While she studied conducting and piano at the Manhattan School of Music in New York City, Alondra de la Parra drafted a mission statement for her career: “I am committed to being a source of inspiration for positive change in the world through music.”
“That was probably 10 years ago. My teacher Kenneth Kiesler suggested that I create the statement as an exercise,” says de la Parra. In her rise to international prominence as one of the most dynamic conductors in the world of classical music, she has followed through on the ideals expressed in that collegiate resolution.
In 2004 de la Parra founded the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas, made up of young musicians from 22 countries. Three years later she established a program called Niños to teach composition to students in the New York City public schools.
De la Parra has intensified both her efforts in arts education and her touring schedule: She recently initiated school programs in Mexico and Germany, and this year she will expand her guest-conducting calendar to include Luxembourg, Austria, and Abu Dhabi.
Last fall, between rehearsals for her final concert of a two-week residency in São Paulo, Brazil, de la Parra talked about the ways music focuses her travel and how travel informs her creative vision.
When you were 13 years old, you knew that you wanted to be a conductor. What inspired that ambition?
As a kid I was mesmerized by musicians and by music of all sorts—popular, classical, opera, Mexican. My parents took me to concerts, and when I learned what a conductor did, it seemed like the right fit for me. At school I was always putting groups together and making things happen. Being a conductor combines the magic of performing with the gratification of being a leader.
What’s the most exciting part about arriving in a new city?
Seeing how the city works and learning about the culture. It’s a special experience in my case, because I immediately engage with a large group of people from that place. I get exposed to their way of thinking, their sense of humor, the way they communicate, and their etiquette.
Does an orchestra always reflect the personality of the local culture?
Yes, in almost every way. The orchestra is a microcosm of the society. If the musicians are disciplined, respectful, and quiet, that tells you something about the culture. Or maybe they’re always talking and laughing, which is good, but then it can be challenging to get them to focus.
Do you spend much time out in the city with musicians and fellow conductors, and get tips from them about restaurants and nightlife?
I don’t have that much free time when I’m on the road. When we’re not rehearsing, I’m preparing scores. I get to interact with the musicians in rehearsal. I rarely have the time to see my conductor colleagues, because it’s uncommon that conductors are in the same place at the same time. Conductors are quite isolated. We travel by ourselves, we go somewhere, we work with the orchestra, and then we move on to the next place. But after you’ve traveled a lot, you build a network of friends in each city who you can just call up when you arrive.
What do you bring home from your travels?
I’m not really a collector, but I always come back with a bunch of CDs and music scores. Right now I have about 25 new CDs of all kinds of Brazilian music that I’m dying to listen to. I’m always over the luggage weight limit when I return home.
How do you put your mission statement into action when you travel?
We’re preparing an education project in Berlin that is similar to Niños. The idea is to do a summer program for young kids and teach them not only how to compose but also how to work in a team. In Mexico I am also working with orchestras of indigenous people. They’re mostly teenagers and young adults, between the ages of about 10 and 25, who have migrated to Mexico City from other states to have the chance to play in an orchestra.
How has travel affected your own sense of national identity?
I am definitely Mexican, and if you ask me where I’m from or where I was raised, it’s Mexico, for sure. But I’ve learned from all the places that I’ve had the opportunity to visit and live in, and from the friends I’ve made and the teachers I’ve had. This cosmopolitan education is part of who I am. Sometimes I find myself being more of a New Yorker, sometimes I feel like more of a chilanga, which is someone from Mexico City, but in the end I am a mix of everywhere I’ve lived and worked. A
Photo courtesy of Alondra de la Parra. This appeared in the March/April 2012 issue.