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Jon Nakamatsu Exclusive Interview: September 8, 2011

Jon Nakamatsu
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On Thursday, September 8, 2011, Classical Archives Artistic Director Nolan Gasser spoke with the celebrated American pianist Jon Nakamatsu, whose career was launched in 1997, when he won the Gold Medal at the famed Van Cliburn Competition – and has continued with a string of excellent recordings on the Harmonia mundi label. In this lively discussion, Mr. Nakamatsu relays his latest concert and recording activities – including a forthcoming CD on Harmonia mundi featuring both Brahms Quintets, with the Tokyo String Quartet and clarinetist Jon Manasse. The two also discuss Mr. Nakamatsu’s long-time collaboration with Mr. Manasse, his astounding 30-year history with piano teacher, Marina Derryberry, his upcoming benefit concert for his alma mater, Stanford University, and much more. Our feature also includes a 1-Click Jon Nakamatsu Concert, with full streams for subscribers, and a set of Jon Nakamatsu videos. Don’t miss this discussion with a most engaging and talented pianist!

“One of the biggest themes in my lessons with Marina [Derryberry] was tone: sound production is a huge deal in Russian training; it’s not just a ‘big’ sound, but the entire gamut – from the softest, most delicate touch to a large and penetrating sound – but always beautiful. That was her mantra, and that’s what I still take with me, more than everything else.”
– Jon Nakamatsu

Nolan Gasser: Jon Nakamatsu, welcome to Classical Archives. Let’s begin by getting folks caught up with some of your recent activities; I know, for example, that you just completed your 6th season as co-Artistic Director of the Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival [in Massachusetts], and that you’ve got a busy schedule of solo and ensemble concerts this fall. Can you share with us some of the highlights in your career these days?

Jon Nakamatsu: As you say, I just got back from the Cape Cod Festival, which takes up nearly all of August; and I’m just now getting started on my fall season of concerts. I also have a recording session scheduled in a couple of months – with my colleague [clarinetist] Jon Manasse and the Tokyo String Quartet; we’re recording both Brahms quintets on the same disc: the Piano Quintet [in F-, Op.34] and the Clarinet Quintet [in B-, Op.115]; so that should be a fun project. Other than that, I don’t exactly know what I have in front of me; I’m generally only thinking about what I have to prepare for in the coming weeks.

NG: That upcoming Brahms recording alone seems like plenty to think about: am I right to assume that this new CD will be on Harmonia mundi [the label featuring all of Mr. Nakamatsu’s catalogue]?

JN: Yes, exactly.

NG: Terrific – and indeed I was going to ask you about your upcoming recording projects, so that’s great to hear.

I was also going to ask you about your vibrant partnership with clarinetist Jon Manasse – not only as your co-director at the Cape Cod Festival and in various upcoming chamber concerts, but also on your latest two Harmonia mundi CDs [the two Brahms Clarinet Sonatas, Op.120 (2008); and a collection of 20th century American works for clarinet and piano (2010)]. Clearly there’s some magic happening with you two Jons – as you’re even labeled in the opening piece of your latest American CD, Four Rags for Two Jons [by John Novacek] How did you two first connect, and what was it that musically inspired you to collaborate so actively?

JN: Believe it or not, we’ve only known each other for about seven years. At that time, we both had the same manager; when I first joined the roster, he immediately thought that our musical sensibilities and personalities would form a kind of musical “dream team”. He gave me some of Jon’s recordings, and I immediately thought that it was the most incredible clarinet playing I’d ever heard! Before that, I wasn’t the biggest fan of the clarinet, but I quickly became enamored with his playing.

We started working on repertoire, and then began touring together in 2004 – and it soon exploded into a whole array of projects: recordings, the Cape Cod Festival, and multiple tours throughout the year in various configurations. One of the nice offshoots of all this is that we quickly became the best of friends – his family is now my “East Coast family”, and I’m very fond of his kids; he was the Best Man at my wedding a couple of years ago. So, in every way it’s been a gratifying experience – when you get to work with some with whom you have such a special bond.

