Staff Q&A with William Parberry

In four decades at Penn, Music Director William Parberry has conducted an impressive number of performances.

Parberry has led choral groups in performances of major works by Brahms, Beethoven, Verdi, Schubert, Bach, and Mozart. He’s had a smaller group perform Baroque cantatas, Renaissance masses and motets, and 20th century chamber works. With an even smaller early music ensemble, he’s led them through some of the most complex and beautiful music of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

Parberry is celebrating 40 years leading Penn’s choral groups—and he’s still enthusiastic about the job. “It’s just a joy to come in to every rehearsal, knowing that there’s going to be some new experience in there. It’s not like repeatedly teaching the same class the same way,” he says. “Every rehearsal is different and you see [performers] discover music and improve. It’s just a wonderful way to explore music and teach it.”

As an undergrad at the New England Conservatory, Parberry double-majored in voice and piano. In his final year there, and then for his master’s degree at Temple, where he studied under the renowned conductor Robert Page, Parberry became intensely interested in conducting.

After Temple, he began work on a Ph.D. in musicology at Cornell, but ended up at Penn for a fellowship. Parberry never left.

“It wasn’t long before they said to me, ‘Look, we really would like to have you here permanently as the conductor, so unless you’re dead set on abandoning conducting and just teaching, why don’t you just take this position,’ which I did,” Parberry says.

It became a full-time position in 1994, when he was also tapped to take over the early music ensemble, Ancient Voices. In addition to his conducting duties, Parberry teaches an immensely popular course about jazz history each fall and spring semester.

The Current recently sat down with Parberry to talk about his conducting style, what’s changed in four decades, and what makes a memorable performance.

Q: What appealed to you 40 years ago about conducting?
A: I had studied piano and voice, and if there was a route I would take in performing, it would have been as a singer. When I was at the [New England] Conservatory, I realized there were so many talented singers, many of whom really had a natural talent that was greater than mine, so I dismissed the idea of becoming a performer, at least at the level where you could really make a living at it. I did continue to perform and I sang solo repertoire when I came to Philadelphia, but it wasn’t my main interest. The study of music and the academic end of music became of such interest to me, and also Lorna Cooke deVaron was a very inspiring conductor who made me think that’s what I should do.

Q: What’s your style as a conductor?
A: If you encourage a person to reach their potential, even after they’ve made mistakes again and again, you will always get the best from them. It’s easy to work with the really good musicians, but to work with the young students who are frightened that they’re in above their heads in this ensemble for the first time, the main thing is encouragement and not ever attacking them for a mistake. Working with the students has been so rewarding. Seeing that look on their faces when they discover the wonders of a masterpiece for the first time—that is the greatest reward.

Q: You direct three choral groups here. Can you talk a bit about each one? They all seem very different.
A: The University Choral Society is a group of about 120 singers that performs major works like the Brahms Requiem with an orchestra. Almost anyone who is interested in singing can get in—students, faculty, staff, members of the community, graduate students—everybody is allowed to audition for this, even people in no way affiliated with Penn. It’s kind of like a big civic chorus, but it’s located at a university and most of its singers are, in fact, connected to the University. In that group, the audition is mainly a formality. Within the Choral Society, I select a smaller ensemble, which is called the University of Pennsylvania Choir. That group has about 35 singers. The Choir is made up of some of the most skilled musicians and while they sing the large Choral Society concert, they do a concert of their own—maybe a Bach cantata, some a cappella repertoires ranging from the Renaissance to 20th century music. … They do an additional concert every semester that is their own. For that group, I usually hire professional instrumentalists to accompany them.

Q: You also direct an early music ensemble, correct?
A: That’s Ancient Voices, [which] I took over in ’94 and is a group of about 16 or 18 singers and they specialize in singing early music, medieval and Renaissance music, maybe up to early Baroque, but rarely beyond that. They’re very skilled and they also have to have the right voice to do this style. This group attracts not only students here at Penn but early music specialists from around the area. It demands tremendous skill to sing in this type of group.

Q: How do you develop programs for the year?
A: I know who’s leaving this spring and who will be back in each of the groups. ... What I tend to do is bring back works that are major, that are going to be of interest to new people in the Choral Society that I haven’t done in, let’s say, seven years. In Ancient Voices, there’s such a wealth of literature that I have no trouble coming up with the concert of complete music that neither I nor they have done before. For example, one of the greatest composers of the Renaissance is Josquin des Prez. He wrote a number of magnificent masses and I’ve only done three or four of them. I would love to do all of them eventually.

Q: It seems like you don’t shy away from challenging the people who are in these groups, even though this isn’t a conservatory.
A: It’s true. We’ve had students who, when they audition, tell me they were thinking about going to a conservatory but their parents convinced them that the more reasonable route in terms of future commercial success would be to go to an Ivy League school. They make music a part of their lives while they’re here.

Q: How have things changed for you over the past four decades, either with the students, or the job itself?
A: A lot of it are the physical improvements. The University had, when I came here, talked about how we need a performance hall. They renovated Irvine Auditorium with acoustic engineers so that it would be a great performing space. The University came through on getting us not only the Music Building completely renovated, but also a wonderful rehearsal space for me in Fisher-Bennett on the fourth floor. Not too long ago, we decided to offer academic credit for the performing organizations. Before, it was strictly extracurricular, just as it is still with the student-run groups, but we made the very good case that this was an educational experience for these students. The quality of the musicians that we’re getting here has improved, too. We offer lessons for which students can get credit and they take a jury just as they would at a conservatory to get their grade. I can’t tell you how much better the Orchestra is now than it was 40 years ago. The Chorus was very good back then, but I think they, too, have improved.

Q: What are the hallmarks of a great performance?
A: It’s not only the accuracy of the performance, but there are two other things that are really important—the historical style to me is extremely important. Stylistically, you don’t sing Renaissance music the way you sing Brahms and vice versa. The other thing about a performance is that it’s extremely expressive beyond the notes and everything that’s on the page.

Q: What are some things that you would like to have these groups perform? What’s on your wish list?
A: There’s not too much. There are certain works I’d like to do again. The only major work that I have never done, mainly because it’s huge for a choral work and it wasn’t intended to be performed on one night, is Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.  That has many great choruses in it and Bach is such a wonderful composer. But then, works that I would like to do again would be the Bach Passions ... and also the Verdi Requiem, which I only did once. One work that I did earlier in this decade was the Bach Mass in B Minor, but you can really only do it with a professional orchestra because, stylistically, it’s very demanding.

Q: Do you come from a musical family?
A: Yes, it was pretty musical. My mother played the piano by ear. My two brothers were actually on the two ends of what I do here. One was more of a jazz pianist and the other was a very good classical pianist. I had that around me all the time and of course I took piano lessons and then right before I went to the conservatory I took voice lessons.

Q: Any reflections, looking back at 40 years?
A: If there’s one profession where you truly learn through experience, it is conducting. I revisit a score which I’ve marked up in the ’80s and I’ll look at my markings and I’ll think, ‘Well no, that’s not right,’ because you learn about music and educate yourself and get more in touch with the composers when you’ve lived with a lot of their music through your experience. Now I think I have my own understanding of these composers and what their intent was.

William Parberry