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[whitespace] Jon Nakamatsu The Real Draw: Pianist Jon Nakamatsu is a classical marquee name.

Photograph by Ellen Appel

Idol Hands

Pianist Jon Nakamatsu enjoys local-hero status at San Jose Symphony performance

By Scott MacClelland

JUDGING FROM the applause between movements, it must have been a long time ago when Leonid Grin and the San Jose Symphony played Brahms' Piano Concerto no. 2. Just when you think an audience was inspired to attend because "absence makes the heart grow fonder," you run right into that rock-hard disillusionment known as "out of sight, out of mind." Silly me! It was neither of the above, but rather "local boy makes good," Jon Nakamatsu, who was the real draw.

Winner of the 1997 Van Cliburn Competition (without benefit of a conservatory education), Nakamatsu continues to enjoy matinee-idol status here at home. Brahms, eat your heart out. For better or not, Nakamatsu made the German composer his own. That is to say he exchanged the work's familiar muscle and grandeur for a kind of miniature version of itself.

From the evidence of last Saturday's performance (and the list of concerto collaborations in his bio), Nakamatsu is still on the scanty end of orchestral experience. Where a minimal loudness is required by the terms of orchestral collaboration, Nakamatsu indulged himself in an intimacy that at times disappeared from the aural radar screen altogether.

Moreover, the pianist also tried to make abrupt tempo changes, ignoring the fact that orchestras, like ocean liners, need extra response time to follow such impulsive caprices. But it was Nakamatsu's lack of a big-picture conception that worked to his ultimate disadvantage.

Each movement had its own integrity, but neither connected to the others nor, in some cases, sustained coherency of purpose within itself. To be sure, all the notes were there, and the playing was impeccable. Indeed, if it weren't for Brahms' own distinctively coherent architecture, these points might not have mattered.

Leaving the big picture to conductor Leonid Grin and his musicians, Nakamatsu nevertheless made each moment count. He successfully squeezed unexpected intimacy from the second movement. And he turned the slow movement (with Peter Gelfand's rapturous cello solo) into a dreamy reverie. But as adjectives go, dreamy fits Debussy far better than Brahms. And that appears to be what Nakamatsu was thinking when he returned to play an encore in similar character, and exquisite detail: Debussy's Clair de lune.

For their part, Grin and company came through in good fettle, the conductor paying the soloist essential attention at those many spots where fluid tempo adjustments can throw a performance into confusion.

For all its exactitude, Stravinsky's thrilling Le sacre du printemps (the other piece on the two-part program) can succeed even if some rhythmic uncertainty intrudes. Like any worthwhile primal scream, its dissonant eruptions and shrieking cacophony at times overwhelm fastidious criticism (fortunately).

Even so, the performance left some patrons confused, like those heard claiming to "love" the piece. There's nothing lovable about The Rite of Spring. It's a brutal, violent, often gruesome spectacle. (Its premier conductor, Pierre Monteux, famously remarked, "I did not like Le sacre then. I have conducted it 50 times since. I do not like it now.")

But as spectacles go, it remains irresistible--and a glorious display vehicle for a symphony orchestra. Grin reveled in the reading, firing cues and shading dynamics with the authority of a general directing a fierce battle. The troops advanced and fell back, howled and whimpered, scattered in the moment, but ultimately prevailed. Due in part to the score, and largely to the Center for the Performing Arts' acoustical handicaps, the strings were consistently overwhelmed by the wind and percussion. While this may have been bad news for the strings, what did get across the footlights was plenty good for everyone else. When, exactly, is that new and much needed concert hall going to open?

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From the June 14-20, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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