An Interview with Award-Winning Pianist Jon Nakamatsu

Published by Roberta Emerson

Chris: Hello everybody, my name is Chris Carter. I’m the Executive Director of the Livermore Valley Performing Arts Center. Welcome to Beyond the Stage. Normally we’re at the Advanced Creative Studios in Livermore, but we’re here at the Bankhead Theater and we have a special guest today, Jon Nakamatsu, pianist, and winner of many awards over the years. I am very honored to have you here. and one of the reasons why is because you have a Wikipedia page and I don’t get to interview people with Wikipedia pages often but it’s really neat to meet you. I did get a chance to look at it and I looked up some other bios, so I’m going to read a little bit first to introduce you and then I have a few questions and we’re going to get going.

For well over a decade American pianist Jon Nakamatsu has been heard throughout the United States, Europe and Asia as a concert soloist, solo recitalist, chamber collaborator of extraordinary musical powers. A high school teacher of German with no formal conservatory training, Mr. Nakamatsu’s electrifying performance of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto won him the Gold Medal at the 1997 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, amidst a field of experienced competition warriors. Most notably, he has performed to universal critical acclaim and such venues as New York’s Carnegie Hall, the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the Kennedy Center in Washington DC, the White House, and even here at the Bankhead Theater. He’s been in cities such as Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Paris, London, Berlin and Milan and Livermore.  So welcome, Jon!

Jon: Thank you.

Chris: I’m so glad you’re here and we’re so lucky to have you with us today. I just want to start from the beginning, and this is typically what we do, the first question is always to tell me about what got you interested in playing the piano in the first place. So how did you get started, just talk about a little bit about your youth and your upbringing with the piano.

Jon: Well, my parents are not musicians. They were not musical and didn’t really introduce it in that way when I was young. But when I was about four, I went to a preschool and there was a gigantic upright piano, which I thought was the most enormous thing I had ever seen. It probably was a horrible instrument but I was fascinated from the very beginning. And the teacher played and the kids just sang, sat around singing. I just had to know about this instrument. So I told my parents I wanted a piano and they were a little kind of confused because, again, they had not introduced it. It wasn’t something that was high on their agenda. But they bought me this toy organ, which I played for really two years until I was six years old. When they noted how much time I was actually spending at this instrument and how much I loved it – and would actually sometimes prefer that than going outside to play – they thought, “Okay, well, we’ll buy a piano and give him lessons and see where it went.”

I remember, the one thing in preschool was that, as students we weren’t allowed to touch it. One time I actually did it like that [plays note] and I got sent into the corner or whatever. So I thought, “Wow this must be the most incredible thing EVER, because I can’t even touch it!” So that kind of motivated me even more, but that’s my humble beginnings, I guess.

Chris: You were a rebel! Do you still have the toy organ?

Jon: I think my parents do. And this [plays note again] is for the teacher who … you know, maybe she changed my life.

Chris: I should say. And did you have any early influences as you were growing up?

Jon: Well, certainly – and this is another strange part of an already strange story — I mean how many German teachers are touring pianists? When I was six, my parents took me to a teacher in the Bay Area. Her name was Marina Derryberry and she was a private teacher near where we were. Her husband happened to be a colleague of my father’s and that was the only connection. At the time, she didn’t want to take me because I was too young. She only took older students at the time, but then she auditioned me, and said “Okay I’ll give it a little time.”  And by the second lesson, she had already decided and told my parents, “You know, something’s very different about your son.” And they were just like, “Well, what’s wrong with him? Is it something horrible?”

“…by the second lesson, she had already decided and told my parents,
“You know, something’s very different about your son.” And they were just like,
“Well, what’s wrong with him? Is it something horrible?”

So it started like that, but it took years of working together with her, to bring them around to understand what my life could potentially be like. It is odd, because the same person who taught me those first notes as a six-year-old, then went to that piano competition you mentioned 20 years later. It’s not usual that the person who starts a child is going to be the one that prepares an older youngster for possibly an international career. So I just was so lucky. I can’t even… I wouldn’t be here without her. I wouldn’t play a note in the way I do, without her influence. In some ways, because it was always private and she found all these people for me to work with, that’s partly why I felt like I could do other things when I went to school, I didn’t have to be wedded to this, as an educational pursuit.

Chris: But she saw something in you. Did she encourage you to pursue a career in piano? Because you said you took a little bit of a different path than some other concert pianists.

