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Jon Kimura Parker at a piano

Jon Kimura Parker

Making the piano sound like an entire orchestra

by arwulf arwulf

From the September, 2016 issue

The Ann Arbor Symphony will open its 2016-17 season on September 10 with the Festive Overture, written in 1954 by Dmitri Shostakovich. A friend who watched him dash off this cheerful piece at lightning speed later compared its effervescence to that of uncorked champagne. A more sobering analysis was offered by musicologist Ian MacDonald, who described the overture as "alive with unforced laughter that can only reflect its composer's relief at not having Stalin to worry about anymore."

Also on the menu is a suite of themes from Richard Strauss's opera Der Rosenkavalier. The opera offers nearly everything one could ask from a naughty turn-of-the-century musical comedy: flirtation, dalliance, transvestitism, passionate romance, and wistful reverie. Most of these elements are detectable in the suite, which comes garnished with luscious waltzes.

The concert's main course, Johannes Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 2, will be served by Canadian piano virtuoso Jon Kimura Parker. This gigantic opus, which clocks in at around fifty minutes, teems with shifting rhythms, unconventional chords, and gnarly keyboard passages. Its slow movement opens with what Parker calls one of the most beautiful solos for cello in the entire orchestral repertoire. This concerto, he says, is "music written on a grand scale ... there are passages where it sounds like Brahms is trying to make the piano sound like an entire orchestra."

The same can be said for Parker's ambitious solo piano arrangements of Stravinsky's ballet scores Rite of Spring and Petrushka; not comfortable with existing piano reductions of these works, he set out to re-create his impressions of a full orchestral performance. He won't perform them here, but you can hear the results on his solo album, simply titled Rite.

Parker's online tutorials, which he calls "concerto chats," come in handy for those who are unable to enroll at Rice University in Houston, where he serves on the faculty as piano professor. Parker is as musically omnivorous as he is virtuosic. When invoking Stravinsky, he is likely to express

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his lifelong admiration for Frank Zappa. When discussing Rachmaninoff, he demonstrates how the Russian composer was inspired by jazz piano legend Art Tatum. He does this by playing the opening strains of "Runnin' Wild" in the Tatum manner, hands sailing over the keys as he embellishes the melody with translucent arpeggios.

Parker's six-minute introduction to Beethoven's Emperor Concerto ends with his account of being airlifted into the former Yugoslavia on New Year's Eve 1995, to perform the work with the Sarajevo Philharmonic in celebration of a cease-fire and the signing of a peace accord. After the performance, an elderly Bosnian woman appeared backstage asking to speak with him. Assisted by a translator, she said, "I want you to know that during the adagio, for just a few minutes, I forgot about the war."     (end of article)

[Originally published in September, 2016.]


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