Alondra de la Parra Lights Up the Orpheum
Angela Cheng, piano and Alondra de la Parra, guest conductor of VSO
Works by Top, Mozart, and Brahms - Orpheum, November 3, 2012
Symphony orchestras often market their concert seasons by underlining the ‘passion and power’ of their music making, but many concerts hardly achieve such qualities. The Vancouver debut of 32 year old Mexican/ American female conductor, Alondra de la Parra, certainly did, setting a fire under the VSO and maintaining a wonderful level of intensity throughout. This is not a conductor that has fully broken through yet but, on this evidence, she has almost unlimited potential. So far, de la Parra has conducted a number of concerts with the San Francisco Symphony (in Summer 2010) and the Dallas Symphony, though many of her engagements are still in Mexico and Brazil. To encourage young musicians, she originally founded the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas in New York and has the enviable distinction of being the first female conductor to ever conduct in that city.
One patron summed up the night’s musical experience by saying simply: ‘She has it all!’ And in many ways, this is true. Alondra has obvious stage presence, being a very tall, slim and attractive woman with exceptionally long arms and fingers and an abundance of energy and enthusiasm. With her height and reach, she must be quite an imposing figure for an orchestra to face! She delivers a downbeat with very strong conviction and has rapier-like left arm which can pull or point any musical phrase with extraordinary speed. But her ‘feminine’ side is always there too. She often uses her whole body like a ballet dancer — to emphasize rhythm or feeling. Music literally flows through this woman’s body but, most important, behind this lies both craft and musical intelligence.
The conductor’s first test was the modern experimental piece, Symphony Golden Dragon, by the VSO’s Composer in Residence, Edward Top. This could not have been music that she had known for long. While there was a hint of uncertainty in ensemble on the very first note, de la Parra nonetheless combined strong rhythmic control with a sensitive response to the mystical aspects of the score to produce a pretty interesting experience. While the motives of the work are complicated and interwoven, the conductor always maintained transparency and direction.
Angela Cheng was the soloist in Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D-minor, K.466, and here both women worked together to produce a very satisfying outcome. Cheng is not the most commanding of pianists, but her precision and intelligence meshed beautifully with de la Parra’s attentive and tasteful accompaniment. There was a truly Mozartian feeling to the music making, the conductor always careful to match the strings with the piano, and to bring out the expression in the woodwinds. Nothing was hurried, everything was in scale; overall, a most thoughtful interpretation.
The conductor of course saved the big guns for last, and she literally threw herself physically and emotionally into Brahms’ Fourth Symphony. This can be so dangerous for a young conductor, since one cannot get through this work by drive and enthusiasm alone. Alondra de la Parra conquered all nonetheless. She used great intelligence in establishing a long lyrical pulse, always giving herself the room for expressive detail. The strings soared, the brass rang out, and the whole orchestra surged through the work as if possessed by a higher force. But there was quiet and space too; here the expressive woodwinds could tell their story. By the time we reached the final chords, the cumulative effect of such inspired conducting and orchestral playing was quite overwhelming. Part of this unique result was of course Alondra’s sheer love for this work and her ability to communicate its emotional reach to the orchestra. But the other part was more technical; she could seemingly see where all the problems were in execution and help the orchestra get through them. Her ability to use her hands to point, shape or sustain a string or woodwind phrase by carefully-placed ‘accents’ was just one dimension of her exceptional overall control and maturity.
I have but one suggestion: the VSO should establish a longer-term association with this most talented and charismatic young conductor.
© Geoffrey Newman 2012