The star conductor talks about the soothing power of classical music in our age of technology.
For Alondra de la Parra, conducting at this year’s Mozart Week in Salzburg in January was a truly personal experience. Not only because it is a triumph for every conductor to be invited to one of the most important gatherings for classical music in the world, but because the prestigious event sparked her ambitions to start a musical career in the first place. Born in New York, raised in Mexico and nowadays moving globally between continents, de la Parra has become one of the most prolific conductors in the world by cultivating her extraordinary talents and by believing in music as a powerful force in the world – one that is able to change our lives. Like it once did hers.
Mrs de la Parra, isn’t it always remarkable to witness ideas turn into reality – like when an orchestra turns notes into sound? Ideas can change the way we think and feel. How does that happen through music?
Music, especially concert and orchestral music, offers a beautiful opportunity for reflection and silence, to listen. You have a hundred people creating music using their arms, their fingers, their breath, singing, using only their bodies as resources. Everyone in the concert hall experiences a connection that is incredibly direct and pure. I have been fascinated by orchestras since I was a young girl.
Was there an early moment in which you experienced the power music can have?
Around the time I started learning the piano, my parents were going through a separation. My piano teacher was sort of a grandmother figure to me. I developed a love for the piano and music because I felt like although everything else could change in my life, Mozart and his music would always stay with me if I wanted them to. My love for music is a relationship that I can rely on.
You started your own orchestra at the age of 23. That seems like a bold move.
At that age you don’t know fear. I wanted to set up an orchestra that plays music from the Latin American countries. But there were a lot of hurdles to overcome in the beginning: raising money, hiring musicians, marketing. For me this was a perfect school because I had to do everything myself.
Did that come naturally to you?
It did. Very early on my father said to me: “You should be a conductor!” Already in school I was always organising everything.
This year you have been conducting at the Mozart Week in Salzburg for the first time. It is one of the most important events for classical music in the world – what made participating personally memorable especially for you?
Twenty years ago in Mexico my father unexpectedly said: “I’m taking you to the Salzburg Festival.” He had sensed how much music meant to me. I really loved to play the piano, the cello. And I already wanted to become a conductor. But when I saw the production of “La damnation de Faust” by Carlus Padrissa and his group La Fura dels Baus with my father in the famous venue Felsenreitschule during the Salzburg Festival, it changed my life.
And this year, they approached you to play at the Felsenreitschule.
Isn’t that incredible? Twenty years later Rolando Villazón invites me as a conductor to the location that hosted an event that changed my life. That is stunning enough. But when it was revealed only shortly before our first meeting that I would be working with exactly the team that performed 20 years ago, that was a dream come true.
The stage design by La Fura dels Baus looked spectacular. Historic but at the same time appealingly futuristic. There were also musical interludes that were played by computers. Did you feel their futuristic sound fits to the music of Mozart?
As a conductor I see it as my job to be the defender of the composer. When something is already perfect – leave it like it is! And since the electronic sounds were so different from the orchestras, it gave a really nice contrast. But our version of “Thamos” also shows a future in which we have become slaves of our phones and computers. I find it important to talk about these topics. And Mozart would have liked the unconventional way we are doing that, I am sure. Music can be a wonderful opportunity, not only to get away from our daily routine but also to get away from all the electronics surrounding us.
How do you deal with the stress that technology can cause? Do you sometimes intentionally switch off your phone?
Whenever I’m conducting, I am focused entirely on the music. But I need to get better at switching off my phone outside of rehearsals and concerts.
You travel around the world a great deal. Do you listen to music on the plane to distract yourself?
Music is always with me. In my mind I can usually hear the echoes of the concert that I have just conducted, or I am studying the score of the piece that awaits me in the next city.
Do you still sometimes get to play an instrument as a way to disconnect?
I have dedicated my life to music and my two kids, but I sometimes play for myself on a calm night when the children are asleep. Those are beautiful moments.
ALONDRA DE LA PARRA – CONDUCTOR
It is said that she has brought classical music into the 21st century. Her passion for music has taken the conductor to concert halls all over the world, and she has already stood on the podium in front of more than 100 of the best orchestras. In her role as Cultural Ambassador for her home country of Mexico, she supports Latin American music and composers. At the age of 23, she founded the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas. In addition to conducting in New York, Paris and Berlin, she is currently the musical director of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra in Australia. Last autumn, she gained further recognition through the OPUS KLASSIK music prize, when she conducted the renowned Konzerthausorchester Berlin at the concert gala. At the beginning of 2019, she took over the musical direction for Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin. The new performance will continue in September as part of the new season. Another highlight this year will be the ZDF Advent Concert at the end of November, where she will conduct the Staatskapelle Dresden in the Frauenkirche church.