NG: Your manager was obviously a very gifted musical matchmaker – and it’s also interesting that you both have the same name, with not the most typical spelling; it must be part of the alchemy of it, I guess.

Clearly you both have very broad musical tastes: steeped in the standard repertory, but also a fondness for the jazz side of classical music – with Gershwin and Bernstein, and the other tracks on your American CD [by John Novacek and Paquito D’Rivera]. Of course, the clarinet, like the piano, is an instrument at home in both jazz and classical music.

JN: What’s interesting is that we’re both steeped in various styles, but neither of us is trained as a jazz musician; so we don’t quite have that innate sense that allows us to operate fully in that world. But the repertoire that we’ve been commissioning, and which we’ve recorded, is something that stretches us in a way that we enjoy; and although we love the standard repertory – and there really is quite a bit for clarinet and piano – it is really a pleasure to explore these other outlets and to develop our musical sensibility in this non-classical repertoire.

NG: One work on your American CD that grabbed my attention was The Cape Cod Files by Paquito D’Rivera [a celebrated Cuban-born clarinetist, saxophonist, and composer; tracks 5-8]; he’s known primarily as a Cuban and jazz musician, but is also active in the classical realm, as this piece demonstrates. I’ve also read that this chamber work has now been expanded into a double concerto for piano, clarinet, and orchestra [The Cape Cod Concerto].

JN: Right, this was premiered a few months ago [in May, 2011] in California, and is a real unique contribution to the literature; I actually don’t know of another concerto that features solo parts for both the clarinet and the piano. And this is really one of our long-term goals: to keep expanding the catalogue for these two instruments – that really do compliment each other very well.

NG: How did you first connect with Paquito D’Rivera?

JN: Paquito, of course, is a tremendous clarinetist, and Jon had known his work for some time. A few years ago, when we were looking for a new commissioning project, his name came up; we approached him, and he was thrilled – having known of Jon’s playing – to write a piece for us. This has now expanded into two commissions: the new concerto, as well as the initial piece for clarinet and piano, The Cape Code Files, which was written to celebrate the 30th Anniversary of the Cape Cod Festival; we continue to play this piece in concert – and, of course, it’s always nice when a new work takes on a life of its own, and gets more than just a few hearings here and there.

NG: That’s certainly the goal from the composer’s standpoint, though it’s true that it doesn’t happen all the time. And am I right to assume that the concerto version is largely an expansion of the chamber piece, using the same basic material?

JN: Yes, it’s almost the same piece, except that there are some additions and subtractions; there’s a beefed-up piano part – since a lot of what the piano plays in the original version is taken up by the orchestral in the concerto. So now there’s more of a distinct solo role for the piano, and some nice additions – including some great percussion effects.

NG: I’m not surprised, given Paquito’s Cuban background.

You’ve talked about doing some commissioning – as you have with two works on the American CD, and with this concerto; is this now becoming an active part of your duties both with the Cape Cod Festival and your general career – to help expand the clarinet-piano repertoire?

JN: I think so; it’s important for us not only to explore what is out there, but also to create anew. So many of these new works – like the Four Rags for Two Jons, for example – are works that players will want to play and study for a long time; they’re so full of interesting ideas, subtleties, and unbelievable writing for the clarinet and the piano. We’ve already heard them in different settings: for violin and piano; and with guitar accompaniment, etc.; and of course [the composer] John Novacek used to play them as solo piano pieces.

NG: Yes, John Novacek is a gifted pianist himself. Well, that’s great – I always believe that it’s part of the obligation of high-profile artists to help expand the repertoire, in a way that suits their own aesthetic; and it seems as if you two are doing just that.

