A Conductor for the Future at Home With ‘Black Panther’ and Prokofiev

Anthony Parnther has a job that routinely takes him to fantastic places. Parnther, 42, makes his New York Philharmonic conducting debut this week. His destination? Wakanda: With a wave of his hand, he’ll evoke lush jungles and shimmering citadels as the film “Black Panther” screens overhead.

Back home in Los Angeles in January, Parnther will pass through idealistic college classrooms and anxious laboratories, headed to a date with destiny in Los Alamos, when he conducts the sweeping score to “Oppenheimer.”

But in a recent video interview, Parnther was finding his way to someplace quite different: Whoville.

“I’ll be very honest with you,” he said in a video interview. “I’m sitting here trying to rapidly memorize the words to ‘You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.’”

He was cramming for a Christmas concert with the San Bernardino Symphony Orchestra, where he has served as music director since 2019.

“I could tell you that I’m sitting here studying the Prokofiev Second Piano Concerto, which we’re doing on this concert,” he said. “But I’m actually more worried about the Grinch, because I’m the soloist.”

Posts at San Bernardino and the Southeast Symphony Orchestra — a Los Angeles ensemble that is one of the nation’s oldest primarily Black orchestras — allow Parnther to explore and expand the repertoire. An enthusiastic communicator, he talks his audiences through his programs regularly, so singing isn’t that big of a stretch.

Parnther conducting the Gateways Music Festival Orchestra in its 2022 Carnegie Hall Debut.Credit…J. Adam Fenster/University of Rochester

But his “Black Panther” and “Oppenheimer” engagements shed light on a less visible aspect of his growing career, which has included appearances with major ensembles, including the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Even if you don’t know Parnther by name, you’ve likely heard his conducting — on film soundtracks like “Avatar: The Way of Water” and “Turning Red”; television series like “Fargo” and “Only Murders in the Building”; or video games, including “League of Legends” and “Guild Wars.” If you’ve streamed “Encanto at the Hollywood Bowl,” a concert performance of the animated Disney film featuring the original voice cast, you’ve seen him in action.

Ludwig Göransson, who composed the scores for “Black Panther” and “Oppenheimer,” views Parnther as an invaluable collaborator. In a video interview from Los Angeles, he said: “If something doesn’t sound right, I’ll hit him up on the podium and we’ll talk about things — how to adjust a couple of notes or change a voicing — and he can immediately relate that information to the musicians.”

One reason he works so effectively with studio musicians, Göransson says, is because he emerged from their ranks. For Parnther, working with Göransson on the “Star Wars” TV spinoffs “The Mandalorian” and “The Book of Boba Fett” was especially meaningful. As an eighth grader in Norfolk, Virginia, he learned his middle-school band would play music from “Star Wars” on a coveted trip to the theme park Kings Dominion. Thumbing through a musical reference book, he flipped past “A” and the accordion — it brought up unfortunate associations with “The Lawrence Welk Show” — before landing on “B” and the bassoon. He took up the instrument as his way to tag along.

Parnther, the son of Jamaican and Samoan academics, was exposed to gospel in the Baptist church, but it was soundtracks by John Williams that sparked his interest in music. The timing wasn’t ideal: In high school, when he decided to pursue music professionally, his family living was in public housing after losing their home in a fire; his mother was fighting cancer.

She bought her son the best bassoon she could afford, a Schreiber S91 Prestige: not state of the art, but a durable instrument.

“She had to literally make the choice between paying the electric bill and making the payments on my instrument,” Parnther said. “She decided to make the payments on my instrument, so there was a fire lit in me: I wanted to repay my mother for the sacrifices that she made.”

Parnther went on to earn music degrees from Northwestern and Yale. He then took a position at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tenn., gaining confidence as a conductor while earning a music education degree.

His tenacity and ambition paid off. The kid who had been inspired by “Star Wars” to pick up the bassoon would go on to play his hardy Schreiber for Williams in the soundtracks for the last three feature films in the series. He also played bassoon on sessions with high-profile pop artists, including Beyoncé, Rihanna and Snoop Dogg. (When his instrument was stolen from his car in 2020, its theft and recovery made headlines.)

“The conductor of the future, in order for the orchestra to remain relevant,” Parnther says, “will have to find a way to center the orchestra and not the genre.”Credit…Philip Cheung for The New York Times

His work as a versatile, open-minded conductor brought him attention beyond the studios. In addition to his San Bernardino and Southeast Symphony posts, in 2020 Parnther was named conductor of the Gateways Music Festival Orchestra, an elite annual aggregation of classical musicians of African descent, whose Chicago debut he will lead in April.

Conducting also brought unanticipated collaborations — with the singer John Legend, the hip-hop producer Metro Boomin and the metal band Avenged Sevenfold, among others. Parnther hasn’t lured those artists into his concert-music realm yet, but it’s not out of the question.

“The conductor of the future, in order for the orchestra to remain relevant, will have to find a way to center the orchestra and not the genre,” he said. “Sometimes that means you mix genres on the same concert, if there’s a story line or a relevant through line.”

And the skills he’s picked up in the fast-paced world of commercial entertainment have proved transferable. Engaged last year to record “The Central Park Five,” Anthony Davis’s Pulitzer Prize-winning opera, with the Long Beach Opera in just two days, Parnther took the company into a Glendale film studio. He used a metronomic click track and other tools of the trade to maximize efficiency.

“The click track lends a certain precision,” Davis said in a video interview, “but there are times when I want a little more flexibility to let the music breathe” — crucial in sections involving improvisation. “It was a great experience, having the tightness of the music, yet also allowing space for the creative expression of individual musicians.”

Parnther has used his platforms and rising profile to champion Black composers like Davis and Adolphus Hailstork, while nurturing artists who straddle worlds as he does, including Kris Bowers, Chanda Dancy and Tamar-kali. But his Hollywood affiliations have their own perks.

“I’m not a famous conductor,” Parnther said, “but I have been picked out in so many public spaces as the conductor from ‘Encanto at the Hollywood Bowl.’” He’s seen a video of his symphonic concert with Metro Boomin rack up over six million views on YouTube. “And a comment that I ran across is like, Oh my God, this is awesome — but wait a minute, is that the same conductor from ‘Encanto at the Hollywood Bowl’?”

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