International Musician | Cover Story | Jon Kimura Parker Travels the World Bringing Piano Concertos to Life
Jon Kimura Parker
By Cherie Yurco As a concert pianist, Jon Kimura Parker of Local 145 (Vancouver, BC) travels to a different venue most every weekend, giving 60 or 70 concerts each year. He’s also professor of piano for Shepherd School of Music at Rice University, Houston. We caught up with him when he was “commuting” between Houston and China for performances of Beethoven’s Piano Concertos No. 3 and No. 4. “This is a very exciting tour; I’m playing as a soloist with the three most important orchestras in China—China Philharmonic in Beijing, Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, and Guangzhou Symphony,” he says explaining why he just couldn’t pass up the opportunity, despite the fact that he was in mid-semester and preparing for a student concert in early December. So, he’s flying back and forth for weekend concerts on the other side of the world. A dedicated educator, Parker took on his position at Shepherd about 11 years ago. He had just turned 40 and felt drawn to teach. “I started to feel a responsibility to pass on the legacy because I benefited from great teaching,” explains the musician whose own instruction began with his mom and uncle, both piano instructors. Raised in Vancouver, British Columbia, Parker’s family never missed a Vancouver Symphony performance. They first took note of Parker’s musical abilities when he unexpectedly plucked out a CBC theme song on the piano at age three. Parker fondly remembers his first performance with Vancouver Youth Symphony at age five, despite getting lost in the violin section on his way to the piano. In first grade, he told his teacher that he was going to be a concert pianist “just like Rubinstein,” one of three early piano influences that Parker names. “I listened to his recordings, and he graced the then-small city of Vancouver with live performances on a regular basis,” says Parker, adding that he even met Arthur Rubinstein backstage. “What I loved about his playing was that his love for music clearly affected everybody in the hall.” Other early piano influences are surprisingly not classical, and include Oscar Peterson and Elton John. “Peterson was arguably the world’s greatest ever jazz pianist,” says Parker. “I have endless admiration for him. He radiated incredible joy when he played.” “Elton John was responsible for me making friends in middle school,” explains Parker. “I was kind of a piano nerd and socially a little uncomfortable. I learned the whole Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album by ear and could play the tunes for kids in my class.” Today, an autographed copy of the album hangs in his office at Shepherd.
Rather than distracting him from his performance career, Parker says that teaching has benefitted his own playing. “The fact that I have to clearly verbalize my ideas, makes the ideas clearer to me, and because I spend so much time listening in a very focused way, I’ve fine-tuned my ability to listen in all sorts of circumstances, including when I’m giving a concert,” he says. Working with students also takes Parker back to his own youth. “I want to be inspiring to my students, but the fact is that they inspire me,” he concludes. “Their view of music reminds me of the energy and fresh approach I had in my 20s. That puts me back in touch with my younger self, which is very important.” So, Parker, in turn, shares the wisdom that comes from 25 years of performing recitals, chamber music, and as a concert soloist, something he refers to as “the best of both worlds.” “[As a concert soloist] it is a huge artistic responsibility presenting a work like that on stage, and at the same time collaborating with a conductor and an orchestra. Everybody on stage is important and involved in the music,” he asserts. Among Parker’s personal favorite concertos to perform are Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1, Beethoven No. 3, Rachmaninoff Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, and Gershwin Concerto in F. “I like to play the ones where the orchestra is as involved as I am,” he concludes. One of the key skills he tries to pass on to his students is how to make the music their own without straying too far from the composer’s intentions. “You have to first get a feel for how much the composer is inviting you to be personal,” he explains. “Schumann, and to an almost similar extent, Chopin, really invite a performer to be personal. With Debussy, to a large extent, you should submerge your personality and try to do what he asked you to do.”
