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.
Morning Metal – Geoffrey The Giant Interview
Geoffrey, thank you for joining me for Ottawa Showbox!
GTG: Thanks for having me, though I should warn you I’m semi-claustrophobic. I don’t like the idea of being in a Showbox.
Let’s get right into it – who is Geoffrey the Giant and why should newer fans check out your music?
GTG: Geoffrey *The Giant is a pop/rock act that’s mainly piano-driven. In the past it’s been more alternative pop/rock, but with my new record I’ll be putting out soon, I’ve been branching off into new directions. This album is more of a swing-pop record fused with rock/blues elements in some of the tunes. Whenever people ask me to compare my sound to established acts – I describe this new record as having the best elements of Barenaked Ladies, Ben Folds Five, and Michael Buble. Generally speaking, it’s tasty pop music that’s often campy/quippy comedic material, mixed with some tunes with genuine sentiment of a more serious nature.
You have released two CD’s, 2004’s “Faith in The Unknown” and most recently in 2011, “Heart’s On Fire in The Dark”, why was there such a gap in between albums?
GTG: I went to Carleton University to study music part-time in 2005, and I had a hard time finding the funds and the time to record HOFITD. I tracked the record mostly between 2007-2009 with my then co-producer Jef Vandertogt, whenever I could make the pilgrimage back to my home town where he was/is based.
When we finally finished tracking the record, it still took some time to scrape up the cash to mix/master it and get it pressed/released on the interwebs. Being a recording/performing artist is a tough thing to juggle with academia. But I do recommend it for the education and networking opportunities.
It’s been three years since a new album, but we got the brand new single “Rock, Paper, Scissors, Lizard, Spock” not too long ago – tell us about the song writing and recording process for the album’s single?
GTG: I came up with the idea when I was doing my dishes, after watching an episode of The Big Bang Theory while I was eating dinner one night. I was humouring myself, as I often do, and putting the words of the game to a melody.
Then the left side of my brain got wind of what my right brain was doing, and it dawned on me – this would make a great tune for my plan to make a viral video. I ran to the piano while I still had the melody in my head and laid it over some chords.
Eventually I had my verse lyrics down, and the chorus lyrics were simple enough (the title of the game/song) – and I decided to make the bridge a solo leading into a breakdown chorus.
A few months later I tracked it at The Audio Recording Academy in Ottawa, which I was concurrently attending in my last year of my Bachelor of Music at Carleton.
A couple months down the road from graduating, I decided to track a rap verse over the solo in the bridge, for comedic effect, and added a nice four-part horn section that added some nice dramatic flare to the tune.
After my grad ceremony at Carleton, I set out to make the video, which was a blast. I drafted the concept and sent it to a great director from a company I worked with a in L.A.. They did a fantastic job with it – especially with the replica set they designed to look like the cafeteria set on The Big Bang Theory. If I could find the funding I’d work with them again.
You also released a video game version of Rock Paper Scissors Lizard Spock on your website – where did you get that idea?
GTG: That was actually an idea that the president of the marketing firm I hired to promote the video came up with. I think it was a brilliant idea, and it looks and plays great.
Geoffrey The Giant – “Rock Paper Scissors Lizard Spock” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_nSvITqkQbo
Tell us about the new album, “Geoffrey the Giant’s Big Bang”.
GTG: While it’s not a final decision yet – it’s looking like it’s going to be ten song LP – but I may cut it down to a six-song EP. I’ve tracked fifteen tunes for this record so far, and right now I’m debating which songs will make the cut and which will wind up on a later release, or the cutting room floor. RPSLS will definitely be on the record, as for the rest – we’ll see.
Where are you recording?
GTG: I tracked some of the songs for the record at Gallery Studios in Ottawa with Dean Watson engineering. But most of the rest of the tracking I did at TARA (also known as Raven Street Studios) with a number of their engineers – but predominantly working with Dave Sarazin at the console. To keep costs down, I recorded as much as I could at home with the limitations I had at the time with my home studio – which I’m soon going to have remedied after some renovations and gear acquisitions this summer.
Who are you recording with (producer(s))?
