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Pianist riding career momentum

Jon Nakamatsu will perform with the Spokane Symphony on piano for two weekend concerts.
Jon Nakamatsu will perform with the Spokane Symphony on piano for two weekend concerts.

Nakamatsu will perform Rachmaninoff ‘showpiece’ with Spokane Symphony for pair of concerts

Jon Nakamatsu still remembers the first time he saw a piano: He was 4 years old, and it was love at first sight.

“I immediately gravitated toward it,” Nakamatsu recalled, speaking by phone from his home in San Jose, Calif. “My parents are not musical, and they were a little perplexed by me being so enthusiastic about something like that.”

Nonetheless, they bought their son the next best thing to a real piano – a small toy organ. “I think they still have it in their garage,” he said with a laugh. “My dad taught me to play by the numbers, and two years passed and I was still spending a lot of time at the organ.”

That toy organ became a real piano when Nakamatsu turned 6, which is when he started taking lessons. But he knew from the get-go that a full-time career in music wasn’t exactly a realistic expectation.

“Music is not a dependable profession necessarily, and solo piano performance is probably the least dependable of them all,” he said. “So I needed money, and I needed to find something in case it didn’t pan out.”

Nakamatsu graduated from Stanford University and started teaching high school German classes in California, all the while practicing music on the side. But everything changed in 1997, when Nakamatsu won the gold medal at the prestigious Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, and his career as a musician began almost immediately.

“There was no transition; my life changed overnight,” he said. “And I never went back to the classroom, except maybe three months later to clean it up. I was off on my tour three days after the awards, so I never went home, I never practiced, I never was able to do anything, and suddenly I was playing all these festivals and making debuts in all these cities I had never seen.”

That momentum never really slowed, and Nakamatsu has since played with orchestras all over the world. This weekend, he’ll be performing with the Spokane Symphony, conducted by Eckart Preu, for a program called “Dazzling Brilliance.” Nakatamsu will accompany the symphony for Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, which was composed in 1909 and was featured prominently in the 1996 film “Shine.”

“It’s become, I think, one of the most popular pieces in that genre, primarily because it’s a huge piano showpiece,” Nakamatsu said of the concerto. “It has every trick in the book – every note on the piano is used at least once, and it probably has more notes in the score than any other piano concerto written.

“But beyond that, it’s just great and exciting music, and it builds to the end like no other piece in the repertoire.”

But so many years after being first thrust into the spotlight, Nakamatsu said his career – and his approach to individual pieces of music, including the Rachmaninoff concerto – is always changing.

“Musicians are constantly in a state of evolution,” he said. “I always feel like I’m rethinking what I did right after each night happens. Just because I performed a particular piece once, the next night it might be from a completely different place. And I think that’s good.”

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