Between the first time that Alondra de la Parra stood on a podium to conduct a community ensemble in New York and the day she made her debut with the Orchestre de Paris or performed in front of 120,000 people alongside Natalia Lafourcade, Ely Guerra and Denise Gutiérrez in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, 22 years have passed. The whole range of diverse experiences, her gratitude to her Latin American roots and her determination to make music are some of the traits of this Mexican Maestro, who today has engagements with the most prestigious symphony orchestras in the world.

For her, an orchestra is a microcosm of any human organisation, because by observing it, it is possible to see the different relationships that exist in society: “you can tell if there is trust, respect, discipline, teamwork or imagination”. Perhaps for this reason, she considers being the leader of such a group to be one of the greatest challenges there is, and believes that the role of the conductor involves stripping away the ego in order to enhance the music and bring out the collective best.

Alondra de la Parra
© David Ruano

“Conducting an orchestra is about connecting those human beings, connecting that energy into a single idea and a single intention. The change we conductors want to bring about, through our gestures, words and ideas, is to motivate the musicians to take several steps up from where they are. That's my job, it's not about me, it's about others.” For this reason, she thinks it's essential for a conductor to know how to listen and communicate their ideas with the baton, going beyond words, but, above all, they must be able to inspire others.

One of the great examples of her desire to serve and motivate others is “The Impossible Orchestra” project, that De la Parra created in 2020, in collaboration with artists from 14 countries around the world, such as Paquito D'Rivera, Rolando Villazón, Emmanuel Pahud and the dancer Elisa Carrillo – all artists that, in other circumstances, would have been impossible to bring together. During lockdown they recorded Arturo Márquez's Danzón no. 2. The objective of the production, which went viral on social media, was to support Mexican women and children affected by the pandemic; beyond fulfilling this task, it also exceeded the conductor's expectations.

Alondra de la Parra
© Felix Broede

In her native Mexico, Alondra de la Parra grew up listening to all kinds of music: from rancheras and trova yucateca [a mestizo genre originating in the 19th-century, typical of Yucatán] to salsa and rock. All these styles allowed her to form what she calls “a 360º vision of music”. This vision resonates with her work as a Cultural Ambassador of Mexico and with her purpose as a conductor: “My dream has always been that Latin American creations would become part of the standard repertoire of any orchestra,” she says, recalling that at the age of 24 she founded the Philharmonic of the Americas, an ensemble dedicated to performing works by Latin composers. “Almost 20 years later, this work has borne fruit thanks to the work we have done together with other colleagues. In fact, in 2019, the most played work worldwide was Arturo Márquez's Danzón no. 2.”

For her, the main difference between European and Latin American orchestras has to do with the symphonic tradition which, of course, is not as deeply rooted in Latin America as in the Old World, something that for a long time determined the musical level between them. Nowadays, she believes that the difference lies in the way people live in Latin America, which translates into the way they make music: “Latin Americans are by nature cheerful, warm, with a great sense of humour, and that helps a lot with the music and the energy when playing and connecting with the audience”. Her smile behind the screen confirms this.

Thinking back, De la Parra says that being a musician was the biggest challenge she could set for herself. “I have faced a lot of pushback, prejudice and situations in which they wanted to unfairly discredit me. I think that because I am a woman and a Latin American, I have had to carry a bigger bag of prejudices than most conductors. 

The Mexican conductor in a session with music students
© Nicolas Brodard

“I don't believe in a feminine vision of art, I believe in the artist's vision. Femininity and masculinity are fundamental parts of every human being, we all have a mixture of this. You can put me in a group of female conductors and I wouldn't necessarily feel that I belong with them just because I'm a woman,” says De la Parra. She also states that it will take time to start breaking down the barriers and rigid structures with which we read the world. “It would be more interesting if, instead of thinking about everything within those frameworks, we started to think that everyone deserves a chance until they prove otherwise.”

Her artistic work is not limited to the hours of study of the works she conducts from the podium. Rather, she also constantly seeks to challenge herself to expand her own limits and strengthen her creativity and communication skills: she takes on audiovisual and collaborative projects with dancers, actors and artists from different fields; she created the programme “Música Maestra” in which she interviews various colleagues to learn their perspective on music; she writes and conducts works to bring new audiences to the orchestra and continues to discover Latin American music through composers from different latitudes.

Alondra de la Parra
© Felix Broede

Thinking back, the conductor reviews some of the musical moments that have marked her career the most. One of these was her debut with the Orquesta Nacional de España: “it was very special because I immediately got on with the orchestra and connected very well with the audience in Madrid. We played La noche de los Mayas by Silvestre Revueltas, a work about the love between a Mayan princess and a Spanish conquistador. It was a very symbolic moment.”

For her, the art of sound has the power to transcend human will. “Music can shake you without your permission. I don't think there is any art that has such a powerful ability, because we are musical beings vibrating to these frequencies.”

It has been two and a half decades since Alondra de la Parra fell in love with the orchestra. She looks back to remember that 14-year old girl who was thrilled to hear Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony and today she feels fulfilled because she will soon conduct the Sixth: “the Alondra of the past could not believe that she and I are the same person; that young girl would feel extremely grateful to life for having made what she dreamed of come true.”

Translated from Spanish by Laura Volpi.