Conductor Alondra de la Parra: 'The whole world is watching Mexico now'


Alondra de la Parra

Born in New York, Alondra de la Parra spent the greater part of her childhood in Mexico, her parents' homeland. After studying composition in Mexico City, she moved back to New York at age 19 to study piano at the Manhattan School of Music, finishing both her Bachelor and Master's degree in orchestral conducting with honors. Despite her new position in Australia, Mexico remains her base.


Practice makes perfect

Alondra - the name translates as "songbird" - took piano lessons at age seven and cello later on. By age 13, the choice was clear: She would become a conductor. In this, she was encouraged by her father, a writer. Her favorite "instrument" is now a full orchestra. "The goal is not to make them like you," she says of her musicians. "The goal is to make them play their very best."


More than just a pretty face

Youth and beauty are two things this conductor brings to the equation, but those qualities take a backstage to her musical talent. Even though female conductors remain an exception to the rule, Alondra de la Parra - an ambassador for UNICEF and an official cultural ambassador of Mexico - has never had to think about gender issues in her profession.


Educating musical youth

"It's no easy profession," says Alondra of the conductor's trade, "neither for a woman nor for a man." Back in in 2003, she began working in music education, giving instruction to children and youth in New York public schools. Part of that is conveying to young people how an orchestra works. That can include writing their own orchestral music even without knowledge of musical notation.


Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas

In 2004, the Mexican musician, then a 23-year-old piano major in New York, founded the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas to build a platform for composers and soloists from Central and South America. In 2010, the orchestra's first album, "Mi Alma Mexicana" (My Mexican Soul), marked the 200th anniversary of Mexican independence. It went platinum in Mexico within weeks.


In demand worldwide

Having conducted around 70 orchestras in Europe, the US, Japan and Brazil by age 36, de la Parra is an internationally known performer. Here she leads the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse. In 2013 she stepped in on short notice for principal conductor Tugan Sokhiev for a few weeks. She lists conductors Ken Kiesler, Charles Dutoit, Marin Alsop and Simon Rattle as her mentors.


'Musica Maestra' on DW

Praised as "pure dynamite" and a musician who "dances with sound," Alondra de la Parra believes in the power of music as a transformative, healing force. Beginning in July, 2017, she can be seen as a protagonist and reporter in the DW web-video series "Musica Maestra." Her approach to classical music and joy in experimenting with other genres gives users a modern view of the classical idiom.


How about a little jam session?

As backstage reporter in "Musica Maestra," Alondra jams with the Venezuelian ensemble Recoveco. Then they join the Orchestre national d’île-de-France in Paris' Philharmonic Hall. One of her goals is to bring Central and South American music to the mainstream repertory, noting that Mexico alone has a musical tradition going back thousands of years.


Music director in Brisbane

Since early 2017, de la Parra has been chief conductor, artistic director and community arts leader of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra. With the orchestra celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, big projects are scheduled - and her three-year appointment signals revitalization and new adventures for the orchestra from Australia.

As a sought-after guest conductor and head of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra in Brisbane, Australia, the Mexican-American maestra Alondra de la Parra knows that music is about communication - on every level.

Alondra de la Parra grew up in Mexico, studied in the US and founded an orchestra in her youth. Now in her mid-30s, she's internet-savvy and can communicate with her audiences on multiple platforms. DW's Rick Fulker sat down with her just before the launch of her new multimedia project for DW: "Musica Maestra." 

DW: You have a three-pronged job description: principal conductor, music director and community arts director of the Queensland Symphony. What does that entail, and where would you like the orchestra to be in five years' time?

Alondra de la Parra: Actually, that's close to the job description of a music director in other countries. For Australia, it's somewhat unusual though. But in fact, beyond conducting the orchestra and choosing programs, it also includes things like business strategizing with CEOs and community outreach.

As for my goals, I want the world to know about this orchestra, and about Brisbane. It's such a great city. I want to bring in top notch artists and expand our education programs. I also want to open new audiences too, because sometimes we see audiences for classical music ageing or declining. That's a big mistake. Classical music should be part of everyone's lives and accessible to everybody.

Listen: Alondra de la Parra conducts Mexican music

How would you describe the sound of this orchestra?

They're fluid and flexible and can adapt to every or any style. I don't want to put a label on it actually. That would be limiting. But I can say that their playing is very precise and rhythmically stable. They come well prepared, so the first reading is already very good. They're somewhat in the style of the British orchestras, at a very high level of proficiency, so you don't have to do much in rehearsals. They have a no-nonsense attitude. I like that. It's not so much of a struggle.

