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Issue date: June 23, 2000

KATIE/BILL: box in second column of story

Benefit recital at Foothill Benefit recital at Foothill (June 23, 2000)

Jon Nakamatsu is returning to Foothill College--his community college alma mater--to perform a benefit recital at Smithwick Theatre.

He will perform Haydn's Sonata No. 33 in C minor; Chopin's Fantaisie in F Minor, Op. 49, Three Mazurkas, Op. 59, and Scherzo No. 3 in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 39; Tchaikovsky's Theme and Variation in F Major, Op. 19, No. 1; and Rachmaninoff's Sonata No. 2 in B-Flat Minor, Op. 36. The recital is scheduled for June 25, at 3:30 p.m. Tickets are $50 and $100. For information call (650) 948-4444.

@vcredit:Courtesy of Foothill College

Pianist Jon Nakamatsu: From Mountain View to Carnegie Hall Pianist Jon Nakamatsu: From Mountain View to Carnegie Hall (June 23, 2000)

By Ruth Patrick

While the American Dream takes many different forms, pianist Jon Nakamatsu has given us one of the more romantic versions.

A native of Sunnyvale and a former high school teacher at St. Francis High School, Nakamatsu won first place in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in June 1997.

He was the first American in 16 years to win first place without setting foot in a conservatory. The soft-spoken Nakamatsu gives most of the credit to his life-long piano teacher, Marina Derryberry.

"In a sense she became my conservatory," said Nakamatsu.

Nakamatsu's first exposure to the piano came when he went to preschool. He begged his parents for a piano; his father found Derryberry to teach him, and she has remained his mentor and teacher.

With her encouragement, Nakamatsu began playing in recitals and competitions and performing with orchestras as a child. When he was 16, he saw a PBS special on the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, which is held every four years for professional pianists under 30, and thought, "Wouldn't that be neat to enter some day?"

Between 1990 and 1997, he entered five major competitions in Warsaw, Germany, England and the United States, winning first place in the two competitions that were held in the US.

In retrospect, Nakamatsu sees his nonmusical background (his father is an electrical engineer; his mother, an administrative assistant) as a blessing: it protected him from having to grow up in the limelight, and allowed him the gift of a normal childhood.

Nakamatsu entered the Van Cliburn competition in 1993 and "didn't make it past the first round."

Having earned a degree in education from Stanford, he went on to teach German at St. Francis High School and began preparing to return to the Van Cliburn.

His route to victory was unconventional. While his fellow contestants were busy practicing, Nakamatsu was putting in nine hours a day teaching and another two or three hours at home grading papers and making lesson plans. If he got to the piano at all, it would be around midnight and he would not get to bed until 2 a.m.

His age posed an added pressure. Most competitors enter the competition in their early to mid 20s. Alexei Sultanov, for example, won the contest in 1989 when he was 20; Van Cliburn himself won the Tchaikovsky Competition at age 23. In 1997, the year Nakamatsu, he was 28. By the time the next contest took place, he would have been 32 and ineligible to enter.

The rigorous 17-day event involved 13 jurors voting on 35 contestants from around the world. Nakamatsu compared the final moments of the competition to a Miss America Pageant, where the runner-ups are announced and the suspense is allowed to build until the very end. When the final announcement came, he was "ecstatic." "Luck does play a part in it," he acknowledges, adding that in the world of recitals and competitions, "you can play your best and get passed over, play your worst and get by."

But Nakamatsu also firmly believes that "ultimately there is a kind of logic and justice in the music world--if you are dedicated enough. It's that ideal that you hold onto and are motivated by" when fate and fortune seem set against you, he said.

He feels that the experience of the first competition helped him. Also, while the judges had screened auditions on video in 1993, they used live screening in 1997. This is what allowed Nakamatsu to shine.

"No matter how high the quality of the recording, it can't possibly match the energy of a live performance," he commented.

Since then he has traveled around the world giving concerts everywhere from Singapore to Switzerland, from Foothill College to Carnegie Hall.

Nakamatsu credits Derryberry with helping him handle the abrupt transition from German teacher to world-class pianist. He thinks similar transitions give many performers trouble. Once their dream is realized, in one sense their highest hopes have come true, but then, so have their worst nightmares.

"The majority of people don't think what happens if you win," Nakamatsu said.

From Derryberry he knew he would be traveling three-quarters of the year and living in hotels night after night until time zones, seasons, and countries became a blur. He also knew that his routines would be disrupted, his luggage lost, his flights delayed, and he would arrive in foreign cities with no sleep, no rehearsal time, and a performance the same night.

"You can come back home and realize, 'Oh yeah, it's Christmas again,'" Nakamatsu said.

Nakamatsu handles the loneliness of the travel with the help of the Internet. "Through e-mail, I keep in touch with a lot of people," he said. All the traveling also allows him to meet with friends he hasn't seen in years.

But the overall key to his continuing success, he maintains, is that he was "ready for it." Those who aren't "get tired, worn out, and end up wanting to go home," he believes.

Nakamatsu has completed his two-year world tour, and the invitations keep rolling in. He has 80 dates booked this year so far, with no sign of his popularity beginning to wane. He continues to generate excitement and interest wherever he goes.

Reflecting on his own route to life as a professional musician, Nakamatsu stresses, "It isn't the path that matters, it's the people. A huge part of it is having someone believe in you." He added, "We can do so much more than we think we can."


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