Orchestra’s surprising encore a perfect fit

REVIEW  |  07.24.08  | Philadelphia Inquirer

Choosing an encore can be a squidgy business, and on a night such as Tuesday at the Mann Center, with the air still vibrating from a voluble Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1, pianist Jon Kimura Parker offered exactly what was least expected: a quiet Joplin rag called Solace.

It was a risk. The Mann’s lawns were thickly populated for the Philadelphia Orchestra’s annual all-Tchaikovsky program and fireworks – or rather, fireworks and all-Tchaikovsky – and crowds were already milling about when Parker started his encore.

But Solace‘s contemplation, it turns out, was just what this moment needed. For three or four minutes, a bittersweet rag served as a compelling foil to the brass fanfares and cannon blasts of the rest of the evening.

It’s also what Parker did with the piece that made it so arresting. On the page, the music is simple enough for an intermediate piano student to decipher. In performance it’s an utterly sophisticated sleight of ear. In this take, Parker erased the bar lines and took written note values as mere suggestions. He cheated time beautifully, delivering the piece to a realm of looseness and meditation that showed why Joplin is widely thought of as a kind of genius.

I also loved Parker’s approach to the second movement of the Tchaikovsky. With Andrew Grams on the podium, it was brisk and hopeful. Orchestra flutist David Cramer and oboist Peter Smith were especially fine and mellow.

What is it about Cramer lately? Stepping into the first- chair spot a lot this past season, the veteran player seems only to have deepened as an artist. He has presence, authority, and an unusually warm sound. It once again reminds us how generously stocked some of the orchestra’s sections are, beyond the principal desks.

Parker is an agile, communicative pianist. What his tone is like was not entirely clear to me through the Mann’s sound system, which can sometimes make the piano sound tinny. Still, he came across as the author of some interesting interpretive ideas.

Regarding interpretation, at the start of three movements from Tchaikovsky’s suite from The Sleeping Beauty, I was afraid that Grams, 30, might not have a lot going on. Some spots lacked any sense of instrumental balance, and at times the conductor, making his Philadelphia Orchestra debut, was more impressively aerobic than musical.

But at some point, things just clicked. He and the orchestra made an unspoken deal to make music together, and in a climactic moment in The Sleeping Beauty, excerpts from The Nutcracker, and even in the monstrously over-done 1812 Overture, Grams made a personal imprint that gathered up a spirit of generous approval from the musicians around him.


"Fantasy is not just a technical showcase, but a big, clear picture window of a musician with a rich soul and great artistic depth. It is also a fantastic example of programming that entertains as well as edifies.”
-Musical Toronto

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