Audios and videos on the topic

Alondra de la Parra, Musica Maestra, Dirigentin, Mexiko
03:39 mins.
Musica Maestra | 16.10.2017

Backstage jam session

Alondra de la Parra

The greater part of conducting is body language, says Alondra de la Parra

How do conductors communicate with orchestras anyway? Is it mainly verbal, through body language -  or maybe even some kind of telepathy?

All of the above, I think. You have to find the best method in the context of the moment. Ideally, I prefer a situation in which I can keep the talk to a minimum and can use my body, baton or facial expression.

What does a modern conductor have to do to connect with his or her audience?

Related Subjects

Social media is a very good tool: A large number of people can immediately see what you're up to. It's free, and you can do it from wherever you are. It's a wonderful way to get classical music to an audience and catch their attention. It's also a way to show you care and that you appreciate and acknowledge the public.

I remember when I was a little girl and would go to a concert and later could see the musicians backstage, but they didn't even glance at us. If you go to see your favorite rock star though, they're much more engaging. I think there has to be a shift in attitude. You don't always have to do something different, just maybe smile to show them you're grateful.

Now we have this multimedia project with DW. What are your hopes and expectations for it?

I'm looking forward to seeing what will happen. I've already been uploading videos just to show what the backstage life of classical music is like, or showcasing those talents I'm lucky to come across. I want to get rid of the misconception that classical is a world just for a small elite. We're normal people too, just doing something extraordinary in normal circumstances.

We've noticed some interesting developments in Central and South America in recent years. I'm thinking of the state-run Venezuelan system that has taken impoverished children off the streets and given them musical instruments and training. Or an orchestra coming out of the slums of Brazil. And a privately-funded youth orchestra from Columbia is currently touring Germany. Is the future of classical music to be found in South America, Asia and Australia - and maybe not in so much in central Europe or the US?

I think it could be anywhere. But just looking at composers, there are so many in Latin America and Mexico that haven't been fully discovered, and they're not in the core repertory. But in the internet age, it's much easier to get acquainted with works that aren't played much. I'm in favor of a mixed menu anyway. I love Mozart and Beethoven, but I'm not interested in an all-Mozart or all-Beethoven program - or an evening of French music, for example. If you go to a restaurant, you don't order soup, soup, and then soup either. 

Campuskonzert der DW und des Beethovenfests

Leading a world premiere at last year's Beethovenfest

I read that at age 23 you founded an orchestra. Did you have to because the music you wanted to play was off the beaten track and other orchestras wouldn't take it on?

Not really. I didn't have to found an orchestra at all. I did do a concert of Mexican music, and founded the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas for it, but thought it was going to be a one-off thing. I really want people to hear this music and for it to be in every orchestra's repertory. So my main goal was to promote the music of the Americas and to give these great composers some kind of platform. It worked, and turned out beautifully. But the only reason I took on the crazy challenge of founding an orchestra was because I was 23. I didn't know what I was getting into.

Read more: Alondra de la Parra: 'With young musicians, magic can happen'

I have two unavoidable questions. Number one: The Trump administration in the US campaigned to build a wall on the border to Mexico and has generally fomented a hostile attitude towards Mexicans. Do you think that a curriculum vitae such as yours would be possible if these developments continue?

I may be an exception because I'm both American and Mexican, so I was able to study, live and work in the US. But it really does break my heart when I see how backwards things seem to have gone.

There's consolation, however. While it's true that a single president can do a lot of harm, there are so many millions of Americans who understand what Mexico and Mexicans are. I think that everything will fall by its own weight. If anything, the whole world is watching Mexico now, and that makes me happy. I've been wanting that to happen for decades. People are taking a closer look at the country's tremendous history. So even though it's under a shadow, the feeling of comraderie and of so many countries supporting us is good in the long run.

Campuskonzert der DW und des Beethovenfests

A bouquet for an appreciative maestra

Can music make a contribution to international or bilateral understanding?

Sure. Music can transcend politics. In music, anything and everything is possible.

Unavoidable question number two: The conductor's profession is one of the last bastions of male dominance, but lately several female conductors have emerged. I talked to one of the younger ones, and she said she's never experienced gender discrimination. Have you?

I don't know. I've never had time to focus on it! This is such a difficult profession. You go from learning the score, to rehearsal, to performance. In fact, the only time I think about the issue is when I'm asked.

Such as in this interview. I hope the question doesn't come up in every one.

It does, actually. Which is fine, and I understand why. But gender discrimination plays no role in my life at all. Maybe people have a problem with me being a woman, but there's no way I can know that. It's like being tall or short or anything else. And if I'm conducting, it would be ridiculous if, for example, I were to zero in on the sound of the oboe, and then think: "Oh, a man, so he's definitely going to play this way." In this profession, you just listen to the sound, then you judge it, fix or change it, or leave it alone.