Anthony Parnther | Photo by Konstantin Golovchinsky
It was a historic concert when the Gateways Music Festival Orchestra performed in Carnegie Hall. It’s an ensemble made up entirely of classical musicians of African descent, from orchestras around the country. The concert celebrated Black composers and their works, including George Walker’s Sinfonia No. 3, Florence Price’s Symphony No. 3, a Fantasia on “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by James V. Cockerham, plus a world premiere by pianist Jon Batiste (who was also soloist), called I Can.
The performance was led by Anthony Parnther, an LA-based conductor (and bassoonist) who was asked to step in after the death of Michael Morgan, the longtime director of the Festival. Parnther says he had planned to go to the concert as a member of the audience, because it was going to be like a big family reunion of friends and colleagues. “I can assume that for the vast majority of the musicians that are in the Gateways Music Festival Orchestra… if they are not the only person of color in the rooms in which they work, they are certainly one of the very few. I think that this is a safe space for all of these musicians to come together and make music. It’s one where everybody in the room is of color, and I think there’s something very special about such a convening.”
When he got the call asking him if he would conduct, Parnther says his jaw was on the ground. Michael Morgan (who was then Assistant Conductor at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra) had been one of the very few Black role-models Parnther had as an aspiring conductor at Northwestern University. “There is no replacement for Michael Morgan… I’m deeply honored.”
Anthony Parnther has been an active conductor and bassoonist for hundreds of film and television projects over the past 15 years. He’s also the Music Director and Conductor of the San Bernardino Symphony and the Southeast Symphony and Chorus in Los Angeles. But he’s frequently crossed into other genres. “I’ve been fortunate to get to collaborate with a wide span of really interesting artists,” he says, “Whether it’s RZA from Wu-Tang Clan, or Rihanna, or Jessye Norman. My only agenda is just to make good music with good people, good musicians. And I’ve been very fortunate to do that inside of the classical arena and outside of it as well.”
The concert began with Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn, and then turned to African-American composers. “We get the opportunity as Black musicians to perform the music of Florence Price, and of George Walker, somebody that I had a 25-year relationship with. And then of course, premiering the new piece by Jon Batiste. So, this is just a wonderful occasion where we get to celebrate ourselves, and celebrate wonderful music. It’s a celebration first and foremost.”