Jon Kimura Parker conquers the Grieg concerto with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra

For the VSO’s pending American tour, Jon Kimura Parker takes on an old favourite, while Edward Top sees a totemic debut
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For proof that chutzpah is as important as competence, even in classical music, consider pianist Jon Kimura Parker’s 1980 debut with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. The Vancouver-born pianist had just moved to New York City to study at the Juilliard School when his hometown came calling—and he admits that he was far from ready to answer.

“There’s kind of a story behind that,” he says with a laugh, reached by phone at his Rice University teaching studio in Houston, Texas. “I don’t even know if the VSO knows this part of the story, but I was 19, and I got a phone call from whoever was the manager of the Vancouver Symphony at that time, and he said, ‘We have an opening for the Grieg piano concerto this March. Is that in your repertoire?’

“This was in November, and I thought, ‘Five months? No problem: I can learn the Grieg in five months. But if I tell him that I’m going to learn it, he’s probably not going to hire me.’ I don’t know where I had all this savvy, but I just blurted out, without thinking, ‘Yes, of course I know the Grieg. I’ve been playing it for years, and I’m definitely available in March.’ ”

Fair enough. Sometimes you’ve got to do whatever it takes to get the job. There was a hitch, however. As Parker tells it, what followed nearly collapsed his confidence altogether.

“At that point,” he relates, “he said, ‘Well, the conductor is actually going to be in New York next week, so we’ll set up an audition and you can play it for him.’ I was completely panicked.”

Even with a week’s worth of 16-hour days behind him, Parker had only managed to memorize the Piano Concerto in A Minor’s first movement when it came time for his fateful appointment. Thinking on his feet, he convinced conductor Harry Ellis Dickson to let him play Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Appassionata” sonata first, then a Frédéric Chopin ballade. Dickson was decidedly antsy by the time Kimura Parker played what he was supposed to, but the first movement did the trick.

The concert was a smash, and led to a Boston Pops performance of the same work that launched the young pianist internationally. He’s never looked back—until now.

It’s not that Parker needs to brush up on the Grieg, which he’ll perform with the VSO this weekend, and also on the orchestra’s upcoming eight-city tour of the western United States, from Seattle to Las Vegas. It’s that when the Georgia Straight calls, he’s just finished teaching the concerto, for the first time ever, to one of his more promising students.

“We were working on it, and all these thoughts about the piece started spilling out of me that I’ve never had to verbalize before,” he says. “I think I went through a phase where I wanted to be terribly serious about my intent, but now I just feel like I should have fun with it. I should let it be showy where it’s showy, let it be beautiful where it’s beautiful, and let it speak in the way that piano concertos speak. The best piano concertos combine all of those elements, and this is absolutely in that category.”

Parker isn’t the only one who’ll be getting a workout at the Orpheum, and on the VSO’s tour. The ensemble’s percussionists will also be challenged, by both the Slavic pulse of Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major and the less familiar rhythms of Edward Top’s Totem, which makes its debut this weekend. As the VSO’s resident composer tells it in a separate telephone interview, Top’s first impulse was to draw on First Nations rhythms. On reflection, however, he decided to go in a different direction.

“I spoke with several friends and also some First Nations artists about it, and one of my friends suggested, ‘Rather than taking music from First Nations sources, why don’t you use something from your own background that kind of is a parallel with an idea that appears in First Nations music—the verbal passing-on of songs.’ So I used a song from my grandmother, something that’s been passed down in my family. It’s a moralizing song in Dutch about a mouse and a cat.

“And in the last tableau, the objective was to write music as used in ceremonies or transformational rituals, where a pulse is getting you into some kind of alternative state,” he continues. “And, again, I looked into my own passions. Even though I’m a classically trained violinist, I’ve always been very interested in death metal and thrash metal, and one band called Napalm Death in particular. So for that kind of drumming, the blastbeat drumming, I’m actually using a drum kit in the orchestra—and I’m really nervous about it! I don’t know if it’s going to work, or how it’s going to blend with the orchestra. But it’s pretty intense.”

Not every orchestra is capable of jumping from the mosh pit to the peaceful fiords of Grieg’s Norway—but, based on its touring program, the VSO is up for the challenge. 

Jon Kimura Parker joins the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra at the Orpheum on Saturday and Monday (January 19 and 21).

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John Marven
I love music. This article actually explains why I love music. There really are no boundaries.
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