Feature Article

An Interview with Pianist Jon Nakamatsu

February, 2005

Jason Victor Serinus

In 1997, Jon Nakamatsu became the first American in 16 years to win the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. An international performing career and a prestigious recording contract with Harmonia Mundi followed shortly thereafter. January 2005 finds Jon with multiple engagements in California and Texas, while succeeding months include performances throughout the United States. [For Jon's complete touring schedule, see http://www.jonnakamatsu.com].

In this far-ranging interview, Jon Nakamatsu discusses everything from his musical upbringing to his approach to music making in general.

Jason Victor Serinus: You say you're just getting over a cold. I know what it's like to try to whistle with a cold. What is it like for you to try to summon your energy to play before an audience when you're ill?

JN: It's hardest in the mental preparation, knowing that you have this hindrance in a performance. But fortunately, I don't know what it is – it could just be the Pavlovian dog in us – but once I walk out there and it gets quiet, I've never sneezed or coughed or felt terrible onstage. But the second I walk off, it's like I can't breathe. Knock on wood, I hope my ability to do this continues. The other side of the brain kicks in, and I'm in that other zone for a short time; then I drop back into real life.

JVS: It's not that simple when it's your lungs.

JN: I think it's a little easier for pianists because we don't produce the tone from our bodies. If we're at least coherent enough to think through the piece, I think we can be okay.

JVS: You mention producing the tone with your body. Every pianist has a different technique. I'm curious as to what extent the sound of your playing extends from your body and your physical movements.

JN: I think that everything you do has to somehow lend itself to the tone you want to produce. And the tone is within you. I believe that if you don't have the tone conceptualized first and sung in your head and felt somehow throughout your whole system, there's no way that the body can react and produce the movement that is necessary to bring it out of the piano.

The really difficult part of playing the piano is to make it sound like a voice – a singing line – which intrinsically it can't be. In order to do that, I think we have to use the subtlest of motions -- or sometimes the not-so-subtle -- to really bring out a line and create variations within that line.

JVS: I certainly understand what you're saying in terms of what I do. When I whistle Puccini's “Canzone di Doreta” from La Rondine I constantly hear Leontyne Price's voice in my head.

Do you have any particular sound or model in mind? Are there certain pianists or periods of playing that influence you strongly?

JN: Oh sure. A lot of the pianists I admire I've never heard live; they're long dead. They're the Hoffmanns, the Lhévinnes, the Friedmans. What I admire more than anything is their amazing legato tone, which I think is missing in a lot of today's playing. They were able to really sing on the piano. I don't always hear that today. That's the magic of the instrument, not the fireworks, which a lot of people can do.

To really bend a phrase is an amazing thing. The pianists I admire have that ability above everything else.

JVS: The other night I attended Juan Diego Florez's Berkeley recital. If he didn't sing “Una furtive lagrima” there, he sings it on his first disc of Donizetti and Bellini. A few days before I heard Florez, I turned on the Classic Arts station to discover 1958 film footage of Cesare Valletti singing the same aria. Valletti used his honeyed legato, gorgeous mezzo voce and pianissimos to spin out phrases. He was playing with tempos, floating the sound and singing in a manner equally ardent and beautiful.

Valletti's performance was completely different from Juan Diego Florez's. The older singer offered far more flexibility. In the same way, when I recording listened to Simon Rattle's new Beethoven 9th, I couldn't get the recordings of Walter and Furtwängler, with their enormous flexibility of tempo, out my mind.

To what extent can one dare to perform with the kind of freedom exhibited by older artists? Will audiences and critics accept it?

JN: When I hear people try to do it -- there are instances when today's performers try to play extremely freely and very individualistically -- it's not the same. In some ways it sounds a little bit forced. The pianists who played that way at the beginning of the century did so because it was completely natural. Nothing was too exaggerated. With the best of them, although they bent their tempos and phrased and sang and played dynamics unbelievably contrasted one from another, nothing was totally exaggerated. If it was, those pianists were the ones I thought were a bit too wayward.

The recordings I admire the most really combine freedom with a respect for structure and form. Take Ignaz Friedman, for example, whose playing I love. If you take the way he plays Chopin, it is very different from the way we play Chopin today. But it's not completely wayward; it's not without logic and thought about every single note. You can feel him sensing everything; everything about the structure is preserved. I think people mix up freedom these days with lack of sensibility and lack of mental focus. I think that's where we go wrong.

