Baby on board: Solo pianist and new dad to close out Stockton Symphony’s 89th season of ‘classics’ concerts

It’ll be a newborn night when the Stockton Symphony concludes its 89th season of “classics” concerts Saturday.

Piano soloist Jon Nakamatsu’s 10-week-old son is making his first road trip. Chris Brubeck has birthed a world-premiere “fanfare” for conductor Peter Jaffe.

“He likes the piano,” Nakamatsu said of Gavin, he and wife Kathy’s first child. “It calms him down when I play Brahms, Mozart, Schubert. It helps him get to sleep.”

Fortunately, Gavin also relaxes when dad — who won the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 1997 — practices the 25 minutes of “Piano Concerto in A Minor” by Norwegian Edvard Grieg (1843-1907).

He plays it Saturday at San Joaquin Delta College’s Atherton Auditorium during his fifth symphony appearance. Jaffe, 59, has been Nakamatsu’s tutor, musical friend and colleague since they met at Stanford University 25 years ago.

Nakamatsu, 47, performed Grieg’s concerto — after Gavin became accustomed to his dad practicing it — Saturday with the El Camino Youth Symphony at Cupertino’s Flint Center.

Though concert appearances are booked in advance, Nakamatsu — who lives in San Jose — has streamlined his schedule so Gavin can travel with dad and mom, who’s an AP chemistry teacher at Saratoga High School.

“We jokingly take credit for his success,” said Jaffe, who first brought Nakamatsu to Stockton in 1996, before he’d won classical piano’s “Super Bowl.”

“He’s just absolutely a world-class pianist,” said Jaffe, a visiting professor at Stanford when he first heard Nakamatsu, who’d been a German-language student, play. “The Grieg concerto is a blockbuster. He’s an absolute virtuoso on the instrument. He’s a fine friend.”

Jaffe and Brubeck share a similar relationship. That’s why Brubeck, 64, the son of jazz master Dave Brubeck (1920-2012), composed “Fanfare for a Remarkable Friend,” a seven-minute “surprise” written in 2015 to acknowledge Jaffe’s 20th season as conductor.

“It was one of the best-kept secrets ever,” said Jaffe, who didn’t learn of Brubeck’s “Fanfare” until “last fall” — via a computer-generated, “boom-box” version — and didn’t hear it played on actual instruments until this week’s rehearsals. “I had no clue. Even my wife (Jane) kept this a secret.

“Oh, my God, I was completely humbled and completely grateful. It’s just like one big smile. It’s, like, the best gift anyone could have. I’ll just have to get past the blush and get over it.”

After he does that and conducts his friend, Jaffe leads the 70-member orchestra through “March Slave” by Russia’s Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-93) and “Pines of Rome” by Italian Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936).

Though the frequency of requests for Grieg’s concerto ebbs and flows, Nakamatsu is performing it five times during this touring season.
“I wish I had bigger hands,” Nakamatsu said. “I’d have an easier time negotiating some sections of this piece. It’s very much an orchestra-and-piano piece as opposed to just a piano piece.”
Nakamatsu, whose Cliburn victory created enough credibility to sustain a global career, keeps adjusting and adapting, mainly because discerning patrons are so familiar with the nuances of frequently performed compositions.

He’d “put away” Grieg’s 1868 creation for a while. After “returning” to it, “I learned a lot about my approach as a player. There’s always something different going on. I never, ever feel any type of stagnation. I was thinking (last Saturday) as I played it (Grieg’s concerto), ‘When I get to Stockton, I could change this or modify this.’ ”

Born in Sunnyvale, Nakamatsu began plinking a toy organ at age 4. He played his first piano recital at 7 and kept moving up after graduating from Saratoga’s Prospect High School and enrolling at Stanford.

He taught German at St. Francis High School in Mountain View before the Cliburn Prize “changed my life forever,” starting with a two-year tour that accompanied his victory. It included performing at the White House during Bill Clinton’s presidency.

Having released 13 recordings, he’s also teamed for 10 years in a duo with clarinet player Jon Manasse. On May 15, Nakamatsu and the San Jose Mission Chamber Orchestra play “Joy from Planet Earth to the Firmament,” a premiere written for Nakamatsu by Lee Actor, a Denver-born composer.

Grandmother Karen, 75, takes care of Nakamatsu’s infant son during Saturday’s hourlong concert. Dad David, 80, will be at home, doing “house projects.”

“We brought him to a rehearsal once,” Nakamatsu said of Gavin. “We’ll do it in little doses. Hopefully, he’ll be able to sit through a whole concert by the time he’s 6.”

— Contact Tony Sauro at (209) 546-8267 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @tsaurorecord.

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