As featured artist at the Sonic Boom festival of new music, Michael Park won’t just be playing the piano—he’ll also have some speaking parts. The Winnipeg-born musician and composer is one of a number of keyboard virtuosos who are increasingly incorporating poetry and theatre into their performances, something Sonic Boom took into account when soliciting submissions for the annual event.
“The call for scores was for work for speaking pianists, for pianists who play and talk while they play,” Park explains, interviewed by phone from his office at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, where he’s music director. “That’s something I’ve been really passionate about ever since I was, like, eight or 10 years old. I’d be practising piano, and my mom would ask me, ‘What do you want to drink, Michael, for dinner?’ and I would struggle to say ‘Mmmm… mmmm… milk!’ It’s just something our brain has to develop, but once you can do that, then it opens up a whole new world.”
In the end, only two of the works he’ll play at Sonic Boom call for this particular skill, but they sound intriguing. Goushi H.K. Yonekura’s Seasons, for instance, tasks him with delivering a text by the 10th-century poet Sei Shōnagon in something resembling Japanese—but using only English words.
“It’s an interesting struggle,” Park says, laughing. “It’s an incredibly challenging piece, pianistically, and what he’s done is taken the ancient Japanese text and replaced it with English words, modern English words, that don’t make any sense. You read the words out and they make no sense in English—but the idea is that if I pronounce those words correctly, a Japanese audience will recognize the text.”
Angelique Po’s Maligne Lake deploys a more straightforward narrative, but required some tweaking before Park felt he could perform it in a believable manner. Originally written from the viewpoint of an elderly woman musing on a youthful summer romance, it was modified to reflect the musician who’ll deliver its world premiere.
“We spent a lot of time talking about what it meant to have a sizable, cis-gendered white man singing from this very young girl’s perspective—or, at the end, from an old woman’s perspective,” Park says. “And it was really fascinating that she was willing to rework her words to fit my own identity.…The text didn’t really change that much, but it changed immensely what baggage the story has.”
At Park’s Saturday (March 24) recital, he’ll also premiere pieces for solo piano by Róisín Adams, Kristy Farkas, and Nolan Krell, before contributing to an eclectic array of works for small ensemble. Like Sonic Boom as a whole, the program offers a good chance to survey Vancouver’s increasingly strong compositional scene—a scene Park says he’s still trying to understand after a decade in B.C.
“What I’ve most noticed on the West Coast is variety,” says Park, whose other local credentials include being a cofounder of the annual Art Song Lab, and who will begin his tenure as the Erato Ensemble’s artistic director this fall. “It’s sort of having the freedom to explore whatever it is that you want to do.”
Sonic Boom 2018 takes place at Pyatt Hall and the Orpheum Annex from Thursday to Sunday (March 22 to 25).