JVS: To what extend does your playing hark back to Friedman?

JN: I think we're all a product of our age. I don't claim to play like they did. I hope only to learn from what I think is phenomenal in their playing, and somehow incorporate it into my own.

I hope in my own readings that I offer a combination of line and freedom, but with everything somewhat thought out. Freedom is not lawlessness. The only way to be really free is to operate within a strict framework of rules that you really make for yourself. That's really a matter of taste. And that's the big word. How far do you go?

I don't know how to describe my own playing. I hope to provide all elements in order to make a final statement that is both academic and a heartfelt communion that is true to myself.

JVS: Please discuss one of the programs you played in Connecticut awhile back.

JN: The program began with a piece from a disc Harmonia Mundi released in November 2003. It was a sonata by Josef Wölfl, a contemporary of Beethoven. It was his Third Sonata of Op. 33 in D major. Then I played the four Impromptus, Op. 90 of Schubert, then the Fantasie in F# minor by Mendelssohn. The second half was the Brahms Sonata in F minor, Op. 5 which I recently recorded for Harmnia Mundi.

In his time, Wölfl was a celebrated as Beethoven, and considered by some as the greater pianist. He wrote maybe 50 piano sonatas that we know about; there are probably many more we don't know about. He also wrote 11 piano concertos, a couple of which are lost, and a lot of chamber and vocal music. But today he's largely forgotten.

While we would agree that the greater composer eventually won the fame, Beethoven himself considered Wölfl “a worthy adversary.” For that reason alone, we have to take a look at what the man was doing in the context of the period. He was writing at the same time that Beethoven, Schubert, even Mendelssohn were starting to compose. It's interesting how he combines a lot of the elements of the sturm und drang (storm and stress) period of Beethoven with much lighter forms that mirror Mozart and the lyricism of Schubert. I find him fascinating and worthy of a second look.

JVS: When you say “fascinating and worthy of a second look,” how much does the music move you?

JN: I love it. It's exciting and beautiful. Wölfl has a great sense of lyricism and melody. In the first sonata on the recording, there are great sections of expansive melodies that are so heartfelt and wonderful. I enjoy playing him very much.

JVS: Are there many recordings of his music?

JN: Not many. I don't know pf any recordings of the piano works. There have been recordings of some of his cello sonatas and a few of the vocal or chamber works.

The Schubert Impromptus are considered great pieces by everybody. They show Schubert at his lyrical and most dramatic best. In the second impromptu, there's a contrasting middle section where he blazes through as though he were Beethoven. It really allows the pianist to explore the delicacy of the instrument, to make sense of passagework and bring out the beauty of the line. These are great pieces to play.

JVS: What instruments did Wölfl and Schubert use?

JN: They were writing on fortepianos. Schubert wrote some pieces for “keyboard instruments,” but it is generally assumed that most of his writing was for the “new” fortepiano. One hears that in his work; you couldn't play his dynamic indications or have that expressive quality on the older instruments.

Naturally, the general sound of the fortepiano was a lot lighter than what the modern piano can do. It was in some ways a thinner sound, but one that allowed the melodies to come through above the rumbling bass.

In Beethoven there are passages which on the modern piano, if they're not adjusted, can get very blurred and unclear. This is true of the pedal markings in both Beethoven and Wölfl; it doesn't work the same as on a fortepiano.

JVS: Have you tried playing their works on fortepianos from the period?

JN: I have, more as a tactile experience than anything else. You do realize what kind of sound they wanted from the instrument. Beethoven was always saying that he wanted more sound, and more punch to the forte. The writing really backs that up.

JVS: Would you say that in some ways we can more fully realize Beethoven's intentions on a modern piano?

JN: I suppose. If that validates our efforts as modern interpreters, I would say yes. But there's always the other school of thought. Beethoven never heard our pianos, so there's no way to know if what we are doing might have been too much for him or still not enough. I don't know how much is too much. So it's up to the individual to decide what the limits are.

The Mendelssohn Fantasie in F# minor, Op. 28 is a piece I've never heard live before. It's a great piece, almost like a sonata. It's pretty much in three movements, although they're connected rather than separated as in a sonata.

