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TICKLES IVORIES: Jon Nakamatsu plays Chopin, Beethoven, Schumann and other pieces this Saturday.

Keys to the Kingdom

Van Cliburn winner Jon Nakamatsu shows what the true king of instruments can do

By Scott MacClelland

BACK in the 14th century, poet/composer Guillaume de Machaut is said to have described the pipe organ as "the king of instruments." He had no idea that in two short centuries his descendent composers would begin to replace Pythagorean tuning with the early forms of the equal-tempered scale.

He likewise would have had no way of imagining the rise of modern harmony that resulted, much less the explosion of instrumental music that would launch the Baroque era and dominate Western European music for centuries to come. If he had, Guillaume would be forced to concede that the concert grand piano is the true king of instruments.

Jon Nakamatsu, grand prize winner of the 1997 Van Cliburn International Competition, will prove the assertion once again when he plays a solo recital on Oct. 30 at Cabrillo College's new music hall. Nakamatsu's program, mixing great works both familiar and unfamiliar, launches his 2010—2011 concert tour, and on this occasion benefits the Santa Cruz County Symphony, which has been struggling through the current economic downturn. (The $100 premium seating will include an invitation to a catered pre-concert reception with Nakamatsu and Symphony music director John Larry Granger.)

Nakamatsu's generosity on behalf of regional music organizations is nearly as legendary as his artistry at the piano. A man of physically small stature and relatively small hands, he might be expected to grace the keys with intimacy and poetry. (His playing of Chopin, the epitome of such utterances, has been long and widely acclaimed.) Yet suddenly the man can make the instrument roar, as if steroids stood in for brawn. He himself attributes that ability to the wisdom of his teacher, the late Marina Derryberry.

Two composers on Nakamatsu's program who seemed never to destroy even their own second-best works are Muzio Clementi and Franz Liszt. Clementi's Sonata in F-Sharp Minor, published in 1890, stands head and shoulders above the vast corpus of his student and method works, challenging the technical and expressive limits established by Mozart.

Liszt's three "sonetti," inspired by Petrarch (the Renaissance poet acclaimed as the "father of humanism") and found in Book 2 of the composer's Années de pèlerinage (Years of Pilgrimage), are "gems," declares Nakamatsu. "They are not the showy Liszt, but rather most thoughtful, most mature in some ways, harnessing all that passionate energy with something intellectually meaningful."

Nakamatsu calls Schumann's Papillons (Butterflies) "a great piece" that dates from the composer's early 20s and was inspired by a chapter from a Jean Paul novel. "It's a kind of masked Venetian ball, with lots of inside jokes, actually a sketch for the well-known later work, Carnaval." Already, Nakamatsu observes, the two sides of the composer's bipolar personality are on display.

Two great staples of 19th-century literature complete the program: Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata and Chopin's Andante spianato et grande polonaise brillante in E-flat. What consistently comes through in a Nakamatsu performance is the passion he feels for his art. To get him to talk about it is to get him excited all over again. What better endorsement can an artist give himself?


Saturday, 8pm Music Recital Hall, Cabrillo College, 6800 Soquel Dr., Aptos.

$25—$55, or $100 with invitation to pre-concert reception with artist


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