The Minnesota Orchestra's summer festival is getting a new face.
Pianist Jon Kimura Parker, who goes by "Jackie," has been named the new creative partner for summer programming, the orchestra announced Monday. Starting in 2020, Parker will host, perform in and help design its summer shows.
"The ultimate success for me is that somebody who had not come to a concert before leaves saying, 'I can't wait to hear another one,' " Parker said. "And that somebody who loves the orchestra already ... leaves saying: This is not a program I would have heard in October."
Long known as Sommerfest, the festival has gone two years without a host. Conductor Andrew Litton, the fest's longest-serving leader, stepped aside in 2017 after 15 years.
"We knew we wanted to have a voice, a face for summer," said Michelle Miller Burns, the orchestra's president and CEO. "What might that look like and who might that be?" Staff met with musicians and others to brainstorm possibilities, looking beyond conductors, she said. "From that really terrific list, we pretty quickly came to Jackie."
In addition to its new face, the festival will likely get a new name. Those details will come in the spring, Burns said. "We want the artistic elements of this to take the lead and guide us to what that name will be."
Parker has history with Sommerfest, which was launched in 1980 by conductor Leonard Slatkin as a celebration of Viennese music. He first performed during it in 1990, as one of four pianists playing a "piano spectacular." Partly because the festival influenced his growth as a musician, "I'm just really incredibly thrilled to be here, doing this," Parker said in an interview at Orchestra Hall on Monday. He's returned for other Minnesota Orchestra gigs, including subscription concerts.
"In the hands of soloist Jon Kimura Parker, the tired Tchaikovsky concerto became an event," one reviewer said in 2013, "its quicksilver mood changes and flying octaves reanimated by the pianist's … gargantuan technique."
Known for his concertos, Parker also performs chamber music with the Miró Quartet and the Montrose Trio. (While in town for this announcement, he sneaked in a Sunday show in St. Paul with the Schubert Club.) He bends musical boundaries with Off the Score, a quintet that includes Police drummer Stewart Copeland. Born in Canada, Parker teaches at the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University in Houston, where he lives.
Parker's post lasts three years. The "creative partner" role represents "a new leadership model" for the summer festival, the orchestra said in its announcement Monday. In 2018, Sommerfest saluted South Africa, tying in with the orchestra's tour there. This summer, the theme was "Música Juntos," celebrating the music of Latin America. Future summer fests will likely be organized around such themes, Burns said.
"It takes a very special person to step into a first-time position like this," she said. "Because not everything is going to be perfectly mapped out ...
"But the flexibility and the care that Jackie has demonstrated in our conversations gives me complete confidence that we are going to produce some amazing things for some audiences and our community over the next three summers."