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!
Q&A with James Parker
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.