Rarely can a man pinpoint the day his life changed forever. On June 7, 1997, Jon Nakamatsu was a 27 year old high school German teacher who had miraculously qualified for the Van Cliburn Competition—a prestigious international piano competition held every four years in Fort Worth, Texas. “In 1993, I applied to the competition and didn’t even get in,” Nakamatsu says. However, on June 8, 1997, Nakamatsu won the Van Cliburn’s gold medal. “Overnight my life was different,” he says. The award propelled him to international fame and he left his teaching job to become a professional pianist. In the years that have passed since, he has performed at some of the world’s most distinguished venues, including Carnegie Hall and the White House.
To summarize Nakamatsu’s rise as the story of a high school teacher who became a world-class pianist overnight is romantic, but misleading. Yes, the Van Cliburn was his big break, but it was also a moment he had been preparing for his entire life. Raised in San Jose, Nakamatsu saw his first piano in pre-school and was instantly mesmerized by it. He even remembers getting in trouble for pressing one of the keys. “I got the first musical time-out ever,” he laughs. “I thought, ‘wow, if it’s that forbidden it must be the most incredible thing!’”
When he was 4 years old, his parents gave him a little electric organ. Two years later, noticing their son’s musical inclinations, they bought a piano and hired a private teacher. “I just remember from that first moment thinking there was nothing else I wanted to do,” says Nakamatsu. Under the eye of his teacher, the late Marina Derryberry, Nakamatsu received an extensive musical education and matured as a disciplined young pianist. “By the age of 12, I was going for lessons four times a week, four to six hours at a time.”
At Stanford University, Nakamatsu decided to major in German. “I never knew if music was going to work out professionally,” he says. German provided him with an education to fall back on while connecting him to the music he loved. “The core piano repertoire is pretty essentially European,” he explains. After receiving a master’s degree from Stanford in Education, Nakamatsu started teaching high school German.
Although he continued to perform, he devoted himself to his day job with the same disciplined approach he had acquired through years of piano training. “To be a good teacher is a lot like being a good musician,” Nakamatsu says. “You have to be really motivated and prepared all the time.”
Since winning the Van Cliburn, Nakamatsu has maintained a grueling performance schedule. “I’m gone 75 to 80 percent of the year, so my life just kind of whizzes by,” he says. Despite the toll of this lifestyle, Nakamatsu says he would not trade it for anything. “I’ve gone to places that I never would have gone, including Cape Cod,” he says. “That magical moment that changed my life brought me to Eastern Massachusetts. That’s something for which I will always be grateful.”
One thing Cape Codders can be grateful for is the work Nakamatsu has done with the annual Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival. Along with clarinetist Jon Manasse, Nakamatsu is the festival’s co-artistic director and the pair is responsible for determining the popular festival’s repertoire and for inviting guest artists. Through their leadership, the festival has advanced its mission to present Cape Cod audiences with the finest classical and contemporary chamber music in the world. Nakamatsu, however, is quick to deflect credit for the festival’s success. “We have an incredible audience on the Cape,” he says. “Cape Cod has a special spirit that you don’t find everywhere.”
For more information, visit jonnakamatsu.com
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