The Tuckamore Festival brought in the world-famous Canadian pianist Jon Kimura Parker this week as it celebrates its 14th year.
The Newfoundland festival, with artistic directors Nancy Dahn and Timothy Steeves, is touted as “Atlantic Canada’s foremost chamber music event for professional and emerging artists.” The festival runs from Aug. 4-17, with pre-festival performances on Aug. 2 and 3.
Parker, now a professor of piano at the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University in Houston, Texas, was the first Canadian to win the gold medal at the 1984 Leeds International Piano Competition. There was no controversy about choosing the winner; the best man won. Since then, Parker has become an international concert stage veteran and continues to improve his playing in every way possible, learning from percussionists, harpsichordists, and organists, performing classical music and rock ’n’ roll.
On Sunday evening, five fortunate advanced piano students had the wonderful opportunity to learn from Parker in his fast-moving, very enlightening 150-minute master class in the D.F. Cook Recital Hall. Attending a master class is one of the most rewarding musical experiences, because one sees how with slight alterations good playing can be made better. Parker spoke eloquently, as much to the audience as to the individual players onstage, and everyone present learned from his expert teaching, by demonstration, by analogy, by explanation and by conducting.
The five students were delighted with how Parker transformed their playing, and I wouldn’t have missed the show for anything. The teaching function of the festival got off to an excellent start.
About the composers
On Monday morning, preparatory to Parker’s concert in the evening, broadcaster and composer Peter-Anthony Togni, who knows Parker from student days, gave an hour-long talk about some of the composers — not all of them, since Parker would be “unpacking” some of the works onstage — and about Parker.
Parker’s parents, both musicians, apparently got him up every morning at 5 a.m. to practise, which is why it seemed to fellow students who slept until later in the day that he didn’t practise at all. Parker now performs about 100 concerts a year.
After performing here on Monday evening, he took four flights on Tuesday to get to the Orcas Island Chamber Music Festival, which he co-directs with his wife, violinist Aloysia Friedmann. Orcas Island is in Washington State.
Two pianists who changed his life were Arthur Rubenstein (1887-1982), whom Parker met when he was 12, and the great Canadian jazz pianist Oscar Peterson (1925-2007). While it would seem to most who hear him that Parker is in his prime, he told Togni that he feels he is just beginning to emerge.
The Jon Kimura Parker Discography and Music on the CD Universe website lists 12 CDs to date. My thanks to Fred’s Records for bringing in Parker’s “Rite” in record time, so that I’ve been able to listen to his Stravinsky arrangement for weeks and compare it with the orchestral score.
Parker’s recording of William Hirtz’s “Fantasy on Wizard of Oz,” along with the Schubert Fantasy and others is forthcoming in the fall, entitled simply “Fantasy.”
As was Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943), Parker is a Steinway artist. He writes: “The touch and depth of the Steinway piano is a joy for me as a pianist, and its versatility and range of color is a joy for me as a musician. The Steinway is a work of art.”
Parker’s program on Monday evening consisted of four large-scale virtuoso works and a touchingly simple short piece of personal significance.
He wastes no time onstage, began Allegro Vivace and was already into the first bars of Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in E Major, Op. 32, No. 3” before the opening applause had died down. Rachmaninoff wrote 24 Preludes, and having accepted a lump sum for the first and most famous, the C# minor Prelude, he quickly learned about copyright and royalties. His ever helpful older cousin, Alexander Ilyich Siloti (1864-1945), also a pianist and conductor, gave Sergei a three-year loan, during which Rachmaninoff overcame depression, wrote the 10 preludes “Opus 23,” published in 1901 and 1903, and dedicated them to Siloti in gratitude. His second set, “Opus 32,” consisting of 13 Preludes, was published in 1910.
Most of his composing was done in Russia, before he fled to America in 1917 at the outbreak of the Russian Revolution, and his music captures the voice of Russia as surely as Aaron Copland’s captures the voice of America. Rachmaninoff was profoundly affected by the sound of church bells and by gypsy music. The bells, of course, signify hundreds of years of tradition. We can hear them at repeated descending intervals in the first prelude Parker chose to play. He played it commandingly, with changes in key opening new vistas, awakening old memories.