Of course, there are other things he considers in his approach to each performance, which must cater to an evolving modern audience. “Today, an audience in America responds well to a style of playing where they are brought into the music,” says Parker who uses sound and timing to help draw them in. “My idea of a piano recital is to try and create an atmosphere that we are all together in a drawing room. I often talk to the audience just enough to break the ice. That way you invite people into the experience.” To that end, Parker has created a series of Concerto Chat videos (available at www.jonkimuraparker.com). “That’s part of my personal mandate to explain what makes a piece interesting,” he says, adding that the videos are also a marketing tool for orchestras, which use them to promote single ticket sales on their websites. “That’s another thing that has changed,” Parker continues, explaining that today fewer people are subscription holders. “An orchestra is much more dependent on single ticket sales, so a program has to be interesting on its own merits.” And because of these changing dynamics, Parker is thankful that the union is around to support orchestras. “The union is extremely important to me,” he says. “I think the union has done so much for the health of orchestras in this country, and for musicians to feel that they are treated well.” Finally, he says, exposing children to the music is more critical than ever. “When I’m traveling I spend quite a bit of time playing in schools and educational programs,” he says, asserting that most of them won’t stay with music, but it familiarizes them with something they will come back to as tomorrow’s audience. “Almost everybody I meet after a concert tells me about their experiences taking piano lessons, yet almost none still play. However, they have an appreciation for the physicality of playing and for music as an art form, and that translates to them coming to concerts.”
Life on the Road
The life of a concert pianist is solitary and unique among professional musicians. Every instrument they perform on is different, and it’s critical that they be flexible and able to quickly adapt. “I often arrive in a city late on Wednesday, meet the conductor for the first time on Thursday, have an afternoon rehearsal, and then Friday we have a dress rehearsal and concert,” he says. “So, in a very short time we need to collaborate on a major piece of music in a meaningful way. Being able to make that relationship work quickly, to have artistic conviction, and at the same time, a certain degree of flexibility, is a big part of traveling and playing concertos,” he adds. “The other person I have to communicate with effectively is the local piano technician. There are a lot of little things that can be done to make a piano sound more Rachmaninoff friendly or more Mozart friendly,” explains Parker. “Some of that you can do yourself as a pianist, but you really want your technician to feel motivated to make it work as best as they can for you.” Looking back on hundreds of performances worldwide, two stand out in his mind. “The first time I played Carnegie Hall I was playing the Prokofiev Piano Concerto, and I was probably 27 or so. My heart started pounding so fast I thought I might pass out,” he says. “When I started to play, I felt at home and the concert went really well. After that I thought, ‘You know, if you can survive Carnegie Hall, you can always look back on that and feel a little better about whatever you are nervous about,’ and I often do.” However, the concert he is most proud of wasn’t performed in a fancy hall. In 1995, he was invited by the relief organization AmeriCares to perform with the Sarajevo Symphony Orchestra at a New Year’s Eve concert following the Dayton Peace Agreement. “I accompanied an airlift on a C-130 transport plane, put on a flak jacket, and was taken by armored car to my hotel in Sarajevo. The whole thing was truly surreal,” he says. “The concert hall was damaged; they got enough electricity to have light, but there wasn’t much heat. I was amazed there was a good Steinway that had not been damaged.” “I played the Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto. At the end of the performance, an elderly Bosnian women came backstage eager to speak with me,” says Parker. “Through a translator she told me that she wanted me know that, during the second movement, for a few brief minutes, she realized that she had forgotten about the war. And I thought, ‘That’s why I’m a musician.’ Everything I’ve done as a musician added up to that one statement. I’ll never forget how I felt and everything about that experience. As memorable concerts go, that takes the cake.” Despite living in the US for the past 30 years, Parker remains a member of his original Vancouver local. “It’s a way of identifying with my roots,” he says, adding that he still has close musical ties to the city. In fact, this January he will be touring the US as soloist with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. “It’s a huge honor to be part of that tour. I’ll be playing the Grieg Piano Concerto, the very first piano concerto I performed with them back in 1980.” Parker’s 2013 calendar is already booked through May with more than 30 performances, yet he still finds time for other projects. “To celebrate the centennial of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, I have recorded my own arrangements of the complete ballet,” he says, adding he wasn’t sure if it could be done when he first tackled the project, working from the full orchestral score. The CD will be available early in the new year and he will be performing it at a recital series, “Doing Rite by Stravinsky,” throughout the spring