Wichita Symphony: February a key month for pianist

Poet T.S. Eliot called April "the cruelest month." Pianist Jon Kimura Parker would choose February for that distinction.

Parker will play the popular and very difficult Piano Concerto No. 1 by Tchaikovsky next weekend with the Wichita Symphony Orchestra, part of an all-Tchaikovsky program.

He bookends his Wichita performances playing two of the other most-difficult concertos in the repertoire, the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto last week with the Minnesota Orchestra and the Piano Concerto No. 2 by Brahms with the Rhode Island Philharmonic Feb. 25-26.

Add a two-day recording session with the San Diego Symphony to start off his month and regular teaching duties at the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University in Houston between concerts, and one can understand Parker's sentiments.

"February is the hardest month of my life — I am currently practicing Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky and Brahms all at once," he said by phone from San Diego. While waiting in his hotel room for an airplane flight, an electronic keyboard was brought in so he wouldn't miss any practice.

"As well known as the Tchaikovsky (Piano Concerto) is, it is a very virtuosic concerto," said Daniel Hege, the symphony's music director, who is conducting the program. "It is fiendishly difficult for the pianist and not so easy for the orchestra. It's a fantastic piece, a very significant work by Tchaikovsky."

It's not only his piano skills that Parker must keep in top shape during his demanding schedule. He's also a regular in the gym.

"At age 51 I really actually have to worry about maintaining muscle tone," Parker said. "I'm not trying to look good at the beach or anything, but I need bicep strength. And flexibility. I find when playing these big pieces that from my stationary perch on the piano bench I really need to be agile getting around the keyboard."

The big opening chords, intoned by the pianist while the orchestra plays the concerto's first urgent, passionate melody, are signatures of what is arguably the most popular piano concerto ever written. They are also part of the unexpected demands Tchaikovsky placed on the piano soloist.

"The pianist doesn't have to do anything fast and furious but has to make an absolutely enormous sonority with those famous chords," Parker said. "That calls so much attention to itself that people can be forgiven for forgetting that that's not actually the tune. The tune's in the orchestra."

Almost every significant pianist has championed Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 since its debut in 1875. The pianist Van Cliburn made it one of the top-selling classical recordings ever. Though he calls it one of the hardest pieces to perform, Parker says Tchaikovsky's technical demands always serve the music. "It's designed to bathe tremendous technical difficulty with musical beauty," Parker said, though sometimes with strong dashes of flair.

"Of all the various technical tricks, an interlocking hand technique is the one people usually notice visually the most," Parker said. "It involves left and right hand in a very quick back-and-forth motion, kind of like if you do a karate chop back massage. It is difficult, but I think it looks more impressive than it really is."

Parker, born and raised in Vancouver, Canada, has appeared with the Wichita Symphony twice before, and collaborated three times previously with Hege and other orchestras.

"I just love his playing," Hege said. "I think he is one of the most electric and exciting performers out there. His charisma just oozes off the stage."

Besides the piano concerto, the symphony's all-Tchaikovsky program will include "Polonaise" from the opera "Eugene Onegin," the orchestra fantasy "Capriccio Italien" and the blockbuster "1812 Overture."

If you go


What: Classics concert featuring music by Tchaikovsky, Jon Kimura Parker, piano; Daniel Hege, conductor

Where: Century II Concert Hall, 225 W. Douglas

When: 8 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Feb. 20

How much: Tickets are $20-$44. For more information, visit www.wso.org or call 316-267-7658.