HFA Alumni Profile: Thomas Parker
Thomas Parker ‘72, the successful artistic manager who brought together Jon Manasse and Jon Nakamatsu as a duo (who will be holding masterclasses on Mar. 2nd and performing on Mar. 2nd and 4th), recounts his experiences of flunking out of the music education department at UMass, working at one of the country’s best stations, and shares his thoughts on the state of classical music today.
Where did you grow up?
Springfield, MA….in the East Forest Park area. I attended Holy Family and Holy Cross elementary schools and graduated from Cathedral High School.
How did your upbringing affect your musical career?
My father and grandfather were amateur, union musicians, who played in the area bands for holiday parades and summer concerts in the area parks. When I joined them, we were the only three-generations in the Musicians Union. The works played in these concerts (and year-round rehearsals for fun) introduced me to band arrangements of great scores by Beethoven, Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Puccini, Verdi, etc.
What was your particular involvement in music before you turned to artistic management?
In addition to the above, I entered UMass as a music education major. I did badly and flunked out of the department in my sophomore year. But, I continued to play in various bands, managed and played in the orchestra, managed the classical division of WMUA. and worked for the Fine Arts Council (helping with the events with visiting artists). After graduation, I had a dream job at WTIC-FM in Hartford, one of the country’s finest and most profitable stations (AM, FM and TV). I programmed all of the classical shows, produced a program called “The Listening Room,” with UMass professor Ronald Steele, and produced many “live” talk shows in any given week. During the week of my second anniversary with the station, I (and several dozen others) were fired as a result of the station’s having been sold. Two weeks later, while unemployed, my work with “The Listening Room” won that year’s Armstrong FM award, the only award this distinguished station had never before won.
What do you enjoy most about your job as an artistic manager?
Many artist managers are frustrated artists, and try to live vicariously through their artists’ careers and successes. From my very first day in New York, I realized that I was a frustrated manager, who had tried to be a performer because so many of my friends were – and still are. I love facilitating the connection of worthy artists to presenters throughout the country and world. The end result is beautiful music, movingly and enthusiastically played…and audiences that have experienced something important, on many, many levels.
Clarinetist Jon Manasse and pianist Jon Nakamatsu will be performing at the Bezanson Recital Hall this March as a duo. What made you suggest 5 years ago, as their manager, that they collaborate?
About ten years ago, Jon N (who was new to my office) was performing and recording with the Rochester Philharmonic. I was on the scene, and, as Jon M was in Rochester for a teaching day at the Eastman School, I invited him to the concert. Backstage, I said to both Jons, “You have just got to find the time to read through a few sonatas. I really think you would be perfect collaborators.” As they liked each other immediately, they agreed that this was a great idea. It then took over four years for their schedules to get them into the same room with a piano. Afterwards, they called me to say that they must have known each other in earlier lives, as they approached music-making and the particular works they played in exactly the same ways. (This is extraordinary and rarely happens immediately!) When the Duo gave its first public performance on a Friday in December, 2004, people came up to me at intermission and asked how long they had been performing together, because they sounded like a long-seasoned collaboration. When I told them that the Jons had started working together the preceding Tuesday, jaws dropped all around the room.
As a graduate of UMass, what was your most memorable experience?
Meeting my “second mom,” the Music Department’s Head Secretary, Helen Perry. She fed me, encouraged me, sewed buttons on my clothes, opened her home to me, loaned me her car and trusted me completely. About five years ago, when she first met my partner, she welcomed him unconditionally and instantly made him a part of the family, too. We remained dear, dear friends until her death, just about two years ago.
In 2001, you wrote in a letter in response to a NY Times article that "we are now in the midst of a Golden Age of young American conducting talent." Does this still hold true in 2010?
Yes, but this is can be a difficult to get one’s head around: Conducting is an older artist’s endeavor, although all conductors need to start sometime. We may all be aware of certain young conductors, who are currently considered superstars by managers, publicity offices and audiences who do not always know what they are hearing. I continue to believe that our conservatories and schools of music are turning out fantastically gifted and trained conductors…who then have to gain the years and years of practical experience with thousands of scores, orchestras of varying sizes and artistic capabilities, and soloists, all the while continuing to study their chosen repertoire.
What would you like to say about the state of classical music today?
I would not want to be entering the field as a young man now. My late UMass mentor, Terry Charles Schwarz (Manager of the Fine Arts Council) would present locally unknown artists in Bowker Auditorium – and sell-out, because the greater-Amherst community had such “house trust” for his presentations; the artists were ALWAYS wonderful, interesting and well worth the exploration. Our present culture (as reflected by the programming of many performing arts centers around the country) is constantly being “dumbed-down.” Many “distinguished” institutions base their selection of artists, not on artistic worthiness, but on box office reports and/or projections…or whether or not the artists will be “funny.” I also once had a potential presenter ask me how many musicians were in my string quartet (!). Much of this goes back to Reagan-era budget cuts in arts education. As a result, there is a generation of Americans that is not interested in the arts, because they have never had a personal connection with them – i.e., playing in high school bands, singing in school choruses, acting in school plays, working in the plastic arts, etc. Interestingly, if these people are taken to a quality event, they usually love it.
Check out Jon Manasse and Jon Nakamatsu's masterclasses and shows at UMass this March! Info can be found here.