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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

concertos.

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"

overture.

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

orchestra."

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

conductor.

"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

the piano."

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

pianists.

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

15 kids.

"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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