Classical pianist Jon Nakamatsu’s journey has been one of perseverance.
Nakamatsu was a high school German language teacher in California when he won the gold medal at Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in June 1997.
“It went by in a flash. I can’t believe it’s been (more than) 20 years,” Nakamatsu said. “It seems like a dream and I have to go back to my real job teaching school. I think it went by so much. Right after the competition, the tour started three days later and because they (concerts) never stopped, it’s just been a whirlwind. In that time what transformed my life is being on stage constantly. I guess because I never knew if this career was going to happen for me, it’s kind of a pinch yourself moment when I get to walk on stage. That’s why coming to Carmel is so special. I never would have been there if it wouldn’t have been for an event 20 years ago.”
Nakamatsu will be making his first appearance with Carmel Symphony Orchestra at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 10 at the Palladium at the Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel. Nakamatsu, who has worked with CSO music director Janna Hymes previously with another orchestra, will perform Sergei Rachmaninov’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.”
“The wonderful moment for the audience is the 18th variation, which is the famous one,” Nakamatsu said. “Rachmaninoff is a love, of course. He wrote so many great things for the piano. I enjoy playing it every time. It’s one of those pieces where you always find something new, different and exciting. It reveals its secrets over time to us.”
Hymes stated Rachmaninoff has “a way of transporting listeners to another place with his work, and this piece is no exception, especially performed by Jon.”
Nakamatsu compared winning the Van Cliburn competition to winning the musical equivalent of the Olympics.
“It’s every four years and basically can make your career,” Nakamatsu said. “But while the Olympics is the height of an athlete’s career, for musicians, the competition is just the start. What winning does is allows you marketability. I was the same person the day before the competition as I was the day after, but suddenly I was set for a tour. It’s not the most glamorous entree into the world, but that’s how the business works. The competition sets up tours for you for a year or two years, but then you are on your own.”
The victory abruptly ended Nakamatsu’s teaching career.
“It was just a magical opportunity,” he said.
Nakamatsu worked with private teacher Marina Derryberry starting at age 6.
“She knew how to prepare someone for a competition 20 years later, so we had a long journey together and she was there when I won,” Nakamatsu said. “She was there when I first played at Carnegie Hall. It was a huge common trip for both of us. I feel so lucky we had that.”
Derryberry died in 2009.
Before his Van Cliburn competition success, Nakamatsu had his ups and downs in competitions.
“You lose more than you win, that’s for sure,” he said. “There’s no chance of winning if you don’t risk losing. I’ve learned more from the things that I lost and the number of times people slammed doors in my face. It wasn’t just competitions. It was knocking on managements’ doors. Having people tell you you’re not good enough, you’ll never make it, there’s no reason why you should be here. If you can weather that in any profession and get through the ugliness of that, I think you have a chance for something amazing.”
There will be a pre-concert discussion, called “Meet the Music with Nakamatsu and Hymes,” at 6:30 p.m. For more, visit carmelsymphony.org.