I have always felt like an outsider
I have always felt like an outsider
The world-renowned conductor Alondra de la Parra is now performing her own project in Berlin. A conversation about breathing exercises with Kurt Masur, silence and the compatibility of children and career.
By Martin Scholz
Actually, the interview should have taken place in Berlin, where the Mexican conductor Alondra de la Parra has been living in for five years. But because she had to go to Paris at short notice, the 42-year-old calls in via video link. During our conversation she apologizes twice because she has to answer calls from one of her sons who goes to elementary school. She does this with admirable matter-of-factness. In moments like these, you get at least a small impression of what it was like when she was a single mother of two small children the years before. De la Parra has meanwhile conducted more than 100 of the world’s most orchestras, was music director of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra in Brisbane, Australia. In her adopted home Berlin, she will present her own multi-media concert production at the Admiralspalast on September 13 “The Silence of Sound.” She created the piece together with the Mexican clown Gabriela Muñoz. Muñoz plays the silent protagonist of the piece, de la Parra directs and conducts the Filmorchester Babelsberg, which performs works by Debussy, Brahms and other classical composers.. It is the story of a character who comes out of total silence and is freed by music, she says.
WELT AM SONNTAG: The newspaper “Le Monde” raved about you, that thanks to Alondra de la Parra, classical music has arrived in the 21st century. You yourself have responded to this somewhat pointedly: The classical music industry has not even arrived in the 20th century, but is stuck in the 19th. Why is that and why is it so difficult to overcome this inertia?
Alondra de la Parra: Good question. We humans like to pigeonhole things. But these pigeonholes often don’t fit me. Let’s take the role of the conductor, the maestro. I like to talk about of a maestro syndrome.
What do you mean by that?
In the beginning, there is an artist who is trained on the piano or violin, then learned violin, then learned orchestration, and dreams of one day conducting an orchestra, to communicate with it. That is the essence of a conductor. But then you put him in a into a conductor’s drawer, constricting him with outdated ideas that he has to wear a suit, overloaded with expectations. You can play the violin as a man or a woman and wear clothes that can be over the top or just plain. For conductors this does not apply. The maestro must always represent the boss for many. Conductors are always expected to be a kind of super- human, to have no to have no private life, to have perfect everything perfectly. That has never worked for me.
What do you want to represent as a conductor?
I see myself as an artist who conducts, who communicates with her orchestra, exchanges ideas with it. That is a difference. The perception of conductors is just one example of how the classical music business is stuck in its pigeonholing. This is to the fact that classical music has been kidnapped by the elite. That elite said: Classical music belongs to us, only to those people with a profound understanding of this music and the patrons. This devalues and leaves out a lot of people. I think that’s bad. Many want to leave everything in the classical music business as it was. And every voice questioning this status quo is dismissed as an outsider’s opinion.
In Berlin, you are now presenting your own project you’ve been working on for years: your concert production “The Silence of Sound”. The focus is on a mute clown who, with the help of music by music of Brahms, Prokofiev and Debussy, discovers her creative potential with the help of the music of Brahms, Prokofiev and Debussy. What attracted you to this speechless protagonist?
The clown is mute, she can’t produce any sounds. That’s what we do – the orchestra and I. That also has another, fundamental level. Because when an audience member hears music, he takes it in, as it were, from a state of inner silence. One needs silence in order to absorb sound. Silence is a space in which you begin to imagine something, to create your own stories, associations – based on your own your own experiences and inspired by the music you are listening to. Therein lies the magic of music – it’s like an open book.
The Babelsberg Film Orchestra, with which you are performing “The Silence of Sound”, is known for its performances beyond the traditional classical concert framework. Recently played at the Waldbühne in Berlin with The Who.
Really? How cool. I had not yet worked with this orchestra, but I know that their musicians are very open-minded and that they can switch from one style to. Whereas the music of our piece is composed exclusively of symphonic works by Brahms, Debussy Debussy or Sibelius, so there is no cross-over to other musical genres. But there is in the production, which, in addition to the orchestral performance, is also influenced by other arts. We take elements from different genres and create, so to speak, a new language – the “Silence of Sound”. The storyteller is the music alone, there are no words and no singing. I also have many experiences from my life in it, alienated and exaggerated in the role of this clown. The conductor that I am in this piece is capable of expressing what I have felt inside myself all these years, but had to suppress. She and her orchestra give the silent clown a sound. The clown and the conductor are both outsiders. I have always felt like an outsider.
In 2019, a documentary film was released about you, “La Maestra,” which portrayed you as a young student during a workshop with your mentor Kurt Masur. At one point he asks you: “Do you have the feeling that you are not manly enough when you conduct?” To which you answer, as quick as a flash “no.” When you look at the scene today, are you surprised at the self-confidence that you spontaneously expressed?
That moment is still very moving. Maestro Masur was great, we liked each other very much. He always showed me his best side to me. From the beginning, I never tried to conduct like a man. Not for one day. So I found it interesting that he asked about it. Although I had hoped he didn’t think he had to ask about it now. But with his background he couldn’t help it.
Because in his day there were hardly any female conductors.
Yes, I understood the background of his question. You see, Masur was also put into this cliché drawer of the overpowering maestro. That did not correspond to my experience with him. However, I must admit that on the first day of my masterclass with him I was I was only 22. You could actually only apply from 24. I still had a VHS video cassette with my application. I thought to myself: I won’t be accepted anyway. When I was accepted to my great surprise, other students warned me that Masur was known for being super mean and humiliating his students. And when I was there, he helped me in a very loving way.
In another scene, he helps you to breathe properly while conducting and offers you, in front of the orchestra: “Let’s breathe together.”
Yes, a wonderful moment. Kurt Masur had always kept his inner child, the vulnerability of an artist. preserved. And he was not afraid to show this side as well. That was the why he was so great. At other great conductors like Abbado or Rattle, their feminine, vulnerable side was just as visible as their masculine, controlling side. When I am asked about the role of women in the conducting profession, how they see themselves, I always say: “When I conduct, I am a woman, a man, a cloud, a fighter, a knife, a tree, or a butterfly – I have to be everything.” Every person has feminine and masculine sides in themselves – as does Masur. When I visualize the scene, in which he tries to teach me how to breathe properly, I have to remember that he was also laughing. But he wasn’t laughing at me, he was laughing in an empathetic, friendly way, building me up that way. When I met him at the end of my training with him, after three master classes, I asked him in his dressing room if he had any advice for my future career, he simply said, “Be strong.” I still hear these two words of his in in my head today. