With so many gifted women conductors of almost every nationality shattering the glass ceiling in recent decades, it’s no longer a novelty for female musicians to hold major leadership positions with symphony orchestras, opera companies and schools of music, here and around the world.
Why, then, has it taken so long for Alondra de la Parra, an exceptionally talented female conductor who was raised in Mexico, to rise to international prominence?
“It’s very difficult to study music, especially conducting, in Mexico,” said de la Parra, 30, who will make her Grant Park Music Festival debut this weekend, leading the Grant Park Orchestra at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion.
“Unfortunately the music schools there are not at the level of the conservatories here in the U.S. and in places in Europe. Where to study conducting is a problem, whether one is a man or a woman.
“Of course, conducting has traditionally been a male-dominated field, in Mexico just as in other countries,” de la Parra continued. “Conducting has long been regarded as something women didn’t do, nor have they received much encouragement or support. For my generation of conductors, being a woman is not really an issue anymore. We just focus on the challenge of (making music), which is enough to think about.”
De la Parra would prefer leaving it to others whether she is in fact a role model for young women who are considering a career in conducting, although, when prompted she said, “Absolutely I want to inspire young women who aspire to become musicians and conductors. Sometimes you need to see somebody up there on stage to feel encouraged yourself.”
Although de la Parra was born in New York, she moved to Mexico City with her parents when she was 2. Lessons in piano and cello followed; at 13, she set her sights on becoming a conductor. She continued her musical studies in England before returning to Mexico to study composition. Eventually she settled in New York, where she attended the Manhattan School of Music as a conducting and piano student. The city remains her home base for a career packed with engagements as far-flung as Sao Paulo and Singapore.
De la Parra has been making it her mission to promote musicians and composers from the Americas. In 2004 she formed the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas, a New York-based ensemble made up mostly of professional instrumentalists 35 and under that specialized in Latin-American repertory, much of it unjustly neglected and worthy of a place in the standard repertory.
A year ago Sony released a two-CD set, “Mi Alma Mexicana” (“My Mexican Soul”), an absorbing overview of 200 years of Mexican music, from its inception in the late 19th century to the present, played by the orchestra under her direction. The album was well received – it reached No. 2 on the Mexican pop charts, a first for a classical recording in Mexico in more than a decade – and held out the promise of more such worthy projects for her and her youthful band.
Alas, it was not to be. Last month the orchestra’s board voted to suspend operations next season, citing the uncertainties of fundraising in today’s feeble economy. De la Parra says she was devastated by the decision, coming as it did after “seven years of really hard work” building the POA from scratch. If the orchestra cannot be reconstituted once the funding climate improves, she says she hopes to create “an entirely new project with the same mission.”
Last September she took the POA to Mexico for a nine-city tour as part of the national celebration of the centenary of the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution and the bicentenary of Mexican independence.
One of the works she introduced during that tour was Mexican composer Arturo Marquez’s “Leyenda de Miliano” (“Legend of Emiliano”), a portrait in sound of the revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata, who was assassinated by government sympathizers in 1919, at 39. The vividly energetic piece will receive its U.S. premiere at her weekend Grant Park concerts, sharing the bill with Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez” and Antonin Dvorak’s Seventh Symphony.
The Grant Park Orchestra will perform under Alondra de la Parra’s direction at 6:30 p.m. Friday and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park. Admission is free; 312-742-7638, grantparkmusicfestival.com.
July 05, 2011 | John von Rhein | Classical music critic