The Rise of Parnther

By Steven Libowitz   |   July 11, 2023
From grade school oboe to playing and conducting with the greats, Anthony Parnther speaks about his cinematic career and upcoming concert, including the string suite from Hitchcock’s Psycho

Anthony Parnther never picked up a musical instrument until eighth grade, and even then, only because he discovered it could be an avenue to free admission at a Virginia amusement park. 

“I was sitting in math class and I heard the announcement over the intercom that the students who were part of the middle school band were to report to the bus for their trip to Kings Dominion, the big theme park that was about 90 miles away,” he recalled. “Three-quarters of the class excitedly grabbed all these strange-shaped cases with musical instruments inside and bounded out the door, leaving me behind. I desperately, desperately, desperately wanted to go. And I thought I’ve got to get in on this gig.”

Without knowing much about musical instruments, he searched alphabetically in a dictionary, passing on the accordion as “far too nerdy” because his parents used to watch the Lawrence Welk show. “I wanted a much cooler instrument, one that would earn the respect and esteem of my peers. When I saw the bassoon, I thought, oh, yeah, this is my ticket right here.”

It was only a year later that the budding bassoonist found himself drawn to another role, that of: “The guy not making any sound but waving a wand around while everyone else plays” – aka the conductor. 

“I think I was probably attracted to both the mystery of conducting and, quite frankly, the authority,” recalled Parnther, for whom even the seven-dollar cost of a new bassoon reed, let alone admission to an amusement park, was a big expense back then.

Anthony Parnther makes his Academy debut conducting the Academy Festival Orchestra this Saturday, July 8 (photo by Tom Pease)

Fast forward a few decades, and Parnther is now enjoying a fine and still rising career in music as both a performer and conductor, one who is equally at ease directing some of the world’s leading orchestras on new works and chestnuts of the classic canon, while also conducting and/or playing contrabassoon on Hollywood film and TV scores. He’s led hundreds of Hollywood recording sessions, including for some of the biggest films of recent years (Tenet, Encanto, Turning Red, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Nope) and played and/or sang on many others. He serves as music director and conductor of the San Bernardino Symphony Orchestra, the Southeast Symphony & Chorus in Los Angeles, and the Gateways Music Festival Orchestra, the latter composed entirely of professional classical musicians of African descent. Then there’s the dozens of guest conducting slots at major orchestras around the country, and his work in other genres where he’s conducted and/or played on recordings or concerts with Beyoncé, Jennifer Hudson, Rihanna, Kanye West, Madonna, and Elton John, among many others. 

“I am performing or conducting nearly every day of life, usually both,” Parnther said. “Every day is packed, and I don’t take vacations.” 

This week, Parnther turns his focused attention to Montecito’s summer music scene, where he’ll conduct the Academy Festival Orchestra for Saturday’s concert at Hahn Hall. The ensemble, compacted to chamber size as many of the instrumentalists are in the opera orchestra, will take on the carefully curated program that opens with the Overture from Carl Maria von Weber’s romantic opera Euryanthe, followed by “An Elegy: A Cry from the Grave,” a lyrical, sorrowful yet ultimately hopeful 2015 piece that composer Carlos Simon calls “an artistic reflection dedicated to those who have been murdered wrongfully by an oppressive power; namely Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown.” The AFO then performs “Psycho: A Narrative for String Orchestra,” a 1968 creation in which Bernard Herrmann reworked themes from his score for the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock thriller including the shrieking violin bolts from the famous shower scene, before closing with Shostakovich’s “Ninth Symphony,” which was composed three months after the Allied victory in World War II. 

“What was most important to me is that the students got as much bang out of the week with me as they possibly could, with diversity in the music that fit the criteria,” Parnther explained. “So I wanted something a little operatic, something from a film score, a major symphonic work, and I wanted them to play a piece by a living composer, one who isn’t white.” 

The overture is a challenging piece that requires a virtuosic performance, he said, with everyone playing “at the absolute highest level to execute it… There are lots of attitude and mood changes from arrogance and fiery to the absolutely serene and glassy to something really sneaky and mischievous. The students will have to implement all of their tools in order to pull it off.” 

The Psycho piece is a rare one that both works for small instrumentation but also requires the musicians to play classically, Parnther said, while the symphony not only fits the format but as a bassoon solo. “I just know that they’ll have a bassoonist who can pull off that incredible solo,” he said. 

The conductor said he was drawn to Simon’s elegy even before he knew its inspiration, because the music alone is “absolutely gorgeous.”

Parnther has come a long way from Virginia, but the multi-hyphenate musician hasn’t ever come close to forgetting his roots, including how much his mother sacrificed to buy him his own bassoon at age 16, which is why he teared up recalling the first time he played in the orchestra for John Williams, a favorite of both his and his mother’s. 

“I can’t even describe how special it was because this career has not come easily to me,” he said. “I played on the school’s broken bassoon and didn’t even have my own instrument until I was 16. I had worked the entire summer and saved up $700 for a down payment, and my mom took out an extremely high interest loan, which we really could not afford. I will never forget the look that she gave me across the desk at the music shop in Lynchburg when she was signing for it in hopes that I would do something with myself. Things were so bad for us financially that sometimes she had to make the choice between paying the light bill and continuing to make the payments on my bassoon.”

It was only a short time later that Parnther’s mom was diagnosed with cancer and was bedridden for many months, he recalled. 