Jon: Certainly she was supportive, but it was more that she was in it as much as I was committed to it. Meaning that she was such a huge force. By the time I was 10 years old I was having lessons four times a week for four or six hours at a time, so I really was kind of “trained” in that sense. And when I look at it now, even people who go into the pre-college programs and are very, very serious are taking lessons once, maybe twice, a week. So for me to have that type of experience is not normal. But she was willing to put everything that she had, professionally and personally, into seeing that something could happen for me, as long as that’s really what I wanted. And from the very start, I knew that music was kind of inseparable from me. But as I got older, I also realized – knowing what the profession is like, knowing that the music business is not always a happy place – that making a career, especially as a performer, is really hard and tenuous at best, even after you’ve entered the concert circuit. So I was just realistic as well. I thought I would pursue it as long as I could, but at a certain point, I also had to have more or less an exit strategy, as one would say.

Chris: Yeah, I play guitar and for me, I don’t do it for a living, but I’ve always kept it as a part of my life so maybe that was part of your plan.

Jon: That was part of the plan. But the Walk-Away Plan was that I would leave the serious pursuit of a stage career, and never play publicly again. Because I think that having music for myself and having music take me to all these incredible places as a kid – being able to be in competitions and meet so many other people and going to these concerts and traveling for studying – I didn’t want that to be “dark” ever. I didn’t want that to be a negative thing. And I could see that the competition and the profession weighs people down sometimes, in ways that could make you forget why you came to music in the first place. I didn’t want that to happen and so, if I could leave on my own terms – of course it would have been difficult – but I knew that there were other wonderful things about life that I could pursue.

“I could see that the competition and the profession
weighs people down sometimes, in ways that could make you
forget why you came to music in the first place. I didn’t want that to happen.”

Chris: That’s a great perspective and it reminds me that I read some articles about you and one of the things that stood out for me is a lot of people said you’re just a very nice, grounded person.

Jon: Really? [laughs] Was it my mother?

Chris:  No, it wasn’t your mother! And maybe it’s because there’s a lot of pressure in the field that you’re in, and maybe so it’s some people are harder to deal with than others, but it sounds like  you’re well-grounded and you have a good perspective on things. Maybe that background has helped you out with that.

Jon: I think so, for sure.

Chris:  Do you remember your first performance?

Jon: Oh yeah.

Chris: Where was it?

Jon: It was probably at a public library where the local music teachers used to have their concerts. I remember I was seven and it was at a student recital of the Music Teachers Association of California, the Santa Clara branch. I was first on the program, or very close to being first. Those were little recitals that I did basically throughout my childhood, I think the last time I played, I could have been 18. So it was quite the journey.  I remember not being so nervous and I remember that I got a cheeseburger afterwards, so I thought, “This is a great life!” Why wouldn’t you want to do this? I mean, come on, people clap for you!

Chris: Do you remember the piece?

Jon: It was two pieces by the composer Kabalevsky. The first one was called “Ditty” and the second one was called “The Clown” [plays the melody]

Chris:  You can still do it! I love it!

Jon: Well, I’m scarred! I mean it’s seared into my memory. I’ll forget everything else but I’ll remember that – that sounds like a nightmare. [laughs]

Chris: You created that – what is it? That trench in your brain – and you can’t get it out.

Jon: I guess I should have learned the last Beethoven sonata as a seven year old, then it would still be in there.

Chris:  You started out your career as a high school German teacher. So you studied German in college I’m assuming, instead of music? And it sounds like you chose that because you wanted to be in a career that had some stability to it.

Jon: Although that probably in retrospect also wasn’t such a stable career. I mean, who studies German anymore? You know all Germans speak English! And my job, which I had for six years in the Bay Area…I mean, those programs are all gone. There is no German in high school, except maybe if it’s an exception, whereas before, it used to be a rule.

Chris: Why did you pick German?

Jon: Partly, it was because of the piano. I mean so much of the core repertoire I play is from central Europe. And of course I studied French and Russian and Italian but, for me, when you’re grounded in Bach and Beethoven and Schubert and Schumann and Brahms – that’s essentially the core repertoire that we’re asked to play. I figured that if there was an overlap between disciplines that reading German, understanding the culture from where this music sprung, would be somewhat helpful. And just generally I like grammar and German’s the perfect grammar language. It just works. French has one rule and eight thousand exceptions; in German there’s a rule and it pretty much follows it.

Chris: They stick with it.

Jon: They do. I like that. It’s a good language!

Chris: But while you were teaching, you were still participating in competitions right?

Jon:  Yeah. In fact, my school, they knew what I was doing – they knew that I wasn’t really moonlighting as a teacher, but that I had this alternate life and that I would travel every so often. But it was only under the condition that I didn’t let it become a hindrance. But luckily, they let me go. I mean I was traveling internationally during the time I was teaching, to go to these competitions. Most of them I’d lose, but at least I’d go!