GTG: I produced this record myself, though I had Dave Sarazin act as the vocal producer for my leads, rather than bleeding money by constantly playing back takes to scrutinize them myself. It’s good to have an extra set of ears when each tick of the clock is costing you. He’s a seasoned engineer and producer with strong sensibilities of his own when it comes to what sounds appropriate for the vocals for each song, so I knew I could trust him as we pushed through the work. I’m glad that I did, and not just from a financial standpoint. He also got some great takes out of me that otherwise might not have happened without his perspective.
What direction are you going?
GTG: Wherever life inspires me to. I don’t confine my writing or my act to any particular style or genre. That was something I’ve always loved about Queen. They were my favourite band when I was growing up, and if you listen to their albums chronologically, not only do you see a lot of diversity within each record, but they changed a lot over those years. They were all over the place. Operatic Rock (a la Bohemian Rhapsody & The Prophet’s Song from A Night At The Opera), Rockabilly & Disco on the same album (Crazy Little Thing Called Love & Another One Bites The Dust, respectively, from The Game)…those guys didn’t limit themselves. That’s how I like to do things. No boundaries.
You worked with Mr. Ron Sexsmith, who you claim to be your biggest song writing influence – what was it like working with him?
GTG: Short and sweet! Ron’s a very busy man in this industry, and I counted myself laughably lucky to get the opportunity to work with him on any level, particularly given how green I was when I approached him about singing on that record (Faith in the Unknown). He was, and is, incredibly friendly and kind-hearted. He only had a bit of time in his schedule, and we had to manage to get the track done in less than an hour. But we got it done and with a few minutes to spare, so everyone was happy.
Will we see you and Ron for another duet for a new song?
GTG: I hope so, it would be a dream-come-true to co-write and produce a song with him. I have an enormous amount of respect for him as a man, an artist, and a songwriter. I consider myself the biggest unofficial ‘Ron-Head’.
GTG: Yeah, they’re a club of hardcore Ron Sexsmith fans. Funny story – one of them asked me in an email about the song Ron sang on, and if Ron had wrote it. I told them that I’d written it and asked if I could join the Facebook page. They told me it was a very small and exclusive group – and that they couldn’t include me. I was somewhat taken aback actually – I’ve always considered myself one of the biggest Ron-Heads out there. I’ve been to about a dozen of his shows over the years. I remember one time ordering a bunch of tickets for myself and some friends – all of whom bailed at the last minute – for a show he played right after I got back to Ottawa from my stint on Canadian Idol. He signed every one of them after the show. He’s such a great guy. I still need to frame those.
If you could choose one musician/artist to do a single with – who would you choose?
GTG: Carly Rae Jepsen. I was her duet partner on Canadian Idol, and we went through a lot together in that short time, professionally speaking. I had a lot of faith in her, and I strongly believed that she’d move on and be a smash hit-maker one day, and when she finally broke into the mainstream in 2012 it was a very liberating and validating feeling for me. It would be an amazing, cathartic experience to make a single with her.
What artist do you listen to that people wouldn’t expect?
GTG: My musical tastes are so eclectic that I’m not sure I could surprise people. Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of Big Wreck, U.S.S., Fun, Tycho, Imagine Dragons, and Young the Giant. Bet you didn’t see that last one coming. Seriously though. What’s up with that? I was The Giant long before those ‘young’ pups popped up on the scene. Good music though.
You have been quite absent in the live scene in Ottawa – are we going to be seeing you soon?
GTG: I used to be a regular of the Ottawa scene, but I needed to take a hiatus to finish my degree at school and make a new record. Now that it’s nearly ready, I hope to soon be playing around locally and going on tour as well.
If you had a slogan, a statement for new listeners – what would it be?
GTG: “Keep climbing, and don’t look down.” It’s a song of mine in the works.
With the new album coming – what else can we expect for the rest of 2014?
GTG: I’m hoping to have the video for my next single out by the Fall, and another to follow shortly after that to coincide with the release of my new record Big Bang – and I plan on getting back in the Giant saddle to play live shows again soon.
Geoff, thanks again for joining us!
GTG: Join me, and together, we can rule the galaxy as interviewer and interviewee.
To watch & listen to Geoffrey The Giant’s new single and past albums – and to play the Rock Paper Scissors Lizard Spock game, go to www.geoffreythegiant.com.
Raven Street Studios – http://www.ravenstreet.com/Raven_Street_Studios/Home.html
James Rockso – Host of CKCU 93.1 FM’s “Morning Metal” & Booking/Technician at “Minds of Men”.
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Morning Metal 2014.