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Jon Kimura Parker: 5 pieces that changed my life

Robert Rowat

It's hard to think of a better ambassador for classical music than pianist Jon Kimura Parker.

Of course, his credentials are unassailable: In addition to playing concertos with top orchestras and chamber music with the Montrose Trio and Miró Quartet, Parker also collaborates with drummer Stewart Copeland (the Police) on a project called Off the Score and has a video series called Concerto Chat that demystifies the piano concerto repertoire.

Offstage, he's a gourmet cook, a devoted Trekkie and a fan of the Bombay Sapphire martini with a twist. What's not to love? (His recent Q&A with Musical Toronto is required reading.)

He makes it seem normal to live a life in classical music (thank you!) and does it all with infectious, youthful enthusiasm.

Parker is currently preparing for performances of Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra on Nov. 2, 3 and 5, concerts dubbed "From Paris to Leningrad" that also include Milhaud's La création du monde and Shostakovich's Symphony No. 1. It's one of the 1920s instalments in the TSO's Decades Project, a collaboration with the Art Gallery of Ontario.

We contacted Parker to find out about five pieces of music that changed his life.

Beethoven: Symphony No. 6, Pastoral

"I bought my first Sony Walkman (the actual cassette version, for those of you old enough to remember) as a teenager, and one of the first recordings I transferred to tape was a Bruno Walter recording of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. I remembered thinking what a privilege it would be (especially from a pianist’s perspective) to play that piece, especially the slow movement. Of course I had images from the movie Fantasia in my head, but those gave way to a general sense of ecstasy. I still wonder how Beethoven managed to write something so beautiful, and how Walter coaxed the players in the Columbia Symphony Orchestra to sound like that."

Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1

"When I was 16, I was hospitalized for several weeks with a kidney infection. Every day I snuck out of my room to the basement of Burnaby General Hospital where I had discovered an upright piano, and there I quietly worked on the first few pages of the Brahms First Piano Concerto, a work completely beyond my understanding at the time. To this day, when I perform it, I remember my determination to find good fingerings for the first few passages."

Watch Parker's Concerto Chat on Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1:

Oscar Peterson: 'If/Manha de Carnaval'

"This medley appears on a Pablo Live recording at Salle Pleyel from 1978. It’s the most beautiful and delicate piano playing I’ve ever heard, and I tried (with only moderate results) to learn it by ear. Despite being a little long, it was my go-to encore for many years. Many years after playing it I listened again to the original and realized how many of O.P.’s special harmonies I wasn’t quite doing justice to, and I stopped playing it out of respect. But I still listen to it."

Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon

"I consider this whole concept album to be a single, through-composed work (albeit with the slightly but intentionally crass intrusion of the single 'Money.') I’ve never been much for words in rock music (and consequently haven’t really appreciated Bob Dylan) but when the music is interesting, I’m hooked. Dark Side legitimized my love of rock music, given that I recognized so much that I had learned about great classical music in its tracks: melody ('Great Gig in the Sky'), harmony (including delayed resolutions), brilliant use of sound and spacial effects, melodic and motivic (not just rhythmic) treatment of percussion instruments, overall attitude and layering of sound (not unlike Debussy.)"

Jerry Douglas, Russ Barenberg and Edgar Meyer, Hop, Skip and Wobble

"One evening, after performing the Schumann Piano Concerto with the Nashville Symphony, I was somewhat randomly invited by Edgar Meyer to a pickin’ party at Bela Fleck’s house. I heard every one of the Nashville A-list bluegrass musicians jam for several hours. My cheeks actually hurt for two days from having smiled too much. One of my favourite bluegrass recordings is Hop, Skip and Wobble, featuring Jerry Douglas, Russ Barenberg and Edgar Meyer. It’s the most infectious music, and a nice contrast to the slightly more rarified air of string quartets, symphonies and sonatas."

More to explore:

More champagne, less stress: life is a balancing act for soprano Jane Archibald

Foot-stomping in fashionable shoes: Cecilia String Quartet walks the walk

The funniest classical musicians, past and present