Parker delivers plenty of Russian fireworks in Ravinia recital

Tue Jul 31, 2012 at 9:14 am

By Kyle MacMillan

Jon Kimura Parker performed a recital of Russian music Monday night at Ravinia’s Martin Theatre.

The celebrated Denis Matsuev was supposed to perform two back-to-back concerts at the Ravinia Festival, but illness forced him to cancel late last week. Gamely stepping in as a last-minute replacement for the Russian pianist Monday evening in the Martin Theatre was Jon Kimura Parker, a veteran Canadian soloist with a solid international reputation if one less flashy than Matsuev.

Given the buzz surrounding Matsuev since he won the 1998 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, a certain amount of disappointment was inevitable as the sprinkling of empty seats made clear. But those who attended were hardly shortchanged. Parker does not come from the Russian school and may not be able to match Matsuev’s interpretative panache, but he delivered plenty of fireworks of his own.

To his credit, Parker replaced Matsuev’s line-up with another all-Russian program,  even keeping a couple of the original selections. Setting the tone for the evening, he sat down at the keyboard and sprang right into the opening work, Sergei Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 3 in A minor, Op. 28, From Old Notebooks. He instantly plunged listeners into the one-movement work’s restless kineticism, with a driving, propulsive take that quickly made clear his ample technique.

Matsuev had been scheduled to perform Three Movements from Petrushka – a set of excerpts for solo piano that Igor Stravinsky pulled from his famed ballet. But Parker did the pianist one better, performing his own half-hour transcription of the entire ballet – a substantial accomplishment in itself.

With a nothing-held-back, physically involved performance, Parker served as a musical storyteller, bringing his solo-piano take compellingly to life. He vividly captured the bustling, evocative, ever-changing character of this ballet, not to mention its all-important rhythmic punch and drive. At first, there was a desire to try and recall the details of the work’s plot, but it quickly made more sense to just give oneself over to the music and become absorbed in everything that was going on. And there was plenty in Parker’s tour de force performance.    

Perhaps most impressive was how in Parker’s hands this arrangement invested the piano with an almost orchestral feel in its range of colors and effects, from the percussive punches at the bass end to dainty, tinkling upper notes to scampering passages across the keyboard. Needless to say, this was extraordinarily complex and challenging music, and while Parker did not exactly make it look easy, he certainly pulled it off with sure-fingered élan.

Like he did to open the concert, Parker began the second half with another short work, one from Matsuev’s original program – Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G minor, Op. 23, No. 5.  He offered a striking, buoyant take that gave it a certain dramatic turn and nicely captured the miniature’s syncopated gait.

To round out the evening, Parker offered a muscular interpretation of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, culminating with a towering and ultimately a bit overblown take on the final section, “The Great Gate of Kiev.” While Parker certainly gave requisite attention to the work’s slower, calmer sections such as “The Old Castle,” a broader range of expression would have taken this admirable performance into a more spellbinding realm.

What was really missing all evening was something reflective and intimate – a lack that Parker seemed to acknowledge by offering as an encore what he called the quietest piece in his repertory – Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G major, Op. 32, No. 5. There was much to admire about his gentle version, but it was hard not to wish he would have varied the dynamics further, Parker at times playing so softly that listeners had to lean in to hear.

Yes, it would have been nice to hear Matsuev Monday evening, but Parker took this unexpected opportunity as his substitute and made the most of it.

Posted in Performances

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