Jon Nakamatsu pulled out all the pianistic stops in a spectacular concert in the Recital Hall of the School of Music on the University of North Carolina campus in Greensboro. A small but enthusiastic crowd braved snow flurries and the predicted bad weather to hear the 1997 Van Cliburn Gold medal winner play a varied program with impressive note-perfect virtuosity and warm and witty humor. Mr. Nakamatsu was a Californian high school German teacher until winning the Van Cliburn allowed him to become a full-time musician. Dressed in a crisply ironed, open-neck black dress shirt and black pants he greeted the audience with thanks, warmth and a modest and engaging manner, and provided oral program notes which were always informative and at times, illuminating.

The first composer of the evening was venerable Joseph Haydn, to whom we attribute the popularity of the symphony (over 104), the string quartet (over 5 dozen) and the piano sonata (over 50)! This Sonata, No. 33 in C minor, Hob. XVI/20, was a study in dynamic contrasts – in quiet moments, the hall was so quiet that I had to stop taking notes because the piano was so soft that the roll of the ball on my Uni-ball pen would have been loud enough to distract the people sitting near me. (By the way, this region of the U.S. is in excellent health. Neither one cough nor sneeze was heard, even at intermission!) Mr. Nakamatsu has one of the most controlled rapid staccatos I have ever heard. And the entire sonata abounded in ornaments; trills, mordents (biting little shakes between two neighboring notes), appoggiaturas (accented grace notes) – far more than Papa Haydn permitted in symphonies and quartets!

The pianist’s introduction to Papillons, Op. 2 (1831) by Robert Schumann, was very helpful in understanding the work, which is made up of a dozen miniatures (“butterflies”), each meant to represent a character in a masquerade (masked ball) in a book by popular author of the time, Jean Paul. Most enlightening was the description of the Finale, with its theme, well-known to audiences at that time as the “Grandfather dance” which was always played to signal the end of the ball. Hearing it in context made me realize that years later (1891), Tchaikovsky would build on the same theme to end the ball in Act I of the Nutcracker ballet!

As befits a ball, almost all the vignettes are in a triple meter and include a waltz, a tarantella, a barcarole, a Polonaise and a wealth of chatty and gossipy moments, and early on a heavy-footed awkward dancer. From flashy to gracious and willowy to bumptious, these characters came alive in the imagination as the pianist sketched with wit and wonder.

The first half ended with the familiar Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise, Op.22 by Chopin, which is sometimes played with a rather useless orchestral accompaniment. This performance was spell-binding: Nakamatsu can coax the softest whisper out of the Kawai grand piano, even at break-neck speeds. Of course, most pianists can dazzle with loud chords, but to balance all this and maintain the modern practice of keeping the tempo steady as did Nakamatsu, was phenomenal!  (The more old-fashioned practice was to use more rubato, not trying to make the notes fit the beat, but to spread them out expressively while suspending the beat.) This impressive performance drew a spontaneous standing ovation from the cheering crowd.

Composer Loris Tjeknavorian was a classmate of Nakamatsu’s life-long piano teacher, Marina Derryberry, who introduced him to the Armenian composer when he was conducting in California. The work he played after intermission had a very clear Middle-Eastern modality to it and one movement, “Danse d’extase,” the last of the Five Dances from Danses Fantastiques, Op. 2, was a complex fusion of mixed meters and raw emotion.

And Franz Liszt was yet to come! We started with the whimsical “Impromptu for Princess Gortschakoff,” whose whimsy caused the audience to forget to applaud, and continued with the more structured Valse Impromptu in Ab Major, whose ending reminded the audience of its role!  The excerpt from the Années de pélérinage: II, Italie entitled” Après une lecture de Dantes (Fantasia quasi Sonata)” [“The Years of Pilgrimage: II, Italy. After the Reading of Dante (Fantasy, almost a Sonata)”] is a tour de force of major proportions, and a tremendously tiring work for the pianist. Like a sonata in one movement, it incorporates multiple themes which develop perpetually, modulating from one key to another. Starting in a dark and somber tone, then scurrying through virtuosity, this extended work may sound “over-blown” in the hands of lesser pianists, but Jon Nakamatsu carries it off with a flourish that again brought the audience to its feet. We were all rewarded with a deeply felt encore, “Widmung” (“Dedication”) by Robert Schumann.

A brief word about the excellent acoustics of the UNCG Recital hall: enhanced by the convex wooden curves of the walls and high ceiling, partitioned into rectangles and covered with a thin layer of absorbent cloth, this small (350 seats) hall sounds great! And it is fun to look at – the area over the stage has five inter-galactic mother ships and five tender ships to entrance the eye and to improve the acoustics and attenuate echoes of unwanted reverberation. The floor is of highly polished concrete and there are carpets only in the aisles. (The floor has developed a diagonal ½ inch crack, from one side of the hall to the other, near the back that I’m sure structural engineers are monitoring for changes.)