Quills Quotes & Notes: Articles and Stories by Rosemary Phillips

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Ian Parker - Pianist

Three fascinating and fun interviews by writer Rosemary Phillips

Music, Food and Pianos (2011)
Rhapsody in Blue (2007)
A Piano in Every Room (2005)
Links to Ian's Formal Bio & Info

INTRO: Ian Parker, one of North America's most amazing pianists, is a terrific interview. He just bubbles over with enthusiasm about his life and his art. From his bases in New York City and Vancouver, BC, here are three interview articles, each in preparation for his performances with the Vancouver Island Symphony in Nanaimo, BC.
The first is from 2011 as he excitedly showed his studio and collection of pianos. He was preparing for his performance of one of his all-time favourites, Tchaikovsky's "Piano Concert No. 1", with Pierre Simard conducting at the Port Theatre.
The second was written in 2007 as he talked by phone from his studio in New York City, on September 11, about his upcoming performance of another one of his favourites, "Rhapsody in Blue" by Gershwin.
The third, from 2005, captures Ian's other passion - food - from a phone interview during which Rosemary had to pause for a few minutes to remove freshly baked bread from the oven.

Ian Parker in his studio with one of his Steinways

Music, Food and Pianos with Ian Parker

UPDATE 2012: Since this interview Ian Parker has acquired his second spectacular Steinway piano. "I was in London, practicing at Steinway (Ian is a Steinway Artist) and there was this concert grand," explained Ian. "It is the most unusual piano I have seen. I called my bank and asked for a loan. It took six months to get here. The two black Steinways are now side by side in the studio, and the red piano is at Dad's house."

Take a pound of vitality, passion and talent, mix it up with a few ounces of laughter and spice and you have Ian Parker, brilliant Canadian pianist and gourmet cook. Music and food (and wine) go hand in hand with Ian. In fact, when he was caught for an interview he was between business calls and on his way to the market.

“I’m getting a rack of venison to fire up on Jamie’s (Parker) barbecue tonight,” he chuckled. “I gather some of my best inspiration from cooking. I spent a month in Europe this summer where there are market stands that specialize in just cheese, just fruit, or chicken. There’s infatuation and enthusiasm about the food. In North America it’s more of a pre-packaged thing... like the difference between a CD or video and a live concert. The live concert, like an excellently prepared meal with friends, is something you really remember.”

While Ian headed for his ingredients, discussion was redirected to his performance in Nanaimo on October 22 for Genius and Madness with the Vancouver Island Symphony. “Pierre Simard (artistic director for the VI Symphony) actually called me about a year-and-a-half ago. I was playing the Barber Concerto in Michigan... it was March... I remember the day so clearly. We were talking about repertoire, to do something grand, and I said, ‘Tchaikovsky PLEASE!’”

Ian Parker - with his Steinway
Ian Parker with his Steinway
that was originally with the Berlin Philharmonic

Who could refuse this request from an artist who four years ago exploded on the Port Theatre stage with the VI Symphony and raised the roof over a sold-out audience for his performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. And so Ian gets to play his all-time favourite and one of the most popular and beautiful piano concertos ever performed around the world, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1.

While growing up in a family of pianists Ian often heard Piano Concerto No. 1 coming from his father’s record player. “My dad was on my case about learning it. I resisted until I started hearing recordings from the really great artists. I then realized why it’s so popular and decided to take it on. It’s a piece that I love so much. It’s so exciting, has plenty of fireworks, and some very expressive moments.”

But how does it fit with the title of the concert, Genius and Madness? “This concerto is about joy. Every artist experiences the intensities of joy and depression. Depression just shows the other side of joy, something that we as human beings have to cope with. Some don’t cope well. But look at what Tchaikovsky was able to come up with!”

As an artist Ian knows only too well this up and down road. On the up and incredible side he elaborated, “Since I was last in Nanaimo I have done a few recordings, one in the Abbey Road Studio with the London Symphony and conductor Michael Francis who is making waves around the world. Last year I did a solo recording called Moonlight Fantasies, which includes Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. I’ve done chamber music in a 14th Century church in Ireland, played with the San Francisco Symphony to great reviews...”

