Foothills College, California
By Madeline Patton
Celebrated pianist Jon Nakamatsu will receive his overdue associate degree at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, Calif., this spring when he delivers the commencement address there. When he transferred to Stanford, he thought his 78 credits were insufficient for a two-year degree, so he never applied for it.
Following the ceremony, Nakamatsu—who leapt from obscurity to top-billing in classical music by winning the 1997 Van Cliburn International Piano competition—will perform a concert to benefit Foothill’s Fine Arts and Communications Division. When Nakamatsu, then 28, won the competition, he was the first American in 16 years to win the coveted prize and the only contestant who was not conservatory trained.
"It’s fabulous. It’s such a great opportunity," Nakamatsu says of fulfilling his life-long dream to become a concert pianist. His technique and interpretation are winning sustained applause from audiences and critics at home and abroad.
"Ovations galore for Cliburn winner," proclaimed The San Jose Mercury News. "Nakamatsu belongs to that rare order of pianists capable of making this material [by Chopin and Liszt] come alive," said The Washington Post. "He played William Bolcom’s ‘Nine Bagatelles’—the required new work for all contestants at the 1997 Van Cliburn Competition—with such devotion and panache that it was easy to believe that performance alone had helped him to victory," said The San Francisco Chronicle.
The slim odds of making it to the upper echelon of orchestral music—a feat rarer than making it to the top in professional sports—prompted Nakamatsu to pursue two careers simultaneously. "I didn’t doubt that being a concert pianist was my dream, but you’re never sure it will work out," he says.
When he graduated from high school, Nakamatsu was also uncertain about what he would do in tandem with his music. He chose Foothill College near his Sunnyvale, Calif. home and his longtime piano instructor, Marina Derryberry, because of the opportunities it afforded him.
"Foothill kind of allowed me to explore what eventually became my major, which is German," he says. The study of German enhanced his music, and German instructors Judith Jones and Bettina Rosenbladt inspired him to go into teaching, he says. In addition, "Foothill gave me time to practice and travel when I needed to compete," he says.
After Foothill, Nakamatsu transferred to Stanford University where he received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. He taught German at a private high school until he won the Cliburn. The prize included a two-year touring contract and he is currently booked for concerts through the rest of this year. His 1998-99 season was highlighted by a White House performance of "Rhapsody in Blue," hosted by President and Mrs. Clinton.
Nakamatsu was named debut artist of the year by National Public Radio's "Performance Today" in 1998, has made three recordings so far, and has been profiled by "CBS Sunday Morning" and Reader's Digest magazine.