Mendelssohn was probably in his early twenties when he wrote it. It's quintessential Mendelssohn. It starts off with a very melodic, introspective section with bursts of that virtuosic piano writing that he really transforms into his own. The piece ends with all-out Mendelssohnian fireworks, scales, and exciting passages, but not without substance.

Mendelssohn is often derided as not the most serious of composers because he didn't take up that tragic theme in the same way that Beethoven and eventually Brahms would do. He was considered a genius at the time, but maybe somewhat of a lightweight.

JVS: I heard Cecilia Bartoli perform for the first time when she was 23, and have heard all six of her Bay Area performances. There was a mixed critical response to her in the beginning, I think because there's no other singer with a voice of that beauty and an intellect that large who is capable of expressing pure joy onstage. It seemed to me that when people dismissed her in the beginning, they were dismissing joy.

JN: I completely agree with that. It's funny, because we think that one of the important points of music is that it's so joyful, that it's almost an expression of pure joy. It's something that you can't articulate in words, something that can only be felt or in some way replicated non-verbally. To dismiss joyful expression as lightweight or not as accomplished or not serious I think is a mistake.

I also love Cecilia Bartoli. I've seen her once live once in Switzerland. I got one of the stage tickets, so for most of the performance her back was facing me. She's one of those performers who takes over the stage. Before she even sings a note, she makes you happy. It's something about her command of the audience. It radiates truth. She's not trying to be someone she's not. I just love that.

JVS: She's gotten much better at appearing at ease before the camera since then. We just watched her 2001 video singing Haydn with Harnoncourt, and her eyes weren't fluttering, she wasn't going through all the facial contortions that she was exhibiting in her 20's.

I remember when her performance of a Bellini aria was broadcast from Carnegie Hall a few years back. She received a lot of criticism for the way she closed her eyes while singing. Some critics wrote that she was better off heard than seen, that they couldn't stand to watch her. But I felt that she was going into trance. If you've ever seen someone in a trance state, that's how someone looks. And no one can sing like she sings.

JN: That's right.

JVS: Do you ever become self-conscious about how you appear in front of an audience, when you may rub your nose, for example, while everyone is scrutinizing you and a camera may be trained on you?

JN: I certainly try not to do stuff like that. There's a certain level of self-consciousness that one has to have to avoid habits like that.

One of my personal goals is to try not to have any extraneous voices on the stage that detract from the sound of the piano. If I catch myself hitting my foot on the pedal or stamping in the wrong way, that is something I will definitely try to correct. But anything that happens is really a product of the moment, and of the feeling of a particular audience. That I won't stop.

JVS: You're not a Glenn Gould/Keith Jarrett sing-along grunter?

JN: I don't think so. I think I've sung, but I don't think anyone has heard it.

The concert concludes with the Brahms Sonata in F minor, Op. 5. It's also the subject of my latest recording for Harmonia Mundi.

The three sonatas that Brahms wrote for piano are very early works. While they are great, they're not necessarily his best. There are certain sections in them that one might criticize from a structural standpoint.

I actually think that the third sonata in particular is a landmark piece for him. It's great piano writing, extremely difficult, with lyricism and romanticism that presage his very late works for the piano, his Op. 116, 117, 118, and the Intermezzi. All of that was already there in the Op. 5, even in the Op. 1, the D Major sonata. Plus, it's replete with great melodies that pour out one after the other. It's such a joy to play.

One of my favorite recordings of this piece is by Rubinstein. The way his playing sings in the melodic sections is so absolutely natural and unadorned. I think that's what Brahms is really about. Not so much fuss about every little nuance, but instead the big, long line phrasing that is so central to his writing.

JVS: Many singers began as instrumentalists. Kathleen Ferrier and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson come to mind. You can hear their attention to the long line in their singing.

How much contemporary music do you perform?

JN: I try to do something new every year. My repertoire is based on what it asks of me personally. I've recently worked with an Italian composer, Geronimo Arrigo, who's quite famous in Europe but not known here at all. It's very fascinating to go to a composer and talk to him and ask questions. You can't do that with Brahms and Beethoven.