At present Ian is living a pretty balanced lifestyle with homes and studios in New York City (near the Lincoln Centre) and Vancouver, and performances across North America and Europe. “I teach a few students who are really going for it,” he added. “I help out my dad at the Conservatory in Burnaby, and I’ve got a collection of the most unbelievable pianos in the world. One is a Steinway from the Berlin Philharmonic and the other a rare red, gold and black Bösendorfer.”

Well, Ian couldn’t help but show his prize instruments and their distinct sounds in his windowed studio which is surrounded by trees. He played a little Gershwin and a little Brahms while moving from one piano to the other. “They are so different. I can get carried away with their beauty so it’s not always good to practice on them because they do so much; the fluid work, the pearl-like silky textures can be so easily achieved. On the practice workhorse in my hidden studio I have to work ten times harder for refinement, voicing and shaping. I can close the door and not get distracted; then I come back out here and treat myself on these pianos and try some of the passages I’ve been working on.”

Meanwhile, even though the concerto is a dear and familiar one, Ian will be practicing and refining it for his performances and create music that will surely touch the heart and soul of everyone in the audience.

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Rhapsody in Blue and New York City

Ian Parker - Pianist
(2007) It was an intense day in New York and Canadian pianist Ian Parker was down in the lower East Side of the city. “I came down on the subway this morning,” Parker said as he answered the phone. “Everyone looked gloomy and intense, twiddling their thumbs, looking at their shoes. Folks are down at the site and reading the names. Every year it's always been a funny day. Today there are pounding thunderstorms. I'm glad I got to the studio before it started to really pour.”

Synchronicity was at work; when the interview was booked for September 11, there had been no thought of 9-11, of it being the sixth anniversary of the collapse of the World Trade Center.

While sounds of the raging storm and pounding rain echoed through the building, Parker, who spends most of his time in New York and visits his hometown of Vancouver periodically, said, “My apartment (by the Lincoln Center and purchased years ago when it was affordable) is being painted, and I'm having the floors done, so the piano is on its side. I'm using a music studio in the Village to practice. I love it when I come and stay here; I cave in and rehearse, and walk in the park and get the vibe of New York. It's thrilling and inspiring.”

The subject turned to the music he would be playing with the Vancouver Island Symphony at The Port Theatre with Pierre Simard as conductor; Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin.

More synchronicity; Rhapsody in Blue is considered a musical portrait of New York City. “It's soulful, it's Gershwin in New York during the Depression. In the beginning is the clarinet trill – and I listen to how each clarinet plays that differently. Then the piano comes in – but how do I come in differently each time, with such an orchestral introduction? In the middle of the piece there's the hustle and bustle of the city. I always thought of it as a jazzy fun piece because there is a strong jazz element but there is also a very deeply felt beauty that is not fun and games. Gershwin drew upon how people had to get around in the Depression – and even though there was Depression, people had an ability to appreciate music.”

Ian Parker - pianist at rehearsal
Ian Parker - at rehearsal, 2007
(Photo by Rosemary Phillips)

And there's more synchronicity: the opening piece of music for the VI Symphony's 2007-08 season, is Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber, the very music used for 9-11 commemorative events. Composed in 1936 and first played on November 5, 1938 in New York with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, Adagio for Strings has been used in films like Platoon, The Elephant Man and Lorenzo's Oil. While it has been one of the highest selling classical pieces on iTunes, it is considered by many as the 'saddest classical' work ever. On September 15, 2001 it was used by BBC's 'Last Night of the Proms', to honour those who had lost their lives a few days earlier. (On youtube.com you can see the performance along with visuals from ABC's 'Report from ground zero'.)

Both Rhapsody in Blue and Adagio for Strings are highly emotionally charged, and both have incredible builds and climaxes. “Rhapsody in Blue is so passionate,” added Parker. “Every emotion is in it. As I get older I sometimes feel differently about different passages. It is thrilling and exciting with moments of beauty within the sadness. It takes piano playing to a different level of richness.”

