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[whitespace] Jon Nakamatsu Conservatory Values: Not conservatory trained, Van Cliburn International Piano Competition winner Jon Nakamatsu has an artistry of personal insight.

Miami Virtues

Jon Nakamatsu soars on Schumann with the Miami String Quartet

By Scott MacClelland

UNFORTUNATELY FOR THEM, the ambassadors from Fort Worth, do not enjoy diplomatic immunity. As soon as the glare of celebrity shines on them, legions of critics are waiting in the darkness behind the bright lights to eat and digest them in print. Such is the price of winning the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, held in Texas. And like those who have gone before him, Jon Nakamatsu, gold medalist of the 1997 Van Cliburn, has learned to put distorting critics behind him and to focus on his art instead.

After all, his mastery in competition only opened the door to his real education, that of mastering the repertoire, coming to terms with the great composers of different centuries, searching his instincts for vision and growing his art.

The high school German teacher from Cupertino who electrified audiences and competition judges alike in Fort Worth makes his local post-Van Cliburn debut Thursday with the Miami String Quartet at UCSC's Music Recital Hall. However, the occasion does not give primary billing to Nakamatsu, who is scheduled to appear in only one of three works on the program, Schumann's celebrated Quintet in E flat, Op. 44.

We asked Nakamatsu how he kept his cool under the pressure of competition. "What you have to do is not expect to win," he said, "because the odds are you aren't going to. By the time I got into the finals, I just felt privileged to be there."

Coping with the critics who now follow him was the least of his concerns then: "It's hard not to think about all the time you've spent, the financial and emotional investment, when you know that a small group of people, the judges, can say, 'We don't want you, go home.' "

Nakamatsu gave his Monterey County debut last October for the Salinas Concert Association. His playing of a Bach suite never caught fire. But his Chopin did, altogether justifying the standing ovation he received. Here, Nakamatsu spoke with a natural accent, brash authority and triumphant bravura. This was not the kind of artistry that can be taught, but comes from personal insight.

How Nakamatsu translates that call into Schumann remains to be heard. However, he brings impressive credentials to the task. Firstly, chamber music was a primary focus of his education. At the Van Cliburn he won the Steven De Groote Memorial Award in the semifinal round of chamber music. He has performed with the Brentano and Tokyo string quartets. After appearances with members of the Georgian Chamber Players, critic Jerry Schwartz wrote in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, "[Nakamatsu's] was the personality that pushed the performances, particularly in the concluding work on the program, the Mendelssohn Piano Trio in D Minor."

Though Nakamatsu lacked any formal conservatory training, his triumph in Fort Worth (the first by a U.S. citizen since 1981) got him named 1998's "debut artist of the year" by National Public Radio's Performance Today. Olin Chism of the Dallas Morning News described Nakamatsu as "probably the finest musician to come out of the Cliburn since the late Steven de Groote."

FOR HIS SANTA CRUZ concert, the sponsoring Arts & Lectures series puts primary focus on the Miami String Quartet. Violinist Cathy Meng-Robinson and her husband, cellist Keith Robinson, formed the MSQ in 1988 with violist Chauncey Patterson. Ivan Chang became the ensemble's first violin in the 1995-96 season.

The Miami's reputation continues to grow, with enthusiastic reviews in this country and in Europe, a recent CD of Faure and Saint-Saëns, and eclectic programming that ranges from Haydn to Dizzy Gillespie.

The Miami will open its program with Mozart's String Quartet in D, K. 575 of 1789, and close with the first of three string quartets by Alberto Ginastera, composed in 1948, a rhythmically energized work which is among the group's discography.

Since the demise of the Crown Chamber Players, this community has suffered an insufficient presence of the great chamber music treasury. (Ironically, the core repertoire is the least in evidence among the several worthy local institutions. Carmel, by contrast, supports two chamber music societies which over time have tended toward an insular indulgence of that repertoire almost to the exclusion of music composed during the last century.)

The appearance by the Miami String Quartet is, therefore, overdue and most welcome for its programming alone. For the moment, however, we'll have to make due with limited exposure to Nakamatsu. With any luck, both the pianist and the string quartet will make the sort of impression that will compel their return in another season.

The Miami String Quartet with Jon Nakamatsu performs Thursday (Jan. 13) at 8pm at the Recital Hall, Music Center, UCSC. Tickets are $17 general/$14 senior and students; 459.2159.

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From the January 12-19, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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