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  • Writer's pictureIlona Oltuski

Jon “Jackie” Kimura Parker – reaching all audiences by rocking the craft

He prefers to be simply called “Jackie,” and from the beginning of a Zoom interview with the Canadian pianist, one can sense that keeping things simple and informal is his usual preferred method; but these are not usual times. (Photo Credit: Bo Huang)

“The planned summer series with the Minnesota Orchestra, the first series of its kind in Minneapolis to

focus on conceptual themes surrounding Beethoven: Beethoven the nature lover, Beethoven and fate, unity and rebellion, was just moved in its entirety to 2021,” he says disappointedly, sharing the hard-to-fathom sentiment felt by artists around the world facing an abrupt halt to all planned performances.

“The Minnesota series also has a lot to offer in terms of social change, needed sorely in these times, especially regarding the Black Lives Matter movement now. Because of their uniquely engaged involvement with the community, we were planning, for example, a program with the Hip-Hop dance company BRKFST , choreographed to Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue, with the string section of the orchestra making room for these dancers to interpret the everlasting quality of classical as a bridge, keeping it relevant today and creating a conversation.”

He continues: “Now my 21-year-old daughter Sophie has been sending links about black composers’ music; I have not learned much about yet. I am interested in a concerto by Florence Price, and other works, who can reach beyond the limits and trigger different responses—this kind of communication is exactly what music can achieve ,” he says.

As we speak, he moves from his seat in front of the computer to the piano bench, making his way through tripods, cameras and microphones, squeezing by his newly-installed recording equipment that turns his teaching studio at Rice University, into a virtual recording studio.

“Of course, there are some online activities, like the Honens @ Home concerts, with laureates from previous competitions. But, for the first six weeks when the COVID crisis started, I completely shut down,” he confides.

“Usually I would be scrambling to practice before an upcoming performance deadline – kind of ‘reactionary’ practicing style. [Just] lately I was able to sit down at the piano with a piece of music I have not played forever—Brahms’ Händel Variations—to enjoy it as this incredible piece of music it is, without the pressure of having to perform it. So, in a way I reconnected with music in a very personal way, reminding me of why I started,” he explains. “I also realized that if anything were to happen in the industry, for now it is only going to take place virtually, from the studio. So, I started teaching myself all I had to know about this new endeavor.”

Born in Vancouver, and an Officer of The Order of Canada—his country’s highest civilian honor—the 60-year-old performer, pedagogue, and recognized voice for social change, continues to tackle new tasks. One of the possibilities the virtual studio provides is opening the dimension of access and reach to worldwide audiences, beyond an immediate physical locality, which is not particularly new, but has never before been so singularly relied upon.

WATCH his latest virtual project giving his pedagogical input on the Grieg Piano Concerto for tonebase, a music coaching platform that aims to democratize high-level music education around the world.

Parker’s wide-ranging and genre-bending performance career has informed his position as sought-after pedagogue at Houston’s Rice University, and his ascension to the post of Artistic Director at Honens, Canada’s eminent international piano competition, held every three years in Calgary. After serving on the competition’s juries in 1992 and 2012, Parker took on its direction in 2018. He explains the competition’s ambition and credo in its search for the “Complete Artist,” which is not a “one size fits all” approach. “What that means,” he clarifies, “is that an artist can sustain a career long term, in a variety of roles.Some series advertise a recital for the winner before they know who that winner will be. Honens arranges concerts and opportunities after we have the winner, and we strategically plan what we feel is feasible for that artist.

“The competition follows an intricate validation process by secret ballot, which I completely respect,” he says. “It has been devised by brilliant mathematicians, but it also recognizes artistic individuality and personal preferences. I do not vote, but counsel the jury several times, reading our ‘Complete Artist’ statement. It basically serves as a reminder for the critical elements the artist must comfortably integrate within their many roles as soloist, collaborative artist, and even accompanist, convincingly delivering their skill and depth of emotional expressivity. It takes a certain personality to sustain all that. An artistic soul—even if it’s a dreamer—who is open to the world of literature and the visual arts and one who takes in that world around them, making it part of their growth in a holistic way and informing their interpretation,” he explains. “And it takes a lot of guidance, too.” He remembers his own experiences as a former competition winner (Leeds 1984), immediately playing 80 concerts, some of which he recalls: “like my then newly prepared program of Chopin Preludes at this big series in Stuttgart, I was just not ready for yet,” he laughs.

