Musician and Vocalist Artist Interviews

An Interview with Conductor Alondra De La Parra

Less than nine months after her dynamic 2009 San Francisco Symphony debut conducting the symphony’s annual Day of the Dead concert, conductor Alondra de la Parra, 29, returned to lead four consecutive concerts with the orchestra. Her wide-ranging repertoire – two nights of American and America-associated music, one all-Russian eve, and a refreshing Dolores Park afternoon that mixed Dvorak’s New World Symphony with some of Mexico’s finest compositions – was as diverse as her roster of top-flight soloists.

Were conducting Lucas Meachem, Joyce Yang, Sara Davis Buechner, Charlie Albright, and Chris Noth (Mr. Big from Sex and the City) with SFS not enough, de la Parra kicked off her with a July 18 Festival del Sole concert in Yountville with the Russian National Orchestra, Joshua Bell, and Jean-Yves Thibaudet. That amounted to five major concerts with two vey different orchestras and a host of major stars in the span of eight days!

On August 3, Sony Classical released de la Parra’s two-CD set, Mi Alma Mexicana (“My Mexican Soul”). Consisting of 200 years of familiar and mind-opening Mexican music, the set received worldwide distribution, and garnered the conductor a cover story in the winter issue of arkivmusic’s Listen magazine.

In the six years since she founded the New York-based Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas (POA), composed of young professional musicians dedicated to promoting the work of young soloists and composers of the American continent, de la Parra has built an entirely new audience for classical music. The POA’s final concert of its recent season in Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall was such a sell-out that a second evening (also sold out) was added to accommodate demand. The repertoire, drawn from the forthcoming CD, attracted an audience whose average age was 30, and whose composition was 40% Hispanic.

In the summer of 2010, two months before she returned to San Francisco, I engaged in an extensive phone chat with de la Parra.

A Talk with Conductor Alondra De La Parra

Jason Victor Serinus: A year ago, you mentioned that you strive to avoid being typecast as only conducting Mexican music. You seem to have succeeded, having been engaged to conduct American and Russian music in multiple programs with the San Francisco Symphony and at Festival del Sole. You also have a new, 2-CD set of all Mexican music on Sony.

I’m wondering what is happening with the arc of your career. To what extent are you still being typecast? How free are you to do repertoire of your choice?

Alondra de la Parra: I think when we last spoke, I was saying I would try to avoid being typecast, not that I was being typecast. I don’t think that I have been typecast.

I sometimes get a first invitation to do Mexican repertoire, as I did at last year’s Day of the Dead concert with the San Francisco Symphony. If that’s my foot in the door to work with a great orchestra such as San Francisco’s, great. But I think my return is the perfect proof that, after having done that first step, the re-invitation is to do far more than that.

I’m delighted to return to do four programs with the symphony. I start with an all-American program with Dvorak, Ellington, and Copland (July 22); an all-Russian program with Glinka, Rachmaninoff, and Mussorgsky (July 23); the New World American program with Ives and others (July 24), and the half-Mexican program with Dvorak’s Ninth in Dolores Park (July 25). This is exactly what I like doing: a mixture of all sorts of repertoire, without any distinction.

I think it’s quite unusual that they would invite me back, not for one, but for four concerts. So it’s real exciting for me.

JVS: We loved you last year. You were fabulous. The energy was so positive and wonderful. And there’s equally wonderful energy on your Mexican CD. I was almost screaming with laughter…

ADLP: Oh, I’m glad…

JVS: I put on Sobre las olas by Juventino Rosas…

ADLP: Oh, that one makes you laugh…

JVS: And, all of a sudden, the melody for the waltz, “When you are in love, it’s the loveliest night of the year” starts playing.

A Talk with Conductor Alondra De La Parra

ADLP: Can you believe that’s Mexican? That’s what’s so interesting about it. Everyone knows the tune, and everyone assumes it’s a Viennese waltz or something like that. But that was the idea of the CD: to show all the different facets that Mexico is, which is not the cliché that most everyone has in mind.

The CD is the culmination of two years of research I conducted on Mexican music of the last 200 years, on the occasion of the 2010 bicentennial celebration of Mexican independence. With that in mind, I really tried to present a wide range of what Mexican music represents.

JVS: It certainly is a wide range. Campa’s Mélodie pour violin et orchestre, Op. 1 was equally surprising. It sounds like European salon music. I loved it.