At the Cape Cod Festival, alongside doing concerts with named artists such as the Tokyo String Quartet, you also have an active education program that fosters the talents of young chamber music – as is not uncommon at these types of festivals. But it seems that being a mentor to young musicians is a key component of your career activities – for example, you’ve served on the Jury of the Van Cliburn Amateur Competition, and you’ve traveled with a number of youth orchestras, including the San Jose Youth Symphony and the Stanford University Symphony. And, of course, you famously were a high school German teacher before you launched your international solo career – by winning the Van Cliburn Competition in 1997. Can you talk about the importance of music education and “giving back” to young musicians at this stage of your career?

JN: I believe it’s vital to be involved in nurturing a new generation – not just of musicians, but of any group of young people who want contact with the arts, though who may not grow up to become part of that community professionally. We want the arts for everybody, and don’t necessarily need to pin a musical career to that exposure; that’s what a lot of people fear, I think: they want to be involved with music, though a bit more from afar. And that’s wonderful too: a lot of these kids who travel on an orchestra tour will end up going into other professions, but they’re always going to appreciate the performing arts, and they in effect become our audience in the future. To have the experience of going on tour, learning about the life of a musician, and having contact with someone who does this professionally, is an incredible thing – one that I wish had more of as a young person. I personally really enjoy these tours – I don’t find it a chore, or feel like it’s something I have to do for my profession; it’s something I want to do.

I’ve also been doing a fair bit of teaching at festivals recently: for example, I was part of the Eastern Music Festival in Greensborough, North Carolina – which is a week of meeting and teaching young piano students. It’s all really eye-opening, and in fact I learn so much from being around these kids, and seeing what issues they are facing, and where they want to take their own performances.

NG: That’s terrific; and you make a very good point: that on these tours you’re teaching not only potential future performers, but future audience members as well; we all know the sad state of affairs of arts education in this country especially, and so to share that passion is critical.

Now, when you tour with these youth orchestras, do you fit in some teaching on the road, or is it more just collegial times with the students as fellow-performers?

JN: Usually these tours are very intense, and are largely performance oriented; any educational aspect has generally gone on before the tour begins. And, of course, with young musicians, there’s a lot of preparation and rehearsing that goes into getting ready for the tour. But once you’re on the road, the kids get to experience what it’s like to go from place to place on a bus or a train; it’s a unique experience for them – when they have to play on no sleep, for example. It’s all part of the game, and as a result, they have a much better appreciation for what takes place to perform on stage when they attend a concert.

NG: It may also separate those who are willing to take on this profession from those who think, “Well, maybe I’ll do something different.”

JN: Absolutely – that’s a good point.

NG: I’ve sensed that your interest in education may in part stem from your own indebtedness to your long-time teacher, Marina Derryberry, who passed away in 2009. You studied with her for over 30 years, if I’m not mistaken. What was it about her teaching method that was so special and inspiring, and what aspects of her teaching most resonate with you as perform even today?

JN: I must first say that I was so fortunate to have found her, as the whole thing was fairly random: the only reason I began studying with her is that my father was a colleague of her husband, who encouraged her to audition me – which she didn’t want to do initially, as she didn’t take small kids at the time. But after a bit of prodding, she finally agreed to hear me, and then decided, “I think there’s something different about this kid; I want to see what I can do with him.” This gradually morphed into an amazing mentor-student relationship that lasted the whole first half of my life. I don’t think it’s common to find someone who can teach a student his or her first notes, and who also has the wherewithal to prepare this person as an adult for a major international career. But she had all of that in her.

And to have studied with someone for so long, at some point they become like family – where there’s nothing you can’t go through together; and for us, the journey was unbelievable. I mean, to have had her at the Van Cliburn Competition [in 1997] when I won – which she knew would then kick-start my career – was so meaningful to me. I miss her every day; and every time I walk on stage, my performance is due to her. In all the musical disciplines I pursued: harmony, theory, composition, orchestration, etc. – she was a guiding force, and again my career wouldn’t have been possible without her.

NG: And what a joy for her to have taken you, indeed, from your first finger exercises to the Gold Medal at the Van Cliburn! Her background itself is quite interesting in that she grew up, and was trained, in Iran. As you’ve thought about it, and have shared anecdotes with your fellow performers, is there any particular aspect of her approach to either the technical or the expressive aspects of performance – perhaps that came out of her own training, or her own personality – that made her teaching distinct in some way?

