Thomasville Times Enterprise

January 24, 2014

Musical journey

Mark Lastinger

THOMASVILLE — Jon Nakamatsu is ready to take area music lovers on a beautiful journey. The trip, sponsored by the Thomasville Entertainment Foundation, will be much like his career path — full of dramatic turns and an exciting crescendo.

Nakamatsu, winner of the Tenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 1997, is set to appear at the Thomasville Center for the Arts on Thursday at 8 p.m. He will perform music by Franz Schubert, Frederic Chopin and Robert Schumann.

“In some way, you have to take the audience with you from the very first note and bring it to the very last note,” Nakamatsu said during a Thursday telephone interview. “If there is too much of one thing — if it’s too quiet the whole way — people get a little bit tired. If it’s too loud and flashy the whole way, then, basically, you are smashing them over the head with loud music and it is too much.

“If you can vary the journey and sustain the narrative, then I think you can bring the audience through the whole evening right along with you. That is the most magic evening to me — when you can feel the audience is right there with you and hanging on every note.”

Even though he has performed in some of the word’s greatest venues, including Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center, Nakamatsu enjoys playing in more intimate settings like the much smaller Center for the Arts.

“There is a different magic that happens in a room that is much more intimate than in one that is so big where everyone seems kind of removed from the stage,” Nakamatsu said. “A lot of music, especially solo piano music, was meant to be heard in very small spaces. When you get to hear it closely, you get to hear the detail of the instrument.

“A lot of times, in the big halls, you hear the general sound floating around in the air, but you don’t get to hear the closeness of the hammer actually hitting the string or the subtlety of a note fading away. It all kind of depends on the room.”

There were many times when Nakamatsu wondered if he would get to play for anyone other than his friends and family in his living room. He came up short in numerous piano competitions before breaking through in the prestigious Van Cliburn event on his second attempt.

“You start to get a sense on what the reality is,” he said. “There are certain things that are beyond your control, but especially in a profession that is as subjective as music and the arts. I had gotten to the point where I had to make a decision, so I kind of came up with a grand plan that I would do my best to play as much as I could and pursue a (music career) until I was about 30.

“If things didn’t work out — it was like planning your own funeral — I was going to have one more recital and invite all the people who had supported me and were good to me over the years. That would have been difficult, but life is too short to dwell on something that may or may not ever happen.”

Nakamatsu avoided presiding over his musical funeral by winning the Van Cliburn Competition at the age of 28.

“I really pushed it. I think I was making everyone suffer,” he joked.

Nakamatsu honed his piano skills by practicing at every available opportunity. Free time was scarce because he was a high school German teacher at the time. He was intrigued by the language because many of the world’s best composers, including Mozart and Beethoven, hailed from Germany.

“When I would go to a competition and not do well, I would get back to the grind and find out what I personally wanted to do better,” he said.

Finding the secret to winning was difficult because the judges don’t typically provide feedback.

“You’re pretty much left to wonder,” he said.

Throughout most of his career journey, Nakamatsu had a wonderful companion, Marina Derryberry. She started teaching him how to play the piano when he was 6 years old and stuck with him all the way to his Van Cliburn victory.

“She was my primary musical influence, which is sort of odd because most (classical pianists) go off to musical conservatories or do other things,” Nakamatsu said. “I had such a wonderful relationship with her and she was such a supporter, and it was only because her husband was my father’s colleague at work that we came to her. My parents certainly didn’t know anything about being a piano teacher, so I was very fortunate to have her.

“She was almost like a manager. She gave me a great musical education. It’s just that I don’t have a degree to show for it.

“Every time I walk across the stage, I think how every note that I play can somehow be traced back to her. The wonderful thing is that she was there when my career kind of got launched. When she passed away, I think she knew I was going to be OK.”

Nakamatsu, an extremely personable fellow, is looking forward to sharing what he has learned in Thomasville. It will be his first visit to the Rose City.

“I love playing in cities with 20,000 people because a lot of times they are more appreciative than people who hear these things all the time,” he said.

Nakamatsu hopes the audience will enjoy the songs he has chosen.

“This particular program is one that people who love music tend to love, but people who don’t know it can find things to latch on to,” he said. “You don’t have to know anything to be able to let the music wash through you and wash over you, Just enjoy it and let it take you some place. Just let it happen.

“You don’t have to be educated in any kind of art form to find some meaning, personally, in it. All the time, people come up to me and say, ‘I know nothing about music, but it was so nice to be taken out of my normal space in my life.’ It becomes somewhat therapeutic, and I hope that happens to everybody.

“It’s exciting to me to watch those kinds of reactions.”

For more information or to purchase tickets, contact the TEF office at 229-226-7404 or go online to Tickets cost $35 for adults and $15 for students.