Code of Conducting - The Saturday Paper
1. Brahms – Violin Concerto
Alondra de la Parra commands the orchestra with short, sharp movements and sweeping, confident gestures, her right hand brandishing the baton, her left describing the graceful arc of a swan’s neck, her fingers trailing through the air. Her posture is assured yet relaxed, her movements languid as she guides the watchful musicians in the rhythm and tempo of the concerto, highlighting the famous Hungarian violinist Barnabás Kelemen. From the opening strains, the orchestra beguiles us.
De la Parra founded her own orchestra when she was 23. She has led more than 70 orchestras around the world as guest conductor. Now 37, and recently appointed music director of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, she is on a mission to encourage diverse audiences to engage with accessible and comprehensible performances.
Brahms’ Violin Concerto is known as the crowning masterpiece of the time, but Alondra’s vision is to “juxtapose these classics with works that are totally different, to challenge our core audience”.
Born to a family of writers and teachers, music was part of her early life. “My brother and I sang ranchera and mariachi songs. Our father encouraged us to sing in harmony, we played percussion and attended concerts. [I still have] my first piano, given to me by my grandmother.”
Her grandmother was a famous writer, a “powerhouse of great ideas and imagination [who wrote] to survive a poor family”. Her comics and novellas taught entire generations of Mexicans to read from the ’30s to the ’60s, selling three million copies a week, each passed on through at least 10 hands.
Although initially lacking confidence, Alondra loved music. She dreamt of being a professional musician, and “kept trying because I loved it”. She says her father taught her anything was possible; that even if she thought she would fail, at least she should try.
“I began learning piano around the time that my parents separated. I believed that everything else around me could move and shift but my relationship with music was up to me. I still feel that. Everything shifts in life, you don’t know what’s going to happen, but music brings meaning to my life and strengthens my relationships with others.”
She now spends four months a year in Brisbane, and loves her life there, although it’s far from the places of her childhood in New York and Mexico, and very different.
2. Dutilleux – Métaboles
The French modernism of 1964 Métaboles transforms the orchestra, showing off the attributes of each instrument “like a painter mixing colours to create something new”. The exploratory sounds engage our senses in a beautiful dissonance.
“Métaboles” refers to the transition of words from one meaning to another, the progressive growth of the individual sounds of the orchestra through the music. The motives of the piece – melody, rhythm, harmony – evolve and transform to create new patterns that come together, full circle, in the coda.
I meet Alondra in her home in inner Brisbane, a cosy Queenslander built into the greenery of the hillside, scattered with the clutter of a small child. She pads down the hall quietly on bare feet and we peep in at her two-year-old son, sleeping soundly. She is described as one of the most compelling conductors of her generation, a dynamic and vibrant performer, yet here at home she is humble and earnest, softly spoken and considered.
While directing the artistic presentation of maestro and choral series, opera, ballet, contemporary and popular music, she talks about the co-operation between her own vision and that of the orchestra members.
She favours a collaborative approach, recently asking the musicians to provide a list of 15 works they would most like to perform. She was gratified to realise that 10 were already on her own list. “This is chemistry,” she says. “We work as a team; we must think alike and trust each other. My job is to make everybody do their best, to create motivation and, if things are going well, to stay out of the way. It’s time and experience, I try to be as prepared as I can, engaged, ready and respectful.”
She is considered about what it is an orchestra does, and how. “Music is effort and struggle, passion and love. If things are too easy, well it’s a good problem to have, but we must always be challenged,” she says. “What do we want to say? That’s what great orchestras are about. They’re not about the notes but what’s beyond the notes, how do we communicate the same feeling, the same story?
“Music is like nothing else, able to touch anyone with no discrimination of any sort. As long as you are a human being, you have the ability to resonate with music, your body vibrates and creates emotions, memories and feelings. The music takes you and shapes you. I want the audience to have the space of introspection, reflection, discovery and excitement, to value the experience and want to come back and do it again.”
3. Ravel – Daphnis et Chloé
Written as an orchestral score for the ballet, and first performed in 1912, Suite No. 1 and Suite No. 2 tell of the love story of Daphnis and Chloé, her abduction by pirates, and the appearance of three mysterious nymphs. The last section is a joyful celebration of dance and the aural depiction of sunrise composed in 5/4 metre. Alondra describes the piece as a “beautiful symphonic poem with a contrasting palette and musical style”.
Explaining the connection between music and dancing, Alondra introduces the human choir as another “instrument”, an integral part of the orchestra. The choir sings no words, but their voices rise and fall with mesmeric harmonies. Under her hands, they become one with the other musicians.
When the orchestra pauses, Alondra turns to the audience and tells the story of the music. She describes the composer’s life when the piece was written, explains the context of the music in relation to the history of the time. She asks the flautist to play a series of trilling notes and tells us they represent the birds; with a gesture to the violinists, she tells us to listen out for the passage that depicts the lovers. She explains that the music should make us feel something, that as with a character in a book, we ought to love it or hate it. She turns back to her performers and the music begins again. We can almost see the notes dancing through the high arched ceiling of the Concert Hall; we can feel the chords as they vibrate through the hushed and gathered bodies.
Back in her home, far from the spectacle of performance, the quiet of the day is disturbed only by the most natural of music: birds singing in her backyard. It suits her, this subtle backdrop. Alondra appears without a mask, open and welcoming. Her message is simple: “Come join our family,” she says. “Rediscover us. Orchestras are for everyone.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 10, 2018 as "Code of conducting". Read more here.