Like most concert pianists, Houston’s Jon Kimura Parker gives performances all over the world. This season alone, his engagements take him from England to Hawaii.
Yet Friday-Sunday he’ll be commuting between Jones Hall and his home in Southampton to play Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with the Houston Symphony and guest conductor Pablo Heras-Casado.
A concerto gig with the Houston Symphony is nothing new for Parker. Since 1994, he’s appeared with the orchestra six times, in repertoire ranging from Mozart to Gershwin.
In fact, it was through his first performances with the Houston Symphony that Parker got to know Houston. His warm reception encouraged him to move his family to the city, from New York, 11 years ago.
However, it was a hard decision at the time.
“In 1999, I was approached by several faculty members at Rice,” he recalls. “They said, ‘There’s an opening for a piano professor – would you be interested?’ I wrote back and said, ‘I’m not really sure. I live in New York, my wife is a very successful freelance musician here, and we’ve just had a baby.’”
He accepted Rice’s offer – with “a tiny amount of paranoia about leaving New York” – but soon found his fears of career death were quite unfounded.
“In the end, it didn’t really matter. The whole notion that a classical musician has to live within a stone’s throw of Carnegie Hall just isn’t true anymore. And I soon discovered very quickly that there are all sorts of exciting things going on in music all over the country that don’t happen in New York.”
Despite his absence from Manhattan Island, Parker continues to perform there regularly. On April 24, he’ll appear in a program presented by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.
Parker isn’t a native New Yorker. He’s originally from Vancouver, B.C., and is well known in Canada for his performances from one end of the country to the other – even in the Arctic territories. As well, he’s from a remarkably musical family. Jon (or “Jackie,” to friends and family) is the oldest musician in his generation. His younger brother, James Parker, is the pianist in Toronto’s Gryphon Trio – and a cousin, Ian Parker, is a pianist who divides his time between New York and Vancouver.
Today, Parker finds his teaching position at Rice very rewarding.
“I have a wonderful class of students,” he says. “They’re spectacularly gifted. One of them is giving his New York debut this month, and another just gave his Paris debut. And what’s particularly exciting for me is preparing them to perform – because the preparation is something I’ve had a lot of experience with. I’ve been there, and I know what they’re going through.”
And Parker and his family have put down roots. His wife, Aloysia Friedmann, is a violinist and violist who plays with the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra and the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra. (She’s also the director of the Orcas Island Chamber Music Festival in Washington.) Their daughter, Sophie, is now in the seventh grade and enjoys singing in the HGO’s children’s chorus.
“We just got a puppy,” Parker adds, “so I’m discovering that Houston has lots of good dog parks.”
He’s also earned the admiration of Houston’s musical community, through his concerto appearances, solo recitals and chamber-music performances.
William VerMeulen, principal hornist of the Houston Symphony, says Parker is one of the finest classical musicians in town.
“Jackie is unique,” he says, comparing him with several other piano legends. “He combines the technique of Vladimir Horowitz with the touch of Artur Schnabel – and the stage personality of Elton John. With the Houston Symphony, he’s always a stand-out.”
Looking back on his arrival in Houston, Parker had one more worry – which happily proved unfounded. Ironically, he was afraid that his move to the city could spell the end to his engagements with the Houston Symphony.
“It’s standard practice,” he explains, “for orchestras to have some sort of exclusivity agreement that states the soloist can’t perform in the same city for several months before and after their engagements with the orchestra. So when I moved to Houston, I made the assumption that my days as a Houston Symphony soloist were numbered because I perform at Rice several times a year.”
But for Parker, the Houston Symphony has waived the usual exclusivity conditions.
“I’m very touched that the Houston Symphony still engages me as a soloist,” he says. “It means a lot to me personally to play with this orchestra.”
© Colin Eatock 2012