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The KPAC Blog features classical music news, reviews, and analysis from South Texas and around the world.

Pianist Jon Nakamatsu to make first-time appearance with Olmos Ensemble

Pianist Jon Nakamatsu
Niles Singer
Pianist Jon Nakamatsu

Since winning the Gold Medal at the Tenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 1997, pianist Jon Nakamatsu has been a frequent guest in San Antonio. He’s performed with the San Antonio Symphony, Musical Bridges Around the World, and many other organizations in town, but never with the Olmos Ensemble.

“Coming to a different presenter or organization allows me to just meet new colleagues and make new friends,” Nakamatsu said on a Zoom call from his home in California, adding, “San Antonio really kind of fits into my whole embrace of Texas after the Cliburn.”

Nakamatsu will be performing with Olmos at their final concert of the 2023/24 season, featuring music by Johannes Brahms and Ludwig van Beethoven, including Beethoven’s Quintet in E-flat, written before the composer had completed his first symphony.

Speculating on the structure and thoughts behind Beethoven’s 1796 quintet, Nakamatsu said, “It was probably a chance for him to explore the wind ensemble as potentially an orchestra.”

Olmos’s programs include a shortened version of the program designed for families on Sunday, May 5 at 4:30 p.m. at the Chapel of the Incarnate Word, and a full concert on Monday, May 6 at 7:30 p.m. at Shepherd King Lutheran Church. Admission is free, with donations gladly accepted at the door.

Read the edited Q&A below for more of Jon Nakamatsu’s thoughts about this week’s programs, performing for kids, and why he keeps coming back to San Antonio!


Nathan Cone: There are two concerts coming up this week, in a way! There's the official Olmos Ensemble program on Monday, which I'll get to in a moment, but also there's a family concert coming up on Sunday, which is a shorter version of the program designed for afternoons, encouraging all ages. Is that right?

Jon Nakamatsu: Right, it's a great way for people who don't want to sit through the whole program, possibly to bring their kids and families and have a great time and listen to a portion of the program, which will be fun for everybody.

As musicians, you're often doing these concerts that are kind of outreach to all ages. I'm curious, what some of the more unique reactions you've gotten from younger listeners to your performances?

Well, it's funny, when you go into schools, you never know what to expect. And often I'm more nervous about those performances than I would be on a professional stage! Because the criticism is immediate, and very honest, and also really interesting! People expect kids to respond to loud things and a lot of noise, but I think that in in the way you set things up, you can get a really interesting response. And so, even very, very slow, very melodic music has its place with kids if it's put into the right context. They just come away with the most interesting observations. And, sometimes they just tell you they went to sleep! And that's fine, too!

As I understand it, sleep is what several patrons of the music back 300 years ago may have been using it for as well.

That’s right! Well especially today, I think kids think of music as something to move to, that there's a physical response to music and that it often manifests itself in dance. And so the idea of actually sitting still and listening to a piece of music for maybe a deeper experience is really a foreign thing, but it's not a skill that they are completely unaccustomed to. You know, they watch enough videos to know that they could sit for a couple hours and, take something in and still be an active participant. But again, it's just the way in which you set it up. And I think that although we can't get an uninitiated child to sit through a 30 minute symphony without some type of movement or, wondering when the clock is going to go off. I think we can expect them to react in the way I think adults would react, just viscerally experiencing the sounds and watching it kind of connect with, the way the instruments are being played. There's a real excitement for them to being in the same room where these musical vibrations are created. And for us as performers, it's always kind of fun and interesting to just go with what they feel.

So the concert proper, on Monday night, includes, I believe, at least two pieces that you're in partnership with one soloist on. So you've got the Brahms and the Beethoven sonatas that are in there. What can folks look forward to with these pieces? And in particular, I'm interested in hearing about the Horn Sonata, because I'm really not familiar with that piece of Beethoven's.

Well, it's an early piece, not terribly early, but Beethoven, wrote it really for the big horn virtuoso of the day, Giovanni Punto. And he had a great talent for the natural horn, which is this thing which you really control with your mouth. He was the only one that could play it at the time, and no one else could come close to playing this music because it required a lot of special skills. For years it wasn't played. But, you know, it's in the horn key of E-flat. It has wonderful melodies and interchanges with the piano. And then the next opus was actually the wind quintet, the piano and winds quintet that we’re playing later in the program. So Beethoven at the time was writing a lot of music for the piano and for himself as a pianist. And this was his start into more serious chamber music. It’s on the program because the one musician that I know [in Olmos] is Jeff Garza, and he and I played together for years, and, so this is something that we wanted to do again. We've done it once before, and we look forward to a reunion in San Antonio.

Well, you alluded to it, the quintet is also from a similar time period, like 1796 or so. This is like all predating even Beethoven's First Symphony, or at least the premiere of the symphony, he may have been working on it at the time. For those who are not familiar with these earlier pieces of Beethoven, how “Beethoven” are they? I mean, are there elements of what would come later on?

Oh, certainly. But there are also elements of what came before, because this instrumentation was really kind of set up by Mozart. You know, Mozart wrote this really important, piano and winds quintet for the same instrumentation, several years before. And it was what Mozart considered at the time one of his most successful pieces. It was probably his favorite piece for a while. And Beethoven, although he modeled his work after that, it was probably a chance for him to explore the wind ensemble as potentially an orchestra part. And it the way it's scored, you do hear… it's almost foretelling what happens in the symphonies later. I often feel like this is the only chance as a pianist that I get to play kind of in a symphony, you know, not where I'm a soloist in a concerto, but where it's an ensemble piece and we're all kind of making ensemble sounds. So I really enjoy exploring this. But though it was modeled on Mozart's original work, it sounds like Beethoven. You know, it doesn't sound like Mozart. There are elements that could. But, even in the introduction, it's very it's very much kind of, looking to the middle period of Beethoven's output. But it's still what I would call a classical work.

Well, you've been a great friend to the city, and so I wanted to know, what keeps you coming back to San Antonio.

It’s one of my favorite cities! I love San Antonio, and I mean, not just because I eat way too much when I'm there! It's a city where I came for years to play with the orchestra, but then to do recitals and chamber music. It's a particular pleasure to come with the Olmos Ensemble because I’ve never worked with them before, and, you know, coming to a different presenter or organization allows me to meet new colleagues and make new friends. And then that's one of the most satisfying things about being in this profession. You know, the world is small for us, and it gets smaller the older we get, I suppose. And these connections, you never feel are isolated, but in some way they, they weave in and out of our professional lives. And so San Antonio really kind of fits into just, well, my embrace of Texas after the Cliburn, and all that entails.

Well, I know you're going to have a marvelous time playing with Olmos because these are all great performers, and even if you haven't played with Olmos proper, you know many of them from being in the former San Antonio Symphony, now SA Philharmonic. So it's going to be a fantastic show. And I hope you have a grand time. We’re looking forward to it.

Thank you! Thank you for having me.