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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, May 23, 2003

Musician out to tame orchestra's new piano

By Wayne Harada
Advertiser Entertainment Writer

Jon Nakamatsu

A piano recital, presented by the Honolulu Symphony

7:30 p.m.


Blaisdell Concert Hall



Also featuring: pianist Lisa Nakamichi

Playing a new piano is like taming a wild horse. Or putting on a new pair of shoes.

"You need time to break it in," said pianist Jon Nakamatsu, who will be featured in a Honolulu Symphony recital, sans orchestra, performing on a new Steinway grand Tuesday at the Blaisdell Concert Hall.

"There are risks playing a new piano," said Nakamatsu, about the Steinway acquired by the orchestra recently and also featured in a special concert by Andre Watts this past Tuesday. Both events are being dedicated to longtime Honolulu piano teacher Ellen Masaki, a symphony booster for decades.

"It takes getting used to the keyboard. Sometimes, it can take a year or two. You know it's new because you can feel it in the weight of the keys; even if you worked a lot on it, you can tell by the sound that it's new, and whether the strings have had time to harden up. It takes a lot of work to get it all sounding right."

So he's approaching his recital, also featuring former Masaki student Lisa Nakamichi, as an adventure in good will and daring.

"The worst is that the new piano can distract you, because you're worried about adjusting to it, which may affect your playing; but the trick is not to force it. Just play. And enjoy the excitement."

Nakamatsu, who is a San Jose, Calif.-based winner of the prestigious Van Cliburn International Piano Recital, can't get keyed up about an instrument that needs time to break in.

"The good thing is that each piano you play, whether brand new or broken in, will allow you do do something totally different each time you perform," said Nakamatsu. "Every performance is different, depending on the instrument and the hall; and when you're a pianist, you're not going to be traveling with your own instrument."

Stephen Bloom, president of the Honolulu Symphony, said the acquisition of the Steinway "represents yet another step forward in our continuing effort to improve the quality of the musical experience for Hawai'i's audiences. Dedicating this piano to Ellen Masaki will ensure that her contributions, not only to the Honolulu Symphony, but to all of Hawai'i, are remembered."

Winning the 1997 Cliburn competition, akin to snagging an Oscar, put Nakamatsu on a different playing field.

"What it allows you to do is gain exposure for the presenters who hire you," he said. "You play the same way, five months before the competition, but if you win, you are in a better position to fill a hall. It's not only talent, but economics. For me, it was a validation of all my hard work. You go into these competitions and lose more than you can win, but when you win, people — like my relatives in Hawai'i, who never quite knew what I was doing but stuck with me anyway — realize how important the contest is."

Ultimately, the joy of playing comes from the audience connections. "My greatest challenge always has been to perform for and communicate with the people," said Nakamatsu. "When someone is profoundly moved in a positive fashion, you remember why you're doing this."