Arts & Culture

‘Chamber music times 1,000’

Pianist Jon Nakamatsu, Lansing Symphony Orchestra take a big bite of Brahms


No Internet bio or program booklet will tell you what Jon Nakamatsu, the guest soloist for this week’s Lansing Symphony Orchestra concert, had to go through to pursue a life in music making.

Friday evening, Nakamatsu and the LSO will join forces to tackle one of the biggest and most absorbing concertos in the repertoire: the magisterial Brahms Second. The program also includes the tuneful, folk-inflected First Symphony of Virginia-based composer (and MSU alumnus) Adolphus Cunningham Hailstork.

Nakamatsu is one of the most accomplished soloists the LSO has ever worked with — the gold medalist in the ultra-prestigious 1997 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, the first American to win the prize since 1981.

But it hasn’t exactly been a rose garden for him.

In 1993, a judge at a national piano competition told him, to his face, that he would never have a musical career and he should find “something easier to do” with his life. A jury member at another competition told him that “Japanese people can’t play Chopin” and that he should find something that speaks “more to his culture.”

The first time he entered the Cliburn competition, he didn’t make it to the preliminary round. 

But he kept at it, pulled by “the feeling that there’s nothing else you’d rather be doing — that not doing it would be like cutting off your arm.”

“What a great privilege it is to just be playing a piano for a living,” he said. “How ridiculous is that?”

Nakamatsu doesn’t come from a musical family, he doesn’t have a degree in music, and he never studied at what he calls a “fancy conservatory.”

He grew up in Sunnyvale, California, and worked as a German teacher at Mountain View High School. He became fascinated with an upright piano at his preschool and begged his parents to get him one. They compromised and bought him a toy organ, which he promptly wore to a nub.

He had same piano teacher, Marina Derryberry, for nearly 20 years.

“She was my first piano teacher and was at the Cliburn when I went 20 years later,” he said. “Unbelievable.”

No matter how intensively he studied and practiced, he always made sure he had an exit plan. If the piano career didn’t work out, he was ready to go back to school for a graduate degree by the time he hit his early 30s. 

“That’s the other part of life,” he said. “You can’t be unrealistic and chase something that may never happen.”

The Van Cliburn medal opened the door to gigs with major orchestras around the world. But without maintaining a sane life balance, that level of success can create a whole other set of problems. 

I didn’t want music to turn bitter,” he said. “This business is not always a nice one. I knew music would always be the biggest part of who I am, but it had to be in a way that let me be happy as a person, and that’s still the driving factor in my life.”

Nakamatsu doesn’t live in a bubble. He eagerly tracks the reactions of non-musicians, including his wife and young son, to his performances.

“She might say, ‘Everything was a little bit too quiet,’” he said. “It’s very instructive to me. You can get so involved in the process of making music that you can lose track of what people are actually perceiving.”

He perks up at comments from his 7-year-old son, such as “that sounds a little like ‘Star Wars.’”

“It’s great talking with him,” he said. “What a child perceives — people are more perceptive than you may think.”

No matter how complicated the music gets, he doesn’t get lost in technical problems and concentrates on taking listeners along for the ride.

“You want people to have this cathartic experience along with you,” he said. “When they come away with this puzzled expression on their faces, you know something’s not right.”

Friday’s Brahms concerto is a gripping, 50-minute voyage along a complex and deep river.

“It’s a tough piece, but it doesn’t seem as tough to the audience, because it’s never showy for the sake of showiness,” Nakamatsu said.

Intimacy, intensity and sincerity take the place of the white-water thrills that upstage many concertos, including Brahms’ First.

“In many ways, it’s chamber music — only it’s chamber music times 1,000,” he said.

Diverse solo voices, from a noble horn to a tender viola, share the spotlight along with the pianist. (Nakamatsu compared it to a “spirited read-through of a play.”) Weaving in and out of a rich tapestry like Brahms’ Second requires even more concentration and focus from the soloist than a flashier concerto where the pianist charges ahead, full bore, from start to finish.

“I’m just in awe of it,” Nakamatsu said. “The orchestra loves playing it, too, because we’re all trying to do the same thing.”

Nakamatsu has worked with LSO maestro Timothy Muffitt several times, including with the Baton Rouge Symphony and at other venues.

“We always have a lot of fun,” Nakamatsu said. “He’s wonderful. I can’t wait to get together and do this.”

He’s also looking forward to getting out of the monsoon rains currently drenching San Jose, California, and getting a look at some snow. The only drawback, for both father and son, is looming “daddy away” time.  

“But it always goes by so quickly, and he knows I always come back,” Nakamatsu said. “But how lucky am I? I get to come to you and play Brahms’ Second, and we’ll figure it all out together, and it’s a great life.”


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