Corrections or additions?
This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the October 27,
2004 issue of
U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Jon Kimura Parker
Among the chief worriers about the future of classical music are the
Music Critics Association of North America and the National Arts
Journalism Project based at Columbia University. The two joined for a
weekend of worrying in mid-October and listened to diverse takes on
their common problem.
Repeatedly, participants pointed fingers at the re-playing of
traditional orchestral music, and the re-reviewing of much-repeated
pieces. Michael Gordon of the contemporary music group "Bang on a Can"
came up with a telling analogy. Suppose there was a review of "Moby
Dick" every three weeks, he speculated: that wouldn’t be good for the
circulation of the book review section.
Pianist Jon Kimura Parker, who solos in pieces by Bach and Beethoven
for the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s next batch of concerts, has
done his bit to supply music journalists with fresh material by
incorporating non-traditional melodies into the cadenzas of Mozart
Parker, along with Kathleen Nester, flute, and Brennan Sweet, violin,
appear in a conductorless concert Friday, October 29, in Princeton’s
Richardson Auditorium. The three share the spotlight in Bach’s
Brandenburg Concerto No. 5. Parker solos alone in Beethoven’s Piano
Concerto No. 3. The program also includes Stravinsky’s Octet for
Winds; performers are flute, Elizabeth Mann; clarinet, Karl Herman;
bassoons; Robert Wagner and Mark Timmerman; trumpets, Garth Greenup
and David Larson; and trombones, Vernon Post and Vincent Belford. The
full orchestra ends the evening with Beethoven’s "Prometheus"
A collector of rock and roll, Parker says in a telephone interview
from Houston, Texas, "I love music of all sorts. In Mozart concertos,
improvisation is intended. The cadenzas were not published. Pretty
much every time I play Mozart, I slip something in – ‘Star Trek,’ or
drinking songs. When I was playing in Hobart, Australia, K. 466 was on
the program. It’s a dark piece and I was looking for something
suitable for a cadenza. I knew that ‘The X files’ was the most popular
TV show in Australia at the time, so I included the theme. It was
immediately recognized. They got it. Mozart is very flexible."
The conductorless NJSO program is Mozartless, and Parker is not even
tempted to meddle with the notes provided. "I’ll stick to the cadenzas
written by Bach and Beethoven," he says. "These are the most
spectacular cadenzas ever written. I like to improvise, but not here.
The Bach has the first great cadenza ever written. It’s cosmic. The
Beethoven third concerto is probably the next great keyboard cadenza
to be written."
"This is a concert of cadenzas," Parker says. "Even if I don’t do
anything outlandish, it’s exhilarating music. That’s exciting enough.
Beethoven wrote, ‘Don’t play any other cadenza here.’ As creative as I
want to be, his cadenza is so integrated into the piece it’s stunning.
There’s no real choice." Parker is passionate in his enthusiasm.
"[The NJSO] concert is brilliant programming," he says. "The orchestra
asked for the Bach and the Beethoven from the get-go. Beethoven exists
in a different world from Bach, but many elements hark back to him.
The last movement could be the subject of a fugue."
The contrasting roles of orchestra and soloist in the two pieces make
for provocative listening, Parker says. "In the Bach the keyboard is
integrated into the concerto. In the Beethoven, the piano is sometimes
integrated into the orchestra and sometimes pitted against it; after
the opening, when all the themes have been played by the orchestra,
the piano comes in in bold, rising octaves. It challenges the
The NJSO program has major novelties for Parker. "I’ve played the
Beethoven Third Concerto very often," he says. "I’ve played it with
hugely large orchestras and also with chamber orchestras. The most
significant thing at the NJSO is that there’s no conductor. I play a
lot of chamber music, and it will be comfortable to play without a
"I’ll take the lid off the piano and face the players I won’t wave my
arms, but there will be a lot of eye contact. I’ve done some
conductorless Mozart concertos. The absence of a conductor makes all
the players more involved. They’re truly reacting, not just following
the conductor. They play with energy."
For Parker, another novelty is his first ever performance of the Bach
Brandenburg concerto on piano. "I’ve played harpsichord in public only
three times," he says, "and it’s always been in the fifth Brandenburg.
Having played it on harpsichord gives you insights about how to handle
it on piano. With harpsichord there’s no damper pedal, and no control
of volume with your fingers. Since the harpsichord doesn’t have the
mechanical advantages of the piano, it forces you to use rhythms and
to overlap notes for interpretive purposes. But I notice that when I
play the piece on the piano, my foot finds its way to the pedal."
