Jon Nakamatsu

Review: Jon Nakamatsu | Cliburn Concerts | Kimbell Art Museum, Renzo Piano Pavilion

Playing it Straight

Jon Nakamatsu stays conservative, in both selection and performance, for the Cliburn Foundation at the Kimbell Art Museum's Piano Pavilion.

published Monday, April 21, 2014

Photo: Christian Steiner
Jon Nakamatsu

Fort Worth — The Cliburn foundation presented pianist Jon Nakamatsu in a solo recital on Thursday evening in the auditorium of the new Piano Pavillion at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. It is an odd confluence of fate that this superb new recital hall has the name “Piano.” It is not for the resident instrument, which is a fine Steinway, nor for the Cliburn organization itself. No, it is named for a man named Piano—Renzo Piano—who designed it. This allows sentences such as this: Piano was in attendance to hear the piano recital in the Piano Pavilion and Piano’s excellent acoustics are perfect for the piano.

As a performer, Nakamatsu gives the impression of an easy-going and confident artist who is there to do a job, which in this case was a piano recital. His program was conservative to the point of being mundane. He opened with two pieces from of Schubert’s Op. 90 impromptu (Nos. 2 and 3) which was followed by Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 3 in B minor Op. 58. The second half was a complete performance of Schumann’s Carnaval.

It was a disappointment that something by a living composer, or even something written within the 20th (if not the 21st) century was not included. All of these works date from the same time, with the Schubert being the oldest (1827) and the Chopin the most recent work on the program (1839). The Schumann falls right in the middle (1839). Further, these are all well known works and are frequently performed (the Chopin less so). In fact, Olga Kern opened the same new hall in January with the same Schumann. This was so recent that Jacques Marquis, president and CEO of the Cliburn Foundation, felt he had to comment on the repetition in his opening remarks.

Like his selections, Nakamatsu’s performance was on the conservative side: careful, precise and highly musical. Nothing was over sentimentalized. All of his nuance, and give and take, was within the boundaries he set for himself. This quality was underlined by the exception, when he slowed the end of the third movement of the Chopin to the point of losing the integrity of the melodic material. It was so slow that we couldn’t connect the notes to each other and they because isolated pitches.

He possesses a world-class technique, worthy of his 1997 Cliburn Gold Medal, with amazingly nimble fingers. His technique is so perfected that it vanishes. The Chopin sonata is considered to be the composer’s most difficult work, a distinction that is also conferred on the end of the Schumann. Nakamatsu’s performance was so secure that you only heard the music, unaware of the formidable requirements.

Although the fast passages were impressive, they were not the only technical challenges surmounted. Nakamatsu demonstrated his exceptional ability to create a legato singing line on what is basically a percussion instrument. This impressed right from the start with the G flat Impromptu of Schubert. Here, the pianists have to split their personality and accompany themselves. Schubert writes a long flowing melodic line, in slow moving note values connected by slurs, over a busy eighth note arpeggiated accompaniment that is not slurred at all. Sustaining the melody with the pedal would defeat the composer’s purpose by blurring it all together. Although this opening can be, and frequently is, played by beginning pianists, the way Nakamatsu kept these two elements characteristically true and separate was as impressive a technical feat as any of the finger busting passages to come. 

His mastery of technique allows him to deliver clean and crisp performances of even the most difficult passages. His use of the sustaining pedal is restrained and refined, yet he is not afraid to soak the music when he felt that it was needed. However mature his overall performance remains,  on occasion he betrays his youth and lets his fingers get away from him. . One example was in the second movement of the Chopin which was rushed to the point that we lost the sense of the bar lines.

He is also a conservative presence at the instrument. He rarely moves his body. All the work is done at the most minimal level: first fingers, then wrists, then forearms and finally shoulders. Thus, the use of the full body is reserved for the most powerful moments and he saved a big physical flourish for the end of the Schumann, and thus saying to the audience that this was the end of the program. Along the way, big endings within the works, such as the end of the second movement of the Chopin, were always kept in the perspective of a continuing piece. This meant that the audience was never tempted to respond with premature applause.

Most of Nakamatsu’s recent local performances have been in the chamber music genre, where he excels. His duo concerts with clarinetist Jon Manasse, billed as The Two Jons, delivers as delightful an evening of music making as you could imagine. My review of their recent appearance is here. We have also heard him as a soloist with orchestras, such as a fiery performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Thus, it was a real pleasure to hear Nakamatsu in a solo appearance.

Some of his idiosyncrasies appeared, such as his tendency to let fast passages run away, but the overall impression was of a musician who knows what he wants and never lets the moment overtake the game plan.  In this sincere and honest recital, he was all by himself, with no other musician to accommodate, Nakamatsu showed himself to be a musician of great subtly. His performances were always scaled to the era of the composition and loyal to the composer’s wishes about the piece at hand. No anachronistic gestures, such as exaggerated dynamics or tempo fluctuations appeared.

Best of all, he allowed himself to enjoy the experience. He obviously enjoyed playing for us. Some of the wittiness in Schumann’s Carnaval, a collection of short pieces depicting people and events, is often ignored. “Classical music” is such a “serious” genre, that inherit comedy is often ignored. Not so here. In keeping with the composer’s intent, Nakamatsu let the fun peek out. Yet, as in everything else, subtly was the watchword. Whereas those few pianists who are willing to acknowledge this element at all play the humor in a piece with a guffaw, Nakamatsu simply lets it smile. Thanks For Reading

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Playing it Straight
Jon Nakamatsu stays conservative, in both selection and performance, for the Cliburn Foundation at the Kimbell Art Museum's Piano Pavilion.
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

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