Alondra de la Parra chats with Limelight’s Editor about her life, passions and aims for the orchestra.

Anyone lucky enough to pick up a new Sony double CD back in 2010 going by the title Mi Alma Mexicana (My Mexican Soul), will already know something about Alondra de la Parra, the woman announced as the Queensland Symphony Orchestra’s first ever Music Director. First of all they will know she’s Mexican and proud of it. A UNICEF Ambassador and an official Cultural Ambassador of Mexico, she believes in music as a global force and is determined to introduce a wide audience to her homeland’s impressive, if under-recorded, compositional history. They will also know she’s a smart programmer with a curious mind, unafraid of advocating the new and the unfamiliar. And last but not least they will know she is a dynamic and passionate conductor – trust me, should you grab a copy, some of the tracks on this album will have you dancing on the ceiling.

Catching up with the personable 34-year-old maestro on the phone from her home base in Mexico City, she’s clearly very excited about her imminent return to Brisbane and a huge fan of her new orchestra. “I remember getting to the first rehearsal and seeing everyone absolutely ready to go, as if they were ready for battle,” she laughs, relating her impressions preparing a concert on the QPAC main stage of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. “Really, I was very impressed. All their weapons were very well sharpened. It seemed like they were very well prepared and eager to play. We read through from the beginning of The Rite of Spring to the end without any stopping, without any major bump in the road, and that required great musicianship, but also this collective will and concentration saying ‘this has to happen – we have to get through it and we will’. So we just read through one of the most difficult pieces in the repertoire and everything from there up was all about shaping, colouring, decorating and making an interpretation. So that was really nice, really, really wonderful.”

She also headed one of the QSO Current new music projects of Australian contemporary and Latin-American music, all of which allowed them to get to see each other at work in a range of very different styles. “In the new music I was amazed by how quickly we just got everything down,” she enthuses. “With the Latin-American music they were really willing to think outside the box and get comfortable with rhythms and feelings that may not have been what they grew up listening to – or dancing to. And, at least for me, that’s what a conductor looks for – an orchestra that’s flexible, that is giving everything to their work and to the group. When those ingredients are there, together with skilled musicians, then you can get anywhere.”

Born in New York City in 1980, de la Parra moved to Mexico with her parents at age two. She started out learning to play piano aged seven followed by the cello at age 13, but then she decided she wanted to become a conductor. “I was fascinated by music from a very early age,” she tells me. “I was playing in orchestras and ensembles at school, rock bands, anything with music I was there. I would go to a lot of concerts with my parents, and I would always focus on the cellos. My father kept saying ‘Why do you always look at the celli? You should look at the conductor’, and I said ‘Why would I look at the conductor. He’s the most boring one, he’s not doing anything!’ ‘No, he has to know what everyone’s doing,’ he told me. ‘He has to bring everyone together and inspire everybody. He knows the score inside out’. He explained all these wonderful things and he said ‘You have really good ears, you should become a conductor’. I thought ‘My father’s crazy!’ but then I had several turning point experiences at school, where I had to lead different groups of schoolmates that felt discouraged and had no motivation. I had to pull everybody up and say ‘Of course we can. We’re just going to work twice as hard!’ I got really obsessive about how to tune chords and how to make a choir’s diction come through the texture. I was maybe 15 when I realised ‘Wow, there’s a world of sound here that involves human beings with personalities, with insecurities and when it works, the magic of the group is something way more powerful than when I’m playing piano by myself. The collective effort, the collective achievement, that’s what is incredible. No instrument can get even close to the power of a hundred people doing something in the best way they can to please another two thousand people.”

First, however, to understand what being a composer was all about she studied composition at Mexico City’s Centre of Research and Musical Studies. “I wanted to understand what it’s like to orchestrate, to understand what it’s like to have a blank sheet of paper that you have to fill with notes and ideas,” she explains. Then, at age 19 she moved to New York to attend the Manhattan School of Music. “I studied piano at Manhattan,” she says. “However, from day one I told my teacher that I loved the piano, but this is all a path to conducting. He was very considerate and sensitive, so then I did my Masters in conducting.”

Like most young conductors starting out, de la Parra had to start at the bottom. “While I was a piano undergrad at Manhattan School I became the assistant of assistants of assistants for a community orchestra in New York where I volunteered,” she tells me. “I wanted to know how an orchestra works so I was in charge of everything from putting out the stands and chairs, turning on the lights in the theatre, giving out programmes, sending out the mailings, all sorts of non-music things. In exchange I was watching every rehearsal, and making notes on all the conductors I saw. One day they let me conduct for five minutes in rehearsal, then ten minutes, then half the rehearsal, and then a whole rehearsal. After that I became Assistant Conductor, then Associate Conductor and Principal Guest-Conductor. It was really great that they gave me the benefit of the doubt, and let me grow.”