“I was traveling internationally during the time I was teaching,
to go to these competitions. Most of them I’d lose, but at least I’d go!”

And then, by the time 1997 rolled around, the Van Cliburn was really one of my last chances at a big international piano competition. Those events really focus on youth so by 30, you’re not “youth.” You’re definitely not, especially with music. So I was 27 when I entered, and it was really one of my last chances at a big prize. Even four years before, at the previous Cliburn competition, I had entered and wasn’t even passed to the first round, so this time it was like … I saved the money, my school is giving me time off, I was just going to do it one last time and see what happened. So that was another interesting part of the whole story!

Chris:  When you won that competition, was that a big turning point for you professionally?

Jon: It was THE turning point. I had before that little other steps. Two years before there was the United States National Chopin Competition, which is a competition in Miami only open to United States citizens. Winning that allowed me to perform, which is what a young person needs. I mean, you can set up a concert in your local school auditorium or church but, you know, five people might come and you won’t get any publicity. It’s not until a presenter – like the Bankhead – will actually engage you, and they can’t do that, unless there’s a reason to sell the house. It’s the one of the thornier sides of our profession, because it doesn’t matter necessarily who you are as a talent, it really matters if they can sell you as a commodity. So there’s that.

But winning the Cliburn and the cachet that comes with that was more important than any kind of monetary prize at the time. And that really just launched my career. Without that moment in time, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. So everything goes back to those kinds of things, and especially 1997.

Chris: I saw a video of you speaking and it was titled “The Loser’s Club.” Do you remember that speech? Roberta Emerson, our marketing director, turned me on to it – she’s like, “You’ve got to watch this, this is a great video.” And I really enjoyed the theme. Because I think it’s something  people don’t hear enough. Can you talk about what that was about and what made you think of talking about that topic?

Jon: Well, I was asked, as a juror at a piano competition – related to the Van Cliburn actually – to give a talk between rounds. That’s between eliminations, so a group of people had played and then the jury had eliminated about a third or two-thirds of them. And I was asked to speak to the audience. I think what I ended up really focusing on was how much – no matter who you are, no matter how much experience you have, no matter if you think you played horribly – how painful it is for somebody to just say, “Thanks. Next.” Or just to dismiss everything that you worked for.

I think people who have careers are often looked at as having had something easy happen for them. Even now, when I’m talking to young people – students, music students especially – there’s always this look and this attitude that says, “Well, you won a competition, so you know, you had a big break.” And that’s really true. Without that, again, I wouldn’t be here. But at the same time, the number of events that I went to and lost … I mean the list would roll off the stage. The number of nights I thought, “This will probably never happen” and the number of times people from the profession who came up to me as a young person and said, “You are not good enough, you should stop,” – with those words – “You will never be in this profession, why are you doing this?” It’s those for whom the drive is so strong, that even that is not a hindrance, who eventually see some type of light. It may not be the solution or the destination that you imagined … certainly this profession has taken me to places where I never would have seen myself before, but [it has] also given me a really wonderful perspective on just walking through doors of life that you didn’t think of for yourself, or didn’t plan. That’s the best gift, I think, for everybody.

Chris: Yeah, I just love that notion of how failure shapes us into better people. I just think so many people forget that because it does feel bad.

Jon:  It’s hard. It’s hard, especially in the arts, because, if you lose a race, there’s a number that will tell somebody that you lost the race and it could be a microsecond, but there’s still a number. If you lose at an art event, any kind of competition in arts – which is antithetical in itself – or you’re given a bad review or somebody dismisses your work for whatever reason. No matter how objective you try to make it, it’s still someone’s opinion, and that’s a little hard to take. So we exist with that. But there’s also beauty in that, because I think there’s room for all of us somewhere. It may just not be the place we thought it was going to be … but there you go.

“…there’s also beauty in that, because I think there’s room for all of us somewhere.
It may just not be the place we thought it was going to be … but there you go.”

Chris: Let’s talk about after you got the Van Cliburn award and you started touring professionally. Are there any performances that really stick out for you, that you had over your career, a favorite place you’ve played, or something that you just will never forget?

