Clarinet and Keyboard: Unexpected Connections

They had heard of each other, they respected each other's work. But until recently, they had never met.

Jon Nakamatsu is a classical pianist who lived a real-life fairy tale. In 1997, he was making his living as a high-school German teacher when he entered and won the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

Jon Manasse is a clarinet virtuoso. For a time, he was principal clarinetist with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and for years a regular on the New York scene, playing with the New York Philharmonic and many other A-list ensembles.

Two fine players, but their only connection was that they shared a manager, who suggested they should meet. But how fruitful could a clarinet and piano partnership be?

Manasse and Nakamatsu agreed to get together for a single informal rehearsal. "It was magic from the very first notes, almost spooky," Manasse said. "Jon seemed to know what I was going to do, even before I did."

When I first heard these two Jons playing together, I instantly knew what he meant. It's as if they are two musicians operating with a single musical mind. Their phrasings melt together seamlessly. (Even during our conversation, they sometimes finished each other's thoughts.) And their temperaments are a perfect match: dead serious about music-making, without taking themselves too seriously.

They joined me in the studio to play two wonderfully contrasting pieces: Carl Maria von Weber's Grand Duo Concertant for Clarinet and Piano, and a raucous set of rags by contemporary American composer John Novacek. Jon and Jon spun out the Weber with elegance and élan, and romped through the Novacek with campy virtuosity.

More About Jon Nakamatsu

As a concert pianist, Jon Nakamatsu doesn't have a typical resume. Most concert pianists spend their early years slaving over finger exercises, usually followed by years of intensive study at a music conservatory. Nakamatsu began his piano studies early, at the age of 6, but by the time he got to college, he had other subjects on his mind. Instead of going to a music school, he majored in German at Stanford University. Then, he earned his master's degree in education.

Nakamatsu was teaching high-school German in 1997 when he won the gold medal at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. At the end of the event, a reporter wanted to know what Nakamatsu was going to tell his high-school principal. Without missing a beat, Nakamatsu said, "Auf Wiedersehen."

Since then, Nakamatsu has performed worldwide as a concerto soloist, chamber musician, solo recitalist, and recording artist. He's been the subject of a profile on CBS Sunday Morning and has made six acclaimed recordings for the Harmonia Mundi label.

Nakamatsu and his recital partner, clarinetist Jon Manasee, serve as Artistic Directors of the Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival.

More About Jon Manasse

Clarinetist Jon Manasse keeps a busy schedule of teaching and touring. Last year, he joined the faculty at his alma mater, the Juilliard School in New York. He's also Associate Professor of Clarinet at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y.

A regular guest at many of the leading chamber-music festivals, Manasse has collaborated with musicians such as Joshua Bell, The Amadeus Trio, and the Orion and Shanghai String Quartets.

Manasse is the principal clarinetist for the American Ballet Theatre Orchestra and the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra. He's toured Japan and Southeast Asia 14 times, and has played with many of the world's best orchestras, including the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, the New York Philharmonic, the St. Louis Symphony, and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, for which he also served as principal clarinetist.

Manasse has recorded seven albums, including the new CD of Clarinet Sonatas by Brahms with pianist Jon Nakamatsu.

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