Eyes connecting with the singers watching his every move, Penn Choral Director William Parberry sweeps his arms with athletic precision as he leads the vocalists through the challenging classical music.
“Measure 33, ready?” he says, first playing the notes with one hand on the piano, then singing the run in his clear tenor, before raising the baton once again.
Measure by measure, note by note for 45 years, Parberry has conducted thousands of Penn singers through hundreds of music scores, resulting in more than 270 concerts by his three groups, the University Choral Society, the select University Choir, and the early music ensemble, Ancient Voices.
The very last concert he will conduct will be the Choral Society on April 20, when more than 120 voices will come together to sing part of Handel's Messiah, accompanied by the Penn Chamber Orchestra. It will be the largest group Parberry has ever conducted, with alumni coming in from all over the world to be a part of his final performance.
“It is a glorious piece of music, with an extended ‘amen’ at the end,” Parberry says. “It will be an emotional, final punctuation mark to my career.”
Parberry’s career in choral music is unparalleled at Penn. In 1973, then a graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. in musicology, he started conducting the Choral Society, putting to use his master’s degree from Temple University and his undergraduate degree in voice and piano from the New England Conservatory of Music.
He soon took over directing the University Choir, which has about 35 singers, and then the larger University Choral Society. In 1994 he began directing Ancient Voices, with about 20 vocalists who sing music from the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, staff and even community members are members of each group.
“Knowing Bill Parberry since the 1970s has given me the unusual vantage of watching not only the development of this truly remarkable musician but also witnessing the growth and success of the wonderful Penn vocal ensembles he so meticulously and caringly cultivated,” says Jay Reise, professor of music composition and former department chair.
Parberry is choosing to retire at age 70 to have the freedom to travel with his wife and spend more time with his family. He has rarely missed a rehearsal in those 45 years. Plus, he teaches a popular history of jazz course.
“Simply put, Bill hasn’t just had an impact on the choral programs at Penn; he is the program,” says Michael Ketner, Penn Music director of performance. “Bill is one of the smartest musicians I know. He meticulously prepares his choirs to not only perform well, but also to understand exactly what the repertoire is all about.”
Observing rehearsals, it is clear Parberry knows every note, in every measure, in every score, for every vocal part—soprano, alto, tenor and bass. “It is so important that I know every detail of every piece,” he says. “Most important is that I have to see where the mistakes are going to happen before they happen.”
He also understands the language of each piece, and how each word is properly pronounced, be it in Latin, German, French, Russian, Spanish, even Galician. “I am a stickler with the pronunciation in the Handel (Messiah),” he says. “They must sing it with a British pronunciation, rather than an American accent.”
Nancy Hornberger, educational linguistics professor at the Graduate School of Education, is a mezzo-soprano and frequent soloist who has been singing with Parberry since 1986, the year after she joined Penn’s faculty.
“I think what I will miss most is his actual physical conducting,” Hornberger says. “When he’s in front of the group, it’s like every nuance of gesture, facial expression, and stance are communicating to us what music means to him, or what he’s hoping we will be able to bring out of the music.”
Even after more than 30 years, Hornberger says she learns something in each rehearsal. “He has a phenomenal ear, but he also can analyze technically how you can produce sound, everything from your breathing, to where the voice is placed, and he shares that knowledge,” she says.
“He teaches us a lot, about musical expression, phrasing, intonation, text diction; he works with us in many languages,” she says. “He’s very patient. He expects high standards, but on the other hand he has the wisdom of experience and knows a performance will never be perfect.”
Parberry remembers well the first performance he conducted with the University Choir, when he made a mistake during a Bach cantata. “I was such a perfectionist at that time. I was terribly disappointed with my performance just because of those few measures,” he says.
“Over time you not only become more skilled, but you get to the point where you understand that these little mistakes not only by you, but by your singers, are not a big deal,” he says. “It’s really the overall musical experience, the communication of the music to the listener, more the expressive end, rather than the little details, that’s what’s more important.”
Parberry says what he will miss the most about conducting is witnessing the transformation of the music, from notes on a page to a polished performance full of emotion.
“By the final concert, you’re talking about a piece of music that is truly a work of art, and when it arrives at that point, you see their faces when you are conducting and their love of the music, there is nothing more rewarding,” he says.
It is like magic, Hornberger says.
“I think that what stands out to me is that he loves music, he loves people, and he loves bringing them together in a performance, so it is really a very magical combination,” Hornberger says. “I think most of his impact is through the lives he has touched.”
Literally thousands of singers have come together in the choral groups over the 45 years, some starting as students and leaving, only to return later in their lives.
Krista Pinola was a freshman nursing student when she started singing with the Choral Society. “Little did I know in 1982 the path that lay before me,” she said.
She has come full circle, becoming a nurse, and then returning to Penn to study at Wharton, and to work at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and now back at the Penn Nursing School as faculty. A mezzo-soprano and often a soloist, she has been singing with Parberry most of her life.
“Bill is a very special leader,” Pinola says. “He has an uncanny ability to get the best possible sound from his singers. It is a pleasure and a privilege to sing with Bill.”
Another vocalist who has been singing with Parberry most of his life is Philadelphia attorney Phil Korb. He and Parberry were leaders of the choral group in their Rhode Island high school. Korb has been singing in the Penn ensembles since he was a law student at Temple.
Wanting to create a lasting legacy, Pinola, Hornberger, and Korb worked together to create the Parberry Choral Scholars Fund, which will provide support for Penn undergraduate students interested in music, covering the cost of extras like voice lessons. By reaching out to current and former Parberry singers, the fund has so far raised nearly $25,000.
Students in recent years have been able to earn a half course credit each semester for participation in the choral groups. “It’s more than just learning the music and aiming toward a performance that is musically rewarding,” Parberry says. “They also learn about history of music, the literature, the art of music.”
Sophomore history major John Mullan, a baritone from Washington, D.C., has already participated in all three choral groups. “I’m always grateful for Professor Parberry’s encouragement as I continue to develop my voice and, frankly, I don’t know that I would be trying if he hadn’t suggested I do so,” he says.
“He is so knowledgeable about the music we sing and so experienced in coaxing a beautiful sound out of a choir,” Mullan says. “And despite having a lifetime of musical experience under his belt, he consistently manages to be the most excited person in the choir about the music we do.”
Parberry addressed the students during his remarks at the final concert of the select University Choir last Saturday. “Undergraduates, this is the beginning of the musical adventure for you, whereas for me this is pretty much the end of mine,” an emotional Parberry said. “To all young members and the veterans, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
Although his last concert, it will be only the second time Parberry has performed the Messiah with the Choral Society, the first dating back to 1986. The group will be the largest he has ever conducted because alumni will join the current choirs.
“People are coming from all directions to be at this concert. It will be great to see them all up there,” he says. “I don’t know how they will be able to sing at the end. I think many will be in tears. It is going to be a great experience.”
The Music Department will bring in an interim conductor while they search for a replacement, Ketner says. Matthew Clayton, director of the jazz ensembles, will take over teaching the history of jazz course, assisted by Parberry’s lecture notes.
“It is hard to give up, especially when no one is asking me to go,” Parberry says.
“Not many people are as lucky as I am to have been in a profession where they love it to the last minute they are involved,” he says. “And to say goodbye to that profession with all of that love, all the way through, for 45 years.”
Homepage photo: Parberry conducts the University Choir performing a Bach oratorio at the April 7 concert.