Friday, March 02, 2001

Concert review

Prize-winning pianist makes 'flawless' look easy

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The real test of a gold medal winner is the life after the competition. Pianist Jon Nakamatsu, 1997 winner of the 10th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, has all the makings of a major career ahead of him.

        Mr. Nakamatsu, 32, made his Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra debut Thursday night in Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1. Admittedly, the piece was a showy calling card. But, unlike many of today's bombastic pianists, Mr. Nakamatsu executed it flawlessly, unpretentiously and with engaging personality. And somehow, he made it all look easy.

        With associate conductor John Morris Russell on the podium, the CSO was back in Music Hall for the first concert since it ended an eight-city European tour last month. Mr. Russell led solid performances of Strauss' Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks and Schumann's Symphony No. 4.

        Mr. Nakamatsu captured the public's imagination when, as an unknown high school German teacher, he dramatically won the Van Cliburn.

        He plays with a light touch, and his technique is excellent. But what sets him apart is the clarity of his playing. The opening octave passages were clean and powerful, despite the fact he can barely reach an octave. Double chromatic runs, difficult leaps and double trills — were not only brilliant, but had beautiful color.

        He balanced the work's virtuosity with its more lyrical, thoughtful moments. The theme of the second movement Adagio, for instance, had a singing line. For a moment, everything stood still.

        Some of the charm of this concerto is its orchestration, such as the triangle color against the piano. Another effect was a stunning duet between clarinet (Anthony McGill) and piano in the first movement.

        Mr. Russell supported the pianist expertly and the orchestra matched with light playing.

        Mr. Russell is a confident musician, who is clear and persuasive on the podium. Schumann's Symphony No. 4 has a certain organic unity: its four movements are linked by the “Clara” theme.

        He communicated a keen sense of the symphony's architecture, and the musicians responded with some fine playing. The Romance was enhanced by a well-blended duet in cello and oboe; associate concertmaster Rebecca Culnan contributed lovely filigree.


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