Top pianist to play at Strings

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Every four years, the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition brings together young musicians from around the world to compete for cash prizes and concert engagements. The competition in Fort Worth, Texas, is regarded as the most prestigious classical piano contest in the world.

In 1997, without any formal conservatory training, American pianist Jon Nakamatsu won the gold medal at the competition. At the time, he was a high school German teacher.

Who: Jon Nakamatsu, gold medallist of the 10th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday Where: Strings in the Mountains Music Festival Park Cost: $25 for adults/$5 for those 18 and younger Call: 879-5056

"The world just changed overnight for me," Nakamatsu said by phone this week between concerts in New York.

He said he had always hoped something like that would happen and that he tried his best but never really expected such a big dream to come true.

A long way from the classroom and well beyond his dream becoming reality, this year Nakamatsu is spending his time performing with the likes of the San Francisco Symphony, Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, Annapolis, Baton Rouge and Pacific Symphony Orchestras and a variety of other orchestras across the United States and abroad.

On Tuesday night, Nakamatsu will play a solo recital at the Strings in the Mountains Music Festival Park. He will play pieces by Joseph Wlfl, Robert Schumann and Frederick Chopin -- composers whose work he has featured on his five CDs. Nakamatsu's most recent recording was of four piano sonatas by Wlfl, whom he calls "an unjustly neglected contemporary of Beethoven's who rivaled that master as a piano virtuoso."

After a music recital in 2002, music critic Corinne Dunne of the Naples Daily News wrote of Nakamatsu: "Seeming totally at ease and fully in command of the most demanding technical challenges, the former high school German teacher obviously prefers to dig deeply into a work rather that be hell-bent on dazzling his audience. His tone is often limpid and tender, his phrasing crisp and chiseled, but when required, he knows how to infuse the music with his own expressive energy. He plays like a thoroughbred who holds back a little until the last hurdles and then powerfully begins to show his stuff. ... His future looks bright indeed."

Nakamatsu said he grew up in a "nonmusical household." Despite a desire to start taking piano lessons when he was 4, he said his parents made him wait until he was 6. And even with all that classical music in his life, the accomplished pianist who sounds like the fun-loving "boy next door" confesses to a penchant for '80s music.

"My parents were very supportive, but they kind of didn't know what to make of it," Nakamatsu said of his passion for piano.

Since winning the gold medal at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, Nakamatsu has performed at Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, the Hollywood Bowl and the White House, where he played for then-President Bill Clinton. When he won the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition at 28 years old, he was the first American in 16 years to take top honors

Nakamatsu grew up in San Jose, Calif., and earned a bachelor's degree in German studies and a master's degree in education from Stanford University. He studied music with Dr. Leonard Stein of the Schoenberg Institute at the University of Southern California and Karl Ulrich Schnabel.

But it was one woman, Marina Derryberry, who gave him private piano lessons from the time he was 6 years old until he won the Van Cliburn competition. That's the day the German teacher became a concert pianist.

"It happened overnight with the Cliburn competition," Nakamatsu said.

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