“I would sit by her bedside and play her favorite melodies from Jurassic Park and Star Wars,” he said. “I think about all of those struggles. So the first time I got to sit there and work on one of those new Star Wars scores, I literally cried the whole time. It was such a full circle moment for this little kid from my background to make it into that room, playing that music with John Williams looking right at me. It was like I was honoring her legacy. And I have played every single score on that same intermediate instrument that she bought me because it really carried me through my darkest times. I still get choked up every time I think about it.”

Parnther’s unusual background story, astounding work ethic, and emotional transparency will likely uniquely inspire the instrumental fellow in the Academy Festival Orchestra to new depths this week. It’s hard to imagine that the audience at Saturday’s concert won’t be mightily moved, too. 

Upcoming @ MA

Thursday, July 6: Punsters might want to dub tonight’s X2 Series concert as mostly Mozart but life’s a Beach, or that’s the way the Cooke-y Crumb-les. But this Apprentice-meets-Legend faculty-fellow mashup is serious stuff, as the advanced but still schooling young musicians are teamed with well-traveled teaching artists in genre-busting chamber music pieces. Tonight has bassoonist Dennis Michel joining four wind fellows for Amy Beach’s “Pastorale for Woodwind Quintet, Op. 151”; pianist Martin Katz performing with soprano fellow Alissa Claire Goretsky and horn fellowDrew Morgan on Arnold Cooke’s “Nocturnes”; and percussion faculty Michael Wernerplaying vibraphone alongside fellows Margaret Tigue (soprano) and Zachary Marzulli (double bass). Then, Richie Hawley anchors a fellow string quartet for Mozart’s marvelously tuneful “Clarinet Quintet in A Major, K. 581.” (7:30 pm; Hahn Hall; $55)

Friday, July 7

The Lehrer Vocal Institute Studio Artists are a new addition to the vocal program that adds eight singers and a vocal pianist for a three-week residency as part of the summer festival. The studio artists receive lessons, coaching, and augment the chorus of the big opera production while serving as the star’s understudies, and being highlighted in a showcase series performance of their own. This afternoon, the singers and pianist Parker Konkle perform arias and art songs for an audience much like their full-time fellow peers, with the program TBA (1:30 pm; Lehmann Hall; $40)… The summer’s second Picnic Concert, where the fellows in self-created ensembles play works of their own choosing, offers a particularly wide-ranging palette including Leroy Anderson’s “Bugler’s Holiday” featuring the four trumpet fellows; two movements of Rachmaninoff’s “Sonata for Cello and Piano in G minor, Op. 19,” with cellist Patrick Baek and pianist Forrest Howell; Paul Dukas’ “Villanelle” for horn and piano, starring Blake Moreland and Shao-Chu Pan; Amy Beach’s “Romance for Violin and Piano, Op. 23,” with Sarah Beth Overcash andJarod Yap; and Saint-Saëns’ “Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano in D minor, Op. 75,” featuring John Fawcett and Benjamin Pawlak. (7:30 pm; Hahn Hall; $40)

Saturday, July 8

Hollywood film and TV score superstar Anthony Parnther makes his Academy debut conducting the Academy Festival Orchestra, pared down to accommodate the ongoing Opera orchestra, in a concert at Hahn Hall featuring Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony, the string suite from the Psycho soundtrack, plus von Weber’s Overture from Euryanthe and Carlos Simon’s “An Elegy: A Cry from the Grave.” See above (page 5) for an interview with Parnther. (7:30 pm; Hahn Hall; $55) 

Tuesday, July 11

The one and only Augustin Hadelich is back, and this time with a master class on Wednesday, July 12 (photo by Suxiao Yang)

This afternoon brings the La bohème covers concert. Unlike in rock ‘n’ roll, it’s not a tribute band doing their best to recreate the original, but rather the chance for the understudies of the main characters to unleash their own performance of Puccini for the public. It’s not just for our enjoyment, though. Ever since the flu sickened several of the stars going way back to when the opera was still produced at the opera, they’ve added this event to ensure that the vocalists are well versed in singing their parts in real time on stage with non-peer people paying attention. But we still get to experience Puccini’s most famous opera in concert in the acoustic gem of Hahn Hall. (2 pm; Hahn Hall; $10)… All hail Hadelich! The still-young violin superstar is a Grammy winner who is consistently cited worldwide for his phenomenal technique, soulful approach, and insightful interpretations that range from Bach and Brahms to Bartók and beyond. We’ve seen him a-plenty in town, including at this very venue for CAMA just last April, and going back to his first appearance as soloist with the Santa Barbara Symphony back in 2008. But a recital as a Mosher Guest Artist, this one with Chairman of Juilliard’s collaborative piano department Jonathan Feldman and featuring works by Schubert, Ravel, Prokofiev, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, and Eugène Ysaÿe? Yes, please. (7:30; Lobero; $55)…. Hankering for more Hadelich? He’ll also be heading up the violin master class on Wednesday, infusing the younger musicians with some hints of his heaven-sent talent. (3:30 pm; Hahn Hall; $10)

Wednesday, July 12

Tonight’s Chamber Nights series of salon-style concerts features 13 fellows performing post-reception in the intimate Weinmann Hall, which seems like a lot before we recall that last week had 28. But it’s a lucky 13, as the program boasts Valerie Coleman’s 2015 wind quintet “Red Clay and Mississippi Delta”;Prokofiev’s “Quintet in G minor, Op. 39,” that blends flute and oboe with a string trio; and Mendelssohn’s “Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 49.” The sounds should be even more full bodied than the wine. (7:30 pm; Lehmann Hall; $45)  


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