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jn.GIF (10410 bytes)Jon Nakamatsu - the Gold Medallist of the 1997 Tenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Mr. Nakamatsu was recently named Debut Artist of the Year by NPR's Performance Today. He is featured in Playing with Fire, a documentary about the Tenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, which began airing nationwide in October 1997 on PBS. Harmonia mundi issued a CD of works by Frederic Chopin in the fall of 1998, in addition to the previously released recording of live solo performances from the Competition. Mr. Nakamatsu has also made a live CD recording at the Dvorak Hall in Prague with the Brno Concert Orchestra and the Masterworks Chorale.

He has studied piano privately with Marina Derryberry since the age of six and has also worked with Karl Ulrich Schnabel as well as pursuing extensive studies in chamber music and musicology. In addition, he studied composition and orchestration with Dr. Leonard Stein of the Schoenberg Institute at the University of Southern California. Mr. Nakamatsu is a graduate of Stanford University with a bachelor's degree in German studies and a master's degree in education.

During the 1998-99 season, Mr. Nakamatsu toured the United States and Europe including recitals at Jordan Hall in Boston; Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley; the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC; and appearances in France, Italy, and Switzerland. His Carnegie Hall recital debut had taken place on October 26, 1998.


MOL: When did you start playing the piano?

JN: I wanted to play the piano when I was four years old. But, my parent didn't know if I was going to give it up a couple of years later so they bought me an electronic piano instead. After a couple of years had passed, when I was six, they realized that I was genuinely interested in playing the piano. Then, they decided for me to take formal piano lessons and bought me a real piano... and that's basically how I got started.

MOL: Was either of your parents a musician?

JN: No. Neither of them are musician.

MOL: Since you were four,  have you always wanted to play the piano?

JN: Oh yes! Ever since then, and I knew that basically that is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

MOL: I understand that you have never attended a music conservatory and learned the piano privately only. Is there any reason why you chose not to attend a conservatory and attend a Liberal Arts school instead?

JN: I had considered attending a conservatory when I younger, such as, Juilliard, the Manhattan School of Music, or the Curtis Institute of Music. However, I had two reasons for not moving to the East coast to study music. At the time, I had such a wonderful relationship with my piano teacher. Therefore, primarily I didn't want to change teachers. The second reason is that I was very interested in languages and I wanted to learn another... further, I wanted to diversify and basically be able to broaden academically. Therefore, I stayed on the West coast and went to Stanford University.

MOL: Is there any reason why you chose to study German?

JN: I believed that studying German, more than any other language, can help in music. I wanted to read literature that inspired Mozart and Beethoven and I believed it is a great communication tool in Europe. So, together with the fact that I like the language, those are the reasons why I chose to do something different. Music, then, was my ultimate goal. But learning another language and culture was something I enjoyed doing. Later on, I got into the Master's program in education and that lead me to teach German in high school. I did this basically to support myself and to travel to compete in various competitions and to perform. Well, it was like having two careers for a long time.

MOL: How did you manage to find time to practice?

JN: It was very difficult. When you teach in school, you bring all the work to home and sometimes it was impossible to practice the piano for a week at a time. But when competitions and concerts come up, then I devote [my time] to the piano as much as possible.

MOL: What competitions did you enter before?

JN: Well, I entered many competitions both in the US and in Europe. I won the US Chopin competition in my early 20s and that gave me a lot of concerts to perform... and in 1993, I competed at the Van Cliburn Competition and I was rejected at the screening level. So, when I tried this time, I really didn't know [if] I wanted to try again. But this would have been my last chance so I tried anyway.

MOL: Were you teaching just prior to entering the competition?

JN: Oh yes. I was teaching up to the time when I left for the competition.

MOL: Wow! You must have been probably practicing at night?

JN: Oh yes! Very very late into the night.

MOL: Did you live in California all your life?

JN: Yes, I was born and raised here.

MOL: Do you plan to continue living there or elsewhere in the future?

JN: Sure, at this point, California is the place that I will always call my home but maybe I will end up living some place in the future... but I don't know.

MOL: Tell us about your family.

JN: Well, my grandparents left Japan. They came to Hawaii and then started their family there. So, my parents were born in Hawaii and most of my relatives still live there.

My parents got married and moved to California before we were born, that is why we were born and raised in the mainland. So we are the first generation of mainlanders.

MOL: Do you have any siblings?

JN: I have one brother, who is younger and who is not a musician.

MOL: What period music do you enjoy playing most and why?

JN: Right now, what I am trying to do is play composers from all periods and I think at this point, especially somebody who is starting out in the musical circle, it is too early to specialize and to be typecast into one type of music. I think that is very limiting and when people only want me to play Romantic composers, then, this is probably what I will do for the rest of my life and this is what I really don't want to do. I think it's important for me, personally, to study composers from all over the spectrum because you only know then why you are studying older ones. So, I am hoping that the promoters and managers will allow me to explore this kind of repertoire and not only certain type of music.

