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‘Star Wars’ Maestro Anthony Parnther on His Carnegie Hall Debut With All-Black Orchestra


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Anthony Parnther was on a mission. When chatting via Zoom in late March, the conductor and bassoonist was calling in from a hotel room in Kansas City. “I actually came up here to buy a very specific contrabassoon, which is sitting right over there,” he said, pointing to the cumbersome woodwind behind him. “I grabbed it this morning and I’ll be heading back to L.A. with it now.” As soon as he returned, Parnther would play the instrument on the score for the highly anticipated Disney+ series Obi-Wan Kenobi (premiering May 27).

The contrabassoon seems especially fitting: It looks like a Star Wars weapon, and its tone is as deep and otherworldly as Jabba the Hutt’s voice.

“I think it was played in the cantina band [from 1977’S Star Wars],” Parnther said, without missing a beat. “That’s a rather bassoon-y looking instrument.”

Few people know the music of Star Wars as intimately as Parnther. He played bassoon on the scores for Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker (by John Williams), Rogue One (by Michael Giacchino), and Solo (by John Powell); and conducted Ludwig Göransson’s score for the hit Disney+ series The Mandalorian, as well as the music for the follow-up, The Book of Boba Fett.

“I’ve had quite an affiliation with Star Wars,” says Parnther, who adds he had been “obsessed” with the films growing up in Lynchburg, Virginia, in the 80s and 90s. The first-generation American son of a Jamaican father and a Samoan mother, Parnther would go on to study music and Northwestern and Yale, eventually ending up in Los Angeles, where he has led parallel musical lives. In addition to playing on or conducting numerous film scores (including Tenet and this year’s Turning Red), he has served for years as the cover conductor for the L.A. Philharmonic and the Hollywood Bowl.

On April 24, Parnther will make his debut at Carnegie Hall as the guest conductor of the famed Gateways Music Festival Orchestra, which also performs at the hallowed New York institution for the first time. Founded in 1993, the seasonal orchestra consists entirely of Black musicians, who remain woefully underrepresented in classical music. After its longtime musical director Michael Morgan died in August 2021, Parnther seemed the obvious choice to replace him for the concert.

“He is mesmerizing, on the podium and in real life,” says Lee Koonce, president and artistic director of Gateways Music Festival. “He is like a force of nature. He’s this enormous presence. And many people have worked with him in Hollywood. A lot of our musicians played in Black Panther [Parnther is conducting performances of Göransson’s score for the Marvel film at concert halls around the country]. So they knew him. They knew his work. They knew his work ethics, they knew this high level of musicianship. And so he was the musicians first choice.”

The program, which Parnther inherited from Morgan, will include works by Brahms, as well as the late composers George Walker and Florence Price. Carnegie Hall’s 2021-22 Perspectives artist — and recent Album of the Year Grammy winner — Jon Batiste will join the orchestra on piano for the premiere of his new work “I Can.”

In our conversation, Parnther charted his journey from Lynchburg to Hollywood, shared his impressions of the piece’s he’ll conduct in New York, and expressed his dismay about the dearth of openings for Black American classical musicians: “The difference between privilege and underprivilege is opportunity.”

How did you find your way to the bassoon, which doesn’t strike me as the first instrument a musically inclined kid would gravitate to?

Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, I was obsessed with two things. One was Star Wars. But the other thing was that I desperately wanted to go to theme parks and ride on the roller coasters. And in Virginia, we would see commercials all the time for Kings Dominion, which was a big Paramount Studios theme park up near Richmond. I remember in the eighth grade, hearing the lady on the intercom saying, “Will all the members of the middle school band report to the bus for their trip to King’s Dominion.” And then half of the class stood up, grabbed all these strange looking instrument cases and bound out of there, leaving the rest of us behind. Two days later, when they came back from the trip, they were like, “That was so fun. And we went on this new ride and that new ride.” And they’re like, “Oh, and by the way, we’re going back next year, and I and I hear we’re going to play Star Wars.” Are you kidding me? Star Wars? Kings Dominion? I’m in!

So what I did next is I opened the dictionary, as one does, to figure out what instrument I’m going to play in the band. I opened it to the A section of and I saw the accordion. And, and I’m thinking to myself, “What a nerdy, horrible instrument. No, I need an instrument that people will respect and think is really cool.” So I turned to the B section and saw the bassoon. “That one’s really gonna knock ‘em down.” So I took my little dictionary the next week to the band director and I said, “Hi, my name is Anthony Panther and I intend to play the bassoon.” I didn’t even know how to hold it appropriately. So that’s how it went. And they did not go to Kings Dominion the next year, and they did not play Star Wars. I was duped and I’ve been overcompensating for it all these years later.

You went to Northwestern and then Yale, where you studied conducting. Did you know at that point that you wanted to make a career out of it?

I knew that I just wanted to make music however I could. And ideally, I wanted to do both — playing and conducting. Because I had so much admiration for Leonard Bernstein, and sometimes he sat at the piano. I tried to take up the piano, and was pretty miserable at it. I still am to this day. But I wanted to be the kind of musician who could do a little bit of everything. So I still play [the bassoon] and I’m a very active player to this day. As a conductor, I think you have a responsibility to play your instrument as well as you can before you ask somebody else to play their instrument.

