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Jon Nakamatsu on his melodic journey from German teacher to concert pianist

Published November 20, 2012 1:54 pm

Music • Jon Nakamatsu talks about losses on his way to a professional music career — and what he gained.
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"My name is Jon Nakamatsu, and I am a loser."

The Van Cliburn gold medalist's confession elicited nervous laughter from the Fort Worth, Texas, audience before the announcement of the finalists of the 2007 International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs, for which Nakamatsu served as a juror.

Nakamatsu followed up his bombshell with a detailed list of his competition losses and rejections — beginning with a 1978 rejection from the Junior Bach Festival in Berkeley, Calif., when he was 10, and including a time well into his adulthood, when a juror told him he didn't have the talent or the technique for playing the piano.

As Nakamatsu went through his litany of loss, the audience members became more boisterous in their approval, and the speech has become a minor hit on YouTube.

Of course, Nakamatsu's years of losing were punctuated by a huge win, and his life hasn't been the same since his 1997 Van Cliburn victory.

The Cliburn gold medal comes with two years of career management and performances at prestigious venues. Fifteen years after winning the gold, Nakamatsu is a top concert pianist, spending most of his time away from his San Jose, Calif., home.

On Monday, he comes to Salt Lake City to play Schumann's fierce Piano Quintet with the Berlin-based Kuss String Quartet, who also will play Janacek's "Kreutzer Sonata" Quartet (based on Tolstoy's novella The Kreutzer Sonata) and Mozart's Quartet in D, K. 525. (Nakamatsu and the quartet will perform the same program in Logan on Tuesday.)

At the time he won the Cliburn, Nakamatsu was a 28-year-old high-school German teacher. He didn't major in music in college; instead, he earned a bachelor's degree in German and a master's degree in education, both from Stanford. He never has taught music, except in the master classes he sometimes offers while on tour.

Balancing his teaching job and musical aspirations was difficult before the Cliburn allowed him to quit his day job, but Nakamatsu sees his nonmusical education as one of his greatest assets in allowing him to sustain his performing career.

"Especially in the United States, a performing career is different from what a lot of music students think," he said. "It's not just about practicing, getting on the stage and then going to the next city; that's really one very small component of today's performing profession."

Classical musicians in the United States also socialize at donor events, participate in educational outreach and give preconcert lectures. "For someone who spends 10 hours a day in a practice room and doesn't ever talk to another human, it can be a shock," he said. "For me, having more of a rounded education opened my eyes to the profession in ways that a strict conservatory training would not have."

Oliver Wille and Jana Kuss, the two violinists in the Kuss Quartet, were conservatory trained in the East German system from the time they were grade-school-aged. Their teacher, Eberhard Seltz, put them together in a quartet when they were 11 to help them break out of the isolation of solo practice.

"He wanted us to actually deal with each other socially and discuss music in a sophisticated way," Wille remembered. "For him, it was very important that we get out of the lonely practice room and learn to deal with each other. From there, we learned to love the quartet repertoire."

In addition to concerts in more traditional venues, the Kuss Quartet shares its love for the quartet repertoire with patrons of one of Berlin's hottest dance clubs, the Watergate. Called Kuss Plus, the concert series features the Kuss Quartet playing standard quartet repertoire in collaboration with a slam poet, actor or DJ. Wille has discovered that the more dissonant, challenging modern pieces — like the Janacek on Monday's program — go over better than Mozart with club patrons.

"They don't know the Janacek Quartet but they also don't know Mozart — and Janacek is closer to their feelings and experiences of the modern world," he said. "It's an incredible experience, the club is packed, people are sitting on the floor 10 inches away from you, they can almost 'touch' the sound. There is a remarkable concentration — sometimes more than in a traditional concert hall — and they don't know what will happen or how we will interact with the [guest artist]."

This upcoming concert Utah marks the third time the Kuss Quartet has come to Salt Lake City to play in Libby Gardner Hall, and the tour also includes a stop in Logan on Tuesday night. The quartet's performances in 2008 and 2010 featured master classes, receptions and other opportunities to interact with the community, and Wille said he looks forward to "the warm, enthusiastic audience and the fantastic hall."

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Jon Nakamatsu and the Kuss String Quartet

Pianist Jon Nakamatsu will play the Schumann Piano Quintet with the Kuss String Quartet; the quartet also will perform music of Mozart and Janacek.

When • Monday, Nov. 19, 7:30 p.m.

Where • Libby Gardner Hall, 1340 E., Presidents Circle, University of Utah campus, Salt Lake City

Tickets • $25; $5 for students, at the box office

Information • Presented by the Chamber Music Society of Salt Lake City; cmsofslc.org or 801-561-3999

More • Tuesday, Nov. 20, 7:30 p.m.

Where •Chase Fine Arts Center 139-B, Utah State University campus, Logan

Tickets • $24, $10 students, at the box office

Information •Presented by the Chamber Music Society of Logan; cmslogan.org; 435-752-5867