Jon: Well, there’s so many, for many different reasons. Of course, I could say the first time I played in any of the world’s big halls. That’s a big deal. I mean, I could list them. But when I came home to San Jose for the first time, my hometown – you know, I’m a Bay Area guy, I grew up here, went to school here – and I played that first concert after the competition. At that time, everyone still got a newspaper and it was front page, not only here but like basically all over the country. I remember going on planes and like seeing these articles about me and I was like, “Really, are you kidding me?” It was still newsworthy back then, I don’t know, the world has changed quite a lot. But to come here and then play with the San Jose Symphony for the first time, to do things like that. Where all my friends, family, people who knew I played the piano, and [those who] just really had no idea. To watch that – even for my parents and for all the people who supported me and who did know – it was just an amazing thing! The first time I performed in Hawaii and my grandmother came, she had never seen me perform, and never really knew anything about the classical arts. Going abroad, of course. I remember playing once in a school for the blind in Japan and thinking, “This is one of the most moving things I think I’ll ever do.” The little things, almost more so than the big giant things.

Chris: I think I was really hoping you’d say the Bankhead Theater, but that’s okay [laughs.]

Jon:  Oh, for sure!  I think I was here for one of your very first…

Chris:  That’s right, you were the first concert pianist here.

Jon:  And I’ve come up here, not even for music, just to have dinner or visit people. And I drive up to this remembering that, what it was going to be. And now, it’s amazing.

Chris:  So you’re sitting at that Steinway, which is a new one for us. We haven’t had a chance lately to have it played that much, but you helped pick this out. Do you want to talk about that a little bit?

Jon: Well, as pianists we often get the honor of being asked to select an instrument for a hall or an orchestra or a school. And they always come to us and say, “Oh, will you do us this favor?”  And WE think … well, it’s like setting a kid loose in a candy store. “You’re just asking me to play pianos all day and pick one and spend someone else’s money? Why not?” So we went to Los Angeles, where Steinway has a showroom – a selection room for concert quality instruments – and we saw, I can’t remember exactly how many, maybe six or eight, really magnificent instruments. It was a hard decision, but it wasn’t a hard decision. This piano kind of spoke to me right away and then it stood out, the more I played all of them. I just feel like this is really one of the best instruments in the Bay Area and any pianist who will come here, I hope they enjoy playing it as much as I do. It’s just a great thing, and to be right here in this very intimate space – the audience gets to hear it in a very special way. It’s better in some ways, than hearing it in a big hall. I think you hear different things

Chris: So we’re going to print what you just said and put it out there! [laughs]

Jon:  That’s okay, that’s fine!

Chris:  To be honest, I don’t listen to a lot of symphonic music or classical music. I have in the past and I’ve learned about it and I’ve gone to several concerts but, for somebody that’s not really versed in classical music, is there anything you can say about what speaks to you and what are some things we should be listening for? How should we listen?

Jon:  I think I’ve learned a lot through people who are very close to me. Growing up in a non-musical family, who would be very supportive and come to all of my events, I always got a very interesting perspective on what they heard in the hall. Because often it is completely opposed to anything that I heard. Because as a musician, you are trained to listen for certain thing, you’re trying to feel it as it comes out. But as somebody who is somewhat uninitiated, what stands out to you in a performance is often very different than what we think might be going out there. My wife is not a musician either, so it’s the same thing.

People love music, all kinds of music, but this [gestures to the piano] is still a kind of intimidating experience because most come with a kind of baggage – they feel, “Well, if I don’t know anything about it, I’m not going to really like it” or “I can’t really let myself enjoy it.”  I think one of the scary parts is the protocol in a classical concert. It’s very quiet, people clap only at certain times, you can’t get up and dance or whatever. I think if people are open to the idea of experiencing something new, there’s little that you have to know to just be moved by sound and moved by the manipulation of extremes of sound, to show you a type of narrative. That’s what I tell people to look for in pieces sometimes if I give a lecture before a concert, maybe a theme to listen for or a little bit of background on the piece.

But really, you could know nothing about anything and still find something in the music that speaks to you, if you’re willing to be patient. Because the one thing that classical music has, is it takes a long time sometimes to develop ideas. So the complete experience is often more of a journey than like a snippet of “I heard that song and it was great.” Basically the chorus repeats itself five times and there are two verses. We know the structure. The thing is, with pop music and that type of music, whether we understand the music or not, we know what the structure of songs are. With this, everything just sounds complicated. But there is there is method to the madness there too and if you look hard enough, by repeated experiences. You know you never listen to a song once and then never hear it again, right? But you come to a concert, you hear a piece once and you never hear it again. So if you’re interested, if it speaks to you, go find a recording and listen to it again. And then you listen to it again, and pretty soon you don’t have to know anything about it, but you already have decided, “Oh, there’s something in there that I like, and you start singing it, and then once you’ve gotten to that level, and suddenly somebody else plays it, you’re like “that’s really different than the first one.” It’s all about how invested you are in really enjoying it.

