The Keys to Carnegie Hall

Winning the Van Cliburn gold medal gets your foot in the door.

November/December 1998

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The Keys to Carnegie Hall

Photo: David Fukimoto

Every so often Jon Nakamatsu has to pinch himself. Is he really a concert pianist touring the globe and performing at Carnegie Hall? An artist whose work has been described by a New York Times critic as “powerful” and “sweetly poetic?” The performer who received plaudits from Reader’s Digest -- in company with a story on James Michener?

Don’t blame Nakamatsu for wondering. Just last year, he was spending nights at home grading papers and days drilling Mountain View high school students in the rigors of German grammar. A teacher for six years, he played piano only after hours.

All that changed in May 1997, when Nakamatsu, ’91, MEd ’92, won the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, besting heavily favored Russian and Israeli finalists. Just entering the world’s highest-profile piano playoff took nerve: he’d never studied at a conservatory -- unheard of for a Cliburn hopeful. Four years earlier, he’d made a run for this musical equivalent of Olym-pic gold and hadn’t survived the first cut. This would be his last chance to slip in under the contest’s age-30 cutoff. “My only goal was to make the semifinals,” Nakamatsu told reporters in Fort Worth, Texas, after he won. Asked what he had to say to his St. Francis High School students, he quipped, “Auf Wiedersehen!”

Nakamatsu says he was stunned by the standing ovations he received during the two-week competition in Texas. Fans gave him a toy armadillo for luck.

Part of their fascination was his underdog status: Americans rarely prevail at the Cliburn. Indeed, it looked like Nakamatsu didn’t stand a chance when, at the finals, Russian pianist Yakov Kasman preceded him onstage, playing the same piece Nakamatsu had chosen. By all accounts, the Russian’s thunderous, emotional rendition of Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 3 brought the house down -- a daunting act for the small, serene American to top. But Nakamatsu won over the jury of 12, who unanimously made him the first American winner in 16 years. “It was among those near-sacred occasions when lightning pauses long enough to be captured in a bottle,” gushed Tim Madigan of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

The prize opened doors. Besides winning $20,000 in cash and a $10,000 wardrobe allowance, Cliburn medalists are sent on a two-year concert tour in the United States and Europe. They play with orchestras and chamber groups and give solo recitals, capped by a date at Carnegie Hall.

So far, Nakamatsu has fulfilled more than 100 engagements from Munich to Milwaukee -- and he gets three or four interview requests for each performance. Even so, he squeezed in a campus visit between his debut at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall and a date with the Brentano String Quartet in Southern California.

He has a performer’s poise, but doesn’t put on airs. Asked to recount a typical day, he laughs: “There’s no such thing!” In some ways, the past year has been a blur -- relentless travel, hopping from hotel to hotel, and a steady diet of pasta, which he favors for energy. The pace is sometimes maddening. “It was frustrating to see London only from the window of a cab,” he says. And once a scheduling snag resulted in back-to-back performance days with a night on the road -- instead of in bed. “I found out that I could do a concert on no sleep,” he grins. Then there was the stormy day last March when he arrived on time in Chicago, but his formal attire did not. “Nakamatsu appeared, to wild applause, in blue jeans and a dress shirt,” reported the Chicago Tribune critic. “[He] made a hit, in fact, before playing a note.”

Nakamatsu’s switch from blackboard to keyboard was an improbable career move. True, he’d been consumed with music from the age of 4, when he went to daycare and was instantly smitten with the first piano he’d ever seen. “There was no music in our house,” he muses. “My grandmother still hasn’t ever heard me play!” When he was 6, his parents bought a piano and enrolled him in lessons. But as diligent and talented as their son proved to be, they didn’t want him thinking of music as a career. It was far too risky.

So Nakamatsu set aside his dream of studying at a conservatory. But he kept up lessons with his childhood teacher in Sunnyvale, Marina Derryberry. A conservatory graduate herself, she remains his coach today. Nakamatsu credits her with keeping his hopes for a music career alive, but even she admits that she “didn’t expect he’d win” in Texas.

When it came time for college, Nakamatsu chose Stanford but not Stanford music. He majored in German studies, then earned a teaching degree. In addition to working with Derryberry, he gave recitals, played chamber music with other musicians and practiced, practiced, practiced. “It was like doing a double major,” he says, “except one led to a degree and the other didn’t.”

Nakamatsu’s hopes were fanned in 1991 and again in 1995, when he won the National Chopin Competition. He played at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and at New York’s Lincoln Center. Nevertheless, concert managers told him that he’d have to win a major international competition to entertain any hope of playing piano for a living.

Even winning the Cliburn doesn’t guarantee a concert career. According to Maria Guralnik, manager of the Van Cliburn Foundation, classical piano performance is a shrinking field, where too many players chase too few opportunities. Cliburn medalists typically join a big management company after their two busy seasons, then play 25 concerts the first year, 10 the second and none the third. Most newcomers simply get lost in the crowd of established virtuosos.

None of which fazes the 10th Cliburn winner. He’s treating these two years as “an experiment” -- to see what the world thinks of Jon Nakamatsu, and what he thinks of the world he always dreamed of. Halfway through the test, he’s upbeat. “I’ve discovered that I can do it and that I want to do it.”

At this point, the music world seems to agree that Nakamatsu just might beat the odds. He’s received a sheaf of encouraging reviews and has been tapped to substitute for classical superstar Vladimir Ashkenazy at two concerts in Brazil. His datebook is filling up with return engagements well beyond the Cliburn calendar. Maria Guralnik calls the international media attention “unprecedented.” Harmonia Mundi signed him for a solo Chopin CD -- “and this is not usual,” says Guralnik.

For now, Nakamatsu is enjoying his tour -- and suffering uncharacteristic stage fright as he prepares for a December engagement in Hawaii. There’ll be someone in the audience at the Honolulu Symphony he’s determined to impress -- his grandmother.

Read a March 2011 update on this story.

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