Brent Parker: Distinguished composer and pianist whose life, music and teaching inspired many
Brent Parker: a warm, humorous gentleman of the old school and a well-loved teacher and colleague
Born: January 28th, 1933. Died: December 28th, 2017.
Brent Parker, who died, aged 84, was a New Zealand-born composer-pianist and lecturer in pianoforte at the DIT Conservatory of Music whose music was played around the world but whose greatest influence was felt in Dublin and Mayo over a career spanning almost 60 years in Ireland.
During a long and fulfilling life, he performed both of his own piano concertos with the then RTÉ Symphony Orchestra, now the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland. Brent’s orchestral works were played by the RTÉ Concert Orchestra; the Savaria Symphony Orchestra of Szombathely, Hungary; and the Beijing International Chamber Orchestra. His guitar concertinos, written for classical guitarist John Feeley, were broadcast in Ireland, the United States, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, France and Greece.
Though he said he wrote music for his “own enchantment”, his music also enchanted many listeners on Lyric FM. He composed quickly, with a talent for melody and orchestration. A virtuoso at the keyboard, he gave recitals of his piano pieces throughout Ireland and in the US up until his 80s. On a final visit to Auckland in March 2017, he heard his own symphony, inspired by the Maoris’ arrival in New Zealand, being rehearsed by the Auckland Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Peter Thomas.
Born in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1933, the second of four children of Selwyn Parker and Marjorie Winn, Brent attended Christchurch Boys’ High School. He studied piano with Ernest Empson and was awarded his LRSM (Licentiate of the Royal Schools of Music) diploma in piano performance.
In the mid-1950s, while in his early 20s, he took the major decision to leave New Zealand with his then piano teacher and mentor, Frank Cooper, and a group of aspiring concert pianists. They headed for Europe through the Suez Canal on a ship called the Otranto and spent nearly a year in Nice. Brent contracted tuberculosis and spent six months in hospital in London. In 1958, when he had recovered, the group headed for Cork, where, they were told, there was an opera house.
“What is there in this country for this young man?” Gay Byrne asked, when Brent performed on one of the Late Late Show’s early programmes. He settled down in Bray, Co Wicklow, married Marie O’Toole in 1963 and raised six children, at one point driving a bus for CIÉ to support his growing family.
Eventually he got a part-time teaching post at the DIT Conservatory of Music (formerly College of Music), which led to a full-time position as a lecturer. He remained on the staff for almost 25 years. A tall, large, vigorous man who always looked much younger than his years, he was a warm, humorous gentleman of the old school and a well-loved teacher and colleague.
In 1998, he retired to Achill Island, Co Mayo, with his then partner, former Irish Times journalist Sheila Sullivan, and her son, Conor Lane. Brent and Sheila were married in 2006 and together they raised Conor in Achill. Brent taught at the Mayo School of Music in Castlebar and continued to compose and perform his own piano works, such as “Granuaille” and “Lifeboats”, written in his home under the Minaun Cliffs in Dookinella, overlooking the sea. He gave memorable concerts in St Thomas’s Church, Dugort, Achill; in the Linenhall, Castlebar; and at the Clifden Arts Festival in Co Galway.
From 2012 to 2015, he travelled extensively with Sheila while she worked in China and Spain. His works were performed by a Japanese violin prodigy in Vladivostock and a string quartet in Beijing and Shanghai. His piano piece, “Lorca’s Last Walk”, which was on the exam syllabus of the Royal Irish Academy of Music in Dublin, was performed in Galicia and London by fellow pianists.
Former colleagues were among the many musicians who travelled from Dublin to play Brent’s music at his funeral service, conducted by Archdeacon Gary Hastings on January 13th in St Nicholas’s Collegiate Church, Galway. John Feeley and Con Tempo Quartet played his “Concertino No 1 for Guitar and String Quartet”. Soprano Kathleen Nic Dhiarmada sang his “Ave Maria” and Pádhraic Ó Cuinneagáin played Brent’s piano piece, “Walking in Snow”, which he had written for Sheila.
The mourners, who came from many parts of Ireland, included Oliver Hynes, representing the Association of Irish Composers, of which Brent was a member; sculptor John Behan; former Irish Times editor Conor Brady; Mayo School of Music director Finola Higgins; harpist Lynn Saoirse; members of the Achill Heinrich Boll Association; and extended family and friends from Bray, Co Wicklow; Minane Bridge, Co Cork; and Millstone, New Jersey, US.
Along with Sheila and Conor, Brent is survived by his former wife, Marie, and six children from their marriage: Christine, Maria, Anthony, Jonathan, Lorraine and Graham. He is also survived by 18 grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and two sisters in New Zealand, Jocelyn and Rhonda.