CALGARY—Bach’s Third Brandenburg Concerto played by four solo pianists on two upright pianos on a busy pedestrian street in the heart of downtown Calgary?
No, I haven’t been sniffing fumes from the oilsands. I’ve been spending part of the past week attending the first Honens Piano Festival, a four-day celebration of the perennially popular keyboard instrument.
It’s designed to maintain a profile on the off years of Canada’s richest ($ 100,000 first prize) music competition. That event, the triennial Honens International Piano Competition, took place last year and its first-prize winner, Nicolas Namoradze, returned not only to play an innovative recital — all etudes, including six by himself — but to team up with Aleksander Kryzanowski, Pedja Muzijevic and Jon Kimura Parker on those outdoor uprights, take part in chamber music concerts and even give a master class at Mount Royal University.
If the Honens International Piano Competition aims to identify “the complete artist,” in the Georgian-born, Hungarian-educated virtuoso it appears to have found one.
The three other gentlemen at the outdoor keyboards were no slouches either: Muzijevic’s solo recital provocatively interwove Bach solo works with a contemporary piece by America’s David Fulmer requiring a “prepared” piano and another by Britain’s James Joslin requiring the addition of two metronomes and a music box.
As for Kryzanowski, the Polish pianist also made his Canadian debut as half of Duo 19:21 with accordionist (!) Iwo Jedynecki, in a program of music by Guilmant, Franck and Saint-Saens originally scored for piano and harmonium.
Not to be outdone by any of these gentlemen, the fourth pianist, Parker, appeared in five different events as well as designing the entire four days of music as artistic director of the new festival and its parent competition.
“This is the first time I have been artistic director of anything,” he laughingly explained in a between concerts interview, “and I wanted to showcase (in) as many ways as I could the versatility of the piano.”
A professor at Houston’s Rice University, the Vancouver-born pianist personally embodied his objective, even going so far as to join the Miro String Quartet in a raucous rendition of a country music classic, “Orange Blossom Special.”
This was Calgary, after all, and the fact that the new festival coincided with the Canadian Country Music Association’s annual awards prompted him to declare — in a statement worthy of President Donald Trump — that for this past weekend the Alberta metropolis has been “the music capital of the world.”
Capital or no capital, Calgary turned out for its first Honens Piano Festival, even to that rarest of musical events, an entire concert devoted to the piano music of a living Canadian composer.
Alexina Louie at 70 celebrated the birthday of the Toronto composer whose Love Songs for a Small Planet (1989) can be heard Oct. 6 in Koerner Hall as part of the season opening concert of Toronto’s Esprit Orchestra, conducted by her spouse, Alex Pauk.
The Calgary program featured several of her pieces including “Scenes from a Jade Terrace,” brilliantly performed by the artist who commissioned the dazzling score back in 1989 — you guessed it, the ubiquitous Mr. Parker.
The program also featured the world premiere of Small Beautiful Things, 11 short pieces for children played from memory by 11 students of the Mt. Royal University Conservatory. A more optimistic demonstration of the future of classical music would have been hard to visualize.
A complementary event took place earlier the same day in a family concert in which floor-hugging pre-schoolers in the lobby of Bella Concert Hall listened raptly as musicians introduced and played their instruments.
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As a missionary event as well as a celebration, the first Honens Piano Festival could hardly have concluded more aptly than with a free outdoor concert in Central Memorial Park at which artistic director Parker teamed up with fellow ivory ticklers Namoradze and Calgary’s own Catherine Chi — six hands crowding the keyboard of one piano — to perform the popular overture to Rossini’s The Barber of Seville.
“My goal,” Parker confessed, “is that when someone comes to Calgary, the Uber driver knows about the Honens.” He seems to be on the way.