It goes without saying that Alondra de la Parra could have chosen an easier profession. The conductor, who will soon make a special appearance leading the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, faced an uphill battle trying to become a maestro in Mexico, where there are no music conservatories aimed at her profession. But don’t expect the rising international talent, who turned 32 on Halloween, to blame either her gender or her birth country for adding extra challenges to taking the podium.
“What’s difficult is just learning how to be a conductor,” the lively maestro says emphatically to the Straight from her home in Mexico City, where she splits time with New York City. “As a conductor, to master the technique and to communicate with the orchestra and to always polish who you are as a human being is really hard. You need to be strong-minded and determined that this is what you want to be. I never had the time or energy to say, ‘Is this hard because I’m Mexican or because I’m a woman?’ ”
De la Parra’s love of the art form stems from growing up in Mexico with a family immersed in music: around the house, at fiestas, and at concerts. By seven, she was avidly studying piano; by 13, she had decided she wanted to become a conductor and had taken up the cello. “I became fascinated by the idea of a conductor,” de la Parra says. “I think it was that it was explained to me that the conductor is the one that puts everything together and makes everyone do their best and has the whole score in their mind—all these magical things I thought were unreachable.”
They may have seemed impossible, but she was driven to start “studying and studying” anyway. At 15, she asked her parents to send her to a boarding school in England to study music—a life-changing year that taught her choral singing, percussion, history, instrumentation, and, finally, conducting. From there she blazed her own path, continuing studies in composition in Mexico City and then moving to New York City at 19 to attend the Manhattan School of Music.
Today, she heads the Philharmonic Orchestra of Jalisco in Guadalajara and takes the podium around the world, earning rave reviews for her vivacious conducting style from Leipzig to Rio de Janeiro to Tokyo. (The New York Times called one of her gigs “vibrantly nuanced”.) In Mexico, she is a star, serving as an official cultural ambassador and promoting Latin American music around the world. When she conducts the VSO here, the program will have the kind of contrasting mix she savours as a maestro: the thundering 20th-century Symphony Golden Dragon by Holland’s Edward Top, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s sparkling Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, and Johannes Brahms’s lush Symphony No. 4 in E minor.
“I feel there should always be a piece in there for every listener to love and one to hate,” de la Parra says with a small laugh. “I like challenging people but also giving them what they want. I’ve always been a promoter of Latin-American music in the concert halls, but I think it should be part of the repertoire and the menu. I’m not a big fan of the all-Mexican or all–Latin American program.”
Although there are more women conducting around the world these days, de la Parra continues to strike down the old stereotype of the aging male conductor—and featured in countless Mexican and American photo spreads, the raven-haired maestro does it in high style too.
“I think being a conductor has to do with being yourself,” she says thoughtfully, when asked if she thinks she brings a much-needed blast of glamour to what can be a stuffy profession. “When I was a kid, I said, ‘If I’m not an old man with white hair, I can’t be a conductor.’ But that’s not what music comes from; it comes from your soul, your mind, your grit, your experiences as a person, and the way you relate to people. There’s only one thing you can be when you get to the podium, and if I am a 31-year-old woman who likes to dress like a woman, then I am happy to be that.”
More than anything, you get the sense that de la Parra—who brings in experts to hold master classes for aspiring conductors and supports other programs to boost music education in Mexico—is elated to finally be working in the profession she saw as so unreachable as a little girl.
“When the whole orchestra is engaged in the moment and being completely selfless, something incredible happens at a human level and at a spiritual level,” she says with passion. “Very few people can say they go to work and work with 100 people simultaneously and the common goal is to make people happy.”
Alondra de la Parra conducts the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra from Saturday to Monday (November 3 to 5) at the Orpheum.