“While not everyone is good at everything, there must be versatility, a musical personality that is open to diversity.The selective system Honens has in place works, in that it demands universal standards but everyone can still advocate for their favorite. It may be the only voting system that makes it theoretically possible that someone as original as Glenn Gould could actually win,” he states. And that of course depends heavily on the variety of jurors’ taste and expertise.

Honens’ jurors are chosen to present a wide scope of the musical world, and to include performing artists and management, in addition to pedagogues. Parker mentions that even the next Quaterfinals competition jury, which will choose the ten pianists who compete from October 14-22, 2021, will include some young and original artists he personally admires, like Roman Rabinovich, winner of the 2008 Rubinstein Competition.

Georgian pianist Nicolas Namoradze, the most recent laureate of the 2018 competition and the first under Parker’s guidance, shares: "I feel so lucky that the Artistic Director at Honens is one of today’s leading pianists, a truly brilliant musician with a unique magnetism and charisma both on and off stage—and I know everyone else at Honens feels the same way! It’s been such a privilege to have him as a mentor at this crucial stage of the development of my career; his help and guidance navigating this process has been truly invaluable."

It is certainly thanks to that described “magnetism and charisma both on and off stage,” that Parker has found some of his extracurricular activities, which have broadened the scope of his pursuits otherwise clearly defined by the concert stage. An active media personality, Mr. Parker hosted the television series Whole Notes on Bravo! and CBC Radio’s Up and Coming. His YouTube channel showcases the “Concerto Chat” video series, with illuminating discussions of piano concerto repertoire. A most eloquent and captivating speaker, he likes to bring this side of him not only to the professional realm of industry round-tables and lectures, but to a variety of causes that impact social change.

As a member of the outreach project Piano Plus, Mr. Parker toured remote areas including the Canadian Arctic, performing classical music and rock ‘n roll on everything from upright pianos to electronic keyboards. In commemoration of his special performances in war-torn Sarajevo in 1995, he was a featured speaker alongside humanitarians Elie Wiesel and Paul Rusesabagina at the 50th Anniversary of the relief organization AmeriCares.

A true ambassador of the best music has to offer, Parker passionately carries music’s torch everywhere, without the elitist reputation that often follows the trade. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that he considers what people experience in the audience. On stage, he often thinks of his father—the Canadian music lover who, passionate about classical music and its performers, was critically invested as a dynamic and engaged listener, despite never having learned to read music.

While it was his Japanese mother who encouraged him to muster up the discipline it takes to “make it,” in music (as he says: “I wouldn’t be on stage at all without the perseverance of my mother, who ensured I reached a level of playing that would make me competitive in a crowded field.”), it was the emotional approach of his father that inspired him to identify with one’s audience. “His spirit lives on in all of those who attend concerts and have strong emotional reactions to what they hear,” says Parker.

Perhaps it is this awareness that makes one a better listener, and ultimately, a better performer; Parker has taken this awareness to stages from the Sydney Opera House to London’s South Bank Center, and the Berlin Philarmonie to the Beijing Concert Hall, with many of the leading orchestras worldwide.

Recent highlights include performances at Carnegie Hall of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue at the Kennedy Center conducted by Gianandrea Noseda (and streamed on He also performed Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 with Jeffrey Kahane and LACO, the Grieg Concerto with Bramwell Tovey and the New York Philharmonic, Gershwin’s Concerto in F with James Gaffigan and the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Bernstein’s Age of Anxiety with Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony.

As an avid chamber musician, Parker appears regularly with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, and in ensemble performances with the Miró Quartet. He has performed regularly as duo partner with James Ehnes, Aloysia Friedmann, Lynn Harrell, Jamie Parker, Orli Shaham, and Cho-Liang Lin, with whom he has given world premieres of sonatas by Paul Schoenfield, John Harbison, and Steven Stucky. He is also a founding member of the Montrose Trio with violinist Martin Beaver and cellist Clive Greensmith.

