Interview: James Parker, Renowned Pianist & Artistic Advisor to Chamberfest
James Parker and his brother Jon Kimura Parker are both distinguished pianists from Vancouver, B.C., whose mad skills have them sought after across the globe for all kinds of concertos and commissions. And to their family and friends they are simply Jamie and Jackie. They’re not exactly bros but they are definitely fraternal. At the Chamberfest tonight, James will play with A Far Cry for the festival’s first gala, and he’ll play many times over the next two weeks, including a rare instance where he gets to play with Jackie. On Monday the 28th the Parker brothers will present a First World War commemorative piano programme of Debussy, Ravel & Stravinsky, and on Wednesday the 30th they’ll be hosted in a Siskind Snapshot on their upbringing in a musical household.
Research is a wonderful part of interviewing. Before we spoke I learned that Jamie wasn’t only an artistic advisor to the Chamberfest, but he met his wife at the festival in 1999, he’s won two JUNO Awards with the Gryphon Trio, he has a sharp sense of humour, and often he practices until 2 or 3 a.m. We look forward to seeing him play!
Jon Kimura Parker & James Parker. Photo: Abbey Chamberlain
Q&A with James Parker
You come from a very musical household don’t you? I’ve read that your brother and his wife will be participating with you in a Siskind Snapshot on July 30th on the subject of growing up with music.
Well it’s gonna be a lot of fun because my brother is based in Houston, TX and we don’t see each other often. We’ll play a Gershwin duet, “Cuban Overture,” a real fun piece, and we’ll have a chat about growing up in musical families. Jon and his violist wife Aloysia Friedmann also run a small festival called the Orcas Island Chamber Music Festival. Musical family is what it’s all about: he’s a concert pianist and she’s a violinist and violist who does PR for musicians, my mother is a retired music teacher, my uncle is a teacher, my cousin is a concert pianist.
So it’s a real family affair. I’ve read that you say classical music is perceived as stuffy or up-tight. What are some of the ways you try to counter this stereotype?
The lingering stereotype that it’s music for older, rich people, right? That’s something it’s not. This music communicates emotions very directly. It’s just great music. You don’t have to admire it, you don’t have to respect it, just go and enjoy it. We play at places like the Lula Lounge in Toronto, and the Poisson Rouge and Subculture in New York. These are places that cater to younger audiences.
Usually we’ll talk to audiences about what we play but most of the time, growing up, our audiences were other amateur musicians. Now we still commission living composers, so you have to tell the audience what’s going on and not just slam through some crazy piece. Give them context!
Your Gryphon Trio counterpart Roman Borys has been artistic director to the festival six years running now. What’s it like to be his artistic advisor alongside his wife and the third of the Trio Annalee Patipatanakoon?
I think basically we’re the sounding boards. We’ll spend weeks and months together, I pretty much spend more time with him on the road than with my own family. Sitting in airport terminals we’re always seeing Roman planning things, and he’s asking us if we’ve heard from so-and-do and what they were up to. He does all the heavy lifting and we support.
You’ve won two JUNO awards for your recordings with the Gryphon Trio, a group that has played together for 21 years now. Did you foresee that partnership taking you this far down the road?
We actually had no idea. I think the two of them had studied as a young professional trio and that they greatly enjoyed. I always enjoyed chamber music from university onwards, they just called me and asked if I was interested in doing something. And I said, sure, let’s just see how it goes for a couple performances.
We still have a great time traveling, although that TSA has really sucked out all the joy of flying, and we still love performing together. You get on stage and you get to share with the audience. It’s all about the triangle between the composer, yourself and the audience. There are some days when that’s the easiest part of the day, just walking up on stage. I’m up til 2 or 3 a.m. practicing most of the time to make sure I’m ready for the those moments.
Friday we had a concert in Orford, QC, then we performed on Sunday at the Elora Festival, Parry Sound on Tuesday, and Friday night in Ottawa. We have a trip in the middle of the Chamberfest to San Francisco, CA. Beethoven wrote a concerto, which is typically for one soloist and an orchestra, but he wrote one for a piano trio with an orchestra. So we get a chance to do it with the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Hall on Aug. 1. I might have to miss some of that judging… I have five other rehearsals with many other musicians. It’s a frantic, frenetic, exciting couple of weeks. We’re also trying to catch up with old colleagues, sneak in a quick pint with some of our friends, and of course in our professional roles we have to greet people and each be spokespersons for the festival. We love it! I wasn’t at the very first year of the festival but the Trio arrived in the third year and it’s in the Ottawa area where we’ve developed our favourite and most loyal audience.
Most of your life you’ve been interacting with piano and chamber music students, either as peers or pupils. Where do you feel their interest in musical careers stems from? Is it tradition or heritage, or the call to create sounds and play them for others?
I think ultimately it’s about the connection — you and the composer, you and the instrument, you and the audience. I don’t think many people at the student age think, “You know, we have a tradition to uphold!” No, it’s about the music and the people. It invariably comes back to the two things.