Rhapsody in Blue remains one of Parker's most memorable pieces of music. “It was the first piece I ever played with an orchestra, the Vancouver Youth Symphony, and we did a recording of it at the Gateway Theatre in Richmond. I was sixteen. I've made some of my closest friends from the Youth Symphony because of that concert. I have played Rhapsody in Blue as my debut with most prominent symphony orchestras, and with two of the biggest orchestras; Cleveland and the National Symphony in Washington, DC.”

On this return engagement to Nanaimo, Parker will also be playing Burleske by Richard Strauss. “It's not a commonly done work,” he explained. “It is one of the most difficult finger-work pieces I know, and it is challenging rhythmically for the listener. The pulse is constantly changing. And it goes by like lightening speed. It's a very exciting piece with some extremely grand moments, but ends very softly.”

The interview over, Parker returned to his practicing, and the rain continued to pour down on New York City.

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A Piano in Every Room

(2005) Pianist Ian Parker was preparing to serve up one of his favourite dishes, Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 18, in C minor with the Vancouver Island Symphony when he took time out for this interview.

Ian Parker - pianist
Ian Parker - at rehearsal
The Port Theatre's Steinway
(Photo by Rosemary Phillips)

Mention the word ‘passion’ to Canadian pianist Ian Parker and there’s no holding him back. Like a rocket he takes off; “I love art - and food. My biggest passion is for living. You name it and I’m probably passionate about it. I want to absorb and taste everything! I’m a huge sponge. I want to experience everything and recreate it in my music!”

Right from birth, music has been a major part of Ian’s life. “I lived in a house with two parents who taught piano. My dad, Edward Parker, taught from 6:30 in the morning until 11 at night, so you could hear the piano all day long. There was a piano in every single room; an upright in the kitchen, grand in the living room, a grand in the TV room, and an upright in my bedroom, but no piano in the bathroom.” Then Ian added, laughing, “Ah, yes, I felt lost in the bathroom. ”

By age three, Ian was taking lessons from his mum and dad. “My mum (she’s deceased now) was from Shanghai and was trained at the Shanghai Conservatory. She enforced discipline and diligence all the time. My father, with his English background, was extremely strict.” In fact, Ian felt that piano playing was a natural thing to do in life. “As a child you learn how to walk, and eat with a fork and knife. During that time I was learning that piano playing was another thing to do naturally. You eat, work, exercise - and play piano.”

And does Ian play piano! He has grown to become one of Canada’s most talented artists, a winner of many competitions and awards, all while maintaining and feeding his passions for good food, cooking, the environment, the ocean, travel, hiking, biking, skiing, and driving his 1968 Baracuda. “You work hard, but you have to have days when you do nothing.” So he takes time off. “In Stanley Park I rent a mountain bike and go around the sea wall to digest the music and open the valves of inspiration. Along the sea wall you go by great restaurants and I can’t help but stop off. And there are such amazing scenes; the trees changing colour, people visiting town, and the smells and tastes of the food I have just had. All these become a part of my music.”

It is also important for Ian to be in the moment, to be spontaneous. “Making music can never be the same. I do something a little different every time, fresh, inventive, improvise. When people plan their nuances they sound premeditated and not spontaneous. To do what you want to, in the moment, gives you more of an adrenaline rush.”

At this time in his life Ian flies back and forth between pianos and kitchens in New York City (right by the Lincoln Centre) and Vancouver. He also tours, and when travelling he gives master classes. “I can work with people who don’t know me that well, but are hungry to work.” This is where his passion for food slips in. Words like nectar, spicy, bity, richness, flavour, and thickness permeate his teaching language. “There are ways where you can think about the most incredible mushroom cream sauce, or red wine, that gives you a wonderful feeling, and create that feeling on the piano, that sound.”

More information

For more information, formal biography, photos, and recordings visit Ian Parker 's web site, and for bookings contact Schmidt Artists in New York, NY.
For information about the Vancouver Island Symphony visit: the VI Symphony web site.

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Copyright Rosemary Phillips, Quills Quotes & Notes Enterprises, 2013
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