Anthony Parnther made the sobering comment: Of about 2,000 professional orchestras in the U.S., the number of black conductors today can be counted on one hand.
Which makes Parnther’s new appointment as music director of the San Bernardino Symphony Orchestra all the more notable. He’ll kick off the 2019–2020 season on Friday with a performance of “Carmina Burana,” followed by a Nov. 16 concert with Jennifer Holliday and Lynn Harrell.
“I’ve seen it many times when I’m conducting, and I see young children of various colors sitting in the front three or four rows,” Parnther said. “You can just tell, it’s like: ‘Wow, that’s not what I was expecting to see come around the corner.’”
San Bernardino Symphony — in its 91st year, among the oldest professional orchestras in California — hired Parnther because of his charismatic, captivating conducting. At an audition concert in 2017, he received three standing ovations — “one of them was before the intermission started,” said Anne Viricel, executive director of the orchestra. “This is not normal. So he can rile up an audience!”
Parnther, who studied music performance at Northwestern and orchestral conducting at Yale, chucks out academic program notes and engages audiences personally, explaining why he programmed each piece and what it means to him. At intermission, he wades into the hall and chats with the crowd.
“I take a very personal approach to breaking down all the formalities that have crept into classical music,” he said. “I’m really attracted to musicians or styles of music where there’s a lack of inhibition. Which is why I think gospel music is possibly one of the greatest art forms that we have, because of the rawness of the music, because of the emotion.”
It’s a little uncomfortable to walk into a room where you see no one that looks like you.
Parnther, the son of Jamaican and Samoan immigrants, grew up in a “conservative, well-to-do black neighborhood” in Virginia where he attended the Baptist church every Sunday. “If I had my choice, I would probably be a gospel singer, but I was not blessed with that talent. So I settled for classical music,” he said, laughing.
He joined band in junior high so he could go on group trips to theme parks. He was guided by a dictionary into picking the bassoon, but the instrument stuck. He still plays regularly on Hollywood scoring stages. He recently performed on Hans Zimmer’s score for the new “The Lion King.”
The other half of his life is conducting — and not just classical. He conducts live video game concerts and film scores, and he has brought an orchestral element to live and recorded projects by the likes of Kanye West, Imagine Dragons and, recently, RZA of Wu-Tang Clan. He has studied the electric relationship between popular artists and their audiences and wants to bring that same dynamism and lack of inhibition to the concert hall.
“Music, to me, is emotional first and intellectual second,” he said. “When I was 13 years old and listening to Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, I had no idea what they were saying, I had no idea what they were playing, but I knew that the sounds had a profound effect on me — the way it made me feel.”
The San Bernardino appointment puts Parnther on a path first paved by black music directors such as the late Henry Lewis at the New Jersey Symphony, the late Calvin Simmons of the Oakland Symphony, the late James DePreist of the Oregon Symphony and Jon Robertson, now music director emeritus of the nearby Redlands Symphony.
Parnther also is entering his ninth season as music director of the Southeast Symphony, the historically black orchestra in Los Angeles founded in 1948. In a city full of performing ensembles, he’s proud that the group is doing well financially and drawing capacity crowds. It also reflects the diversity of L.A., with people of color making up more than half of its members. Making music is an avocation for most of the orchestra, but they’re all paid.
Another point of pride for Parnther, and something he intends to bring to San Bernardino: Southeast Symphony has premiered nearly 50 pieces by female composers in the last decade and staged nearly 100 works by black composers. “It’s a little audacious for me to say this,” he said, “but I think that we have been the leading platform for composers of color.”
He believes his programming, and his presence onstage, will have a ripple effect in the Inland Empire.
“It’s a little uncomfortable to walk into a room where you see no one that looks like you,” Parnther said. “Of course, most of my career has been like that. I’ve almost always been the one minority in a symphony orchestra. Communities come out to a ton of things where they feel that they’re being represented.”
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Info: (909) 381-5388, sanbernardinosymphony.org
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