MOL: Is there any period of composition that you are comfortable with?

JN: Well, I feel comfortable with works from all periods and my programs are kind of mixed in general. But I don't feel that there is one particular I want to develop more than others at this point.

MOL: In your opinion, what is your strength in your playing? What did people say after you won the competition?

JN: Ah... well... It's very difficult to say.

MOL: I attended your Carnegie Hall debut recital last month. It was a solid performance and your phrasing was very smooth and beautiful. Well...

JN: Well, one of the things I try to focus on ... have been concentrating on over the years... is to focus on details of the composition. Basically what I hear in others playing are shelves. What I mean is... you hear the overall structure of the work but not necessarily anything that is hidden that's deep... that's intricate... that's less obvious. Focusing on details of music and be able to find the hidden phrase... that is what makes music and playing unique and interesting ... and individual.... it brings out things that are not readily apparent and paying attention to where the phrase starts from and where it goes and  really thinking of maybe the human voice or string or wind instruments... to make it sound musical, you have to approximate the human voice or ... a kind of living intensity that I think  is missing in a mechanical playing.

MOL: Do you have a favorite pianist or musician?

JN: ... well, there are so many... ah..   I grew up listening to a lot of recordings of pianists who are no longer with us...   like Hoffman and Friedman, Levin, to modern pianist Weisenberg, Rubinstein, Horowitz, Richter and Zimmerman... You can learn so much from every one of them for different reasons... so.. I don't really have one favorite pianist.

MOL: People say that old masters are different from the young generation pianists. What is your opinion on this?

JN: I think its different. I mean ... it's a different time and the way we play reflects a different take on musical interpretation also... Hmmm...is the early part of century and the last part of former, there was tremendous freedom in terms of what you can do with the work. In some cases, it was to the point where the performer was more important than the composer. In the middle of this century, of course, the focus was more to bring back the composers' intention and take a look at the stylistic element and not just ignore everything that a composer has to say to promote your own method of interpretation. However, today, in my opinion, some musicians have taken that [the idea of brining back the composer's intention] so literally that often they come up with styles that end up being mechanical and musically uninteresting. And that's probably one of the differences and what modern pianists in this era, I think , [they] are trying to do is reconcile the difference between individual interpretation and one that is still with historical merit. I think that is the challenge today's pianists are facing...[that is,] how far do you take it and how far will people accept your own kind of interpretative gesture and what you will do afterward.

MOL: I think, nowadays, pianists and all the musicians have to digest a wide repertoire in a short time and be able to handle a heavy concert schedule, whereas 80 years ago, performers usually had sufficient days to recouperate and to practice before another concert. This allows performers to know about themselves and give time to digest their interpretation about music and develop their characteristics. However, today's musicians have limited time in all these things. What is your opinion on that?

JN: I can't agree more. Pianists today have to do far more in far less time. I think also that there are far more people trying to do this also compared to back then. Once, you had just a handful of great international artists touring. But now, we have 300- 400 international competitions all over the world producing very powerful pianists. The atmosphere is totally different today. There are not enough venues for all these people to play at the level they want to. And there are other kinds of economic concerns. It's difficult... maybe you don't have to be good in everything... you could end up specializing in kinds of repertoire. and I think a lot of pianists today who are successful are admired for a certain repertoire type and certain composers and not everything. I think that is something that evolves, not something that happens when you are young.

MOL: How many different recital programs do you have?

JN: For two years or just this year?

MOL: Two years.

JN: For two years, I have about five different recital programs.

MOL: and you have 10 or so concertos?

JN: Yes, and next year, I'll have about 12 concerto.

MOL: Do you like other forms of art? such as painting? a favorite writer?

JN: Yes, I enjoy going to museums, and definitely, I try to do it [visiting museums] as much as possible when I am on a tour... and writers... I studied a lot of German based on writers in College and I try to continue whenever I have time.

MOL: Any hobbies?

JN: I enjoy cooking... especially making desserts and I love to play Racquet ball. In fact, I was quite involved in various sports when I was in college.

MOL: What do you hope to achieve ten years from now in your music career?

JN: I am hoping to be able to continue to perform as a primary social livelihood and I hope to develop a plan to get to markets where I have not [yet reached] and to play many repertoire that can broaden who I am [discover who I am]. I also like to get involved in educational aspects of music... not necessarily in teaching all the time ... but to reach out to the audience to inspire them ....

MOL:  I think we need to wrap up at this point. So on behalf of MusicalOnline, we would like to thank you for your time and we wish all the success.

Interviewed on November, 1998

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