JN: You’re right, she had an incredibly unique background: in the Iran of her day, between 1936 and 1964, the Shah of Iran [Mohammad Rezā Pahlavi, r. 1941-1979] created a Conservatory of Western Art and Music, not only to educate the populace, but also to create cultural awareness of the talented musicians that were living in Iran. Marina’s teachers were mainly imported from Eastern Europe – from Russia and Poland; and she saw many of the greatest pianists of the era come through Tehran. So her exposure to that type of life was quite profound – which obviously has now ceased to exist there. What that meant is that she received a very solid musical education as a child, and later as a student at the Conservatory. For me, that meant that I was educated in this rich tradition of Russian-Polish pedagogy.

I’m not certain if I can pin a certain type of methodology onto her teaching, but one of the biggest themes in my lessons with Marina was tone: sound production is a huge deal in Russian training; it’s not just a “big” sound, but the entire gamut – from the softest, most delicate touch to a large and penetrating sound – but always beautiful. That was her mantra, and that’s what I still take with me, more than everything else.

NG: I hear what you’re saying: I had the pleasure of interviewing [pianist/conductor] Vladimir Ashkenazy, who talks about the “Russian soil” [chernozyom, literally “black soil”], in terms of the tone needed for the piano music of composers like Prokofiev and Scriabin. So, you seem to have received this rarified music education right there in the middle of Silicon Valley; and of course it really is a unique story – I don’t know of another prominent pianist who had only one teacher.

Now, somewhat related to education is an upcoming benefit concert that you’ll be giving, in collaboration with the St. Lawrence String Quartet, at your alma mater, Stanford University, on Saturday, September 17. The concert is to raise funds for the purchase of a concert grand piano for the new Bing Concert Hall being built on the campus. We here at Classical Archives don’t normally focus so narrowly on a particular concert, but in this case we have a bias, since we’re located so close to Stanford [in Palo Alto, California] – and indeed it’s my alma mater as well. So, I’d love to learn a little bit more about this program; first, how did you get to be involved in the concert?

JN: I believe that someone from the Stanford Friends of Music [a University-affiliated outreach group] had contacted me initially. I’ve done multiple concerts with the St. Lawrence Quartet, so they are a group that I know, respect, and really enjoy working with. As the idea of this new concert hall grew and became a reality, they began to think of ways of using performers who are associated with the University in some way to raise funds – for a piano and other needs. And anything that can help move Stanford concerts into a new hall would bring me great joy, so I was more than happy to participate. In fact, we first starting about this more than two years ago, so the fact that it’s happening in about a week is pretty amazing.

NG: Well, sometimes there’s a long gestation period even for a single concert! This illustrates an important part of having a career such as yours – that the arts always need help, whether it’s at a symphony hall, or an opera company, or at one of our great universities. And indeed, Stanford can use a little makeover in its performing facilities. In terms of the program: I was thinking that with the St. Lawrence Quartet, you’d either be performing the Brahms or the Schumann Quintet, given that you’ve recently performed both – is this right?

JN: Yes, in fact, the Quartet asked if we could do the Schumann [Piano Quintet in Eb, Op.44].

NG: Great, and are you also performing something solo?

JN: I don’t believe so – but if I am, I better find that out soon [laughs].

NG: Yes, that would be good to know! I’m sure that in either case everyone at Stanford will be grateful for your participation; and if there’s a live recording that comes out it, hopefully we can feature it here on Classical Archives. In any event, we’ll certainly feature your new Harmonia mundi release when it comes out next year. Thanks so much for your time, Jon, and have a wonderful concert on the 17th!

JN: Thanks a lot, Nolan. I really enjoyed talking to you.

For more information on the September 17 concert, visit the Stanford University Box Office.

For more info on helping to support the Steinway Fund for the new Bing Concert Hall at Stanford, visit the Friends of Music at Stanford website.

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