Parker, Ling take Beethoven to new heights

Jon Kimura Parker performs with the San Diego Symphony during the Beethoven Festival on Saturday night at Copley Symphony Hall.

REVIEW | 04.26.10 | By James Chute,  | San Diego Union-Tribune Arts Editor
The last time Jon Kimura Parker was in town, it was for the La Jolla Music Society’s SummerFest, when he put on a Star Trek uniform, joined in a multipianist version of the theme from the iconic TV show, and even did a memorable impression of McCoy, exclaiming, “Dammit Jim, I’m a concert pianist, not a …”

Saturday at Copley Symphony Hall for the belated opening of the San Diego Symphony Orchestra’s Beethoven Festival, Parker boldly went where few men have gone before, substituting for an ailing Yefim Bronfman.

Bronfman is slated to return next weekend and the symphony will twice repeat a program identical to Saturday’s: the Concerto No. 5 and Symphony No. 8. But no matter what Bronfman does, it may be a bit anticlimactic, given Parker’s stunning performance, which was matched by conductor Jahja Ling, who also had an inspired outing.

The festival was originally scheduled to kick off last Thursday, but Bronfman’s illness, according to the symphony, forced the cancellation of that concert and prompted the engagement of Parker and pianist Orli Shaham, who will perform this Thursday. The musicians, who were in the pit of the Civic Theatre on Friday for “La Traviata,” seemed to relish the opportunity to finally delve into Beethoven on Saturday (they were back at the Civic on Sunday for the opera’s final performance).

From the F major chord at the beginning of the Symphony No. 8, which opened the program, it was clear the orchestra came ready to play. You name it — the incisiveness of the strings, the warm, burnished quality of the wood — the playing was crisp and alert.

That undoubtedly had a lot to do with Ling, who showed a complete command of the score. This was Beethoven straight up, with few twists.

Ling may have pushed the tempos toward their extreme (or toward Beethoven’s own metronome markings), but the orchestra handled it with ease, never sounding rushed or out of breath, only energetic.

And at the end of the first movement, when he relaxed the tempo just slightly (despite the absence of any indication in the score), rather than sounding self-conscious or affected, it worked beautifully, as the music seemed to evaporate into thin air.

As for the musical jokes that are famously part of this score, Ling avoided outlining or drawing attention to them, but wisely just let them speak for themselves. While there may not have been any belly laughs, there were plenty of smiles when the final movement, Allegro vivace, raced to a close before intermission.

It would be unfair to say the second half belonged to Parker as it was a remarkably collaborative interpretation of the Concerto No 5, the “Emperor.” Parker and Ling were not only on the same page; they matched each other paragraph for paragraph, sentence for sentence, word for word. Each phrase passed from orchestra to piano and back again seemed at times to explode, at other times to gently meld into the next phrase.

Consider the concerto’s opening, where there are a series of rhapsodic passages for solo piano, launched by a single chord from the full orchestra, and each culminating in a single chord. It sounded as if from one mind as the piano line reached its exact apex and, at that precise moment, the orchestra would sound.

Throughout the entire concerto there was that same compelling singularity of musical purpose, whether in the most dramatic moments of the opening movement, the sublime portions of the second, or animated, rollicking passages in the third.

While Parker’s technical facility was more than a match for this concerto’s fiendish technical demands (is there any other piece of piano music that has so many trills?), even more impressive was his control of touch and tone. There were moments where he was hammering on the symphony’s 9-foot Steinway, but there were also moments (especially in the second movement Adagio un poco moto) where he seemed to caress the tone out of his instrument, not only making the piano sing, but at times making it whisper.

More often, however, he made the piano roar, and the enthusiastic audience did the same at the work’s conclusion. Their reward was an encore: the final movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23, the beloved “Appassionata.” Parker introduced it as his favorite sonata and offered an interpretation that, like him, is best described as fearless.


"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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