As a conductor of both film scores and traditional orchestras across the country, Anthony Parnther has a fairly singular career. He’s conducted the score recordings for some of the biggest films of the past couple years — including Tenet, Encanto, and Turning Red — as well as the Disney+ streaming hits The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett, all while also serving as music director and conductor of the San Bernardino Symphony Orchestra and the Southeast Symphony & Chorus in Los Angeles; conducting major orchestras around the country; and maintaining his own very busy career as a bassoonist.
“I can’t think of very many people, as far as other conductors, who really work as much in both worlds as I do,” Parnther says. “Principally, the people conducting film scoring sessions are either the composer themselves or their head orchestrator. It’s not common that an actual trained conductor comes in. So I really am an orchestral conductor who has brought my particular set of skills to these demanding scores.”
The next big gig on Parnther’s calendar is a particularly momentous one: He’s leading the Gateways Music Festival Orchestra at Carnegie Hall this Sunday, April 24. Founded in 1993, the orchestra celebrates the contributions of classical musicians of African descent, and is comprised of Black musicians from leading orchestras around the country; for this concert, it’s joined by recent Grammy-winner Jon Batiste, who will perform the world premiere of his own I Can with the ensemble.
“A lot of what Gateways is doing successfully is sort of making the classical music community more representative of the diverse pool of talent that we know exists in our country but is not always showcased,” says Parnther. “And it’s been a life-changing experience to be a part of that.”
During a rare moment of calm in his New York hotel room, Parnther spoke to Billboard about his experiences conducting in Hollywood and beyond.
How does a film score conducting gig usually come to you?
Each project really comes in a completely different way. Sometimes it’s through the composer themselves; I don’t think I’ve had a composer yet leave me for another conductor! [Laughs] Unless they’ve left to conduct on their own, which is of course wonderful. And sometimes it’s through the studio. For Disney I’ve done quite a few things: Encanto, The Mandalorian, The Book of Boba Fett, and then the new Cheaper By the Dozen, and Turning Red, that’s five I can just think of off the cuff. But it’s really revolving doors: You show up and could be working for 20th Century one day, Sony the next day. I love the variety. I love that every single day when I wake up it’s a completely new adventure, a different set of challenges.
What is the recording process like — especially through the pandemic?
When we were working on the first season of The Mandalorian, the entire 80-something piece orchestra was in the same room together. But during the pandemic, we had to separate into sections and record each on separate days because of COVID protocol, which presented its own unique challenges. Just now we’re starting to have orchestras perform all in the same room again, but there’s still a significant amount of what we call striping: recording the various sections separately. They’re all united by track and click. So we have a mockup of the score, and the orchestra is in a lot of instances replacing the mockup. We have one click track everyone listens to and we make sure everyone’s parts line up perfectly. It’s like building a recording session with Legos.
Normally we are working really, really fast. In some instances, we’ve recorded 45 or 50 minutes of music in a single session. You read through the cue once and that is it. Normally you want to record maybe 7-10 minutes of music an hour, and even that is moving pretty fast.
You’re known to be one of John Williams’ preferred conductors when his recent scores are performed. How did you come to take on that role?
Well, my relationship with him unofficially began when I was a fan of his Star Wars scores as a kid and desperately wanted to play them. But I’ve played bassoon for him on his projects, and I’ve conducted a lot of John Williams music in a live scenario. He’s the living gold standard as far as film composing is concerned. So the times I’ve gotten to spend with him in the room is pretty close to sacred. His ear and musicianship is so absolute. Each time you’re in the studio with him as he workshops his own pieces, it’s a real masterclass on orchestration, on rehearsal technique, on aural skills.
I was asked some time ago to conduct some of the Harry Potter scores with orchestras all over the country – and in my opinion those are his most difficult scores to pull off, they’re the most complex and virtuosic throughout in terms of the writing. I feel like the difficulty of some of them is equal to a Strauss tone poem in areas. For his scores in particular, especially conducting them live to film, it really requires you have a strong orchestra and a strong conductor leading them. The cost to license one of those scores is fairly hefty, so it’s mostly the larger orchestras that have the privilege of performing a John Williams score live to picture, and normally we’re just granted two rehearsals — which is enough to run thru the movie twice and make small tweaks. You have to go in knowing exactly where the most difficult parts are and be ready to adjust them immediately, and then trust the orchestra on the more relaxed cues to get the job done.
So much of the work you do has involved living composers, like Williams, and Ludwig Goransson as well.
Ludwig is always around when I’m working on his music. We worked together on Tenet, Mandalorian, Turning Red, Book of Boba Fett. He’s truly wonderful, as gifted as they say he is. He’s one of the most genuinely generous and patient composers. Normally composers are under a lot of duress by the time they get to the recording stage of filmmaking and post-production, but he always brings a sense of calm and coordination and kindness to every session, and the musicians are particularly appreciative of that. And that’s not always the case with other composers. [Laughs]
You’ve recently been conducting his score for Black Panther around the country with different orchestras. Why is that score in particular still resonating so widely?
It’s a brilliant score. Ludwig really did his homework. He went to Western Africa and did his research and recorded Western African musicians on authentic instruments in order to give this a sense of authenticity.
The first place I remember conducting it was in Philadelphia and then immediately after that with the Atlanta Symphony. I got numerous reports from the musicians about how fun it was to perform. The added cherry on top was working with the talking-drum soloist [for the recording] Massamba Diop, this Senegalese performer. It’s this drum that can bend pitch, and it’s prominent in the score. To have him with me on both of those occasions performing live was very very special.
Conducting the score of Encanto seems like a dream gig. Did you have a sense going into it that the movie would be the kind of blockbuster success it is?
When you go from project to project, you can see what’s going on onscreen and you see how the music is elevating what’s going on onscreen, you get a sense for the overall quality, and I think everyone suspected immediately that Encanto would be a big hit. The music Germaine Franco wrote was deeply layered, beautiful, but most importantly authentic. The storyline was specifically Colombian, it wasn’t just generally Latin American. There was the use of very specific Colombian musical forms and idioms, and we used quite a few Colombian musicians.
When the soundtrack for a movie you conduct on is so commercially successful, do you get to see any of that backend?
Oh yes. It’s a union project, so all of the musicians who worked on this also get to share a small amount of the success of the project. We do get a small reward for our effort. I’m smiling on the other end of the phone. [Laughs]
On the flip side of your film score conducting career, you’ve also been leading Riot Games’ League of Legends score recording sessions for years, as well as live concerts of the music at giant venues the world over. I’d imagine that’s been a wild experience!
[It’s] been epic. Sometimes every two weeks they release a new character, and it could be a completely different kind of ensemble for each recording session — sometimes it’s a 100-piece orchestra, sometimes chamber orchestra, sometimes a string quartet, sometimes all strings and brass. But of course the most epic get-togethers are the ones with the 100+ – piece orchestra and choir for the League of Legends finals tournament opening ceremonies. That’s really something to behold — it’s live for an audience of anywhere from 20-60,000 with many millions streaming it.
I have to ask about a photo on your Instagram of you, your bassoon, and Snoop Dogg. What was happening there?
We were recording … I’m not sure I’m allowed to say what we were recording. It was some sort of speculative project for him. But Snoop was very interested in the bassoon; he thought it was the coolest looking instrument ever, so I was like, “She’s all yours!” He was very sweet.
Your bassoon is a she?
I think so!