For Jon Nakamatsu, performing in Rochester has been "a lot of fun," as can be seen by his career. Since his first appearance with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra in January 1999, the prizewinning pianist has returned time after time, performing as a soloist with the RPO and as a chamber musician with the Society for Chamber Music.
This classical music season, he'll do both — and much more. Nakamatsu will be the soloist for the RPO's season opener this week (Thursday, September 15, and Saturday, September 17), performing Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto with music director Ward Stare; later this month he joins Jeff Tyzik and the RPO Pops as soloist in an all-Gershwin concert (Friday, September 30, and Saturday, October 1). And for the 2016-17 season, Nakamatsu will be the first artist-in-residence for the Society for Chamber Music in Rochester, taking part in concerts and events throughout the year.
Nakamatsu is a popular and much-recorded pianist, particularly in the classical piano repertoire, but, he says, his career took a long time to take off.
"I had a fantastic teacher," Nakamatsu says, "so I never went to a conservatory. I played several concerts a year, but eventually, reality set in and I had to have a job." So he got a degree from Stanford and taught high school German for several years while playing an occasional recital or entering (and not winning) competitions.
By 1997, he had decided that the Van Cliburn Competition in Fort Worth, Texas — one of the musical world's blue-chip piano competitions — would be "my last chance. Not only is 27 a bit old for a competition winner, the cut-off age for most competitions is 30."
Somewhat to his surprise, he won the competition's gold medal, along with professional-level management. He found himself famous overnight. "I had performed in other competitions, but it is difficult to leverage a smaller title, or no title, into a career. When you win a gold medal, suddenly there's a reason for people to call you. Three days afterwards, I had two years of engagements booked. I went from 10 concert dates a year to more than 100. I never really got to go home." Or to quit his day job; he recalls grading German papers in between tour stops.
It was an abrupt change, he says, "but my teacher, who was also my agent at that time, was always pushing me to extend myself, and really prepared me for life on the road. It turned out to be a good thing, mentally and physically, that I was a little older. I had just had to be ready to go."
Nakamatsu arrived in Rochester for his first gig with the RPO in early January 1999, performing Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto to a packed Eastman Theatre. "I most remember that it was during a blizzard. I'd never seen snow before; I loved every bit of it."
Rochester's orchestra and its musicians pleased him, and Rochester's weather didn't scare him, so Nakamatsu became a popular soloist. He also performed with the RPO during its residency in Vail, Colorado, and made two Harmonia Mundi recordings with the orchestra — one of Rachmaninoff and another of Gershwin. That Gershwin recording, with Jeff Tyzik, received excellent reviews and spent time on the Billboard classical chart. This week's concerts with the RPO will be Nakamatsu's second time performing with Ward Stare.
Nakamatsu's RPO appearances led naturally to invitations to perform with the Society for Chamber Music in Rochester — then directed by RPO musicians Stefan Reuss and Joseph Werner. Now the SCMR is directed by RPO musicians Juliana Athayde and Erik Behr, who have appointed Nakamatsu as its first artist-in-residence. The pianist will perform in a May recital, but his year-long position will involve him in much more than what he calls a "drive-by event."
"The idea is to have greater continuity in my appearances," he says. "I will be much more involved in the season, though we are still working on the details. I'll do some events for donors, and definitely more in the way of educational outreach."
The pianist considers the SCMR position an honor. "I always have so much fun when I'm in Rochester, and have made so many friends among the musicians here. In a way, it's my second home."
Pianist Yuja Wang on Thursday and Saturday broke into Bartok and helped the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra reach new heights.