Music director Christopher Warren-Green decided not to hire an international star for the brass solos in Shostakovich’s Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and Strings with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra. He figured his own trumpeter would blow people away.
If you’re a classical music fan, your eyes just popped. That’s like saying, “I wouldn’t trade for Lebron James; I already have a small forward.” Or “Don’t call Emeril Lagasse. My chef will whip up a roux.”
But who’s surprised? John Parker became the orchestra’s youngest principal in October 2013, winning an audition at 21 as a UNC-Chapel Hill senior. This week, he’ll team with Czech pianist Lukas Vondracek for three concerts.
But if Parker hadn’t knocked his audition out of the park, he might be instructing 17-year-olds today.
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“I was about to start student teaching at a Raleigh high school when I got this job,” he says. “A musician usually creates many opportunities and puts them together to form a career, so it seemed sensible to leave a lot of doors open.”
The door almost closed before the High Point native walked through. “He nearly didn’t make the selection for the audition, purely on the fact that he didn’t have enough experience,” says Warren-Green. “There are over 100 applicants for every job, so you have to filter them. We were persuaded to hear him by his teacher.”
That teacher was Tim Hudson, who has subbed with the orchestra and started coaching Parker in middle school. Hudson went to the same audition to try for a second trumpet spot.
“We carpooled from Greensboro for the auditions and had warm-up rooms next to each other,” says Parker. “I heard him playing a wrong note over and over and texted, ‘That’s an A sharp, not an A natural.’ I got an ‘LOL’ back.”
Parker still turns for advice to Hudson, who teaches trumpet at Gardner-Webb University in Cleveland County when he’s not touring. (He’s in Europe now with Rodney Marsalis and the Philadelphia Big Brass.)
“John was an incredibly quiet student,” he says. “During the first few lessons, I wondered if he was even paying attention but soon realized he was taking in every word and doing all he could to improve.
“I remember when John was about 16 years old and clearly one of the best players in this part of the country. He was becoming very confident, so I warned him to never become arrogant. I put a Telemann duet on the music stand, turned the music upside down, and we played it backwards! To this day, he doesn't have an arrogant bone in his body and is one of the kindest, most caring people you will ever meet.”
A quiet guy, but ...
When you do meet him, the first impressions are variations on a theme. Shy. Respectful. Guardedly friendly. People who know him better know better.
“John is the most surprising guy,” says Rebecca Clemens, who played bass trombone alongside him at UNC. “The thing you never expect him to do is the thing he says ‘yes’ to. We made some ridiculous videos: him accompanying himself singing Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” – he’s a good pianist – playing extremely technical recorder music with his nose, playing the Tchaikovsky Fifth (Symphony) horn solo on bass trombone.
“I was on the field with the marching band for a UNC football game before a packed Kenan stadium. They had a ‘kick a field goal and win a car’-type contest, and I hear, ‘Kicking our field goals today is John Parker.’ There he stood, dressed entirely in Carolina blue, and he missed three field goals in a row.”
Three notes in a row – well, that would trouble him. “If I play a great concert but chip one note, I’ll think about that one note all night,” he says.
“I love golf. I played on my high school team (Southwest Guilford), and on better days I can shoot in the low to mid-80s. I compare trumpet playing to golf when I teach: You have to follow through with every note, like you follow through with a golf swing. There’s a small margin of error. And you never truly master everything.”
Warren-Green compliments Parker’s musical maturity. “The first trumpet is looked to by many of his colleagues as a leader, the topliner in the brass section. With John, like a lot of older players, I don’t need to stop in rehearsal; I can just make a gesture or give him a look, and I get a raised eyebrow back. It’s so unusual to find that in someone who has relatively no experience in an orchestra.”
In his first year, he took on Stravinsky’s “Petrouchka” (where the trumpet embodies a sly puppet) and Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 (where it soars like a heaven-bound angel) and blew them away.
Parker says he has never studied, let alone performed, many pieces he has encountered on Charlotte Symphony programs. Maybe he adapts quickly because he’s had music under his hands since he played “Hot Cross Buns” on his family’s old upright piano at 4 or 5. Or maybe music is in his DNA.
A tuneful family
Alan Parker, his father, played trombone and piano and majored in music education at UNC before teaching at High Point Central High School. Mother Juli, a clarinetist and music ed major, became a band director in High Point. Brother Robert, John’s elder by 22 months and a trombonist, is collecting a doctorate at the University of Iowa.
Jim Ketch, UNC trumpet professor and director of jazz studies, says (quoting Daniel Coyle’s book “The Talent Code”) that talent isn’t given, it is grown. He taught Parker for four years and “can never remember a lesson that was underprepared. He was diligent with practicing fundamental skills each day and quick to stop, assess and repeat skills or phrases if he detected a mistake.
“His appetite for discovering, studying and mastering literature was voracious. John accepted criticism with grace, respect and trust. ... Years of piano playing and study honed his sense of form, harmony, phrasing and interpretation.”
Parker’s biggest asset may be versatility. He can schmaltz up a flugelhorn solo on the Gershwins’ “Embraceable You” for a Pops concert, handle rapid passages in classical cadenzas or play the trumpet line for Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” at Elevation Church. Mention the pop song “Low Rider” – recorded 17 years before his birth – and he tootles its trumpet interlude.
And, says Ketch, he loves to perform: “The brighter the lights, the more John seemed to center himself on the music. His technique was so consistent and so formidable that he walked on stage with a confidence rare for someone so young.”
Orchestra principal oboist Hollis Ulaky, hired at 21 in the 1970s, recalls being in Parker’s shoes and liking the responsibility.
“My dream was to get a performing job in ... a new place, where I had to prove myself. I felt the pressure but had the support of my colleagues. Being that young allowed me to be fearless – for a while, anyway!”
Retaining top talent
Ulaky has stayed four decades, rare for an orchestral musician. Warren-Green says he gives principals solos in the Classics season to “promote players I really want to keep. If you make it interesting for them, they may not disappear.”
Parker seems settled right now. He shares a home with Amy Miller, whom he dated in high school and long-distance throughout college; she’s a behavioral health counselor for Alexander Youth Network.
He composes music, including two brass quintets and an orchestral piece he has worked on for two years. He takes private students, a job that brings much joy and some perplexity when he encounters roadblocks he never faced. (“One student has braces, and I never did. What’s that like if you play trumpet?”) Because he’s young, they relate to him more as an equal than they might an older professor.
And, he says, the Charlotte Symphony has made him welcome: “I’ve heard horror stories about people coming into sections that didn’t support them, but never once did I feel anyone didn’t have my best interests at heart.
“The brass section has gotten better even since I’ve been here. I’ve never worked with a section this good. We all get along, too, and it makes such a difference to the music when you’re friendly offstage. This orchestra feels like a big family.”
Charlotte Symphony Orchestra
The CSO plays Copland’s “Appalachian Spring,” Shostakovich’s Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and Strings and Haydn’s Symphony No. 104 at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday in Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St. Tickets are $25.50 to $89.50.
Details: 704-972-2000, charlottesymphony.org.