In January 2020, the Minnesota Orchestra and Creative Partner Jon “Jackie” Kimura Parker unveiled exciting plans for a reimagined summer experience Summer at Orchestra Hall, with “The Beethoven Influence” as its inaugural theme in 2020. It would be a summer season born anew, utilizing the vision of a rotating creative partner as well as the depth of creative energy offered by the Orchestra musicians and artistic staff. It would also harness much of the energy of the long tradition of Sommerfest that began in the 1980s, recentering Peavey Plaza as the downtown Minneapolis summer destination of gathering, celebration and musical community.
But–as all know well now–these plans would be halted in the wake of the pandemic. Now, in 2022, we are finally able to present the first reimagined Summer at Orchestra Hall season, and so many of the exciting plans Parker helped to codify will come to fruition. We talked with him about his history with the Minnesota Orchestra, his role as creative partner and how The Beethoven Influence came together through deep collaboration.
Minnesota Orchestra summers are a time-honored tradition–long-time Twin Cities residents have memories dating back to the ’80s at the outset of what was then known as “Viennese Sommerfest,” when Peavey Plaza was the center of summer in the city. Parker, an internationally-renowned pianist, remembers it well too–and downtown Minneapolis holds a special place in his heart. He credits this to his deep connections and friendships within the Orchestra dating back more than 30 years: “I have played with dozens and dozens of orchestras around the country on multiple occasions, but I feel like I have always had a closer association with the Minnesota Orchestra than with any other orchestra.”
It all started in 1988 when Parker was an up-and-coming soloist. “It was a summer concert at Northrop Auditorium at the University of Minnesota, and that’s actually kind of unofficially a trial concert when an orchestra is interested in a soloist,” he explained. “So it’s a good time to test out a new young soloist and see how it goes, and on the basis of that going well, I started going back and doing other things.”
It was during this time that Parker became good friends with many of the Orchestra’s now long-time members, including Principal Trumpet Manny Laureano. The two of them later shared a full-circle moment in the spotlight as the primary soloists in last year’s performance of the Shostakovich Piano Concerto No. 1, which heavily features the solo trumpet. Parker also remembers many of the newer members of the Orchestra from their school days. His studio at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music has produced some of the world’s finest pianists and has also allowed him to perform with many then-Shepherd School students and now-Minnesota Orchestra musicians, including Principal Bassoon Fei Xie, Principal Bass Kristen Bruya, first violinist Rebecca Corruccini, Acting Associate Principal Violin Cecilia Belcher, cellist Erik Wheeler and many others.
Ultimately, there’s a personality jive that makes the connection a special one for Parker: “Orchestras have very distinct kinds of personalities. An orchestra is made up of all its individual members, and I know lots of orchestras in the country with lots of wonderful players, but each orchestra also has a collective personality, and those personalities are really different,” he explained. “The Minnesota Orchestra personality is incredibly committed to quality. They really want to enjoy the experience and are very supportive of people they’re working with–so I was basically invited to this position largely on the basis of having such deep ties with the Orchestra.”
What’s in a Creative Partner?
The position of creative partner is a new one for the Minnesota Orchestra–but what does it mean? In many traditional models, artistic staff and musicians often weigh in on programming decisions, but the music director carries more decision-making power. The establishment of this new creative partner role allows for more fluidity of voices and collaboration. “One thing that’s notable is that typically when an orchestra has this type of relationship with a creative partner,” Parker explained, “almost always that person would be a conductor, because a lot of times they would conduct a lot of the programs. So I was really surprised and very honored to be asked to have this position.”
While Parker is not, in fact, a conductor, he is an acclaimed concert pianist and enthusiastic people-person, which audiences will experience as he both accompanies Orchestra musicians in showpieces and joins them in performing chamber music throughout the duration of Summer at Orchestra Hall. “My role as creative partner is a combination of my work with the Orchestra musicians, working with Director of Artistic Planning Kari Marshall, and coming up with a way that four weeks of programs in the summer can have some kind of collective theme. And because I’m a pianist, performing whenever possible. And because I’m comfortable hosting and emceeing concerts, it’s also ‘how many different ways can I collaborate with the whole Orchestra and its players in meaningful, musical ways?’”
What is Parker most looking forward to this summer? “I’m really excited about the July 15 concert [Jon Kimura Parker Plays Beethoven] because that’s the one concert in which I am playing a concerto with the Orchestra–Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto. That’s a monumental piece of music. It’s Beethoven’s first sort of ‘mature’ piano concerto. His piano concertos one and two are great, but you can hear the influence of Mozart and Haydn. In his third, it’s 100% Beethoven. And the sense of unbelievable drama is there—his way with musical architecture, the way he builds the piece—is extraordinary. There’s a theatrical element to it where the piano and orchestra are less cooperative with each other and getting into fights. It’s a spectacular piece of music and I just can’t wait to do that.”
He’s also incredibly excited for the Grand Piano Spectacular, a program he’s reviving from the original Sommerfest of the ’80s and ’90s. It’s one of the most unique concerts of the summer: four grand pianos, four supremely talented pianists, and electrifying energy. The featured pianists, Wiilliam Eddins, Andrew Staupe and Scott Cuellar, all have Minneapolis connections: “Bill of course lives here and has conducted the Orchestra a lot; Andrew is from Minneapolis, he’s played with the Minnesota Orchestra as a competition winner and he was my student at Rice. And Scott is also from Minneapolis and was also my student at Rice, they both have doctoral degrees from my studio and they’re amazing pianists. I just can’t wait for that concert.”
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