ADLP: Yes, it’s great. It’s short and really cute. Also the Wagnerian sound of Ricardo Castro’s Intermezzo to his opera Atzimba. And then if you listen further, there’s just about every other style in there. Candelario Huízar’s Imágenes (1927) is another that I find really worth listening to. It is a really special symphonic poem.

JVS: Yes. I wrote in my notes, “Very Debussy-like, then goes all over the map.”

ADLP: That’s exactly right. It starts like Ravel or Debussy, and then visits everyone. But somehow it all sounds Mexican, which I think is very interesting. Of course, he’s influenced by all these different styles and composers – Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, a little bit of Sibelius – there’s everyone – but still the thematic material, the harmonies, and the use of the parallel third are very Mexican.

JVS: Where I live, in the Fruitvale district of Oakland, Mexican music is the same banda tunes – I call it Mexican polka music – blasted over and over again by my neighbor and the other people down the block and across the fence. It surrounds me. Were I to open my back door and turn up on some of the tracks on your CD, my neighbor would think it was some of that high-fallutin’ European classical stuff – music written by white people for the white elite – and turn her radio up louder to drown it out. She has no idea that some of this music exists, let alone that it is of Mexican origin.

ADLP: Right. That’s what we are trying to do with this CD: really show everyone, Latinos Mexicans and foreigners alike, that there’s much more to Mexican music than the cliché people hold. There’s a huge world of music that hasn’t been performed, promoted, or heard. And these are old pieces.

JVS: Enrico Chapela’s ínguesu starts off a bit like Revueltas’ well-known Sensemaya, which is also on the CD, before it goes off.

ADLP: That’s the one based on a soccer match.

JVS: You spoke about it in our last interview. It gets pretty savage.

ADLP: All the melodies and little licks are based on cheers and yelling at the stadium. They’re typical chants that we use. Some of them are actually real bad words. All for the sake of art, right?

JVS: I’m sure I’ve used them all in the last week. So I shall just consider myself equally artistic.

Is there a twelve-tone tradition in Mexican music?

ADLP: Oh yes, it went through that. I didn’t particularly include any, because I’m not that much into it, to tell the truth.

What is interesting is that’s very much a Viennese/German style and idiom. I think what’s very interesting is what came right after it influenced some of our composers, for example, Mario Lavista. He had all of that twelve-tone schooling, yet developed his own music and sound as a reaction to that. His style is more in the French tradition.

JVS: I called it mystery music in my notes.

ADLP: There’s a big influence of French music. We might be more influenced by French music than German or American, because a lot of our composers went to study in Paris with Nadia Boulanger and others. Lavista studied with Darius Milhaud. He took seminars with Nadia Boulanger, took seminars with Ligeti, and studied with Chavez. He got a scholarship with the French government, and also studied in Cologne.

JVS: That’s a great link to your concerts here, because Copland also studied with her.

Tell me what you and your orchestra have been doing the past year.

A Talk with Conductor Alondra De La Parra

ADLP: I’ve been guest conducting a lot everywhere, and I’m starting to conduct more in Europe. This summer I’m doing a lot of concerts there. I just came back from Denmark and Spain, and I’m going to do some concerts in Dresden, Leipzig, and Berlin again. This is my European summer, for some reason. I’m very excited about working in different countries and cultures, and learning. It’s been fun.

I’m just getting started there. I conducted a chamber orchestra in Berlin, the Copenhagen Philharmonic, and am returning to the chamber orchestra with some really amazing soloists. I did a concert with the harpist of the Berlin Philharmonic, and at the end of August I’ll do one with Albrecht Meyer, the principal oboe. That’s really exciting. And I’m conducting festivals as well. It’s a good start.

In the U.S., I’m conducting the Dallas Symphony in a subscription concert in the fall, and San Francisco, and other orchestras.

JVS: Are you doing the Mexican repertoire in Europe? I’d think that would interest people a lot.

ADLP: The concerts I’m doing there so far are the Eroica, some chamber orchestra material like Bartok’s Concerto for Strings, Percussion and Celeste; Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks… When I return next year, I’ll do some Mexican programs in Germany. Mostly it’s standard repertoire.

JVS: In Mexico itself, to what extent is the repertoire that you’ve put on these CDs known, and who knows it?

ADLP: Of the 13 pieces we have, there are four best-sellers that everyone knows, like Moncayo’s Huapango, and Márquez’s Danzón 2, the Rosas you were singing, and Revueltas’ Sensemayá. The rest is quite new to everyone except the scholars who manage the archives. Even connoisseurs and professional musicians may not be aware of half the CD. I didn’t know they existed, and I’m a Mexican conductor.

