Cellist Seth Parker Woods Brings Music into the Community

Seth Parker Woods performing Rebecca Saunder’s Ire Concerto for Cello and Ensemble at an Open Rehearsal. (Photo: James Holt)

The remarkable cellist will be the first-ever Artist in Residence for Octave 9: Raisbeck Music Center.

By Andrew Stiefel and James Holt

Cellist Seth Parker Woods has made a career of challenging boundaries, appearing with artists ranging from Peter Gabriel, Sting, Lady Gaga and Adele to performing at institutions including Carnegie Hall, Tate Modern, Royal Albert Hall and New York City Ballet.

Now his artistic adventure continues with the Seattle Symphony.

Parker Woods will be the first-ever Artist in Residence for Octave 9: Raisbeck Music Center, the Symphony’s new venue for immersive musical experiences which will open next March at Benaroya Hall. In preparation, Parker Woods spent a week embedding himself into the Symphony’s community and education projects earlier this fall.

Seth Parker Woods performing at a youth-led panel discussion. (Photo: James Holt)

As a boy in Houston, Parker Woods recalls growing up in a home filled with music. His father was a jazz and gospel singer and his mother is a fan of ballet and opera. He recalls sitting on her lap on Sunday afternoons, listening to his father’s band rehearse.

But Parker Woods says that he was inspired to play the cello after watching The Witches of Eastwick, a 1987 film based on a novel by John Updike. “There’s this scene with Susan Sarandon’s character playing her cello until the instrument bursts into flames,” he laughs. “I was five at the time I saw the film and that seemed like exactly what I wanted to do.”

He started cello lessons shortly after with David Garrett, at the time a cellist with the Houston Symphony. Seth eagerly took in everything his teacher could offer. “He would make mixtapes for me of famous cellists and concertos, labeling everything on the cover for me. That was my guide and, really, my introduction to classical music and the cello.”

Even as he quickly embraced his instrument, Parker Woods remembers feeling out of place in the world of classical music. “There was no one who looked like me as a cellist, or even a string player, when I was growing up. I never saw an African American or even a Latino string player doing classical music on major concert stages,” he remarks. “So I looked to opera singers for role models, artists like Kathleen Battle, Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman and Denyce Graves.”

That’s partly why he has brought a community-first approach to his residency with the Seattle Symphony.

“We can invite people to attend concerts downtown but going out into the community is where it really matters and where it will make the most impact,” he explains. “These smaller spaces make one-on-one interaction possible, so you can share your story and talk about your journey, what it was like applying to school and starting a career.”

In October he performed two Community Concerts, hosted an Open Rehearsal and participated in a youth-led panel alongside fellow cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason. “Giving concerts is only part of the job of a musician — you have to show up in other ways too,” says Parker Woods.

Seth Parker Woods performing with the Seattle Symphony at a Community Concert in Tukwila, Washington. (Photo: Brandon Patoc)

Committed to redefining the image of a classically trained cellist in the 21th century, Parker Woods has made it his personal mission to affirm the importance of music being created today, commissioning and championing a wide spectrum of music. And he brings a contagious enthusiasm to how he talks about new music, inviting the audience to fall in the love with it.

“I think people have to find themselves in a work,” he explains. “People can relate to music regardless of when it was written, but, for me, sharing these stories and these narratives about why a piece was created today, and why a composer responded a certain way, can help people reflect in a very different way.”

For the Community Concerts in Des Moines and Tukwila, he performed Rebecca Saunder’s Ire Concerto for Cello, Strings and Percussion with Associate Conductor Pablo Rus Broseta and a chamber ensemble of Seattle Symphony musicians.

It’s a challenging work for musicians and audiences alike and “isn’t what we’d typically program for a Community Concert or a group of high school students without an artist like Seth involved,” says Laura Reynolds, Seattle Symphony Vice President of Education & Community Engagement. “But his artistic vision and his lived experience collaborating with the composer herself inspired teens and community members alike to explore the ways that we can experience new ideas together.”

At the Open Rehearsal, students from Nathan Hale High School and Seattle World School joined Parker Woods and the Seattle Symphony on stage. Throughout the morning they interacted with the musicians and discussed the emotions of the music and how a composer translates an idea or feeling into notation on the page.

“Seth brings a joyful inquisitiveness and integrity to his work,” adds Reynolds. “His commitment to sharing and providing equitable access to art lays a solid foundation for us to build deeper connections to these communities over the next two years with him.”

Parker Woods will return for concerts in March after the grand opening of Octave 9 and will be Artist in Residence through the end of the 2019–2020 season.

“I am delighted that Seth has agreed to become the first Artist in Residence for Octave 9,” says Elena Dubinets, Seattle Symphony Vice President of Artistic and Creative Projects. “He will help us feature the unique qualities of this space: the intimacy of experiencing music in a non-traditional venue; the informal and accessible spirit of concert presenting; and the pioneering partnership between live instruments and electronics.”

Although the cello is always at the center of his creative work, Parker Woods also draws from connections to choreography, visual art and theatre in his performances. His residency will take full advantage of Octave 9’s one-of-a-kind capabilities, including surround video projections, motion-capture cameras and a state-of-the-art Meyer Sound Constellation® Acoustic System.

“Sometimes you don't have access to control the visual experience — it's only acoustic or electronic — so I've been able to dream big and develop something that is going to be extremely dynamic,” he says. “Octave 9 is the perfect playground and I can’t wait to continue the adventure.”

Plan your musical adventure in Octave 9: Raisbeck Music Center! Tickets are on sale now for concerts, talks and musical experiences for the entire family.


Posted on December 6, 2018