The best example of music bringing people together could be when you met your wife 15 years ago at Ottawa’s Chamberfest. Could you please remember that evening at the Mayflower Pub in 1999?
Of course, it turned into numerous evenings! The first one, a number of us played a small concert and had a quick little get-together at the pub. Then Mim came. She had been a volunteer and wanted to check in with people running things, and we ended up going out for a few more pints. Now we’ve got two little boys and they’ll all be here for the festival. We always come to Ottawa because her dad and some of her best friends are there.
Between chairing committees, teaching students, being a father and a partner, do you still find time to compose?
I’ve never been a composer, it was sort of one of those things I never had the urge to improvise with as a kid. I do have some regret about that, I suppose it’s never too late to learn but where do I find the time? I still want to learn to speak French properly and I’m finding it hard to find the time. At this point in my life I know I’ll never write anything as good as Beethoven so I’m just glad to play Beethoven.
The Gryphon Trio
The 20th Anniversary of Chamberfest Cannot be Contained by Four Walls
After 20 years of orchestral & classical concerts put on every July by the Ottawa Chamber Music Society, it’s this anniversary event that will be the Ottawa Chamberfest’s most ambitious line-up to date. While asking around about which locals acts to see, I was informed the international talent simply can’t be ignored at this year’s festival, which runs from July 24 to August 7. It might not be common knowledge that the Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival is the largest festival of its kind in the world, but it is! Over 15 days without pause, most days will go from 10 a.m. to curfew, and span seven venues for almost 100 performances. Small ensemble music has never been so big!
We’d love to preview all performances but we can only offer you Showbox’s Top Picks for the 20th Ottawa Chamberfest :
The Don Byron Quintet & Divine Brown will wow us with new sound on Friday July 25, 2014 at Saint Brigid’s Centre for the Arts.
Don Byron is an amazing clarinetist with a legendary creativity for finding what is said to be “a sound above genre.” This New York musician and producer will play clarinet and saxophone alongside Divine Brown, R&B singer and JUNO Award winner from 2009. We also have it on good authority that the powerful Gryphon Trio (well-ingrained in the making of this Festival) will showcase their music on Aug. 6, absolutely essential viewing! And if you’re looking for something that you’ve never seen before, we highly suggest Luminico on Aug. 3.
There’s a group of gypsy punks called the Lemon Bucket Orkestra, who will transform the ByWard Market into the eighth venue of the festival on Aug. 2 with a parade of music & busking. There will be tributes of Shakespeare’s 450th birthday on Aug. 6, a commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War on July 28, and a sonic & visual remix of the music and images sent into space on two golden records in 1977 on the Voyageur spacecraft on Aug. 1.
JUNO Award winners The Gryphon Trio are the Festival’s Artistic Advisors James Parker on piano & Annalee Patipatanakoon on violin and Artistic Director Roman Borys on cello. They will play at the Dominion-Chalmers United Church on Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014.
Jacob Siskind was an eminent music critic who gave much to the Canadian and global classical communities. In his honour, the Siskind Snapshots will take place on every day but the first and last of the fest to offer 45-minute glimpses into the lives of new and well-known artists. These include life & art partners Michel Strauss & Maria Belooussova, the next generation of classical music with Cameron Crozman, Sheila Jaffé & Peter Longworth, the National Youth Orchestra of Canada, and many more! There will also be four Festival Galas over the course of the whole Chamberfest with the self-conducted young orchestra A Far Cry, the American soprano, Toronto-based Sondra Radvanovsky, Montreal-born, veteran pianist Janina Fialkowska, and Handel’s Il trionfo del tempo with light lyric soprano Amanda Forsythe, countertenor Reginald L. Mobley, tenor Colin Balzer, and mezzo-soprano Krisztina Sazbó.
Amanda Forsythe will perform Il trionfo del tempo with three other soloists and the Pacific Baroque Orchestra on Aug. 5, 2014 at Dominion-Chalmers United Church.
Not a gala, but definitely the event of the whole festival — Chamberfest @20 will be a variety of all music that has played over the last 20 years at the Chamberfest. There will be approximately 13 different ensemble playing a wide range of styles and hosted by Eric Friesen, it will be at Dominion-Chalmers United Church at 7 p.m. on Wednesday July 30. We also have to mention incredible accordion player Manu Comté with his tango Nuevo ensemble Soledad will be performing at Dominion-Chalmers United Church on July 26, their first performance in the nation’s capital! And finally, from Aug. 6 to 7, Ensemble Caprice of Montréal will celebrate their 25th year as an ensemble by paying homage to the great German composer Johann Sebastian Bach during The Bach Summit. Sixteen works over four concerts, as well as the Brandenburg Concertos in just two days!
All tickets and passes are available through the Chamberfest’s online box office, at their physical address at 4 Florence Street, Suite 201 in Centretown, or at the following outlets: Ottawa Festivals, Compact Music downtown and in The Glebe, and the Cartier Place Suite Hotel.
Johann Sebastian Bach is Baroque to the bone.