01/12/01 Symphony main

Van Cliburn winner

to perform at

West Jackson church

Life has been a whirlwind for Jon Nakamatsu since June 1997.

That’s when the former German teacher won the gold medal at the world-renowned Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

“My life changed pretty much overnight,” he said during a phone interview from his home in San Jose, Calif. “After I won, the next day I woke up doing all the stuff the winner has to do.”

Since then, he’s performed throughout the United States and the world, including stops in such places as New York, Washington, D.C., Paris, London and Milan. And, on Saturday, Jan. 20, at 7:30 p.m., he will put his skills on display at West Jackson Baptist Church when he performs with the Tupelo Symphony Orchestra.

“The name Tupelo Symphony’ has been going around for a while in my schedule,” he said. “I’m really happy we finally get to do it.”

He’s not the only one.

Margaret Anne Murphey, the symphony’s executive administrator, saw Nakamatsu perform at Carnegie Hall in New York and is positively ecstatic about the prospect of hearing him in Tupelo.

“It was one of the most thrilling evenings,” she said. “He is one of the finest pianists I’ve ever heard.”

Special treat

Sadly, the symphony’s music director, Louis Lane, will not be able to conduct the upcoming performance because of an illness

Steven Byess, who has studied with Lane, will fill in as he did during the symphony’s Beethoven night this past October.

“I really enjoyed my experience there last time,” Byess said during a phone interview from Atlanta. “I’m glad the orchestra asked me back.”

Byess said it’s a particular thrill to work with someone of Nakamatsu’s talent.

“Jon is one of the most dynamic pianists in the world today, and it is an extraordinary opportunity for the people in Tupelo to hear an artist of his stature,” Byess said. “I’ve heard him in a live performance in Atlanta. He is electrifying.”

Nakamatsu will perform “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” by Sergei Rachmaninoff. If the name doesn’t sound familiar, that’s OK the music probably will.

“The theme is very familiar,” Nakamatsu said. “It’s been bled over into the popular culture. I’ve heard it in movies. Andrew Lloyd Webber did his own variation on the theme.”

According to Byess, Rachmaninoff’s work has a tendency toward melancholy and nostalgia, but this piece is a complete departure from that trend.

“A lot of his music has a somber tone, but this Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini’ really is a fun, bubbly piece of music,” Byess said. “Anyone who listens to it is really in for a treat.”

Worldly men

Nakamatsu gave up his teaching career for life on the road. He’s on tour about 75 percent of each year.

“It’s definitely different from a job where I knew what my schedule would be each day,” he said. “For everything I do, I schedule about a year or two in advance.”

Byess is also used to hotel rooms. He is the music director of the Cobb Symphony Orchestra in Georgia, music director of the I Musici Atlanta chamber orchestra and associate music director of the Ohio Light Opera.

He was recently named visiting lecturer in music at the University of Michigan School of Music in Ann Arbor where he is director of the University Philharmonia Orchestra and Contemporary Directions Ensemble.

These two busy men will converge on Tupelo a couple of days before the concert.

“We will only get two rehearsals with the orchestra,” Byess said. “The Tupelo Symphony has a short rehearsal period but they will make sure it’s a good performance.”

Nakamatsu said adjusting to different orchestras is one of the fun challenges of his job.

“As musicians, we’re conditioned to adapt,” he said. “From the first rehearsal to the last performance, there’s such an improvement it’s hard to believe where we started. It’s pretty amazing.”

Long effort

Nakamatsu’s performance in Tupelo will be the result of several years worth of work by the Tupelo Symphony Orchestra, Murphey said.

“We’ve been trying to get a Van Cliburn finalist since 1995,” she said.

That goal was achieved in 1998 when silver medal winner Yakov Kasman performed in Tupelo. With luck, Nakamatsu’s visit will be the second in a string of Van Cliburn winners.

“The alliance we’ve formed with the Van Cliburn organization has helped classical music in Tupelo more than anything we’ve ever done,” Murphey said. “We have a special invitation to attend the next competition, which is being held in June. We are considered a presenter, if you can believe that.”

Whatever the future holds, West Jackson Baptist Church will surely be the place to be Jan. 20. At least, that’s what Nakamatsu thinks.

“It’s a thrill to play in the major halls of the world,” he said, “but it’s an equal thrill to play in places that aren’t famous but the people who come appreciate the music and want to be there.”