Pianist's shine should last

Nakamatsu's grace gives new spirit to Stravinsky passages


January 31, 2002|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In recent years, critical disapproval of young pianists who win international competitions has reached a crescendo even Vladimir Horowitz would envy. Critics say the "safe" players - the technically immaculate instrumentalists who offend the least number of judges - tend to walk off with top honors.

When true individualists (to say nothing of genuine eccentrics) fail repeatedly to win or to even crack the competition finals, the musical landscape becomes littered with the fizzled careers of promising youngsters who never lived up to the hype of their glamorous coming-out parties. Even the Van Cliburn International Competition Gold Medal, the most prestigious and lucrative piano prize, has been bestowed on a goodly number of "where-are-they-now?" artists.

But I came away from last weekend's concerts given by the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra firmly convinced that California pianist Jon Nakamatsu, who struck Cliburn gold in 1997, is going to buck that trend in a big way.

That's not to say that Nakamatsu, who played Beethoven's grand and flashy Emperor concerto with the local orchestra Friday and Saturday evenings at Maryland Hall, is a willful eccentric at the keyboard.

But he's no "cookie cutter" technician either, and his take on Beethoven's fifth and final piano concerto had two large audiences focused with rapt attention on his highly communicative brand of pianism.

First and foremost, Nakamatsu is a poet of the keyboard, a songful player who taps into the lyrical energy of a melodic line and spins it out with the utmost sensitivity.

The fluidity of his music making is mirrored by a physical presence that seems the very essence of natural, unforced power.

His trills, for example, dance as buoyantly as any I've ever heard, which made for a slew of felicitous moments amid the dashing ruffles and flourishes that lend such excitement to Beethoven's great E-flat Concerto.

And what tonal resources this pianist has! He can tear into Beethoven's torrential arpeggios without sounding the least bit clangy, then scale back, barely breathing on the keys in intimate passages, without becoming tinkly or precious.

His triplets in the Emperor slow movement flowed like oil. Friday's encore - Chopin's Op. 66 Fantaisie Impromptu, with its famous I'm Always Chasing Rainbows theme - brought one near tears with its intimations of longing.

Once again, conductor Leslie Dunner and his Annapolis Symphony players proved themselves sensitive accompanists, especially on Saturday when entrances and cutoffs in the Emperor announced themselves with greater flair the second time around.

On neither occasion, however, could the horns manage to stay in tune during Beethoven's drawn out transition from movement two to three.

The weekend's most prodigious orchestral playing came as the ASO tackled Igor Stravinsky's stunningly intricate ballet score, Petrouchka.

Indeed, as soloist after soloist handled the tongue-twisting writing with confidence and verve, thoughts of an ASO production of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring began to dance in my head.

Nearly 90 years after its tumultuous premiere, Stravinsky's primal ballet still stands tall as the Mount Everest of 20th-century orchestral repertoire, and I left Maryland Hall last weekend thinking that an ASO assault on its mountainous complexity would be interesting to behold.

Whether Dunner and Co. would have enough rehearsal time that week to work up anything else to go with it would, of course, be another story.

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