After graduating with honours she became Assistant to Vincent La Selva at New York Grand Opera in Central Park before getting the chance to study with Charles Dutoit. “He gave me my first professional opportunity with the Buenos Aires Philharmonic,” she explains. “Then I studied with Marin Alsop and after that I met my mentor Kenneth Kiesler who has been, and still is, a really important guide and influence in my musical life.” Never one to shy away from hard graft, de la Parra has been a doer and a maker at each stage in her career. She’s also been a founder and something of a trailblazer. At the age of 23, she founded the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas (POA) in New York, an ensemble designed to showcase young performers and composers from all of the Americas. She went on to become the first Mexican woman to conduct in New York City, and with the POA she recorded that remarkable debut CD – an album that went Platinum in Mexico in less than two months.

Latin-American music has always been important and, certainly in the early days, defining for de la Parra. Composers such as Moncayo, Huízar, Márquez and Chapela may not be household names over here, but hopefully they might pop up on an Alondra de la Parra programme in 2017. Brisbane got a taste of some of that last year, including some real finds such as a fascinating work by Mexican composer Mario Lavista called Clepsydra. “It makes me very happy that people in Australia now know that work,” she says with evident pleasure “It’s probably not what you expected Mexican music to sound like. It’s not your cliché, it’s not folkloric, it’s not rhythmic and percussive. It’s a wonderfully refined piece from someone who is just a wonderful voice. My wish is that every orchestra has that in the repertoire alongside Stravinsky. I don’t just want to do this typical Latin-American ‘fiesta’ music. I’m more interested in showing that we are very complex, sophisticated cultures with different voices that haven’t always been tapped.”

“That music will definitely always be a part of my life,” she explains, “but that’s not not everything that I do.” What she does do is frequently ‘big’ and ‘new’. Next year she will open the QSO’s new season with Mahler’s mighty Resurrection Symphony. “Ah, Mahler, definitely, yes!” she exclaims. “He’s one of the composers I feel most connected with. Every time I’ve done Mahler there’s something profound and so special about it. Mahler, I think, will be a part of my life as a musician constantly. But my main focus, I think, is more 20th century. Orchestras invite me to do a lot of Stravinsky, for example – next year I’m doing three Rite of Springs – and I’ve always been very connected to Shostakovich and Bartók – that period.”

Next year she also conducts Respighi and Strauss in Brisbane, so orchestral colourists are highly likely on a de la Parra musical menu. What else might be headed for Queensland under her Musical Directoship? “I’m not a fan of the all-Beethoven type of programming,” she admits. “I like contrast. I think we live in a world which is so eclectic, where you can enjoy things from different periods that speak to each other and challenge each other. II like that challenge. I like to challenge the audience and I like challenging the musicians and myself. I always think that if every single person who comes to the concert hall leaves absolutely loving one piece, but also hating another (maybe I don’t mean hate…), then I’m really happy – because if they love one piece it means we did our job of giving them joy, but if they hate another, that means we challenged them and maybe next time they hear it they might listen differently.”

In addition to her live performances, de la Parra has two discs of new music coming out in the next month – music by German composer Enjott Schneider (b. 1950) and American composer Stacy Garrop (b. 1969). “I’ll put on new music, definitely,” she tells me. “It’s important for an orchestra to be in touch with what’s going on today, but also never forgetting the great masters – our bread and butter. But new things aren’t necessarily from right now. I’ve discovered pieces from 1905 that have barely been performed.”

With a lot of talk nowadays of the difficulties faced by women conductors, gender parity and glass ceilings, my last question addresses the exciting prospect of a woman heading up one of Australia’s State symphony orchestras for the very first time. But has Alondra de la Parra ever found her gender to be a problem getting ahead in the profession? “I get asked that question all the time,” she laughs. “It always comes up – and it’s only natural – but the truth is that when I’m working, I’m looking at a group of people and thinking ‘How are we going to make this passage beautiful, how will we fix it, what am I going to do to change the sound?’ I’m not thinking ‘This gentleman with a bassoon’, or ‘That woman with a viola in her hand’. And I feel that it’s the same with conducting. There’s a second when they see you, and maybe think ‘Oh, she’s a woman, he’s a man, she’s short, she’s tall, she’s fat’, or whatever, but that goes away pretty quickly, because what we’re dealing with is imagination, creativity and energy. For that, we need both the male and the female within us. And every single person has quite a bit of both. You can’t use just your femininity or your masculinity as a conductor – or as an artist – and I find myself in both areas of my being constantly. Some people like it and some people don’t, but that’s not necessarily because of any prejudice about my being a woman.” 

That’s the kind of rather brilliant answer that half-an-hour with Alondra de la Parra leads you to expect. When I tell her that, she thanks me and tells me she’s really honoured. A typically thoughtful and gracious response from a musical personality that I’d suggest Queenslanders will warm to with very little extra encouragement needed.