Hitting All the Right Notes


The star-driven mainstream classical music business needs new heroes, particularly American ones. So the attention paid to Jon Nakamatsu, winner of the 10th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, is understandable. When he won the quadrennial competition last summer, presenters in this country increased the engagements for the gold medalist's first season by almost 50%.

The only local recital of the lot comes tonight at the South Bay Center for the Arts in Torrance, one of 15 appearances this month.

The 28-year-old pianist seems quietly amused by the exigencies of his new role, which on this day include leaning against seemingly every available wall and tree at a photographer's behest.

"The quantity [of engagements] will be an adjustment for me," Nakamatsu says, "but I don't feel that I've been pushed into this before I was ready. I don't personally feel as though I came out of nowhere."

In fact, pre-Cliburn, he had already logged well-received recitals at Lincoln Center in New York and Kennedy Center in Washington--byproducts of another competition victory, at the 1995 U.S. National Chopin Competition--as well as an Eastern European tour, and performances in Florida and around the Bay Area.

None of which impressed the big management agencies.

"I went to several managers," Nakamatsu relates, "who basically told me, 'It doesn't matter how you play, it only matters if your name will sell the house.' One of the ways to get that name is with a [competition] title. On the other hand, many promoters don't want a person, for example, who comes out of the Van Cliburn competition because they have their idea of how Van Cliburn winners are.

"Winning a title doesn't guarantee anything," Nakamatsu points out.

But winning certainly beats losing. "Much losing has shaped me," he says. "The losses really, really affect you. It can be positive, but too many of them are not so great.

"Four years ago I decided to enter the Cliburn and did not get past the screening. So I was pretty hesitant this time. Last time, the screening was done by videotape, but this time they decided to have one jury travel to six audition centers around the world and hear live auditions. I thought that gave me a better chance.

"I never counted on winning a competition, and I don't think I ever counted 100% on being able to sustain a career as a performer. The process is more important than the outcome. What you do during the time you are trying to attain a career is just as important as what you do once you get there."


One of the things that Nakamatsu did was teach German. The San Jose native attended Stanford University and has spent the six years since his graduation as Herr Nakamatsu at a high school in nearby Mountain View.

"I spent my life studying music and I didn't want to be limited to just that," Nakamatsu says. "German is such a grammar-oriented language--I mean, it's almost a stereotype. The grammar is very, very logical, and I like that. I didn't like all those exceptions in French."

If this eminently pragmatic grammarian seems an unlikely musical firebrand--competition reviews cited his "characteristic intensity" and "playing that was streaked with fantasy and daring"--nobody has been more surprised than his parents.

"My parents aren't musical at all, so they were very surprised that I wanted to study music," Nakamatsu says. "My first exposure came when they took me to preschool and the teacher was playing a piano. I immediately wanted to play it. My parents weren't ready to buy a 4-year-old a piano, so instead they bought me a toy organ.

"When I was 6, they said they would buy a piano if I started taking lessons. I didn't really want the lessons, but I did want the piano, so I said yes. When my teacher told them I was unusually gifted, my parents just didn't believe her. I'm not even sure they believe her now."

That teacher was Marina Derryberry, a family acquaintance and local teacher who at the time was taking only older students. Nakamatsu's father persuaded her to take on his son, launching a relationship that has lasted 22 years.

"When you are looking for a teacher, I think the bottom line is, does that person have the knowledge and information and the ability to impart it?" Nakamatsu says. "But what really makes a relationship work is that indescribable 'click.' I think the reason why some people go from teacher to teacher is not because they are looking for new information, but for this bond that you can't always find."

Their durable bond is putting Derryberry on the road with Nakamatsu in the whirlwind of post-competition engagements.

"By the second lesson, I knew he was special," Derryberry said from a hotel in Eau Claire, Wis., last month. "He embraced the piano from the beginning. He was very responsive, showing always that he wanted to play, going further than what we covered in lessons."

Nakamatsu skipped the usual round of conservatories, festivals and master classes, but he was not a musical hermit. He studied piano with Karl Ulrich Schnabel at Stanford and theory with Leonard Stein, dean of the L.A. contemporary music scene, commuting south once a month for seven years.

That investment stood him in good stead at the Cliburn competition, where the one required work was a specially commissioned set of Nine Bagatelles by William Bolcom.

"[Contemporary music] is not what I'm naturally drawn to," Nakamatsu says, "but now I'm getting to the point where I not only find it interesting, I actually like it. Here was a piece that none of us had heard before, so we could have no preconceived ideas as to how it was supposed to sound. You end up relying on your own convictions about what you want the piece to mean."

Those Bolcom bagatelles are on his Torrance recital program, along with the Stravinsky Etudes from his Cliburn program, plus Beethoven's Opus 109 Sonata and Chopin and Liszt groups.

A live recording of his Cliburn recital is also out now from Harmonia Mundi, part of the prize package. It carries a cautionary quote from Van Cliburn himself: "A competition is really only an opportunity. It is up to the artist to make what he or she can out of that opportunity."

Nobody understands that better than the much-tested Nakamatsu.

"The old syndrome is that the gold medalist disappears after two years and is never heard from again, so people are wondering what's going to happen--as am I."

* Jon Nakamatsu, today at 8 p.m., Marsee Auditorium, El Camino College, 16007 Crenshaw Blvd., Torrance, $18-$21. (800) 832-2787.

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