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Saturday, September 9, 2000

By George F. Lee, Star-Bulletin
Concert pianist Jon Nakamatsu takes a break during
rehearsal at the Ellen Masaki School of Music.

Okinawa key for
pianist Nakamatsu


By Ruth O. Bingham
Special to the Star-Bulletin

Celebrating the 100th anniversary of the arrival of the first immigrants from Okinawa, the Hawaii United Okinawan Association (HUOA) sponsored a concert last night by award-winning pianist Jon Nakamatsu, a fourth-generation descendent of Okinawan immigrants.

"Half the people in the audience ... will probably be related to me," he joked. Besides his parents and brother from the mainland, where Nakamatsu was raised, many local relatives attended.

Nakamatsu, working as a high school German teacher at the time, was catapulted to renown in 1997 when he won the Gold Medal of the 10th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. He has since performed almost nonstop around the world.

Young, handsome and talented, Nakamatsu is a role model for younger musicians and Okinawans everywhere. He thanked HUOA for its "tremendous importance to the world community as we (Okinawans) become more visible."

Last night's program, although light for a pianist of Nakamatsu's stature, suited the audience well and was as eloquent as it was entertaining.

Nakamatsu opened with Clementi's rather remarkable Sonata in F-sharp minor, Op. 25, No. 5, and closed the first half with Chopin's Fantaisie, Op. 49, three charming Mazurkas, Op. 59, and Scherzo No. 3, Op. 39. The second half included Szymanowski's delightful Four Polish Dances, Debussy's enchanting Suite Bergamasque with its much-loved "Clair de Lune," and Liszt's hilarious Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2.

Nakamatsu's playing, strong from the beginning, kept improving, finally peaking in the second half with those late Romantic works that suit the grand piano so well. His style and phrasing, while reserved, were exceptionally graceful, with a wide range of effects, from robust marches and swirling storm clouds to bel canto melodies and crystal raindrops.

In even the densest passages, Nakamatsu maintained clarity with an active sustaining pedal, and in even the most difficult passages, he retained almost flawless technical control. Perhaps most gratifying of all, however, was the depth he brought to the music. Each note had something to say; tellingly, Nakamatsu's left hand "spoke" as clearly as his right.

For many in the audience, the high point of the concert was the two encores: the Japanese "Koko ni sachi ari" ("here is happiness"), and the Okinawan "Bashofu," about memories of the homeland.

With the opening bars, an audible change swept the largely Okinawan audience: a gasp of pleasure, applause, then absolute silence and rapt attention. These songs provided the moment of greatest rapport between artist and audience. However far apart in birthplace, age, education or profession, their love of a common heritage bridged the distance.

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