Star-Bulletin Features

Tuesday, January 8, 2002

Pianist Nakamatsu
outstanding in concert

"Jon Nakamatsu Plays Chopin": Repeats at 7:30 p.m. today at the Blaisdell Concert Hall. Tickets: $15 to $55. Call 792-2000.

Review by Ruth O. Bingham
Special to the Star-Bulletin

Pianist Jon Nakamatsu, in his third tour through Hawaii in four years, is always a pleasure to hear. Last year, he performed Rachmaninoff's Concerto No. 1 with the Honolulu Symphony; this year, it was Chopin's Concerto No. 2, working with guest conductor Anne Manson. Chopin's Concerto, beloved by many, is not a Concert Hall regular.

"It's a piano piece," Nakamatsu said. "Orchestras don't like to program it because the orchestra just has a lot of whole notes while the piano does all the work." Moreover, the tempo varies almost constantly, and in spite of all those whole notes, Chopin's two concertos "are two of the most difficult concertos to put together with an orchestra. To do this in two rehearsals is quite a feat."

There are other reasons as well. The first movement is not one of the most inspired and is redeemed only through the second and third movements. Also, that Chopin was not an orchestral composer is something of an understatement, and he was prone to occasional lapses in judgment. To cite only one example, Chopin allows the piano to dominate throughout, only to hand the reins over to the orchestra in the final moments, leaving the pianist to sit through the climactic close. The audience, naturally enough, tries to clap when the pianist finishes and is startled back into silence by the orchestra getting in the last word.

But in Sunday's performance, none of this mattered. Manson and Nakamatsu navigated tempo changes well, even in the quixotic, mazurka-like third movement, and their return to the first theme in the second movement was exquisitely timed. Nakamatsu once again revealed himself an outstanding pianist of exceptional clarity and precision, with textbook-ideal hand position and movement. (Piano students, attend with binoculars!)

One of the challenges of being a pianist is never knowing what instrument you will perform on. "You never find the perfect piano," Nakamatsu said. "The idea is to capitalize on what the piano can do well and to compensate for what it cannot."

And the Symphony's Steinway piano? "It has a big, bright sound that cuts through the orchestra well," but, he added, without a hint of offering excuses, "because it's so bright, it's often difficult to shape lines. ... Unlike violins, pianos do not improve with age, and (this piano) is about 30 to 35 years old." (Professional concert halls usually replace their pianos about every five years.)

Nakamatsu capitalized and compensated well: The piano's brightness became problematic only in the second, most Chopinesque movement, which demands a more mellow, rounder tone.

For an encore, Nakamatsu offered a highly personal, even whimsical reading of Chopin's much-loved Nocturne in E-flat.

Manson, currently finishing her third season at the Kansas City Symphony, proved to be a skilled, intelligent conductor. She studied music for a time in London, a stronghold of performance practice (the movement to play music as it originally sounded), and her interpretation of Beethoven's Overture to "The Creatures of Prometheus" reflected that. She used a scaled-down orchestra of a little more than 40 musicians, more in keeping with the typical orchestra of the period, and took a firmly classical approach.

More reserved than Wong, she elicited tighter control but also less passion from the orchestra. Their stiff, careful playing at the beginning of the concert, not uncommon under a new conductor, soon relaxed into a more fluid style.

For the second half of the concert, Manson chose two less familiar works, Martinu's "Frescoes of Piero della Francesca" and Hindemith's "Mathis der Maler" Symphony, surely one of the 20th century's masterworks of orchestral literature. Manson presented the works not as the intellectual exercises 20th century works are often reduced to, but as exciting emotional journeys.

Both works use the orchestra as a virtuosic instrument, and under Manson, the Honolulu Symphony shone. Jason Lichtenwalter delivered a very nice English horn solo in the Martinu; Ken Friedenberg on French horn was marvelous throughout, even on all those whole notes; flutist Susan McGinn and oboist Nancy Dimock paired beautifully in the Hindemith; and the brass choir passages in the Hindemith were exceptional.

Ruth O. Bingham is a free-lance writer who has
a Ph.D. in musicology from Cornell University.

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