Pianist Jon Nakamatsu rocketed to fame with competition-winning performances of Stravinsky and Brahms — but will reveal his jazzier side this week playing Gershwin with the Seattle Symphony.
“I’m a closeted jazz pianist,” says Jon Nakamatsu, the classical soloist who rocketed to fame in 1997 when he won the gold medal at the 10th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition with his performance of Stravinsky’s Four Etudes and Brahms’ Sonata in C major.
“I love jazz, but I would never play it for people. I don’t feel I could do that.”
Nakamatsu found a happy medium between jazz and classical music when he collaborated with pops conductor Jeff Tyzik in 2004 to perform George Gershwin’s 1924 “Rhapsody In Blue.” A 2007 recording followed (and included Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F), reaching number three on Billboard’s classical music chart and earning critical praise.
Jon Nakamatsu at Seattle Symphony: Gershwin “Rhapsody in Blue”
8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday (Oct. 16-18) at Benaroya Hall, Seattle; $35-$95 (206-215-4747 or seattlesymphony.org).
Nakamatsu and Tyzik — Seattle Symphony Orchestra’s pops conductor since the 2013-14 season — are bringing “Rhapsody” to Benaroya Hall Friday through Sunday (Oct. 16-18). The full orchestral version of Gershwin’s beloved ode to New York City, based on Ferde Grofé’s 1942 orchestration, is one of the jewels in an all-Gershwin program that also includes Nakamatsu playing the Piano Concerto’s first movement, as well as a selection of Gershwin songs performed by baritone Doug LaBrecque, whose Broadway credits include the title role in the Harold Prince production of “The Phantom of the Opera.”
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Though Nakamatsu is best known for extensive recital tours of music by Liszt and Schumann, and frequent chamber music collaborations with the likes of the Tokyo String Quartet, Gershwin has presented him with unique challenges in interpretation.
“I love it,” he says. “I grew up listening to this music. I remember the first time I approached it, I found it a lot more complicated than it seems. It’s not really jazz and it’s not really classical in the strict sense of either. You hear interpretations that fall on one side or the other. But I think Gershwin was trying to combine them in his own way. I still struggle with what that is today. It really tests your individual taste.”
Nakamatsu, 47, was raised in California’s Bay Area and comes from a nonmusical family.
“When I was four,” he says, “I remember seeing a piano for the first time at a preschool. I went home and told my parents I wanted to play one. They were a little puzzled, and instead they bought me a little toy organ, which I think they still have. I played with that for two years, and they noticed I was spending a lot of time on it and was very serious about listening and even trying to notate music. So they said they would buy a piano but the condition was that I had to take lessons.”
Nakamatsu studied privately with Marina Derryberry, a fruitful relationship that lasted all the way through the pianist’s hard-won triumph at the Van Cliburn competition.
“It was an unusual situation that worked magically,” he says. Those lessons were supplemented by an education in reading scores, conducting, building repertoire and more by other teachers, including pianist Karl Ulrich Schnabel.
Meanwhile, Nakamatsu pursued another life.
“I don’t have music degrees,” he says. “I have degrees in literature and education. I had a full-time job while I was going to these competitions, playing as many concerts as I could. I taught high school German for six years, up until the day I left for the Cliburn. I was 28, a little old for the competition circuit. I thought of the Cliburn as my last chance.”
Nakamatsu’s teaching credential was about to expire, but the school where he worked was “extremely supportive” of his music career and gave him time off to compete.
“If it weren’t for them,” he says, “I wouldn’t be doing this now.”