MAX ZAMBRANO – STAFF WRITER
Jon Nakamatsu was a passionate toy organ player for two years of his life. He spotted a piano at preschool one day when he was 4, and he couldn’t help but ask for one for Christmas that year.
His parents, not ready to commit to a full size piano, had him settle for a toy organ instead. After two years, they realized how often he played it, so they bought him a real piano and signed him up for piano lessons.
“From that day on, it consumed my life,” Nakamatsu said.
At 8:15 p.m. tonight in the Amphitheater, the now-frequent visitor to Chautauqua, will perform “An Evening Piano Recital with Jon Nakamatsu.” He will exclusively perform songs by the Polish composer Frédéric Chopin.
Nakamatsu spent much of his time practicing the piano during his youth, but he lived a bit of a double life, too. His parents told him that he was only allowed to play piano if he did well in school.
“One was a very normal, traditional life in the public schools system, then there was this other life where I had this private world of intense classical music education guided by my teacher, who really stayed my teacher for the next 20 years,” he said.
Still, Nakamastu primarily did school and music. By the time he was 10, he said spent four days a week at lessons, often four to six hours at a time.
“There wasn’t a normal childhood, and certainly not the normal teenage years,” he said.
“While everyone else was going to do fun stuff, I was practicing and going to competitions. But, that’s the life.”
He often competed at competitions, saying that they could provide the quickest way to a big break in the business. As he got older, though, he realized it didn’t provide enough stability, so he fell back on his schooling. As a German language and studies major, Nakamatsu spent six years teaching high school language classes, performing and competing as much as he could in between.
In 1997, he got his big break.
After winning the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, held once every four years and providing significant cash prizes and international shows for the winners, Nakamatsu went back to his childhood dream.
“That basically changed my life overnight,” he said. “I went from the classroom to literally touring the world.”
Currently a guest faculty member at the School of Music, Nakamatsu has performed and taught at Chautauqua many times, and said he can’t pick any standout memories, aside from maybe his first visit.
“The first time I played at the Amp with the orchestra was exciting because it’s liberating to play outside, as someone who never gets to play outside,” he said.
One aspect that draws him back is the Piano Program, which he said is growing and has become extraordinary. He also said Chautauqua is home to a positive, summery atmosphere, whereas other summer festivals can feel very competitive.
His recital may look somewhat different than in years past. The COVID-19 pandemic changed the way some recitals were configured, he said. It will be played in three major parts with no intermission.
Chopin’s music, Nakamatsu said, is rare in its universal appeal, so he believes anyone will find songs they enjoy.
“Everyone finds something slightly different in their hearing,” he said. “So the same thing that can be melancholic to one can be hopeful or cheerful to another.”
The program is structured to give plenty of ups and downs, Nakamatsu said.
“It’s exciting. It’s poignant,” he said. “I just think Chopin is a treasure for us pianists. We’re so lucky.”