Marla A. Matime | Contributor
Orchestral music all over the country is perceived to be in a declining state, with concert goers primarily entering their golden years, young enthusiasts are not frequenting concerts in this millennial era, as our parents and their parents’ generation did for entertainment.
I got a chance to sit down with Musical Director and Conductor of the San Bernardino Symphony Orchestra, whom I like to refer to as Maestro Anthony Parnther. Being raised on the East Coast by immigrant parents, Maestro Parnther grew to love music in such a way that his environment was not privy to.
He has worked with world class musicians and iconic artists throughout his career and had the honor of being commissioned for the re-opening of Queen Elisabeth Hall at Southbank Centre in London. He studied music performance at Northwestern University and orchestral conducting at Yale University.
How has music shaped you as a person? What was your upbringing in music and how has that been an influence on you?
I grew up in a very unmusical family. Both of my parents were academics, and they are both immigrants. My mom came to America in 1959 from Samoa and my dad immigrated in 1949 from Jamaica. He served in the Korean War and he was in the Navy and things along those lines and my dad ended up being one of the first Black graduates of MIT. He had a very long career of 40 years as an engineer for Framatome, Inc., and he dealt with nuclear energy.
My original interest in music was to be a performer, to be a professional bassoon player.So, imagine my parents’ glee in hearing that their son wanted to play the bassoon for a living. They were not particularly pleased, but as far as getting involved in music, I got involved because I wanted to go on all the fancy trips.
I’d be in one of my classes and I would hear over the intercom, ‘Would all of the band members please report to the busses for your trip to Disney World, or Busch Gardens.’ I connived my way into the band so I could go on all the fabulous trips. So that is how this sort of scheme started and I actually enjoyed music itself.
So, the bassoon is your primary instrument, and how many instruments do you play?
The bassoon is my primary instrument. I actually play pretty much all of the orchestral instruments.
Since the bassoon is your first instrument, is there an instrument that is now one of your favorites?
That’s it, the bassoon is what I enjoy playing.
What pull did music have on you to become passionate about going into the industry? What has kept you in it for so long?
There’s a number of things, but the first thing would be the sense of community. For the kind of music that I make, it requires a whole group of people. I love the synergy of people depending on each other and relying on each other and expecting each other to collaborate in order to make this kind of music. Also, when we perform the music, again, a sense of community happens because so many people come to view this. I love the sharing aspect of it, I love the storytelling aspect of it, but community would definitely be the first thing, I love the sense of community–music, or classical music rather, forces us into that community.
You’ve traveled all over the world and music has been that vehicle for you, what would be your most impressionable experience while traveling?
Well there’s that old term that we’ve heard, that music is a universal language. Well it really is whether I’m conducting in Spain, or England, or Africa, or Australia, or America, that Beethoven Symphony, elicits same emotions and excitement worldwide. It’s very interesting to hear how this powerful music effects people in this world on an emotional level.
Which performance that you have been a part of, that made a particular impact on you?
I was thinking about that on the way here and there’s been a lot of milestones as far as that’s concerned. I think the concert that has meant the most to me is the one we did for the 70th anniversary of the Southeast Symphony. The Southeast Symphony is the oldest predominantly Black orchestra in the country.
It was started by Mabel Massengill Gunn who is a Black music teacher from South Central Los Angeles, and for 70 years, it has been highly regarded treasure in Los Angeles. The concert that we did was in dedication to Martin Luther King, Jr. but at the very end of the concert, there were 2,000 people in the audience, and I had the opportunity to teach this incredibly diverse crowd to sing Lift Every Voice and Sing, which is considered the Black National Anthem. The great thing about that song is the sense of optimism.
We went through every verse of that song. It’s just about keeping faith in times of adversity. That to me, when I heard 2,000 voices singing that particular song, and seeing that it was White people, Asian people, there were people from the Middle East, and of course seeing the people from my community, that to me was, that was really moving, that was a really moving experience.
Just hearing the engagement of the audience especially being multicultural, and multiple ethnicities, I wish I would have been there.