I personally happened to fall in love with one of his performances with Orli Shaham at SubCulture, some years back.

(Photo: Ilona Oltuski - At Subculture, NYC)

Together with his wife, the violinist Aloysia Friedmann, Parker co-founded the Orcas Island Chamber Music Festival. Now in its 23rd season, he continues to serve as its Artistic Advisor, and has given world premieres of new works by Peter Schickele and Jake Heggie.

While Parker continues to be fascinated with the depth and revelations gained through the classical repertory, which offers endless richness especially for pianists, he has an equally strong commitment towards ventures into unusual musical territory for a classical interpreter, as he often describes his foray into other varied music genres. His stylistic versatility has brought about collaborations with artists ranging from Audra McDonald, Bobby McFerrin, and Doc Severinsen, to Tango interpreter Pablo Ziegler.    (Photo right: Parker and his wife Aloysia Friedmann)

As a founding member of the novel quintet Off the Score, which combines composed and spontaneous elements of classical and rock music, Parker brilliantly changes things up with Stewart Copeland, legendary drummer of the Rock band the Police, presenting original compositions by Copeland and fresh takes on the music of Ravel, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky. The kind of suppleness with which the work is presented, which might have been frowned upon in the older, traditionally constrained edicts of the classical world, has long since evolved into a welcomed innovation, aiming to bring new audiences into the concert hall. And the different facets of Parker’s diverse interests are simply beyond the scope of many other artists I have met.

(Photo Credit: Shayne Gray)

One of Parker’s interests close to his heart is his love of reaching out to kids.

The natural communicator he is makes everything that he does on the keyboard look easy—almost like child’s play. The Disney Channel realized his potential, inviting him as a celebrity guest on the children’s television program Under the Umbrella Tree. “I love doing concerts for kids. Many orchestras have an outreach program, and I am terribly disappointed if they don’t ask me to go to a school when I am performing with them.

I like to actively involve them like: ‘Raise your hand if you have heard of Chopin, or Beethoven…’ they may not, but they all recognize theme music from The Simpsons: music that conveys a certain character. And they recognize the theme music from Star Wars, and Frozen. I like to ask if they have built with LEGO, and then compare constructing with these simple building blocks to building with the elements that construct musical architecture,” he explains.

His playing of The Simpsons theme song for kids’ concerts, here for CBC in Canada.

Perhaps few artists can switch gear as easily and connect as strongly to all audiences as Jackie Parker.

Just released on WQXR’s website, his multi-camera project for “Heritage & Harmony,” a video series with leading musicians of Asian descent. Parker is featured playing “Memories in an Ancient Garden” from Scenes From a Jade Terrace, Alexina Louie (b. 1949)

The only thing that may not point to the utmost originality and varied scope of this artist is his somewhat scattered list of recordings, which covers a diverse collection of works ranging from the classics, including PDQ Bach, to DiLiberto and the Wizard of Oz Fantasy by Hirtz. Sharing his memory of his very first recording experience, may put things in perspective: "It was Prokofiev III and Tchaikovsky I with Andre Previn and the Royal Philharmonic. Andre was very ill and cancelled our concert, so we recorded the Tchaikovsky with absolutely no rehearsal. It was my very first experience in a recording studio - quite terrifying!" But personally, I think there is a much more subtle explanation: “I always enjoyed making live music over recording, that’s why my catalogue features relatively few recordings,” he says. “I completely flourish with the adrenalin high you get in a live performance, and it inspires me to be a more communicative artist. For me, that is more important than some other qualities. Some performers may be more concerned with the artistic message, for me the bigger goal is to reach the audience, not just the few that will really get the most subtle differences.”

Adapting to the changed reality of the digital platform, perhaps also motivated by the wish to contribute some more hard copy testimonials to the pianist's legacy, Parker has chosen his current stay-at-home project:"I am starting to edit an all-Beethoven CD, a CD of Mussorgsky Pictures, Schumann Carneval, and another one of all encores," he says.

Watch the artist at a Kennedy Center retrospective of recent performances, which was planned to air the day of our interview, but will broadcast soon.



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