Profile Alondra de la Parra takes the baton at Queensland Symphony Orchestra
Alondra de la Parra is blazing a trail with her appointment as the QSO’s music director, writes Matthew Westwood
It’s still an unusual sight, but fortunately these days the female orchestra conductor is not such a rare bird. Simone Young was a trailblazer, the Australian maestra in 1993 becoming the first woman to conduct the notoriously male-dominated Vienna State Opera. Nicolette Fraillon has been music director of the Australian Ballet since 2003 and conducts many of its performances.
But never before has a woman been promoted to the top musical job with one of the Australian state symphony orchestras. That has now changed, with yesterday’s appointment of a young Mexican, Alondra de la Parra, to the Queensland Symphony Orchestra.
The newly created role of music director will combine the functions of chief conductor, artistic director and community arts leader, signalling her level of future involvement in the state’s music-making.
Musically, of course, a conductor’s gender should make no difference. Audiences will rightfully expect performances that are committed, technically precise and artistically brilliant, no matter who is in charge.
In other ways, a woman may bring a different approach. Describing her first concerts with the QSO last May, when she conducted The
Rite of Spring, de la Parra says she admired the orchestra’s “healthy and supportive” atmosphere, where the players respect each other’s work and where her musical directions were received with “kindness and openness”. You can’t imagine the alpha males of yesteryear bothering with such workplace niceties: the driven Hungarian Georg Solti was known as the Screaming Skull.
“I was really impressed with the level of the orchestra, the musicianship and also their warmth as human beings,” de la Parra says on the phone from Mexico City. “We decided to work together and be a team: to me those qualities are most important.”
It’s an exciting time for the 34-year-old.
Within days of our telephone chat, she was due to give birth to her first child.
She does not take up the QSO appointment until 2017, but will give concerts in Brisbane next year, and expects that she and her husband Teo and baby will spend a lot of time here. But conductors’ jet-set lives being what they are, there will be plenty of toing and froing across the Pacific, between Mexico City and Brisbane.
How did she know the Queensland orchestra would be the right fit, after just one visit in May? When QSO management invited her to Brisbane as a guest conductor, they also invited her to be a candidate for the main job, after chief conductor Johannes Fritzsch stepped down last year. She spent two weeks working with the orchestra: a reading of orchestral scores by Australian composers, a program of Latin American music, and the concert with The Rite of Spring, Scheheraza
de and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1, with soloist Sergio Tiempo.
“Even though I was there for one period, I was able to see the orchestra in a whole range of musical styles, and we had to do it fast and efficiently,” she says. “In the first five minutes you can really tell if things are going to work out … It’s like you’re a cook and you see that the kitchen is clean and every knife is sharp. You think, ‘I could cook something really great here!’ ”
De la Parra was born in New York but grew up in Mexico City; her father is a writer and her mother a sociologist and educator. She played piano from age seven, the cello from 13, and knew from a young age she wanted to be a conductor. Watching orchestral concerts, she didn’t want to be sitting in the auditorium but up on stage making the music.
At 15, she went to boarding school in England and had one of her formative musical experiences. In a competition for conductors, she was tapped to lead an ensemble of students, only a handful of whom actually played an instrument. Undeterred, de la Parra made arrangements of songs and other pieces, including the Beatles’ Because, in which her makeshift orchestra could sing and clap.
“I had this drive to make it work, and the students became very engaged and enthusiastic,” she recalls. “We worked harder than everybody else, and in the end we won the competition … I realised I have this ability to do it, and how satisfying it was. I like working with people, using my ear to fix problems.”
She studied conducting at the Manhattan School of Music and, at the age of 23, founded the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas: a showcase for young performers and composers with which she toured, set up an education program, and recorded an album, Mi
Alma Mexicana. At first, she did everything herself: not only conducting concerts, but fundraising, renting music and negotiating rights. The orchestra was suspended in 2011, amid rising costs and funding difficulties.
The QSO title of music director marks a change from the usual chief or principal conductor, as de la Parra, working with QSO management, will help shape all of the orches- tra’s musical activities. Already there is talk of recording projects and international tours. The job will also involve education projects, and de la Parra speaks enthusiastically about programs she has been involved with, including Venezuela’s El Sistema system of student orchestras and a program called Ninos, in which young people write music for orchestral performance.
“At the end the kids go to the concert hall and hear a symphony, where every idea in the piece is made out of their own rhythms, melodies, stories, everything,” she says.
“That is a project I would love to see implemented with the QSO.”
De la Parra’s appointment makes a trio of women in leadership roles at the QSO. Sophie Galaise, a Canadian orchestra manager, joined the QSO as chief executive two years ago and has helped revive its fortunes. And in June, the orchestra named Natalia Raspopova as its assistant conductor. Galaise says it was never the orchestra’s intention to have a female music director, but she is delighted it worked out that way. “We wanted someone who would really complement the orchestra and I think we have found that person with Alondra,” she says. “She was the strongest candidate by far.”
De la Parra will open the orchestra’s 2016 season with a piece that is a personal inspiration to her, Mahler’s Symphony No 2.
“We are already dreaming of fantastic ideas and plans for the orchestra,” she says. “There is nothing we can’t dream for this orchestra. We want it all, to make this one of the leading orchestras of the world. It’s a matter of putting the right steps in place.”
IT’S LIKE YOU’RE A COOK AND YOU SEE THAT THE KITCHEN IS CLEAN AND EVERY KNIFE IS SHARP ALONDRA DE LA PARRA
Alondra de la Parra says she was impressed
by the QSO’s supportive culture