano duets with her  Juilliard classmate Ernestine Teranishi at a pageant organized by the New York Baptist City society. The next year, she entertained at a party thrown by the fledgling New York chapter of the JACL, but does not seem to have been an active member.

However, as the war drew to a close, she became associated with the antifascist activist group Japanese American Committee for Democracy. In May of 1945, she made her New York debut under JACD auspices, playing a concert at the famed Carnegie Recital Hall, alongside soprano Tomi Kanazawa. Takayama performed selections by Bach, Chopin, Debussy, Bloch, and Shostakovich. A critic in Musical America noted that an enthusiastic audience was on hand.

Although Takayama had enrolled at Julliard in hopes of becoming a concert pianist, she shifted after graduation to focus on teaching piano, a calling to which she dedicated her life. In the late 1940s, Takayama married Kinichi Iwamoto, a physician with two children, and moved with him to the suburban town of Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey. Her mother Shika moved in, and lived with the Iwamotos for 20 years.

Once established in New Jersey, Florence Iwamoto taught pupils both at her studio in New York and in her home, and scheduled recitals for both groups of pupils in New York’s Steinway Hall. In addition to teaching, Takayama continued to play recitals for local clubs. For example, in 1962 she entertained the literature, drama and music department of the Women’s Club of Ho-Ho-Kus and the St. Luke’s Rosary Society. Most notably, in 1951 she performed for a banquet at Riverside Church honoring the distinguished theologian Howard Thurman.

Florence Takayama Iwamoto died on March 30, 2018 in the Ho-Ho-Kus home where she had lived for 67 years. She was just two months shy of her 100th birthday. She had spent an incredible 72 years as a piano teacher and had taught over 100 pupils.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is a professor of history at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. He can be reached at The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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