The Vancouver Sun – Lessons Learned: Pianist Jon Kimura Parker Always Up For a Challenge
Jon Kimura Parker may be an internationally acclaimed concert pianist, but that doesn’t mean he’s above rocking out to Rush or humming a little Taylor Swift. In this week’s Lessons Learned, Parker, whose current projects include working on a solo transcription of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, talks about the two pianists who changed his life, his biggest challenge and his new-found appreciation of NFL football.
A professor of piano at Rice University, Parker has lived in Houston for the last 10 years and makes it back up to his hometown of Vancouver once or twice a year, often to play with the VSO, which he’ll do once again (performing the Grieg Piano Concerto) later this month.
“When warming up before a concert, many performers focus on the technical difficult passages. I tend to play the whole work through from beginning to end. Sometimes I do this on the most hideously out-of-tune upright pianos in concert hall basements! If I am performing from memory I go through a mental checklist of all the dangerously confusing spots. Most importantly, I make sure to have something to eat. I hate playing hungry.
“I’ve also learned that while the conductor is my most important musical ally when I perform with orchestra, my most practical ally can be the piano technician. There’s a lot of last-minute fussing that can hugely help my performances!
“Having actually organized and pulled off a family vacation to Hawaii over the holidays, I feel like I’m currently balanced. But the truth is, a work/life balance is very difficult to maintain, and I tend to overwork. Despite being 53, I tend to think of myself as an “emerging artist”! I’m always looking for some other challenge or some concert I’ve never played.
“I’m profoundly grateful for being able to do work that reflects humanity. I couldn’t manage work that revolved around numbers on a computer screen, for example. To know that a musical performance has touched someone makes everything about being a musician worthwhile. Sometimes I walk down the street and look at people’s faces and try to imagine what music they most like to listen to. But I would probably be wrong as often as I would be right.
“I met two pianists who changed my life. The first was concert pianist Arthur Rubinstein, whom I met backstage at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre when I was 12. I was utterly resolved to do what he did – to communicate joy through music. In my 20s I met legendary jazz pianist Oscar Peterson several times. He knew that I worshipped him. He inspired me in exactly the same way: I was once so close to him at the Blue Note Jazz Club [in New York] that I heard him grunting with pleasure at a particular turn of phrase.
“I was raised in Vancouver for the first 20 years of my life, in North Burnaby. Other than a trip to Tokyo to visit relatives when I was a teenager, I travelled infrequently. I absolutely assumed that all cities were as beautiful and diverse as Vancouver, and I still chastise myself for not appreciating it enough when I lived there. I love the mountains, and the ocean, and forests, and of course all of that is on Vancouver’s doorstep. From a musical perspective, my mother particularly inspired me to be disciplined and my father showed me what music could mean emotionally. I can’t imagine being successful as a pianist without both of those influences in equal amounts. I did go through a massive rebellion phase of wanting to be much more hip than my parents, whose only musical pleasure was classical. I still listen to a lot of rock when I’m not working!
“Growing up, I was a huge Pink Floyd fan. Some of my grad students, who are older and with whom I have a lot of conversations about music, happened to know I like classic rock, and asked if I’d save a Sunday evening in December, but didn’t tell me why. We end up at the Toyota Center. I wondered, “Why are we here?” And we walked in and it was Rush! The last time I heard Rush live I think was in Vancouver in 1977. And it was the same three guys, and they were amazing. They finally did “Tom Sawyer.” That was great, that was the first rock concert I’ve been to in a long time. Now that my daughter’s 13, I was actually humming a Taylor Swift song the other day, which I never thought would happen. But she plays it all the time so I couldn’t help it.
“At 13, my daughter Sophie shows a maturity, wisdom and sense of humour that I couldn’t have dreamed of when I was at that age. But then at 13, all I did was practice the piano.
“Against all odds I’ve become an NFL fan and follow the Houston Texans and almost understand how the game works. I’m watching Downton Abbey and reruns of Alias with my family. My morning ritual is coffee with the nytimes.com.
“Last month I had the opportunity to visit an observatory at the top of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii. You feel like you’re in heaven up there, looking down on Earth and upward towards the sky. I love places that give you a sense of the Earth’s majesty.
“My biggest challenge was 25 years ago: quitting smoking. I waited until I had the flu and then smoked until I was completely ill, so that I would always remember my last cigarette as being a miserable experience. I still draw on (no pun intended) that experience to remind me that I can accomplish anything.
“We have three pets. Oscar, contending for world’s most flexible, loving and relaxed cat. Scout, a tuxedo cat, whose slight general nervousness reflects my own, and Ricky, a terrier mix whose general enthusiasm for life is quite inspiring!
“I’m grateful that I’ve had years of opportunities to share what I love about music. There’s nothing like it.”
— Compiled by Shawn Conner, Vancouver Sun