NACO: The show always goes on for the irrepressible Jon Kimura Parker

Jon Kimura Parker talks Brahms and Genesis. Photo: Tara McMullen

That Jon Kimura Parker is a real trooper.

One time he flew to Sydney, Australia as a last minute fill in. He played four nights in the Sydney Opera House with Maestro David Zinman and loved avery minute of it.

His show-must-go-on determination is in evidence this week as he will play four concerts in Ottawa, despite having broken a rib in a fall last week. And he will be reunited with Zinman on stage for the first time in several years. Zinman returns to the NAC debut on May 25 for the first time since 1976.

Parker and Zinman will be in Southam Hall on May 25 and 26 at 8 p.m. (Tickets: On May 27, Parker will join a fundraising performance at the Steinway Piano Gallery for the Classical Unbound Festival which is held in Prince Edward County in August and which features musicians from NACO. And on May 28, he will perform the Brahms quintet with the Ironwood Quartet at the National Gallery of Canada auditorium. More about these later.

In an interview before his tumble, Parker told ARTSFILE about another time he was determined to play.

“I was 15 and had contracted a kidney infection and was basically hospitalized for two months. I was so frustrated that I couldn’t touch the piano because I just gotten the score for the first Brahms piano concerto. I was old enough to understand that there was no way that I was going to understand the piece, but I just couldn’t stop being obsessed with it.

“I didn’t have access to a piano so first thing I did was have my parents buy me an acoustic guitar because that was something I could play while I was lying in bed. I taught myself some Genesis (the rock band) tunes by ear. I had never taken a guitar lesson in my life but I was a Genesis nut.”

One of the tunes he taught himself was the acoustic guitar piece Horizons from the album Foxtrot. That album contained one of Genesis’s “masterpieces” a 23-minute-long operatic piece called Supper’s Ready.

But learning the guitar was not enough. He escaped from the children’s ward one day and found an upright piano in the hospital basement. “I had my Brahms score and I just remember trying to read through the first page of it. I could barely make sense out of it.

“I have always felt very close to Brahms. The sound you need for Brahms is the kind of sound that I like to make at a piano … big, full, emotional and rich. You need sound with a lot of depth. Both of his piano concertos require that.”

It is, however, the second Brahms concerto, that Parker will play in Southam Hall May 25 and 26. Also on the programme: Faure’s Pelléas et Mélisande and Schubert’s Symphony No. 6.

Which Brahms piano concerto is better? He says both are great.

“No. 1 is a little more angular. It is clearly youthful. The piano doesn’t play last few chords which strikes some as odd. It’s like the Rocky Mountains, youthful and craggy and all of that. The second concerto is more like the Alps — I have never thought of this ridiculous analogy before.” It’s more rounded and innately beautiful, he added.

“I think the best way to listen to the second concerto is to think of it as the world’s biggest piece of chamber music. In the Brahms second concerto, the piano stops and starts in the first movement alone more than any other piano concerto about 19 times. The music is passed back and forth between the piano and the orchestra.

“You do need a little more rehearsal so the conductor and you are feeling the piece together.”

That performance in Australia with Zinman was 15 years ago and they performed the Brahms second four times.

“I got to Sydney went straight to rehearsal. He (Zinman) was incredibly gracious. We really got to know each other. Maestro Zinman has an extraordinary ability to have a certain kind of energy in his conducting. He doesn’t favour very slow tempos. … It’s a little different with Brahms because the music is inherently more spacious.”

“It is very exciting to work with him again. It will feel like a reunion for us.”

Parker says he likes many different kinds of music. In addition to Genesis, he’s a big Pink Floyd fan, especially the Dark Side of the Moon album. Add to that list Frank Zappa, Emerson Lake and Palmer and Yes.

“In that era I was just learning about music and listening to everything I found. I even had long hair, when I had enough hair to have long hair.

“I listen to all kinds of music. I love bluegrass music. The basic song with lyrics about love gone wrong is less appealing to me. What I have always loved is when I feel there is a little compositional effort.

That openness has led him to be part of an NAC Canada Scene concert this July 10 in honour of Oscar Peterson.

“This is a wonderful thing. Oscar’s widow Kelly is on an incredible mission to remind everyone what a great composer Oscar Peterson was. He is remembered as the greatest jazz pianist ever.

Seven pianists will play in this concert. The other six are jazz players including Robi Botos and Oliver Jones. The jazz players will take Peterson compositions and improvise.

“What I am doing will be quite different. A couple of years ago Kelly gave me a score that OP wrote a couple of decades ago called Blues Etude. There is one recording of it. It is an incredibly virtuoso difficult spectacular solo piano piece.

“She hired someone to notate it, gave me the score and suggested I might be interested in learning it. I subsequently went to the Mississauga house where they lived. His studio was completely untouched. It was full of pictures of Oscar with every great musician he knew and world leaders. I recorded Blues Etude on his Bosendorfer Imperial grand piano.

“I have that piece in my fingers now and she asked me if I would perform it in this concert. It’s a huge honour.”

How Parker keeps up with himself is not clear. He’s always onto a new project. One of the newest is leading the Honens piano competition and festival in Calgary as artistic director. He’ll assume the reins in January 2018. The Honens prize gives the winner $100,000 cash and career development help for three years.

Parker was in Saskatoon when this interview happened. He connected there with the Ironwood Quartet for a performance in a festival directed by Carissa Klopoushak. She is second violin in the Ironwood ensemble, along with Jessica Linnebach, first violin; David Marks, viola and Julia MacLaine on cello. The five will perform Music for a Sunday Afternoon at the National Gallery on Sunday May 28 at 2 p.m.

On the programme: Alexina Louie’s  Scenes from a Jade Terrace, Ravel’s String Quartet, and Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34. Tickets:

On May 27 at 7:30 p.m. he’s playing the first movement of the Brahms Quintet with the Ironwood Quartet at the Steinway Piano Gallery Ottawa at 1481 Innes Road.  Other players will be Joanna G’froerer, flute, Yosuke Kawasaki, violin, Jaeyoung Chong, cello. There will be food and drink to help the listeners enjoy the music they will hear. Supper is served at 5 p.m. and it sounds tasty.

On the Steinway programme: Haydn’s London Trio No. 3, Villa Lobos’s Jet Whistle, Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major, Brahms’ Piano Quintet in f minor (first movement). Tickets:

Share Post
Written by

Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.