What are the differences between conducting a Hollywood score and conducting a symphonic orchestra for a concert?

Well, the main difference — in general, not always — is that when I’m conducting a film score, the composer is usually 20 feet away. And alive. (Not that I’m always only conducting the music of deceased composers for symphonic orchestras.) But they are very different responsibilities. I just treat each day differently: Today my responsibility is to Ludwig Goransson [composer of the Mandalorian and Turning Red, among many other scores]. And then the next day, my responsibility is to Ludwig von Beethoven. I actually just came up with that. I feel pretty clever for that. The two most famous Ludwigs!

Because the film composers are standing next to you, do you feel you can’t take quite as many liberties? Or does it make it more of a collaboration? How does their presence affect the music?

I don’t feel that, even if I’m conducting the music of Beethoven or Mozart, that it’s my job as a conductor to take liberties. I have a real strict sense of that. It’s my job as a conductor to realize the composer’s intentions. Now I know that there are other conductors who are big into making their own imprint, but I’m not really of that mind. I’m really of the mind that, if I’m looking at the score, most of the answers are in what the composer has written. Of course that’s not always the case. There are some places where you really do have to know what the intent at the time was and things along those lines, but most of the answers are in the scoring and it’s my job to realize what’s been written.

How did your engagement with the Gateways Festival Orchestra come about?

I’ve admired the gateways Festival Orchestra for a long time. I’ve known about it for at least 15 years. And the longtime music director, Michael Morgan, was a conductor of international renown. And he conducted one of the other big orchestras here in California for many years, the Oakland Symphony. When I was beginning as an undergraduate, that was the end of his time as the associate conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. And that’s one of the very, very few times that an African American has had a post of that magnitude at an orchestra of that level of importance. So he’s been a significant figure in classical music for 35 to 40 years. Before he passed away [in August 2021], my plan had been to attend the Carnegie Hall concert. But I was deeply honored that, of all the wonderful conductors the Gateways Festival Orchestra could have hired, they chose me.

Rehearsals likely won’t start until the week before the show. But tell me about impressions of all the various pieces you’ll perform?

Michael and the orchestra had selected this program, but I was really grateful to inherit it. You have music from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. And all of it is extraordinarily different from each other. You have the Brahms, Variations on a Theme by Haydn, and the interesting thing about that piece is that the themes are not by Haydn. [Laughs] But that being beside the point, the Brahms themes are really from the core symphonic repertoire. I mean, it’s one of the most well-known, and well-adored pieces in all of the literature. It’s something that many people have heard many times and it’ll be our opportunity to breathe life into in the way that only the gateways orchestra could.

And then we move on to Walker and Price. George Walker is the first Black composer to win the Pulitzer Prize. And he, especially earlier on in his career, was one of the most foremost pianists in the world. I think people will find it to be meticulously written, meticulously scored, and very expressive. This one is particularly turbulent and jarring from start to finish. It’s a piece that is wrapped in turmoil. The Florence Price couldn’t be more different. It’s on the verge of Neo romantic, very tuneful and melodic, whereas George Walker’s work is verging on atonal. So two completely completely different works by two groundbreaking composers. And then of course, we have a score that I have not yet seen, because it’s being finished by Jon Batiste. So the ink won’t even be dry on that piece when we start reading it. And then we’ll wrap up the whole concert with “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

How does the mission of the Gateways Festival Orchestra to showcase the talent of Black musicians resonate with you, given the lack of representation of Black musicians in symphonic orchestras?

Well, it resonates deeply because there’s a myth that there is a lack of qualified black classical musicians. And I can tell you that the lack is not in the availability of qualified musicians. The lack is in the platform or the access to institutions in order for those musicians to flourish. So when people say, “Well, I just don’t know any qualified black musicians,” well, you’re about to see an orchestra of 100 of them, all in the same spot. But I can tell you that that is a fraction of the people that I know, and am I’m aware of, that have the same level of training, expertise and experience, but just don’t have the platform to play in a lot of professional symphony orchestras. We account for so few of working professional, classical musicians that, you know, oftentimes I’m almost always the only person of color — from an underrepresented minority, anyways — in the room. And I think that that’s true for the vast majority of the people who will be in the Gateways Orchestra. So this is a safe space where a whole community of musicians who have some very specific things in common culturally, and life experiences can come together and make this beautiful music and share beauty.

When you were coming up in this field, do you believe you were overlooked out of bias or for racist reasons?

As recently as last week. I mean, that’s not something that has changed. That’s been something that I’ve dealt with my entire career. And in some cases, I’m able to point to a very specific instances, with evidence. So I’m just hoping that, as time goes, people will realize that that a qualified musician is a qualified musician, and that the difference between privilege and underprivilege is opportunity. And that, given opportunity, people who are not normally in some of these spaces can flourish.

Interview was edited for length and clarity.

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Gateways Music Festival, Kodak Hall, Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY.

Courtesy of Keith Bullis

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