Preview: Pianist Jon Nakamatsu champions well-known Beethoven sonata

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An art form that has been around for as long as classical music doesn't seem to change much, but there are plenty of shifts and cycles even with the most famous pieces.

Take Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata. Famous, right? Yes and no, says pianist Jon Nakamatsu.

"The work was really popular in Beethoven's time, and Beethoven wondered why people liked it so much when his other works were better in his mind," he says of the piano piece published in 1802. "It is appealing and put together so well. But I have never heard it played live."

Pianist Jon Nakamatsu

When: 3 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Kresge Recital Hall, Carnegie Mellon University, Oakland.

Tickets: $5-$15 at the door; more information at

Think about that. Mr. Nakamatsu is a major concert pianist. He won the 1997 Van Cliburn competition and performs all over the world. Even if you make the case that he doesn't have much time to listen to concerts because he gives so many, it is still extraordinary for a work whose slow and mysterious first movement was one of the most-loved piano works in the 20th century. It is still beloved but simply not programmed much in public concerts. In recitals this year, including one he will give Sunday sponsored by the Steinway Society of Western Pa. and the Adams Foundation, Mr. Nakamatsu finds himself in a strange situation of championing a work that is well-known.

"It is fun to take something like that and show it is not fluff but worthy of being heard on stage," he says.

Programming has been an integral part of concertizing for years, a way in which a musician or group makes a statement as much as how they play. It's still that way, but soloists tend to do so more on their own, another casualty of the economic hardships facing all aspects of the classical music industry. A chamber musician must be an entrepreneur, and Mr. Nakamatsu points to his non-musical background as his strongest ally in his career today. He majored in German Studies and got a master's in education, and left a job as a high school teacher to embark on a solo career.

"I think it has been a tremendous benefit for me to have a diverse education behind me," he says. "As a classroom teacher, so much of what I do is related to how a classroom worked, and it helps you even learn how to present in a business sense. Today playing is just one part of a whole career and artists must do most of it themselves. Management is there to book you and not to hold your hands. There was a time when musicians were really responsible for just playing."

He is pretty good at that, though, with many discs on the Harmonia Mundi label to prove it. The latest -- a recording of Brahms' Piano Quintet, Op. 34, to be released Tuesday -- is particularly interesting because it is the final recording by the Tokyo String Quartet. The famed quartet will disband this June after a 44-year history.

"When we were planning it we had no idea," says Mr. Nakamatsu. His relationship with the quartet stems his entire career. The musicians were part of the Van Cliburn competition when he won, he later performed with them, they joined Harmonia Mundi and, finally, he invited them to open the Cape Cod Music Festival that he and clarinetist Jon Manasse run. "As we were recording it, it became very poignant for us as it was the last time we would be playing together."

Thankfully that's not the case with the "Moonlight" Sonata.

Also on the program are two Schubert Impromptus from Op. 90 and Schumann's "Papillons." Op. 2.


Post-Gazette classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at or 412-263-1750. He blogs at


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