Jon Nakamatsu was a high school German teacher in 1997.
That year, he was also the winner of the 10th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.
“German was just a natural offshoot of what I did at the piano because so much of the core piano repertoire is German, so I thought that was kind of that connection,” Nakamatsu said. “You’re never totally sure where it all is going to end up. For me, I just got very fortunate in 1997 when the Van Cliburn competition came, and I somehow — I don’t know how — managed to win it.”
Nakamatsu will return to Chautauqua and give a piano recital at 4 p.m. today in Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall. The event benefits the Chautauqua Women’s Club Scholarship Fund, and features four pieces: Mozart’s Sonata in B flat Major, K. 333 “Linz”; Schubert’s Four Impromptus, Op. 90; Schumann’s Papillons Op. 2; and Chopin’s Andante spianato et grande polonaise brillante, Op. 22.
Nakamatsu will be in Chautauqua for the next two weeks. He is scheduled to give three master classes on Wednesday, Sunday and Wednesday, July 22.
John Milbauer, interim co-director of the Piano Program, said Nakamatsu has been a huge hit at Chautauqua Institution in the past.
“He’s been here a couple of times already [and] he’s a wonderful addition to the program,” Milbauer said. “Not only because he’s an extraordinary musician, but because he’s a great example to the students that you don’t have to be a robot to play the piano. He’s a wonderful person.”
Nakamatsu is widely known for winning the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. But as much as that has become his defining moment, he’s learned to take other opportunities as they come.
“You can only change your sphere of influence and what you do and how you react. And I think it helped that I had a meaningful life outside of music,” Nakamatsu said. “I mean, I really did love teaching German, and I actually missed being in the classroom today. A lot of people who go from competition to competition have kind of this warped perspective on what it is to just be alive and be happy.”
Nakamatsu and his wife, who is a “very, very busy” high school AP chemistry teacher, find joy in their varied life together.
“I think we can all pursue goals, but we have to be open to the possibility that pursuing these goals leads to a path that might even be more interesting or challenging than the one we had originally foresaw,” he said.