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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

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

E L R A E S O N O J

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