Next, he played one of Rachmaninoff’s favourite preludes, the “Prelude in G Major, Op. 32, No. 5,” with tempo marking Moderato. Parker played it thoughtfully, as if committing to memory a beloved place he knew he would be leaving. This wistful attitude is a hallmark of Rachmaninoff’s style.
Finally, Parker played Rachmaninoff’s virtuoso “Prelude in B-flat Major, Op. 23, No. 2,” that emanates greatness and power. It begins with the left hand, and ends with a great buildup of sound.
Gone are the days, fortunately, when pianists appeared in tuxedos, but Parker was still wearing a suit, with colourful shirt and socks. Given that the D.F. Cook Recital Hall was full, and hot, and that Parker already needed to wipe the sweat from his brow with a red handkerchief after his workout with the Rachmaninoff, I don’t think anyone would have minded — in fact, we would have preferred it if he had tossed the suit jacket and continued on in his shirt sleeves — especially in light of what was to come: his signature piece.
Parker correctly considers Igor Stravinsky’s (1882-1971) third ballet, “The Rite of Spring,” to be “the iconic work of the 20th century.” Paul Griffiths sums it up succinctly in “The Oxford Companion to Music”: “By means of syncopation and rapid changes of metre Stravinsky did away with the regular pulse which had governed almost all Western music since the Renaissance: the rhythm now is angular and propulsive, the music’s main motivating force.”
In his book on Stravinsky, Griffiths states: “The dominance of pulse, which is of course the most conspicuously revolutionary feature of “The Rite,” is equally obviously the main source of its primitivism: this is music restored to its condition before European civilization” (31). Indeed, and that’s why Walt Disney, in collaboration with Stravinsky, used it as the music for Part IV of his 1940 film “Fantasia,” which depicts a “visual history of the Earth’s beginnings. … The sequence progresses from the planet’s formation to the first living creatures, followed by the reign and extinction of the dinosaurs” (John Culhane 107, quoted in Wikipedia).
Riot at infamous premiere
“The Rite of Spring” had a sensational and infamous premiere on May 29, 1913, with the conductor continuing to beat time even as a riot broke out in the audience, a riot that carried over to a duel fought the following day. For details of the riot, which are hilarious in retrospect, but must have been very upsetting at the time, see Eric Walter White, “Stravinsky: A Critical Survey” (1948). The work is, to quote Parker, “insanely complicated,” and his arrangement of it for solo piano, and recording of it released in 1913 to celebrate its centenary, was obviously the sort of challenge craved by his brilliant mind, the feat that puts him absolutely in a class of his own.
Although Stravinsky did not foresee the riot — who would? — there were tensions from the start. Conductor Robert Rudolf writes in the introduction to his 1974 Revised Version and Reduced Instrumentation: “During the period of composition and preparation of the Rite, the orchestras in Paris and elsewhere were not paid for rehearsals and it took 54 rehearsals before the Rite was ready. But in those days, rehearsals didn’t cost anything so it didn’t matter. The 115 men were paid only for the performance.”
Stravinsky put much of the blame on the choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky (1890-1950) who, according to Stravinsky, had no understanding of music and simply could not grasp that what Stravinsky wanted was dance, not pantomime. This was a ballet without a plot, just titles for the movements that flow into each other. Stravinsky wanted “a series of rhythmic mass movements of the greatest simplicity which would have an instantaneous effect on the audience, with no superfluous details or complications such as would suggest effort. The only solo was to be the sacrificial dance at the end of the piece” (“Igor Stravinsky An Autobiography” 1903-1934, 48). In a rehearsal, Stravinsky pushed the German accompanist off the piano bench, took over himself, and played it twice as fast.
To me, Parker’s interpretation was completely in line with Stravinsky’s vision of the ideal ballet. His hypnotic repeated chords with syncopated accompaniment in Part 4, “Spring Rounds,” sounded better on the piano than in the original scoring for strings, and practically had the audience swaying.
Since Stravinsky composed at a muted piano, it makes sense for Parker now to return the work to its source instrument. It begins on a single note, and just the singing tone of that note makes us realize why Parker could win any competition. He can bring countless voices out of the piano, and even when he is pounding on it, as in the 11 massive repeated chords at the end of Section 9, “Mystical Circles of the Maidens,” there is not one unesthetic note. His pounding has the bounce of an India rubber ball.