Well the thing is, is that, I will be doing part of that concert with the San Bernardino Symphony this coming January.
Oh, I will be there.
Well, that will happen in January as we do another tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Which artists (does not matter the genre) do you look to for inspiration?
I would probably say Leontyne Price. Leontyne Price was really one of the first Black opera singers to sing at the Metropolitan Opera and to become a major artist at a time when no one was doing it. I mean there was Marian Anderson who opened the door, but Leontyne Price was really the first person to walk through that door. She has gone through incredibly heroic situations in her career, but she’s handled them all with such dignity and grace, and I really look up to her because Lord knows I’ve been through many of the same things.
If you could provide some examples. What examples have you had, meaning the obstacles that you’ve had to overcome, especially being a Black musician, a maestro?
How much time do we have? (Laughing) That in and of itself, literally, could be a book. I mean there were times where, I’m the maestro and I’m trying to get on stage and the stagehand has blocked that, you know, thinking that I was the cleaning crew or things along those lines. I can go through endless examples and things along those lines, but you know, I don’t really concentrate on that. Kind of like Leontyne Price in times where she has been disparaged, she’s handled it all with dignity and class, and I really look up to that as opposed to anger, retribution and things along those lines. She is really a noble and dignified person.
As far as the world of classical music, a lot of people perceive it to be an elitist form of entertainment. What would you suggest that would get more people of color and people in impoverished communities involved in symphony orchestration?
Well you know there is that perception, and I’ve always required ticket prices are in a wide range to ensure that people in the community can attend. I think the first way that would help that would be by seeing a Black conductor. It’s like, “you know he’s there, so there must be something to this.”
As far as elitism in classical music, I can’t really speak to that because I do believe that elitism exists in all genres of music. If you take a look at what we’re doing next season with the San Bernardino Symphony, the first half we’ll have Lynn Harrell who is one of the most widely regarded cellist in the world.
But the second half, I’m bringing in my dear friend, Jennifer Holiday. I think people who would not normally come to a symphony orchestra concert hall would come to see Jennifer and I think they would experience beauty. I think they would be hooked the first half and come back to see something else.
Now, what made you decide to take the position of musical director and conductor of the San Bernardino Symphony Orchestra?
I really fell in love with the orchestra and community itself. As part of my audition, I conducted the orchestra two years ago, so it’s been since 2017. But meeting the members of the orchestra who really were very welcoming and the members of the community, especially during the intermission. I don’t hide in my dressing room, I come out and meet and greet people. I really felt like the crowd at large really embraced me and were very friendly and interested. I loved how they were so supportive and very passionate about their orchestra.
The second draw, the San Bernardino Symphony is a really excellent orchestra. I think there is a lot of opportunity to expand its outreach to the community and impact the community in a lot of positive ways.
So, my last question is, people think when it comes to performing arts, especially classical music and orchestration, that it’s a dying industry. What would you say to the critics and naysayers who would discourage people from attending a concert or discourage children from going into the field of music?
I would say there are some orchestras that are experiencing great difficulty. For example, the Baltimore Symphony. I’m not saying that this is indicative of that particular orchestra. I think the orchestras that are struggling are the ones who have not figured out a way to remain relevant in their communities. They haven’t adapted or evolved or updated, and things along those lines. I look forward to addressing all of those things with the San Bernardino Symphony—adapting, updating, etc.
There are also statistics that says that more people are attending classical music concerts than ever before, in history, so there are definitely some examples of orchestras that are struggling, but I think the future of classical music is particularly prosperous.
Maestro Parnther is also the conductor for the Southeast Symphony based out of Inglewood, California. It is historically a predominately Black orchestra. He also serves as Artistic Director of Musicians at Play, an organization dedicated to preserving and showcasing the musical legacy of Los Angeles. They raise money for instrumental music programs throughout Southern California.
The next concert scheduled for the San Bernardino Symphony is the 91st Season Opener on Saturday, September 14, 2019, at 7:30 pm featuring the Festive Overture by Shostakovich and a newly commissioned piece, in honor of Maestro Parnther.