In 1997, a 28-year-old pianist without much of a reputation -- he was a high school German teacher in Mountain View -- moved to the final round of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas. With conductor James Conlon and the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, he played Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 2 and Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3.

He won the gold medal, and a career was born.

Jon Nakamatsu is performing Rachmaninoff's colossal work with Symphony Silicon Valley at the California Theatre this weekend, and you should go. Friday's performance -- the first of three -- was electric.

Pianist Jon Nakamatsu, left, and clarinettist Jon Manasse. Photo courtesy of San Jose Chamber Orchestra.
Pianist Jon Nakamatsu, left, and clarinettist Jon Manasse. Photo courtesy of San Jose Chamber Orchestra. (San Jose Chamber Orchestra)

A San Jose native who still lives in the South Bay, the pianist is a hometown hero whose local performances tend to be charged events. But this reviewer wasn't prepared for the "Rach 3 Unbound" happening that engulfed the theater. Unleashing waves of powerful energy in tandem with the 72-piece orchestra, Nakamatsu played with clarity and elegance -- a performance to satisfy aficionados and neophytes alike, and probably even people who hate Rachmaninoff.

A pianist himself, Rachmaninoff composed the work in 1909, practicing its outlandishly difficult solo part on a dummy keyboard during a cross-Atlantic journey to New York. There he debuted the concerto with the New York Symphony Orchestra under Walter Damrosch and then with the New York Philharmonic under Gustav Mahler.


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While it is a finger-busting piano showcase, the concerto also is an example of consummate orchestral workmanship, exacting in the ways it continually replenishes, varies and reintegrates its flammable materials. Conductor Karen Kamensek, making her debut this weekend with the orchestra, showed herself to be a dynamic and exacting leader: The countless delicate and fleeting utterances in the violins or double basses, horns or winds were tailored to surround, echo and underscore Nakamatsu's own streaming statements.

The pianist's 40-minute performance was one of stamina, for sure, though he created the illusion of utter ease.

From his opening bars -- following that pulsing moment of expectancy in the orchestra -- his playing flowed and sang, thanks to his vividly voiced chords, his tapered phrasing and articulation. He literally played thousands of notes -- from memory, of course -- and there was the sense of being able to hear each and every one of them, whether he was in the spotlight (as in the first movement's exciting cadenza) or blending with and accompanying the orchestra.

The Adagio floated through moments that were like a collective sigh for soloist and orchestra, as well as passages of cross-handed speed-racing from Nakamatsu that kept this listener at the edge of his seat. Amid the orchestra's mounting and rhapsodic harmonies -- templates for Gershwin -- Nakamatsu uncorked fizzy champagne streams, churning toccata ornamentations and galloping syncopations, as well as double-barreled chording up and down the keyboard. One might say he laid it on thick, but -- what the heck -- it's Rachmaninoff.

There was one more explosion: the roar of the crowd, as it jumped to its feet. After his third set of bows, Nakamatsu played an encore, Schumann's "Widmung," as arranged for piano by Liszt. More elegance. More song.

And lest I forget, the program began with a performance of Brahms's Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor, Op. 25, as orchestrated by Arnold Schoenberg.

One could see the very shape of the music in Kamensek's gestures, though the orchestra was not quite "there" yet, especially in the two inner movements, where the sectional interplay grew gnarly. Still, there was much to enjoy. Young Brahms was a melody machine, and there were impressive cameos by members of the orchestra, notably from concertmaster Robin Mayforth and principal clarinet Michael Corner.

The weekend's additional performances should bring Schoenberg's dense score into better focus. At Friday's performance, the finale was best. Taken at a clip, its Hungarian-style dances sounded great. They crackled.

Contact Richard Scheinin at 408-920-5069, read his stories and reviews at www.mercurynews.com/richard-scheinin and follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/richardscheinin.

symphony silicon valley

Conductor Karen Kamensek, pianist Jon Nakamatsu perform Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 and Brahms' Piano Quartet No. 1, arranged for orchestra by Schoenberg
When: 2:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: California Theatre, 345 S. First St., San Jose
Tickets: $41-$83; www.symphonysiliconvalley.org or at the door (Limited availability Sunday)