Lukas Foss and William Bolcom are other living composers I've visited and played for. They've all said the same thing: ‘Well, I didn't think of it that way, but that's very interesting and you should play it that way.' It validated for me the sense of independence we can have as interpreters. Even though we may be full of questions our entire lives, that's probably the point of their writing, to find a new way to express what they felt. I think that's very affirming.

JVS: Last year you performed in Connecticut's Summer Music at Harkness State Park series, where you collaborated with Larry Rachleff.

JN: He's Music Director of the Rhode Island Philharmonic, a music professor at Rice I believe, as well as the conductor at the summer music festival in Westport. We worked together for the first time on the Paganini Rhapsody and Rachmaninoff.

JVS: You started out getting a BA from Stanford in German and a Masters Degree in Education. Your first significant piano awards were in 1995. Did you have a fantasy of becoming a pianist?

JN: I started studying piano privately at age 6, and knew from that moment that I wanted to spend my life doing it. But I also didn't know how the music business would treat me. So I was always looking at other things as well because I had many interests. I was very interested in academics and languages in particular.

When I was fortunate enough to find such a good piano teacher in the very beginning, I decided to major in something non-musical in college with the hope that whatever I studied would in some way affect what I did musically. So studying German wasn't just because I wanted to learn German – that was part of it – but also because I could read in the original language that works that inspired and influenced so many of the composers I played.

The nice thing about studying German is that it got me a job after college. I really needed one, because I needed money to go away and study and perform and try out for competitions. Winning is not something that just falls out from the sky; you have to go get it.

JVS: What did you do after college?

JN: I taught German in the Bay Area for six years at St. Francis High School in Mountain View. The school was very nice about letting me get out of teaching so I could perform and enter competitions. I basically taught up to the day I left for the Van Cliburn Competition, and had a contract to teach the following year. But things kind of changed, and here I am. The overnight change of life is real.

JVS: What's your parental background?

JN: My heritage is Japanese. My grandparents came from Japan, my parents were born in Hawaii, and I was born and raised in California. We lived in San Jose. Nobody was educated musically in the Western tradition, although some of my relatives played Japanese instruments. The piano was something that I first saw when I was four; I had an overwhelming desire to learn how to play it.

There was no piano or classical music at home; I came to it later.

JVS: Did you at least have music education in school?

JN: Band and orchestra. I actually played the trumpet in the band. But there was not the kind of music education that people had 50 years ago, and even have now. (There's some resurgence of music programs that expose children to classical music as well as teaching them how to play instruments). The only music I got in school was band.

JVS: Did you listen to classical music on the radio?

JN: Absolutely. I grew up living a split life, where on one hand I had a ‘normal' existence with my family and friends outside, but had this wonderful rich inner life with music.

The classical arts I found on my own. I started collecting records when I was really young. My mother made sure when I was very young that she bought whatever I wanted to hear or my teacher felt would be good for me to listen to. I came to it all very quickly and just devoured it.

My dad was an electrical engineer and my mother an office assistant. I have one younger brother who is not musical. I was very fortunate to have the means and wherewithal to do what I do.

I think the musical genes are there in all of us, but they could go untapped. It just happened that I had my impetus at the right point in my life. You never know what's out there.

JVS: Did you have friends who listened to the radio with you?

JN: I listened completely my own. Even now, most of my close friends from high school and college have no interest in the classical arts. They come to it because I'm playing. That's why I learned to love it so much. Whenever I got tired of the outside, I just came back to what I really loved.

JVS: What did it mean to you?

JN: It gave me a really strong sense of self. It was something I could do that was totally my own, yet could use to share a part of myself with others that I wouldn't be able to express other ways. Music, especially if you become very serious about it at an early age, becomes like another sense or another organ that's somehow attached to you. Separating yourself from it makes you feel incomplete, like a sort of spiritual annihilation.

On the other hand, because I grew up with a tacit dualism, I think I've learned to put everything having to do with career and the practical side of life into a better perspective. I knew that if nothing ever happened for me musically, either in competition or with a manager, I could pretty much live with that. I found so much good in teaching and having a career I felt positive about that I could have existed without becoming suicidal at 21.

JVS: Where would you like to see your career go?

JN: The only thing that's important about a career is that at any point, you're at a success if you're in control of what's going on. Not that you have to play in the greatest cities all over the world every season, or if you play in a little town that nobody has heard of you're kind of a washout. I don't believe in that at all.

