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Conductor Anthony Parnther on the importance of diversity in classical music

US conductor Anthony Parnther has said diverse representation on stage is “so important” as he feels it can inspire young people.

Parnther will make his BBC Proms debut on Friday night at the Royal Albert Hall when he conducts the Chineke! Orchestra, Europe’s first majority black and ethnically diverse orchestral group.

The group will perform a number of classical pieces on the night including Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony, Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Four Noveletten.

BBC Proms
The BBC Proms at London’s Royal Albert Hall (Mark Allan/BBC/PA)

Speaking on the importance of representation, he told the PA news agency: “It’s so important for young people to see themselves in spaces where they might not expect to see themselves because then they’ll know and can focus on what is possible.

“Where you could be one day, where you could work or you could create. So I am a firm believer of this level of visibility.”

Parnther admitted that he had “very few people to look up to” within the classical music world growing up.

He said: “I grew up in the United States and that’s where the majority of my career has been. But it has not been uncommon throughout my professional career that I’ve been the only person of an underrepresented community in the room.

“So when I come in and most of the orchestra looks just like I do, I feel at home. It’s very special.”

Anthony Parnther
Anthony Parnther (Konstantin Golovchinsky/PA)

He recalled that the first black conductor he ever saw was archival footage of James DePreist when he was conducting the New York Philharmonic, and the second being the late Michael Morgan.

After Morgan’s death in 2021, Parnther took over the mantle of leading the Gateways Music Festival, which is an all-black orchestral festival that meets every year.

Reflecting on what more he thinks could be done to improve diversity within classical music, he said: “There’s a couple of things. We need more resources available to more widespread communities at large.

“And we’ve got to actively go into various communities and provide the resources in order to participate in classical music, which is not inexpensive.

“To buy an instrument is expensive, to have lessons is costly, to be able to afford and go to the right schools and mentor with the right teachers and go to the right festivals is all costly.

“So the first thing is resources. And then within the industry, if the industry is serious about change, then they will have to actively recruit diverse talent, which may mean a fundamental restructuring of how orchestras recruit and audition and retain their members.”

Oppenheimer
Cast of Oppenheimer (Ian West/PA)

Throughout his career, Parnther has held many notable positions including the music director and conductor of the San Bernardino Symphony Orchestra and the Southeast Symphony & Chorus, both in Los Angeles.

He has also led the Hollywood Studio Symphony in numerous featured films and television series, recently conducting the score for Oppenheimer and previously working on blockbusters such as Encanto, Black Panther and Ghostbusters.

Parnther has also collaborated with musical stars including Kanye West, Snoop Dogg and Rihanna.

The BBC Proms will be Parnther’s next challenge, which he said he is “really looking forward to”.

“It’s a mixture of emotions. There’s a there’s a lot of excitement, a small bit of terror that goes on with a concert that has this level of visibility”, he added.

“But this orchestra is one that has become a second family to me over the last five or six years since I first had the opportunity to conduct them. So this is a pivotal moment for all of us.”

Anthony Parnther conducts Chineke! at Prom 61, on September 1 at London’s Royal Albert Hall, and broadcast live on BBC Four and BBC Radio 3.