Born in New York and raised in Mexico City, Alondra de la Parra returned four years ago to study piano performance and conducting at the Manhattan School of Music. This week, the up-and-comer will lead the Mexican American Symphony Orchestra, the ensemble she founded, in its debut at Town Hall as part of the México Now festival—and she’s still only 23. She spoke with Alicia Zuckerman.
So the orchestra is performing a piece based on a soccer match?
This piece is called Íngesu—an allusion to a really, really bad word in Spanish, the way we say it when we don’t want to swear. Enrico Chapela, a 30-year-old composer from Mexico City, wanted to make a symphonic language based on nationalism in the form of soccer. So he took the peak of our fútbol life—in 1999, when Mexico won over Brazil, 4-3. He assigned to the woodwinds the team of Mexico; the brass is the Brazilian team. Then the strings are the audience, the conductor is the referee, the harp is the coach of the Mexican team, the piano is the coach of the Brazilian team, and the percussion are the reserve players. He took the musical motifs of swearing and all the shouting, and he wrote the pitches.
How did you decide you wanted to conduct?
At 13, I went with my parents to a concert. I was attracted to the cello, but my father was like—that’s great, but why don’t you ever look at the conductor? I think he was kidding, but I was like, Yes, yes—that’s it, that’s exactly what I should do.
And you’re still getting your bachelor’s, right?
If I make it. Honestly, I’ve been working on a bachelor’s for like eight years.
Do you want to play piano and conduct, like Daniel Barenboim?
Well—no, he’s amazing. But I think you can mix both. In July I’ll be conducting and performing a Mozart concerto in Mexico. I can’t promise anything, but we’ll see.
You were one of seven people accepted into Kurt Masur’s workshop last spring.
I applied thinking, I’m not gonna get in, because the minimum age was 25; I was 22. You had to have a degree in conducting—I didn’t. When they called me, I was like, No, no, no, they made a mistake, this is wrong. And somebody was like, Just shut up—go! I was the only one without a degree, the only woman, and the youngest.
What makes a conductor great?
The obvious things like complete mastery of the music, but imagination is very, very important. You can be the best musician but be so boring that nobody wants to play for you. It has to go back to vulnerability in a way. Be available.