Renowned pianist returns to help kick off Bozeman Symphony season

By SCOTT McMILLION , Chronicle Staff Writer

When John Nakamatsu won the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 1997, he was the first American to do so in 16 years.

He beat the best pianists in the world, included what the press called a couple of "Russian flame-throwers," and he did it without having studied at a music conservatory.

That's a bit like going straight from high school basketball to the NBA. It's unlikely, but it can happen. And it's the stuff dreams are made of.

It brought the soft-spoken former German language teacher from California a lot of attention, and classical music fans around the world clamored to hear him play. So he's doing his best to give them what they want.

For the past eight years, Nakamatsu, 37, has been touring almost non-stop, living in hotels and airports, performing someplace roughly every three days.

Now, Bozeman fans will get a third opportunity to hear him, after shows in 2003 and 2004. Nakamatsu appears in two concerts this weekend at the opening of the 38th season of the Bozeman Symphony.

"Technically, he's flawless," said Bozeman symphony director Matthew Savery. "Musically, there's a sincerity to his presentation and the sincerity comes through."

Nakamatsu's story is an unusual one in the world of professional classical musicians.

He grew up in California, where he attended public schools until entering Stanford, where he studied German and obtained a master's degree in education. He studied music there, but didn't major in it.

"I didn't come from a musical family," he said, but at the age of six he first played a piano.

"I knew right away it was what I wanted to do," he said.

Though his parents made sure he had a "normal childhood," they also got him a talented private music teacher who guided his education and became a mentor for him.

"When I was young, I could spend hours and hours at the piano," he said. "But I didn't always stick to my assignments. But as I got older, I realized that practicing actually works."

And it pays off sometimes.

He won two national Chopin contests before he won the Cliburn award, named for the first classical musician to record a platinum album, a man so popular he once had a ticker-tape parade in his honor in New York City.

Nakamatsu was something of a sleeper in 1997, especially since the first time he'd tried to enter the competition -- in 1993 -- he wasn't even allowed to compete in the world's best known piano competition.

Winning, he said, "is something that you never expect. To me it was like a dream."

He said he'd often fantasized just about being in the audience for the competition, which takes place every four years.

After the victory, the reality set in. Invitations to perform were pouring in, so he resigned from his high school teaching job and hit the road.

"Hotels are like my apartment now," he said. "You never really know what it's like to be touring until you get a schedule with 100 dates a year. And the concerts are just one segment of the whole profession."

There are talks to students, to symphony boards, to fund-raisers, media interviews and the rigors of travel, of finding your way around a strange European city when you don't speak the language.

And somehow, he finds time to practice "in studios, houses, bars, hotel lobbies."

The schedule is grueling, but Nakamatsu said he enjoys the life.

"He seems to zip in and out of town effortlessly," Savery said.

Concerts tend to blend together, he said, but Bozeman is a location that sticks out, partly because of the area's natural surroundings.

"I'm really excited to be there again," he said. "The audience was great last time."

John Nakamatsu will perform in two concerts this weekend at the Willson Auditorium, Saturday, Sept. 24 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Sept. 25 at 2:30 p.m.

The shows open with Tomas Svoboda's "Overture of the Season." Then Nakamatsu with join the symphony to perform the dramatic piano concert of Edvard Grieg. Finally, the orchestra will play Beethoven's "Symphony Number Five."

Tickets range from $15 to $45, with student prices of $8 and $15.

Any unsold tickets will be available at RUSH prices of $5, on Friday, Sept. 23, between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m.

Tickets are available at the Bozeman Symphony Office in the US Bank Building, 104 E. Main, Suite 102 or by phone at 585 9774.