Acclaimed Guest Conductor Anthony Parnther Helms the VSO’s 'Holiday Pops' Concerts | Performing Arts | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Acclaimed Guest Conductor Anthony Parnther Helms the VSO’s 'Holiday Pops' Concerts

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Published December 7, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.


Anthony Parnther - COURTESY OF TOM PEASE
  • Courtesy Of Tom Pease
  • Anthony Parnther

Conductor Anthony Parnther will fly from Los Angeles to Vermont this weekend to lead the Vermont Symphony Orchestra's annual "Holiday Pops" concerts. It's not a visit to ignore, given the scale and sheer range of his work. One of the very few Black conductors in the U.S., Parnther could be the most widely experienced conductor on the scene today.

In addition to being music director of two LA-area orchestras — the San Bernardino Symphony Orchestra and Southeast Symphony — Parnther regularly leads the Hollywood Studio Symphony in recording sessions for internationally released films, from Tenet to Encanto. He plays with the latter group, too; his bassoon can be heard in such movies as Star Wars: Episode IX — The Rise of Skywalker.

Parnther often leads major orchestras in performances of those film scores, including John Williams' Harry Potter series scores and Ludwig Göransson's score for Black Panther. A guest conductor with 20 orchestras a year, he crafts classical concert programs that champion the work of minority and women composers such as Florence Price and William Grant Still, alongside works by Ludwig van Beethoven and tone poems by Richard Strauss. He has conducted everyone from Frederica von Stade to Snoop Dogg in concert.

Parnther also works on a scale greater than most conductors can imagine, regularly leading 100-piece orchestras and giant choirs in the opening ceremonies of League of Legends finals tournaments at huge venues in Barcelona, Seoul, Beijing and LA. The concerts draw between 20,000 and 60,000 fans of the video game, and millions more view them online.

When Seven Days reached Parnther on a recent late-night phone call, he had just finished conducting a studio recording session for the third season of "The Mandalorian." In a remarkably sonorous voice — he is also a bass who has sung opera — he explained his conducting philosophy.

"There's not one particular genre that's more important than another to me. It's Beethoven one day, Beyoncé the next," said Parnther, who studied music performance at Northwestern University and earned a master's in orchestral conducting at Yale University.

"What's important is the orchestra," he continued. "Orchestral music branches into every genre. I just love putting on a great show, whether it's a film concert or Mahler's Second Symphony."

A year ago he conducted the San Bernardino Symphony performance of Strauss' tone poem Don Juan. In April, he led the premiere of new work from Grammy Award winner Jon Batiste with the Gateways Music Festival orchestra at Carnegie Hall.

What brings Parnther to the VSO on one of his annual guest-conducting gigs?

"I thought it would be interesting to leave my sunny residence," the conductor joked. Though he only "passed through" Vermont once, years ago, he lived for a decade in New York City and endured several brutal Chicago winters. So he is prepared for the cold, he promised.

VSO executive director Elise Brunelle wrote in an email that, in trying to find a guest conductor who wasn't participating in the organization's ongoing music-director search, she consulted with other League of American Orchestras members for suggestions.

"Anthony was recommended, and he comes from an incredibly diverse and unique conducting world," she wrote.

At the Pops concerts in Barre, Burlington and Rutland, Parnther will conduct many holiday favorites but open with "Christmas Overture" by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Parnther champions the work of the Black English composer, who lived from 1875 to 1912. He was "a phenomenal composer," the conductor said.

Parnther made Coleridge-Taylor's "Ballade in A Minor, Op. 33" a centerpiece of the opening concert he conducted in 2018 in the newly refurbished Queen Elizabeth Hall in the Southbank Centre in London. In attendance was Coleridge-Taylor's great-great-grandson and his son, who have remained in contact with Parnther ever since, the conductor said.

At the same London concert, Parnther conducted Beethoven's Fourth Symphony. A Guardian review noted that the work's "high voltage interpretation ... maintained a fine balance between detail and elan," and its finale was "edge-of-your-seat stuff."

Parnther is as enthusiastic about the "Jingle Bells Fantasie" he has chosen for the VSO concerts as he is about the Coleridge-Taylor. The former was arranged by Carmen Dragon, a 20th-century Hollywood conductor, composer and orchestrator.

Dragon is "known for taking simple tunes and orchestrating them into these very colorful and vivid works, almost like Strauss," Parnther said. "This ['Jingle Bells'] is a really gorgeous and entertaining rendition."

"It's a holiday concert," he added. "You want people to be singing the tunes when they get back in their cars."

They'll also learn something about each piece. Parnther is known for skipping program notes in favor of talking directly to audiences.

"It's really important for the conductor to provide perspective on why we're doing this," he explained. "How can someone go onstage and take a bow and start conducting with no interaction with the crowd? That feels inappropriate to me. I have a deep belief in audience engagement.

"I like to bring a lot of energy and stories," Parnther continued. "It's going to be fun."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Festive Flair | A guest conductor with worldwide acclaim helms the VSO's "Holiday Pops" concerts"