Reto Parolari: The passionate and blazing flame shines no more

On Sunday 15 December 2019, Reto Parolari, composer, conductor, arranger and multi-instrumentalist from Winterthur passed away, completely unexpectedly, aged 67. Reto Parolari had been a Board member of SUISA since 2007. Before then, he had been participating in the Distribution and Works Committee which he had been presiding over from 1997 onwards. Obituary by Xavier Dayer, SUISA President, and Urs Schnell, Director of FONDATION SUISA

Reto Parolari shown in a picture at the SUISA General Meeting in 2014 in Berne. (Photo: Juerg Isler, isler-fotografie.ch)

A few days ago, the very sad news of Reto Parolari’s passing away reached us; SUISA‘s Board is in shock. Until a week ago, Reto had been chairing the “Tariffs and Distribution” Committee and took part in our Board meetings with the immense human generosity which was so characteristic for him. Nobody could have even imagined that he would leave us so suddenly. I remember our intensive and cordial discussions at the Board dinner.

I would like to highlight his valuable input into the SUISA Board with a few lines: As a composer and a musician he contributed with an important view. He was always constructive and an indispensable partner.

We had known each other since 2007 when he joined our Board as Chairman of the Distribution and Works Committee. He is thus an important person in the life of the Board that left us on Sunday – irreplaceable, and we regret his passing very much.

In order to visualise his music and his artistic development, it seems best to let Urs Schnell, Director of our foundation, to say a few words. It was only recently that he held an outstanding laudatio on the occasion of the Culture Award of the city of Winterthur on 3 December. The speech of Urs Schnell, which we are going to reproduce in the following will have a particularly moving dimension to it.

In the name of the SUISA Board I would like to express our deepest condolences to the family of Reto Parolari in this rather sorrowful time.

Xavier Dayer

Laudatio on the occasion of the Culture Award to Reto Parolari in the Winterthur Theatre on 3 December 2019

Dear Reto

For me, tonight, a circle is complete: it was on the stage of this very house that I had my first encounter with you, Reto – that’s going back to 1990 or thereabouts. As a student for a teaching diploma at the then music conservatory here in Winterthur, I had to join in singing at the annual Konsi [conservatory] choir concert. A joint concert with your orchestra was scheduled. The programme read: “Sophisticated entertainment music”

This starting point was, maybe you can try to imagine this, ladies and gentlemen – well, not quite simple. For the music students which had been conditioned towards the sublime classical music, it was initially completely far-fetched having to even deal with such kind of repertoire. The project met with a lot of scepticism. “Entertainment music”…. Possibly even with a ternary swing element…. Excerpts from “My Fair Lady” and such like… Well, the then choir conductor and Konsi director, Fritz Näff, whom I hold in high regard, was facing a real challenge.

But, the closer the concert was, the clearer it became: Entertainment music is not, per se, “light” or “casual” music which you could be casual about. There are some tough musical nuts that need cracking.

At the end of the day it was you, Reto, who managed to make the whole thing take off: Thanks to your enthusiasm, your zeal, your humour – and yes, a natural authority which only artists hold in themselves, when they are well above anything material, a jolt went through all of the students gathered there. Resistance melted away, and people made music together.

Something I had the privilege of taking home with me as a life wisdom from you that evening: In order to really captivate your audience you need respect vis-à-vis your co-musicians, the profound knowledge of what you actually do, a deep reverence for music, but above all your own enthusiasm, a passionate, blazing fire – the feu sacrée.

With this small step back in history, I would like to welcome you to this Culture Award ceremony for Reto Parolari.

It is a huge honour and joy that I may speak to you today. And I thank you, Reto, that you asked for me to do so….

You, the Parolari family, are probably the one family in Winterthur with the most comprehensive Culture Award collection. Your father, the oboist Egon Parolari, had already received the award exactly 30 years ago – which also is a sign of the continuity of the culture policy of Winterthur.

Since you were a kid, you were active in Winterthur. You once said: “I have literally grown up on the stage floor of the town hall. My father took me along to rehearsals and concerts that often.”

At the age of 24, you completed your studies as a qualified musician with the main subject drums, further studies followed in Hanover, Stuttgart and Vienna.

Voilà – and from now on, ladies and gentlemen, it will be difficult, because the biggest challenge, if you wish to approach Reto’s works and their impact, is simply the unbelievable diversity of his creations.

It is not an easy task for the poor person holding the laudatio, to summarise your curriculum, Reto: it is characterised by concurrent and contrary, complementing and parallel events. But and that makes the task a bit simpler for the not quite so poor person holding the laudatio: it is all held together by a fiery passion for music, the feu sacrée – and it is exactly because of the rough edges that it is a curriculum which is logical per se.

You are an artist – but also a shrewd entrepreneur. You are a composer and an arranger, you are author and editor of specialist literature, conductor and instrumentalist.

Multi-instrumentalist: Marimba, continental typewriter, drums, piano and you are even a virtuoso of car horns. Your main instrument, however, is you. Your authenticity, your belief in your mission, your warmth and humour, your stubborness and unconditionality, in other words, your feu sacrée.

