Lately, beginnings are big in the life of San José native Jon Nakamatsu. The 48-year old pianist is a new father and parent with his wife, Kathy Nakamatsu, of their two-year-old son, Gavin. One year into joining the piano faculty at San Francisco Conservatory of Music, he is for the first time unpacking the pleasures of ongoing connections to students, instead of the temporary one-offs of master classes. Appearing March 16–18 with Symphony Silicon Valley under the direction of Argentine maestro Carlos Vieu at San José’s California Theatre, he will perform Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37. In an interview, Nakamatsu says that to achieve a peak performance of the virtuoso concerto, he must be instantly dextrous, limber, and ready to arrest the audience from the very first note played.
We began our conversation with the compromises he has made or is making as he has moved from working as a Mountain View high school teacher of German to winning the 10th Van Cliburn Competition in 1997 to two decades as a well-regarded concert pianist.
With the added responsibilities of teaching and parenting, what compromises have you had to make in your practice or performance schedule?
It’s funny, because things just happen in some ways at the right time. Students often forget the steps it took; even professionals find they’re moving along a path. We never feel we’re established or don’t need to worry. Well-regarded soloists who talk to me say they never feel they can sit back and be able to continue to go forward. I tell students you can’t schedule your life according to other people’s schedules. If you’re looking for a specific job, you might not get it right away. You must continue to take steps to grow.
Early on, I gave up having kids. I’m pretty old and feel lucky at my age to get up and change a diaper. I didn’t date a lot, didn’t get married until I was in my 30s. I missed social things. It wasn’t always easy to sit at home doing homework. I was watching the world go by, but at the same time I preferred to be home practicing or studying music.
What discoveries or awareness acquired from students do you take with you into performance?
It’s amazing how much I learn about what we perceive or miss beyond or behind the footlights. In a small studio, you see the work and what their intentions are. In a concert hall, you feel nothing of that.
I am made more aware through teaching of many things: What you’re hearing is not what others are feeling. What we feel only matters if that message is transmitted and other people can understand it. How differently people read things, creatively. It keeps making me wonder at what point is any of this exhausted? I think it’s impossible to exhaust great music’s possibilities.
I also learn about what I’ve come through and still hope to do. I see the whole aspect of performance, what it means to become a performer, what it means to get through frustrations. Being on the other side of that fence helps me to develop as a performer more than I would [develop] by myself.
Do you also discover limitations or commonalities?
Yes. I learn that I don’t always know how to keep a student from freaking out. The solutions are in the end your own. I find it’s okay to not know. Professionals and students have the same questions. Even the students who come out of conservatories playing remarkably well have their own type of problems. We’re in it because we all love this music. I just hope we don’t forget that. The arts are a tough, unfriendly business: You must know how to get through life, how to show emotions and yet have skin as thick as a rhinoceros. New students and people who’ve been in it for decades, we all feel this to be true.
Advice then, for young musicians?
I tell them to be open to paths you don’t necessarily think are the way to go. Really, the life of the modern soloist is about diversity. You can’t just sit in a practice room and expect the phone to ring. The idea that you could not give back is irresponsible thinking. [Participation in outreach programs when part of an orchestra was one giving back example he cited.] The way to get your career going is to open up to more, rather than less. Competitions are not the end-all; it’s just a small door. If you want a career, you better back up your musical skills with administrative, academic, and interpersonal capabilities.
As a soloist, your “conversation” with Symphony Silicon Valley likely has unique characteristics. What are one or two?
I’ve had a long history with them. It goes back to the old San Jose Symphony. I started playing with them 20 years ago. Many are still in the orchestra, so it feels like coming back to a familiar friend. Because of that, the first rehearsal is different. People smile at you and right from the start, they want to go beyond a high-quality date.
Naturally, I can assume certain characteristics from the strings and other sections. That familiarity gives me an idea of how the first rehearsal may go. There’s no music director for the Symphony Silicon Valley so I cannot predict how the orchestra will be led from the podium. The whole sound changes each time to meet different demands and the orchestral dynamics sought by the conductor. That can produce anxiety but generally, it’s exciting because we all have to be on our toes when working with new people.
What do you appreciate most about conductor Carlos Vieu and what aspects must you be most alert to in performances with him?
I know the last time, it went very well. I played Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 2 in 2016. I remember it came together easily, partly because Carlos Vieu has experience conducting dances and operas, two things that require extreme coordination. There are a million moving parts to dance and opera, so you know a conductor [with experience in those areas] will be on your tail, they’ll know how to lead you, or when to fall back. Conductors of primarily symphonic work are not always as fast with pianists. Because the instrument is so fast in terms of sound to physical motion, unless you are ahead of that, you will always be behind.
The acoustic aspects of the California Theatre might enhance a piece of music or cause you to emphasize a particular element in a movement or passage. Is that true with the concerto?
Everything sounds good on the California Theatre stage, so we hear ourselves fairly well. The coordination is good and the hall isn’t enormous. Upstairs, especially, sound goes up in a sensitive way. A hall is an extension of what you’re doing. No matter how good the piano, if the sound doesn’t reflect and resonate, you’re working for nothing.
If I feel everyone is acting sensitively onstage, I can let the piano get quiet and intimate and still be heard. But we have to do that as an ensemble. That’s an important element regardless of the venue. Everything is a sonic whole so the piano takes from what happened just before to find the core of the sound in the moment.
What physical or psychological preparations do you find essential to performing this work?
In the case of all the Beethoven concertos, the biggest thing is starting them. The clarity required at the very opening [of this concerto], then immediately followed by a passage that scares you and lasts for just a few seconds — I can’t just walk off the street and feel good playing that. Anything with 16th notes requires your blood be flowing when you hit the stage. At the California Theatre I warm up on an upright piano. I have to feel that first opening run: that it’s more of a musical gesture than a technical run or a scale run — it’s a flourish to get into the main theme. I have to feel like I’ve been playing for an hour when I begin, even if I haven’t.
What is essential to a convincing first movement (Allegro con brio)?
The drama starts on the first note: there’s no wasting time. The first scale, not even eight bars of that big crescendo and by the statement of the main theme, you have to have the command of your inner dramatics. If you play halfheartedly, the opening isn’t gripping. This concerto is Beethoven writing for a soloist: it’s a different beast than his second concerto.
And the Largo?
It’s successful for almost the opposite reasons. The harmonics, to go from C minor to E major with one chord that lasts for four counts … the whole drama is voicing that chord so people hear the E on the bottom and the strange G sharp on the top. Everything depends on the color of that first chord. It’s all about control: the notes aren’t difficult; it’s the phrasing that illustrates the drama. Even the pedal markings — one is scored to go through several bars without changing—if you did that on a modern piano it would sound like a mess. It gives us a glimpse into the piano practice of Beethoven’s time. He wanted more bleed-through of nonharmonic sound because it gave the impression of a bigger tonal world. It’s a challenge to bring the spirit of that on a modern piano. How do you reconcile that?
Finally, the Rondo.
It’s so much fun. It seems like a solo piece: It’s Beethoven focusing on the piano’s expression. But the most wonderful moments to me are the more chamber-like moments, when the piano is to accompany the orchestra. You become part of an incredible texture. The hammer tones you hear from the piano are not to distract from the melodic tones of the orchestra. It’s so smart. It’s the perfect balance. That’s sprinkled all the way through the whole movement. As busy as the piano gets, it’s not the most important element. Most important is when you come together with the orchestra.