Jon Kimura Parker shows profoundly beautiful focus with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra

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Vancouver Symphony Orchestra with pianist Jon Kimura Parker. At the Orpheum Theatre on Saturday, January 19. Continues on January 21

In a recent interview with the Georgia Straight, pianist Jon Kimura Parker confided that he keeps a signed photograph of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg—a gift from violinist and autograph collector Joshua Bell—on the wall of his studio. It’s an apt totem, for the Vancouver-born musician made his orchestral debut playing Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor with the VSO, in 1980. The piece also announced his arrival on the international stage a few months later, when he appeared with the Boston Pops.

But is it possible to deduce something about Parker’s performance style from the other signed headshots he displays at home in Houston, Texas? Beyond his obvious brilliance as a pianist, there seemed little to link him to jazz giant Chick Corea. But like Elton John, Parker does sometimes come across as an amiable ham, from his effusive, grinning entrance to his habit of levitating briefly after every passage of showy finger-play.

These mannerisms were briefly off-putting during Parker’s return to the Orpheum stage, and to the Grieg concerto, this weekend. On reflection, though, they have more to do with his ebullient personality than his musicianship; as one might expect, his performance of Grieg’s lone piano concerto was suave, flawless, and at points even thrilling.

It helped that Parker had similarly impeccable support from the VSO, under Bramwell Tovey’s almost balletic direction. The orchestra has been at peak form in recent performances, and it seems this will continue through its upcoming tour of the western United States, during which it will reprise this weekend’s program.

Fine as it was during the Grieg, the orchestra’s subsequent performance of Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major was arguably even better.

Frankly, I don’t care for the score. Although VSO commentator Don Anderson’s program notes cite its “impression of optimism” and “carnival-like atmosphere”, the 1944 work sounds lugubrious to me, its seeming good humour forced and its folkloric sequences leaden.

Yet as Tovey and the orchestra worked their way through its four movements, a vivid series of images came unbidden into my mind. The stamping of Russian troops trudging homeward through snow. Mothers mourning sons who did not come home. Boxcars full of klezmer musicians bound for the gas chambers of Treblinka. Prokofiev himself, dancing obeisance on Stalin while his wife and sons shivered in Siberian captivity.

Ugly images, brought to life by ugly music performed with profoundly beautiful focus. Quite remarkable, really.

Also remarkable was VSO resident composer Edward Top’s concert-opening Totem. The regional implications of the work’s title were reflected in its occasional use of First Nations rhythms, but Top also worked items of personal significance into his score: a sentimental Dutch song handed down through his family, and the aggressive blastbeats of thrash metal he thrilled to as a teenager. Transmogrified by the composer’s active imagination and keen sense of sonic detail, they helped make the piece a considerable pleasure, albeit one that was all too brief.

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