The Adventures of Concerto Man!

Concerto Man!

By any measure the 2010-2011 season will be an extraordinary one for Jon Kimura Parker. Ask any pianist to name the top five difficult piano concerti, and chances are you will see Rachmaninoff 3rd, Brahms 2nd, and Barber on that list. Imagine performing all three in one season, and adding everything from Tchaikovsky 1 and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, to Grieg, Mozart 27, and Beethoven’s “Emperor.” It’s not hard to see why Jon Kimura Parker has earned the nickname “Concerto Man.”

LizPR sat down to speak with Jackie about this daunting schedule.

LizPR: Are you out of your mind? How does this kind of schedule happen?
JKP: It can come about in many ways. First of all, orchestras are much more selective about programming than they used to be. You’re less likely to see “Subscription Series No. 7” and more likely to see, for example, “Made in America,” which pretty much implies the Gershwin or Barber concerti, at least in terms of mainstream repertoire. If my concerts fall on Valentine’s Day weekend, I’m often asked for Rachmaninoff 2nd, or perhaps Mozart 21 (which famously added atmosphere to a romantic movie that apparently nobody’s ever seen: “Elvira Madigan.”)

LizPR: So a lot of the decision-making comes from the orchestra side?
JKP: Certainly. They are the ones who need to sell tickets. The communication between conductor, orchestra, manager and artist can feel like a delicate dance. Sometimes everything is decided in a day. On other occasions I’ve had months of back and forth negotiations, and once or twice, after offering 8 different concerti and having none of them fit, we’ve decided to postpone until the following season.

LizPR: But I’ve heard stories of some artists insisting on playing the same concerto for a whole season. Wouldn’t that make your life easier?
JKP: I once played Beethoven 3rd Concerto dozens of times in one season: with Christopher Hogwood and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra on a tour of Europe, and with Gunther Herbig and the Toronto Symphony on an Asian tour. Every concert was a unique experience, and it wasn’t just because of playing a new piano every night, or being in a different city. I was inspired by my colleagues, and by a musical masterpiece that simply changes every time I play it.

But having said that, I’ve never voluntarily insisted on playing the same concerto for a whole season. It would limit my chances to explore the vast repertoire of piano concerti, and I think it would limit my opportunities with orchestras, who have specific repertoire needs from week to week.

Of course, all of this decision-making should be invisible to the concert-going public. Their first contact with repertoire choice is when they see next season’s brochure, and everything (usually) is perfectly in place. But somewhere in the background, an orchestra’s Artistic Administrator has been pulling his or her hair out…!

LizPR: How are you going to pace yourself through this grueling season of concerti?
JKP: Some parts of the season will be reasonable. I’m playing Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue and Tchaikovsky early in the fall (these are classic season opening works) and I’ve performed these very often. The first big challenge will be the Barber Concerto. I recorded this spectacular work for Telarc many years ago but have not played it recently. I’m offering it to coincide with the centenary of Barber’s birth, and Peter Oundjian was thrilled to present it (along with Gil Shaham playing the Barber Violin Concerto) with the Toronto Symphony in October 2010. Believe me, I’m aAReady working on it…

The killer month for me will be February 2011. In a three-week period, I’m performing Rachmaninoff 3rd with Andrew Litton and the Minnesota Orchestra, Tchaikovsky 1st with Daniel Hege and the Wichita Symphony, and then Brahms 2nd with Larry Rachleff and the Rhode Island Philharmonic. That’s going to be an interesting month!

LizPR: How will you manage your practicing? Clearly you can’t wait for one work to be ‘performed’ before practicing the next.
JKP: True. In fact, on some concert nights I have been known to return to the concert hall at midnight, set myself up at the upright piano in my dressing room, and practice for next week’s concerto. I usually have to do it that way: earlier in the day I feel a bit guilty practicing Brahms if I’m performing Tchaikovsky that evening.

LizPR: Your season encompasses everything from Mozart to Rachmaninoff and Gershwin. Have you ever confined your repertoire to a certain period or style?
JKP: One of my friends, the great hornist William VerMeulen, when asked what kind of music he likes, replies “Good Music.” I’ve always believed in that philosophy and consequently have played and listened to music ranging from jazz to rock, as well as almost every corner of the classical repertoire.

There are times when I feel more comfortable with the elegance of Mozart, and other times when I need to let loose with a Brahmsian flurry of octaves. Pianists are blessed with a depth and richness of repertoire not equaled for any other solo instrument; it would be a shame to specialize too much and miss out!

LizPR: What kind of skills do you take to a concerto performance that you wouldn’t need in a recital setting?
JKP: That’s a great question…the first prerequisite of concerto playing is to be a great listener, and that often comes with chamber music experience. You have to be able to react to minute changes that are constantly happening around you.

Another skill borrowed from chamber music is developing an instinctive knowledge of when to lead and when to follow. Many people assume that the conductor is just ‘following’ the soloist, but in some repertoire – Rachmaninoff 3rd is a great example – I think the performance is usually better when the conductor leads the whole work. (Of course, that works best when the conductor is leading in the way the soloist actually wants…and that brings up another important concerto playing prerequisite: negotiating skills!)

It certainly helps to have a ‘big’ sound, especially if you’re playing almost any concerto by a Russian composer. Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Prokofieff and others wrote symphonic orchestra parts that can be sonically overwhelming and occasionally you really do have to play “vs.” the orchestra. On the other hand, if you’re playing a Mozart Concerto, you might want your sound to blend with the orchestra to create a more harmonious whole.

LizPR: Thank you, and good luck on managing this remarkable load of works next season!
JKP: First, I have to finish this season, which includes the Rachmaninoff-Paganini Rhapsody, Gershwin Concerto in F, Brahms 1st, Beethoven 3rd


"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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