It is impossible to talk about you without implying “sophisticated entertainment music”.

But, hold on a minute… what is that?? What distinguishes a Parolari from other musicians, what is, in marketing speak: Your unique selling point?

Let me quote Cédric Dumont, the founder of the Radio Orchestra of Radio Beromünster and the Director of the radio studio Zurich: “The original sin in music happened when people began to distinguish between E and U, between serious and entertainment music…. But even for U you need stamina, craftsmanship and enthusiasm.” Voilà, the feu sacrée.

You are burning for a music genre which clearly has not got an “easy life”. A genre which, if it is even perceived as such, often only attracts a smug smile…

But where does it come from, that representatives from the so-called “serious” category turn up their noses?

The demands are high, probably higher than some others, presumed serious music genres: In order to reach the full effect of entertainment music, the score must be transposed exactly, the music MUST be taken seriously, but – careful: Contradiction here – it always has to be played with a wink.

But – by implication: May I not feel “entertained” by a Beethoven symphony, a Bach concert? And if I was to feel “entertained” after all: does this mean somebody made a mistake??

I leave this for you to ponder…

Your art is closely connected with the history of Swiss radio. Until the seventies, each radio station had its own contractual orchestra, which accompanied the spoken broadcasts live with specially composed repertoire. In order to create the desired mood effects with the listener, music had to be composed in various, colourful and pictorial ways, and be implemented perfectly in terms of the skills applied. What makes me put forward this thesis is: sophisticated entertainment music is film music – a film music which needs to create its own images – and that is musical storytelling at its best.

With the massive distortions of the media landscape at the beginning of the seventies, the marriage of the radio orchestras was over – one ensemble after the other was dissolved – the repertoire was no longer requested, musicians with the highest qualifications were laid off, the music archives were under threat to end up in the waste paper collection….

That is when Reto was at the right place at the right time:

You literally saved the music scores of the radio studio Basel, the Bayerische Rundfunk and later those of the radio orchestra Beromünster from the shredder.

And that is how your biggest achievement, in material terms, is growing more or less in secret, nearly literally beneath our feet….

In a huge air raid bunker in the middle of Winterthur, you have become the guardian of a huge music score collection of more than 110,000 titles.

This biggest music archive in Europe is not just a mausoleum of creative moments, no, you mediate access for numerous international orchestras which use the music actively.

Your merit for a continuation of sound and paper of this musically historic unique legacy, the keeping alive of cultural goods cannot be commended highly enough. I would like to thank the city of Winterthur at this point that it acknowledges this unique commitment and also pays the respect it has deserved to this kind of music with its award.

And of course it is not possible to talk about you without mentioning your own orchestras.

The first orchestra you founded was during your studies at this music conservatory.

The “ORP” was created with a symphonic line-up, which has been exclusively made up of 40 professional musicians since 1990. Such an orchestra – something I have to mention as an aside – is actually an entrepreneurial nonsense. It can never break even – but still: You never had to report it to the bankruptcy office.

You conducted more than 40 orchestras from all over the world, among which there were exotic ones such as the State Hermitage Orchestra St Petersburg (Russia), the Airport Orchestra Zurich (Switzerland) or the Philharmonic Orchestra Pyongyang (North Korea).

You never applied for any of these engagements – you were always contacted by them.

The same applies – for the world of circus: at the tender age of 28, you were offered the conductor’s position at Circus Nock, shortly after the same position at the Circus Knie. For your creative engagement at the Carré Theatre in Amsterdam, the Queen of the Netherlands even awarded you the title “Royal Bandmaster”. And, you also found yourself shoulder to shoulder with aristocrats and other crown-wearing royalty as Head Conductor of Music at the International Circus Festival in Monaco.

It was only at home where there was less glamour for you: with your own international festival of sophisticated entertainment music, you may well have launched a unique music event with international reach – but the public at home did not take quite as much notice of it…

I would also need to mention your work as a composer and arranger, spanning more than 800 works, in more detail, and you also deserve to be honoured as the author of expert articles and several specialist books – but, alas, time flies…

Something is, however, important to me: You are not only standing up for yourself, Reto: as a Board member of the collective management organisation SUISA, or as an active member of the local Rotary Club Winterthur -Mörsburg, you are also committed to the service for people around you.

As mentioned at the outset: a curriculum with rough edges – because all of the facets of your activities, whether as a musician, conductor, orchestra leader, entrepreneur, event organiser, publisher, archivist, composer, they complement, require and need each other and result in the overall picture of someone who creates art and culture. – a logical curriculum, a curriculum that follows through.

It was only recently that I was allowed to perform once more under your direction: if only in one musical piece, but this time as a trained flautist. And within seconds, it was there again: that feeling that you can convey so well: the respectful “this will be good, trust me”. Easy going when it comes to your appearance, but serious when it comes to the matter at hand. And indeed: You counted the intro, the big band started to swing, my part…. Your feu sacrée was blazing and all was superb – and yes all went well!

Merci, Reto, for all of that!!

Urs Schnell

The memorial service will take place on Monday, 30 December 2019, at 3 pm in the Stadtkirche in Winterthur.

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