Silence filled the McKay Auditorium as internationally recognized pianist Robert Nakea took a few calming breaths before beginning his performance of the Complete Chopin Etudes on Jan. 12.
“Robert played on this stage with the Honolulu Symphony [Orchestra] when he was 15,” explained Scott McCarrey, a BYU–Hawaii professor of piano. “Tonight he is playing the complete set of etudes, which is a very rare occurrence.”
Stacy McCarrey, special instructor in the music department, said, “I thought it was amazing just to hear all 24 etudes back-to-back like that. Each one of them is a feat in and of itself and to be able to do all of them is incredible. It’s pretty rare. He was telling us earlier sometimes a performer will play one of the Opuses, but rarely both.”
According to the program biography, “Robert Nakea was born in Honolulu, but spent much of his youth on the Island of Kaua’i. He started his piano studies at age six, and by age fifteen made his soloist debut with the Honolulu Symphony.”
Nakea said BYUH is a special place for him. “I was a convert to the Church at age 15. The same year, I won the youth competition to play with the Honolulu Symphony. That concert was given here in the [McKay] Auditorium. When I was 15, I played Grieg's Piano Concerto with the Honolulu Symphony.
“I wanted to come back, plus I have dear friends who are faculty members here, and I wanted to see them. It just worked out we could fit into the house schedule. I'm touring with the repertoire of the 24 etudes of Chopin. It worked out perfectly.”
Nakea began the performance with the 12 Etudes of Opus 10, followed by a brief intermission. He then played the 12 Etudes of Opus 25, for a total of just over one hour of solo piano performance. He performed the etudes from memory.
Jennifer Duerden, special instructor in the music department, explained how the influence of Nakea’s Polish piano teacher translated into his interpretation of the etudes. “He has Polish influence because he worked with a Polish teacher for 25 years. That’s the source of the music, so it’s nice to hear an interpretation that reflects that.”
“The Chopin Etudes hold a very special place in Nakea’s heart, earning his devotion to these virtuoso masterpieces of the solo piano repertoire largely in part under the influence of his teacher Lydia Janina Zakrzweska, a native of Warsaw, Poland, with whom he studied for 25 years,” according to the program biography.
Nakea said, “[Chopin] became my best friend, musically speaking, when I was 12 years old. I fell in love with his music... Every time I opened up a score of Chopin, my spirit just buzzed and I felt like I knew him. I knew his musical personality and I knew his heart, his soul. Even though I was still uneducated as a pianist, there was this emotional, spiritual connection I had as a boy with his music. It has continued, and now happily I can actually play his music.”
Both Duerden and McCarrey commended Nakea on his skills on the piano. McCarrey, who said she went to BYU with Nakea back in the ‘80s, said, “He has amazing technical skill. I was interested the whole entire time. I was drawn in by his musicality and amazed by his technical skill… It’s wonderful to see him again and hear him play again.”
Duerden expressed similar sentiments, saying, “We had a master class with him today, and he talked about a lot of the things he wanted the students to bring out in their playing of Chopin. He did it himself tonight. He talked about bringing out the melody and also remembering there’s a bass line. There are a lot of different parts in the music of Chopin, so he talked about how to play so all the parts can be heard. I feel like he did that very well. His piano skills are amazing.”
Nakea said a pianist is always learning. “I’ve learned so much in the last year. Chopin was learning also. The second Opus is much more mature than the first. The instrument itself changed, especially in the pedal. When you work with the pedal, you hear music that isn’t there… Chopin trains you like an Olympian. You learn how to conserve energy and create a musical effect without laboring so hard.”