Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Summer, the Symphony and the Maestro

Critics who say that classical music is suffering a decline in interest ~ that it can look predictable to the outside world ~ never met conductor Alondra de la Parra.  This charming, 29-year-old Mexican conductor is gaining widespread attention for her vibrant performances, and she is fast becoming one of the most compelling conductors of her generation.

Maestro Alondra de la Parra
If San Francisco Symphony music director Michael Tilson Thomas ever decides to hang up his baton, I would love to see Maestro de la Parra return to the City on a permanent basis. San Franciscans appreciate conductors who love pushing the boundaries of classical music and, like MTT, the charismatic de la Parra knows how to connect with classical music lovers of all ages.

I had never heard of Maestro de la Parra, or seen her conduct, until last Saturday, when she led the San Francisco Symphony in what was billed as "a cool evening of hot American classics" by American composers such as Adams, Copland, Ives and Gershwin.  Now, I can't wait for the Symphony to invite her back to the podium.

On Saturday evening, fashionably hip in casual black attire, Maestro de la Parra spoke passionately from the podium throughout the concert as she introduced each piece.  She seemed to be just a little awestruck in welcoming Sex and the City co-star Chris Noth ("Mr. Big"), who was special guest narrator of the evening's featured piece, Copland's "Lincoln Portrait," as was her audience to see him come on stage and orate the somber, 13-minute work for speaker and orchestra. But who wouldn't be awestruck? Noth handled the dramatic reading with a simplicity that expressed Lincoln's sense of patriotism and humanity.

Summer & the Symphony
at Davies Symphony Hall
While it may have been Noth's box office appeal that helped fill the hall for the Grand Finale of the 2010 Summer & the Symphony series, it was Maestro de la Parra's elan and passion for her craft that sparkled throughout the nearly-sold out Davies Symphony Hall.

Immediately, from the concert's first piece, "Short Ride in a Fast Machine" by the American composer John Adams, Maestro de la Parra immediately took command of this joyfully exuberant piece and exuded a steady sense of motion ~ displaying an extra bounce in her step and playful emphasis in each flick of her baton.  Her spellbinding charm and delightful smile could be felt and appreciated not only from the front row of the main floor, but also all the way up to the second tier balcony.

"Seventy-six Trombones" and a
few balloons, too
Maestro de la Parra's incisive gestures throughout the program, such as the percussive snapping of her fingers during the Danza de Jalisco movement of Copland's "Three Latin-American Sketches," and the orchestra's responsiveness to her nuances, added up to a very enjoyable evening of classical music. The program, which included Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," culminated in a delightful performance of Meredith Willson's "Seventy-Six Trombones" from The Music Man.  The piece included guest performers from the University of California Marching Band, who marched down the aisles of the main floor.  Also, it featured a free fall drop of red, white and blue balloons from the rafters that added to the celebratory mood of the evening's performance.

One critic previously described Maestro de la Parra as being "all music, from top to bottom and from inside out."  After the performance, my wife and I decided to find out for ourselves, and we had a chance to meet the maestro in person while she enthusiastically signed advance copies of her new CD "Mi Alma Mexicana" ("My Mexican Soul"), posed for photos, and talked about her passion for music with concertgoers.

"I strongly believe that Mexican orchestral music deserves a place in every orchestra's core repertoire," Maestro de la Parra writes in the album's liner notes. "This release truly represents what Mexican culture is; not only the well-known picture of folklore, cuisine, colors and breathtaking landscapes that amaze visitors, but the modern Mexico, eclectic and baroque in every sense of the word: a rich spectrum of possibilities and exquisite taste."

Maestro de la Parra, who began playing the piano at age seven and the cello at 13, decided early that she wanted to be a conductor.  She studied music in both England and Mexico and, at age 19, moved to New York City and studied piano and conducting at the Manhattan School of Music, earning a B.A. in piano performance and an M.M. in conducting.

Signing copies of
"Mi Alma Mexicana"
after the concert
and greeting fans
As the founder and artistic director of the New York-based Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas, which promotes the work of young soloists and composers from the American continent, Maestro de la Parra has a busy summer ahead promoting the POA's new release, "Mi Alma Mexicana" for Sony Classical (which will be released nationally on Aug. 3). She is also cultural ambassador for Mexican Tourism, and since 2005 she has been the musical director for the Music Festival of the Americas in Stowe, Vermont.

In addition to conducting the San Francisco Symphony, Maestro de la Parra has conducted the orchestras of Dallas, Houston, Phoenix and San Antonio as well as Miami's New World Symphony, Brazil's Sao Paulo Symphony and Uruguay's Montevideo Philharmonic.  Next week, she travels to Germany to conduct in the Moritzburg Festival in Dresden, Germany before returning to Stowe for the remainder of the month.  She and the POA will tour Mexico in September.

However, on this summer evening, I discovered why classical music still matters, and how the right combination of imagination, creativity and discipline add up to one amazing conductor, Alondra de la Parra.

Gracias, maestro.

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