Having assimilated the harpsichord model for performing Bach, Parker,
nevertheless, discovers that he can’t help being a pianist.
Yet another novelty is Parker’s double assignment for the NJSO
program. "Normally," he points out, "in a concerto program, you play
one concerto, and then you’re done."
Now 44, Parker was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, to a
pharmacist father and a piano-teacher mother. His paternal uncle,
Edward Parker, is a recognized piano pedagogue.
Known to the world as "Jackie," Parker acquired the nickname early.
"I’ve never grown out of it," he says. "In fact, nobody calls me Jon
more than once." Parker speaks with articulate warmth.
Parker started piano lessons at age four with his uncle Edward,
appeared with the Vancouver Youth Orchestra at age five, and by the
time he was six knew that he wanted to be a professional pianist.
After university-level studies at Vancouver’s University of British
Columbia, he came to New York’s Juilliard School in 1979 to earn
master’s and doctoral degrees. An unflappable competitor, in 1984 he
won the Leeds, England, competition. New York was his base until 2000.
He met his wife-to-be, violinist Aloysia Friedmann, near the beginning
of his New York period. However, the couple delayed marriage until
1998, after they had weathered the first year of the Orcas Island
Chamber Music Festival, which Friedmann founded.
The Orcas Island Festival, which this summer completed its seventh
season, takes place during the last two weeks of August in the San
Juan Islands, off the coast of Washington State. "We got married the
day after the first festival," Parker says.
"There is a huge variety of events at the festival," Parker says. He
describes one innovative performance. "We did Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of
Spring’ in the original two-piano version, with new choreography by
Benjamin Pierce, a principal dancer at the San Francisco Ballet. He
choreographed it for two dancers. There were two kinds of film
projections: original film work and video projections of our hands on
Since 2001 a professor at the Shepherd School of Music in Houston’s
Rice University, Parker says, "I spend a lot of time explaining music.
Now that I’ve taught Beethoven, I think I have more understanding of
the works than before. I’ve explained it for 20 years. There are
always new things to explore."
"My favorite thing as a musician is to communicate," Parker says. "I
want everybody to get it. I love to perform in schools. I love to be
able to explain what I love about the music. My strategy is to start
with something recognizable – the theme from ‘The Simpsons’ or a rock
piece. I can show that it’s composed of melody and rhythm. I can then
take a raucous finale from a Beethoven symphony or a dreamy Chopin
piece and say, ‘This is made of the same stuff.’" Parker is an ardent
communicator and he has a resident audience, his daughter, Sophie,
five, who studies both violin and piano. She’s my inspiration," her
father says. "I’m experiencing music through her ears."
Through two separate programs on Canadian television, he has reached
out to television viewers. His show "Whole Notes," he says "is geared
to anybody who’s intimidated by music." His program "Up and Coming" is
a showcase for young Canadian performing musicians.
Parker is a founding member of Piano Six, a team of half a dozen
pianists devoted to taking concerts to audiences whose access to
performance is very limited. He and his co-founder, Canadian concert
pianist Janina Fialkowska, initially raised their own funds for the
enterprise, which attracted 10 years’ support from the Canada Council,
the government arts agency. The Canada Council has granted another
decade of support to Encore Six, the successor to Piano Six. The new
team includes violinists, cellists, and vocalists, in addition to
The most remote place where Piano Six called was Baffin Island, in the
region where staunch sailors sought the Northwest Passage. The fifth
largest island in the world, Baffin is more than twice the size of
Great Britain. Its southern tip lies north of the southernmost point
of Greenland. "Baffin is huge," Parker says. "It’s all ice. There’s
almost no vegetation. It was so remote that there was no playable
piano anywhere. I took an 88-key electronic Korg keyboard. We played
in the town of Iqaluit and then drove to Apex on the only paved road
on the island. At Apex we played for every kid in the school – that’s
"I can’t tell you how exhilarating it is to go to a remote area, talk
about music, and have people be thrilled to have music at all," Parker
says. "It feels so good, it’s hard to put a label on it. This is what
music is supposed to be."
Music journalists would have to agree that Parker is a model member of
the musical community, building new audiences, honing newsworthy
approaches, and cementing his career with a large dollop of passion.
– Elaine Strauss
Jon Kimura Parker and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, Friday,
October 29, at 8 p.m. in Princeton University’s Richardson Auditorium.
Tickets: $47 to $58. Call 609-258-5000.
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