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Collection of works highlighted in 'Rhapsody in Blue' at Heinz Hall

| Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017, 9:00 p.m.
Pianist Jon Kimura Parker

Pianist Jon Kimura Parker puts together disparate elements of music much in the way George Gershwin does in “Rhapsody in Blue.”

Just as Gershwin blended classical elements, jazz and Tin Pan Alley, Parker is comfortable with performing, re-imagining and teaching them.

“I dreamt of life as a classical soloist practically from the very start, but then I discovered I was interested in a lot of things,” Parker says.

That musical mixture would seem to make him an appropriate soloist for “Rhapsody in Blue,” which he will perform Feb. 24, 25 and 26 at Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh.

The concert is a collection of 20th century works: “Rhapsody in Blue” from 1924, Charles Ives' “The Unanswered Question” from 1906, Kurt Weill's Symphony No. 2 from 1933-34 and Leonard Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story” from 1957.

Parker says he plays the Gershwin jazz-concerto “a lot” in concerts, and is pleased at how it has “gotten more respect” over the past few decades.

The work has its own special nature, he says, and he recently has performed it with orchestras in Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

“Rhapsody in Blue” is a one-movement, almost overture-like piece rather than the three movements of classical concertos. Instead of an orchestral statement of theme, it opens with a clarinet glissando right from the heart of jazz on the streets.

“Most musicians will agree that it has some elements that are not assembled as well as they could be, but it definitely is representative of a time, the music of an era and definitely of Gershwin,” he says.

Parker, 57, is a native of Vancouver, Canada, and professor of piano at the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University in Houston.

Besides being an educator, he also is a busy soloist, working this year with orchestras in New York City, Milwaukee, Chicago and Naples, Fla.

He also tours with the Miro Quartet and the Montrose Trio, of which he was a co-founder. Parker is a member of a quintet called Off the Score, which does original works and fresh takes on the music of Maurice Ravel, Igor Stravinsky and others. The quintet features Police drummer Stewart Copeland.

Parker also is a member of Piano Plus, a group of keyboardists who take music to “places where it is hard to get downtown for a concert or where there no downtown,” he says.

They try to bring music to people who wouldn't get a chance to hear it otherwise.

The range of his work reflects his openness to the range of music. He says when he was in his teen years, his heroes were Arthur Rubenstein and Elton John. He then added to those the work of Oscar Peterson, the Canadian jazz great.

In that time, besides studying classical works, he also bought an electronic keyboard and experimented with the music of Genesis.

He says he is interested in the richness the piano can produce and enjoys doing solo works such as the original “Pictures at an Exhibition” or even Stravinsky's “Rite of Spring,” which he has recorded.

He says he developed an obsession with a piano version of “Rite of Spring” when he found it and discovered that many pieces of it were missing. He began adding them and trying to make the work complete when he found out it didn't exist for performances, but simply as a ballet rehearsal aid.

At his last concert in Pittsburgh, in 2009, he adds, he played as an encore the “Fantasy of Themes from ‘Wizard of Oz'” by Pittsburgh native William Hirtz.

Bob Karlovits is a Tribune Review contributing writer.

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