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.

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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 ArtsJournal.com. 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.

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