After becoming the youngest-ever violin winner of the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1990, Akiko Suwanai has lived up to her early promise with an impressive international career. She champions contemporary music to an unusual degree and has several Japanese and world concerto premieres to her credit.
Suwanai was born on February 7, 1972, in Tokyo. After receiving a high school degree and a soloist's diploma in Japan, she attended the Juilliard School in New York with support from Japan's Agency for Cultural Affairs. Studying with Dorothy DeLay and Cho Liang-Lin and simultaneously completing a degree in the history of political thought at Columbia University, she went on for further study at the Berlin University of the Arts. After winning second prizes at the Paganini Competition and the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Belgium in 1989, Suwanai went on to win first prize in violin at Moscow's International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1990; she was the youngest ever to win the contest. She also took home the Bach Best Performer Award and the Tchaikovsky Best Performer Award. Suwanai began to find major bookings in both Japan and the West. Some of the most important were with the London Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestre de Paris, and the NDR Sinfonieorchester Hamburg.
To an unusual degree for a Japanese player, Suwanai has emphasized contemporary music in her career. She gave the Japanese premiere of the Krzysztof Penderecki Violin Concerto No. 2 ("Metamorphosen") at Tokyo's Suntory Hall in 1999, with Penderecki conducting, and followed that in 2007 with the world premiere of the Violin Concerto of Peter Eötvös. Suwanai has played and recorded traditional repertory with equal enthusiasm, and her 2006 recording of Bach's violin concertos topped the iTunes classical sales chart. Suwanai has recorded mostly for the Teldec, Decca, and Philips labels, but in 2020, she was heard on RCA Red Seal on a recording of Takemitsu works, with the NHK Symphony Orchestra conducted by Paavo Järvi. Suwanai plays the so-called "Dolphin" Stradivarius violin of 1714, an instrument once used by Jascha Heifetz.