But there’s also something to be said for just coming to the concert hall and experiencing something in a different way in a different space and really enjoying it because you don’t know anything or have to know anything. That’s kind of how I feel when I go to events of music that I don’t really understand. I just try to open myself to the whole experience, even including the traditions of the audience. I just love it when you’re in a jazz club and somebody has a solo and then everybody’s clapping after the solo’s done, even though everybody’s still playing. Yeah, that never happens here… I wish somebody would clap when I do something really hard, and I’m sweating, and everyone’s just kind of … sitting there.

“But there’s also something to be said for just coming to the concert hall
and experiencing something in a different way in a different space
and really enjoying it because you don’t know anything or have to know anything.”

Chris: So give it a chance.

Jon:  Give it a chance! Maybe it’ll happen here.

Chris: That’s great advice! So, do you have a favorite composer?

Jon: No, it’s too hard. The piano has, I think, the best repertoire of all the instruments. It’s the biggest variety, it’s unending in the catalog. So, no. But  any composer that I’m playing at the time kind of functions as my favorite, I think.

Chris: Do you play every day?

Jon:  No. No I can’t.  I mean, we’re in the middle of – well, hopefully at the end of – a major pandemic and that’s a whole different kind of experience of time and playing. Before, when I was on the road all the time, a lot of times my life was traveling in airports in hotels and places where I didn’t have access to a piano.  I can’t just take out my violin in the hotel room and work, I actually have to go to an instrument. I had to really just play where I could. And I think that it’s good to be flexible like that as a touring musician, because you can’t ever count on having something at your disposal, or for a very long period of time even. I learned to just make the most of whatever little time I had, and that was very good in other spheres of life. Like now, where I was at home, and also had a young child there, and my wife working from home, and not being able to even touch the piano for long, long periods of time. But ideally, I would love to be at the piano every day, even if not to practice for concerts, but just to play. And that it was something that I could do, on a small scale during the pandemic, and that really was instructive. I think I learned a lot about myself – just by what I chose to play, and how I chose to spend that time, which I don’t think I’ll ever have again.

Chris:  Do you miss live performance?

Jon: Yes. I do. But I’ve also felt like I’ve forgotten how to do it a little bit. I’m a little scared. I have something next month and I’m a little scared about it.

Chris: But I think it’ll be like riding a bike, right?

Jon:  Well, you’re very positive!

Chris: And you are going to come back here next year, because I saw that you are scheduled with Del Valle Fine Arts…

Jon:  Very excited about it…

Chris: February 8th, 2022, so mark that on your calendars. One more last question I like to ask people, what are you listening to right now?

Jon: [laughs] Do you really want to know?

Chris: Yes!

Jon:  Darth Vader’s theme. From the Empire Strikes Back. Okay, it’s because I have a five-year-old and he’s totally into Star Wars thing.

Chris: I love it.

Jon:  It could be worse, right?

Chris: No, it’s great music!

Jon:  I think it’s fantastic. I love all that stuff too.

Chris: So do you have any guilty pleasures with music?

Jon:  With music? Oh yeah, stuff from the 70s and 80s.

Chris: Okay, so if I walked in the room and you were listening to it, you might change the channel real quick?

Jon: Oh no [laughs] I’m completely out.

Chris:  You’re okay with it.

Jon: No, I’m fine, I own up to all of my guilty pleasures! That and just eating a handful of potato chips, that’d be my happy time.

Chris: All right. Well, thank you so much Jon, I really appreciate your time. We’re so lucky to have you here in the Bay Area to be a part of our community, and for picking out this piano for us. You’ve been a great asset and you’re a lovely person.

Jon: Well, thank you, my pleasure.

Chris: Thank you very much. Thank you everyone. Have a wonderful day!


WATCH a very brief clip of Jon Nakamatsu in his winning 1997 Van Cliburn performance (at 4:25 from the documentary “Playing with Fire”)

WATCH Jon Nakamatsu’s speech “The Loser’s Club” at the International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs 2007


Explore the other Interviews with Chris Carter in the Beyond the Stage series:

An Interview with Shakespeare’s Associates Lisa Tromovitch

An Interview with Multi-talented Rock Musician David Victor

An Interview with Funny Girl Faith Alpher

An Interview with Local Jazz Leader Matt Finders

An Interview with LAS Music Director Lara Webber

An Interview with Supervisor Scott Haggerty

An Interview with Congressman Eric Swalwell