Prize Pianist: Van Cliburn winner was short on confidence but long on talent

928-live_p1207_07g12nakamatsu_embedded_prod_affiliate_11.jpgBy LISA MILLEGAN /
You don’t have to study music in college to become a concert pianist as long as you have a very good private teacher.

That’s what worked for Jon Nakamatsu, who won the 1997 gold medal in the prestigious Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

The 39-year-old San Jose native, who is performing a recital at the Gallo Center for the Arts next weekend, learned most of what he knows about the instrument from Marina Derryberry. “She was an incredible influence musically and became the conservatory for me,” Nakamatsu said.

An Assyrian, Derryberry grew up in Tehran, Iran, and studied in the shah’s conservatory there. Now retired, she started teaching Nakamatsu in Sunnyvale when he was only 6 and continued coaching him through adulthood. He recalls her speaking fondly of visiting family and friends in the Assyrian community in the Turlock area.

Nakamatsu considered pursuing a music degree but decided not to on his teacher’s advice. She had spoken with a lot of professionals in the field who pointed out that enrolling in an acclaimed music school is no guarantee of a music career.

Nakamatsu settled on studying German at Stanford University because he had always wanted to learn another language and he thought that one would be particularly helpful with music since so much of the great piano repertoire came out of German-speaking cultures.

To hedge his bets in case his piano career didn’t work out, Nakamatsu got a master’s degree in education at Stanford and got a job teaching German at a high school in Mountain View.

He was still working at the school when he entered the Cliburn competition.

Out of the 250 pianists who applied to enter the contest, he was one of 165 given live auditions by judges, and then one of 35 invited to perform in Fort Worth, Texas, where the finals are held.

“For me, that was a last chance,” Nakamatsu said. “The competitions end (when pianists are) around 30 years or so, and I was already 28. The competition is only every four years and then I would have been too old.”

Nakamatsu didn’t feel particularly confident about his abilities in Texas and considered quitting after the first round. But he persevered and emerged victorious at the end, becoming the first American pianist to win the contest in years. He quit the teaching job and launched his full-time professional solo career.

Today, he is constantly on the road, going from concert to concert, and he couldn’t be happier.

“It’s like living a dream,” he said. “It’s something in some ways I thought I’d never be able to do. Now that I’m doing it, I feel like I’m on vacation. I can’t believe this is my life.”

At his recital at the Gallo Center, he plans to play Haydn’s dynamic Sonata No. 33 in C Minor, Beethoven’s lyrical Sonata No. 15 in D Major and Chopin’s technically demanding Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise.

He also will play three pieces by the great pianist Liszt, as well as five dances from “Danses Fantastiques” by Armenian composer Loris Tjeknavorian.

“These composers all wrote very well for the keyboard and were in some ways revolutionizing the way in which keyboard writing was evolving,” Nakamatsu said.

He enjoys chatting with audience members after concerts and talking with young musicians. He hopes to do both when he visits the Gallo Center and is looking forward to checking out the new venue.

“Everybody’s raving about it,” he said.

The San Jose Mercury-News contributed to this report.