Interview: James Parker, Renowned Pianist & Artistic Advisor to Chamberfest

Jamie Parker

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.

You’ll be playing a lot of the festival! With¬†A Far Cry, En blanc et noir, the New Music Now IV,¬†Chamberfest @20¬†& with the Gryphon Trio as well as a coach to the Amateur Chamber Ensemble Workshop and a judge for the Rising Stars¬†event. Are you always this busy?

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 Gryphon Trio