Sharps and Flats: Tenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition: Jon Nakamatsu, gold metalist

Topics: Music,

Writing about last summer’s Van Cliburn Competition, Time dubbed it the “Gong Show” of classical music. So much for the world’s top international piano contest, the once-every-four-years gathering of young virtuosos sometimes referred to as the Olympics of classical music.

Such scorn is probably an accurate reflection of the esteem piano contests are held in these days. The rap against competitions is that they produce bland, offend-no-one performers who have leeched out the personality from their playing. In the past, big techniques have won out over style, and individualized artistry has seldom been rewarded.

So imagine the shock in classical music circles last summer when the last contestant left onstage was a young American who had never been to music school, had studied with only one teacher in his life, was a German major in college and made his living as a schoolteacher.

Really. There are supposed to be rules.

Now Jon Nakamatsu, a resident of the Bay Area, has quit his teaching job and hit the concert circuit. Despite the Cliburn’s waning reputation, winning one still seems to be the best shot at having a major career. Generous cash prizes are awarded to the winners, but the real prize, delivered as only the Cliburn can, is about 200 concerts in some of the most prestigious music venues in the world, including a Carnegie Hall debut. And the Cliburn Foundation has released a recorded documentation of his prize-winning Cliburn performance (as well as those of silver medalist Yakov Kasman and bronze medalist Aviram Reichert on a companion disc) on Harmonia Mundi.

Out on the concert stump, Cliburn winners don’t cause much of a stir after their first circuit, and in the past they have quietly faded away. (You deserve a Steven DeGroote recording if you can name the past three winners and where they are now.) But Nakamatsu may prove a different kind of winner.

Having heard Nakamatsu in concert and on recording, it’s obvious he is an unusual winner for more reasons than his pedigree. His technical prowess is fine but nothing remarkable — the Brahms C Major Sonata and Chopin “Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise” on disc and the Chopin, Liszt and a Beethoven sonata he played in a recent recital in Seattle are competent, certainly, but not in any way illuminating. The Beethoven sounded green and immature, its connective tissues showing little natural suppleness, while the Chopin and Liszt were notes and little more. On disc, the Brahms clatters along, making all the required stops but never lingering over the scenery. The “Andante Spianato” is pretty, showing off Nakamatsu’s range of color, but it feels studied.

So what’s the big deal?

Well, in both his Seattle concert and to a lesser extent on disc, Nakamatsu shows himself to be one of the first pianists around to understand modern music from an emotional, rather than intellectual, perspective. Many pianists play the 20th century repertoire, but they generally have to figure it out rather than feel it. Nakamatsu performs Stravinsky’s “Four Itudes” with great elasticity, as if he were feeling his way along, exploring the interesting corners and having fun with its complexities. There’s nothing dry or intellectual about the performance, and the itudes breathe naturally. They resonate in the way Murray Perahia’s Chopin does. The colors and lines make sense emotionally.

It’s the same in William Bolcom’s “Nine Bagatelles” (commissioned for the Cliburn). Nakamatsu threads through the irony and humor as if he fully understood what the composer was after. Bolcom’s aesthetic is more jazzlike — lots of sudden turns of direction that evolve from the music’s organic material. Simply playing it correctly — no matter how well — makes it sound contrived and trite. But Nakamatsu plays with it, has fun with it, and makes it sound fresh and fun. At last, here’s a performer who understands music of our time from his heart rather than his head.

Douglas McLennan is the founder and editor of He has been a regular contributor to Salon, as well as Newsweek, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal and the London Evening Standard.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>