It’s really exciting, because the CD is coming out worldwide. My goal is that this music become part of the everyday repertoire of orchestras, programmed with Tchaikovsky and Debussy, and that it isn’t segregated to a Mexican program

You also asked me how the orchestra is doing. It’s doing really well because of the CD recording process. You can hear how much thought and care there was from everyone involved. It’s a great thing to be part of.

Our season concluded better than ever, because our audience has grown ridiculously. It’s extremely mixed and diverse, and quite young actually. Our last concert of the season was sold out; we had to put on a second show which was sold out as well, which has never happened to us. We’re a young orchestra that started five years ago, and suddenly we’re having to book second shows. It’s really amazing.

We went to LA to collaborate with an Argentinean band, Bajofondo, and that was also sold out and really great. Now we’re preparing to go on a major tour in Mexico in September where we’ll perform in seven cities and be part of a major celebration of independence that the government is putting together in the center of Mexico City. Eight to ten million will attend, and we’ll be the opening show. That is really exciting.

JVS: Where do you perform in NYC?

ADLP: Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center.

JVS: Totally fabulous.

What was your rep for the last program that brought everyone in?

ADLP: It was all of the repertoire for the CD.

JVS: Do you have a sense of how many people in the audience were Hispanic?

ADLP: I do know, because I asked the audience who was from Mexico. I would say half or 40% were Hispanic. I also know for a fact from the survey we did that the average age of our audience is 30 years old. It’s incredible.

JVS: I remember in our last interview you spoke about being spread too thin. Have you been able to find a balance?

ADLP: Yes. We just hired a new Executive Director, which is the beginning of the process. We were without one for a while, with some interim directors and a lot of change. That was really hard on me, because I had to do a lot of work, and it wasn’t musical work. But now we have a wonderful ED who is taking the lead, and so far so good.

It’s the only way it can work for me, because I’m constantly traveling and studying for concerts. I can’t also be involved in the administration.

JVS: Back to the four programs.

ADLP: The Napa Concert includes Joshua Bell and Jean-Yves Thibaudet.

JVS: Not bad. Have you worked with them before?

ADLP: I’ve worked with Josh twice, and I know Jean-Yves because I as assistant of the LA Phil for a week when he was there. But I’ve never directly worked with him. So I’m very excited. Working with Josh is wonderful. He’s really fun, a really great guy, and a really fine musician. It’s so easy and clear to understand what he wants. That’s the best for a conductor – when a soloist comes in and knows exactly what he wants. And Jean Yves is an incredible artist; I love his playing.

JVS: Last time, I called the acoustics of the Lincoln Theater “execrable.” How was it conducting there?

ADLP: Uh, well, it’s not the best acoustic. But I think it’s a great festival, and the atmosphere is wonderful. That makes up for it, I think.

JVS: Have you ever worked with Lucas Meacham or Joyce Yang or Charlie Albright?

ADLP: Never. I’m looking forward to it. I’ve done half the repertoire before. I have done the Old American Songs. I love ‘em; they’re great. And I’ve done the Dvorak Nine. I haven’t done the Ellington or the Grofé.

JVS: Meacham has a wonderful, generous voice. I remember he did a Viennese piece, maybe by Lehar, and he was elegant.

ADLP: It’s clearly the most insane four days of my life. Every day is a different program and a different rehearsal. It’s going to be really challenging. But I love challenges like this. It’s fun.

JVS: Do you have only one rehearsal?

ADLP: I have one rehearsal per program.

JVS: Oh my God!

ADLP: I know. It’s insane. But they’re so good, and we all had better be prepared. There’s no window for error. But I think it’s going to be fine.

I will meet with Joyce before, so that we are both in agreement and can just go for it. That will save time in the rehearsal. I’m sure I’ll meet with Lucas and the others as well.

The final concert is in Dolores Park on Sunday the 25th. We’ll do the Dancon, the Chavez, and the Rosas. Then Juapanago and Dvorak 9. There are no soloists.

JVS: Have you ever seen Dolores Park?

ADLP: No. How is it?

JVS: It’s very, very nice. You’re on a hill, it’s very open and green, with a lot of nice Victorians in the area. The Mission is in front of you and to the left and right, the Castro is behind you, Noe Valley is up the hill. So you’ve got everybody except blacks, who have been driven out by the high rents. Artists have been driven out as well. But it’s a beautiful park. You’ll love it. And they’ll love you.