It became clear to Stravinsky after the riot (as he lay sick with typhoid fever for six weeks) that “The Rite” is so tightly composed that it doesn’t need to be a ballet at all; it can stand alone. And a year later, as a concert piece, it was a great success. Stravinsky was the right composer at the right time for these innovations. Peter Hill concludes his excellent book on the work by saying, “For many of us the achievement of the Rite is that it just exists, a monumental presence, arousing the same feelings of impersonal wonder as the grandest works of nature. Stravinsky must have felt this too, that he ‘discovered’ the Rite rather than invented it — ‘I heard, and I wrote what I heard. I am the vessel through which the Rite passed’” (145).
One hundred years later, as Peter-Anthony Togni pointed out, “The Rite” doesn’t sound all that shocking, not after the compositions of Pierre Boulez (born 1925, who studied “The Rite” in detail) and Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007). Pieter C. van den Toorn, writing in 1983, describes the harmonic structure of the work most clearly: “The ‘dissonance,’ ‘vertical chromaticism,’ or ‘primitivism’ associated with Le Sacre is … octatonically conceived but is qualified at points by octatonic-diatonic interpenetration or by blocks of unimpaired diatonicism, often accounted for in terms of the D- scale” (131).
It was evident on Monday night that the structure of the entire work is crystal clear to Parker. His performance had an uninterrupted mental line throughout, and his playing was impeccable. Parker’s meticulous, perfectly co-ordinated use of the piano’s three pedals is worth a course in itself.
“The Rite” arose from a vision that Stravinsky had in 1910, and his brief description of it is all that is required: “I saw in my imagination a solemn pagan rite — sage elders, seated in a circle, watched a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of spring” (Boucourechliev 60).
At the same time, given the threatening rise of communism, Stravinsky, as pointed out by Richard Taruski in 1996, must already have been thinking of leaving Russia. Even before the revolution burned all the bridges behind him, “the bridges were down” (966).
Seen in this light, I believe, and no critic has yet made this connection, that Stravinsky enjoyed making a subtly seditious statement with his repeated opening theme that Parker played in such a singing style. It is a folk song. But it wasn’t until 1979 that Lawrence Morton “examined the massive Juszkiewicz anthology (published in 1900) of 1,785 Lithuanian folk songs known to have been in Stravinsky’s possession at the time of ‘The Rite’” (van den Toorn 10) and found that the source of the opening melody was no. 157, a borrowing previously acknowledged by Stravinsky. Not a Russian folk song, but a Lithuanian one. Amazing, in light of the longstanding Russian repression of all things Lithuanian. Perhaps a nod, as well, in the direction of the gifted Lithuanian pianist, composer, and artist Mikalojus Ciurlionis (1875-1911), who spent considerable time in St. Petersburg, and whose work is worthy of more attention.
As the chosen virgin dances herself to death (unfortunately it is all too easy to persuade people of the honour of self-martyrdom), her leaps become wider, are performed with more effort, her feet don’t land at the same time (there’s a series of double notes), and one can sense her getting exhausted. Parker slowed down slightly, then gave her a final burst of energy before a rising run (her soul departing?), followed by a pause, and a crash, presumably her dropping dead. Parker did just the opposite. He rose up as he hit the last chord, to thunderous applause and a standing ovation.
I was prepared to discuss Parker’s brilliant performance of Schubert’s “Fantasy in C Major” with its “dactylic-anapaestic rhythm,” a term coined by Alfred Einstein that would make any prosodist proud, and his performance of William Hirtz’s “Wizard of Oz Fantasy” as well, a second signature piece, but with time constraints, I’m just going to encourage you to buy the forthcoming CD.
Parker’s performance of these four monumental virtuoso works was like winning the gold four times over in a piano Olympics, but he won our hearts with his moving performance of a comparatively simple piece, Edvard Grieg’s (1843-1907) “Notturno, Op. 54, No. 4,” one of his 66 Lyric Pieces for the piano. It was one of Parker’s mother’s favourite pieces. I have never heard it played so beautifully.
The fact is only a master pianist capable of Parker’s arrangement of “The Rite of Spring” — and he is sui generis — could bring so much technical and soulful finesse to the Notturno. Now that Parker has more than proven himself with the giant works, I would like to hear more of his gentle side.
I thank Jon Kimura Parker for kindly accommodating my requests for photo shoots.