I believe that we end up choosing our own way of life and where we want to play, and we choose to be either satisfied or not. At any point, if I'm making a decision to play in a certain place, or to play a certain work, or to work on a certain composer, then I think that's all I can ask for. Because what's the alternative? The alternative is you run out of invitations to play places, you don't really have a source of income, so you're forced into something one way or another. If I ever get to that point, it's time to maybe do something else. As long as I feel I'm in the driver's seat, that's a good thing.

I feel fortunate that I'm able to do this. I never dreamed that it would happen… I certainly did dream about it, but in my realistic moments, I didn't know that it would come together for me. I'm just thankful everyday that I have a place to play and people who want to come to the concerts, and that I spend my life exploring what I consider the most incredible body of musical literature.

JVS: You're one of the few whose record company hasn't cancelled his contract.

JN: That's right. I'm one of the few who is maintaining good standing in these terrible times for classical music.

JVS: Do you meditate?

JN: I do have my own ways of centering myself which very much help before a performance or during, but I've never studied in a formal sense.

JVS: There are zillions of competitions. Most of the winners don't go on to build careers.

JN: Most don't. We do have to define what we mean by career. Many of them go into teaching, and that's definitely part of the industry. Others go into artist management, others become writers; a lot of people do find a life in music other than performing. If you're in music, you're in it for the music, not just because you want to be onstage. That's just one possibility.

Realistically, when you look at the number of concert dates there are, it's a finite number. With music schools graduating thousands each year, even in orchestral situations there are a finite number of jobs. So to say that the career is only a success if you become a performer is unrealistic.

At the same time, there are so many competitions and so many of us entering, that the aura around a first prize has in some ways been devalued or diminished. I think only a few, by virtue of finite numbers, will be able to sustain a career of solo performance. It's not easy.

JVS: Do you do much educational work?

JN: I've done all the age groups. I teach a lot of Master Classes, talking with music students and others who are interested in what I do.

A lot of the time, presenters pair performance with classes and outreach, which I think is a responsibility of anyone who is in a performing position today. It's very different from how it was 30 years ago. Reaching out to youth has become a responsibility for us. If you're in a position to talk to kids and turn them on to being involved in the arts, that's part of your job.

JVS: What can we do about these “terrible times for classical music?”

JN: The key to all of it is education: exposing kids to the performing arts not just once or twice but on a regular basis. Students who just participate in band are not necessarily ready to go to an orchestra concert. Most of them never will. There has to be a reason given to them to listen to it; it just can't be thrown at them. And that's really what we do.

As an educator, if you're asked to promote something that you really don't know anything about yourself, it's very hard to make a convincing argument in front of a class. With fewer and fewer people versed in the performing arts, it's no wonder they're not taught in schools anymore. There's nobody really qualified to teach it who is there now.

Because of this, a lot of the education will come from grassroots efforts: getting kids into the concert halls, classes, and music schools through volunteering, mentoring, or donating money to the organizations. It's really the early experiences that make the lasting impressions.

JVS: Are you optimistic?

JN: I think I'm idealistic. Something that is so significant, that is such a human achievement as the body of work that we get to play, will always be around because of its greatness. Most of it will be played indefinitely. But as far as being optimistic about the profession, I don't know. There are a lot of us out there who do love it, but musicians aren't always the wealthiest lot.

JVS: I always hope that a potential new member of the audience will get turned on to classical music after reading one of my interviews. Is there something you'd like to share with that person?

JN: I think there's something in the performing arts, especially the classical arts, for everybody. If you allow yourself the opportunity to enjoy it, to experience new things all the time… this is true for musicians, who often get stuck in their own ruts and never get out of where they are … to always push yourself one step ahead of where you are, it completely enriches your life in ways you probably can't imagine at this time.

JVS: What would be the next direction to push yourself in?

JN: To learn a new piece, to study a new composer; to just know more, to keep reading, to keep studying. That's where I want to go because it's such a great place for me. I feel so happy doing this; it's an easy push.

One composer I want to study a lot more is Scriabin. He really interests me, especially since his periods of creativity are so drastically different from each other. He was writing music at a time of tremendous change and upheaval, and his music reflects his inner torment. I find his music overwhelming in an emotional sense. I‘d like to learn more.

- Jason Victor Serinus -


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