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Articles & Interviews

These Symphony-commissioned feature articles offer insights into the music you'll hear in the concert hall. We hope you'll find them provocative and entertaining.

Jul 5, 2016

Makoto Ozone: The accidental classical pianist

Pianist Makoto Ozone performs George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with the San Francisco Symphony. Ozone began performing classical music after establishing a career as a jazz musician © Yow Kobayashi

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“I can’t believe I said yes to this,” says Makoto Ozone with a chuckle. He’s talking about his upcoming performance as the soloist in Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3, part of the San Francisco Symphony summer concert series.

The veteran jazz pianist has been making a name for himself as a performer of Gershwin’s jazzy Rhapsody in Blue, and had already agreed to play that piece with the Symphony. But he and his friend Edwin Outwater, the Symphony’s Director of Summer Concerts, had played the Prokofiev Third in Japan with the Tokyo Metropolitan Orchestra, and Ozone admits “it had a good vibe.”

Outwater is a bit more forthcoming: “He did a great job. Makoto plays so beautifully, plus he can improvise like Oscar Peterson. He is one serious musician.”

To be clear, Ozone does not improvise in the Prokofiev; but he does bring a certain extemporaneous flair to his performance. And of course Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue takes full advantage of his improvisational chops. “Gershwin is trying to capture the essence of jazz throughout this classical concerto,” Ozone points out. “So I make each performance a new experience while keeping a sense of continuity.”

Ozone has had a long and distinguished career in jazz — both at home in Japan and here in the States. His choice of music school — Berklee College of Music rather than Juilliard — was, the story goes, driven by his inability to read music. So a career in classical music seemed unlikely, even after Ozone began playing Gershwin’s jazzy masterpiece.

“I stumbled into classical music by accident,” he recalls. He was booked by an orchestra, and assumed that he’d be playing Gershwin. But he later found out the orchestra was intending to play the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 9.

“It was too late to back out,” he says, “so I learned it.” As it turns out, Ozone can indeed read music!

With the Prokofiev and Gershwin already under his belt, Ozone is adding one new piece to his repertoire, and that piece, the Exhibition Blues, plays right to his strengths. It’s a set of clever variations by Erik Jekabson on themes from Mussorgsky’s popular Pictures at an Exhibition, which serves as the basis for improvisation.

“I hadn’t heard of it before,” he says, “but I like the arrangement so much. It’s one of the reasons I love the SFS — they’re so creative, and so open to trying new things.”

The feeling, conductor Edwin Outwater says, is mutual. Ozone’s improvisatory spirit, even in a completely notated work like the Prokofiev, inspires the orchestra “to take more risks, to play more freely. You get a real sense of adventure. It’s definitely infectious.”

If you go

Makoto Ozone performs Mussorgsky’s (arr. Jekabson) Exhibition Blues and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with the San Francisco Symphony, July 23 at 7:30pm at Davies Symphony Hall. (415) 864-6000, Ozone performs Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with the San Francisco Symphony in a free outdoor concert at Pier 27, on July 24 at 12pm. No tickets required.