Wednesday, September 11, 2019 Few black conductors lead orchestras. For Anthony Parnther, it’s time...

Anthony Parnther is the new music director of the San Bernardino Symphony Orchestra.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Few black conductors lead orchestras. For Anthony Parnther, it’s time to represent     

Sep. 11, 2019

Tim Greiving 

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.”

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.”

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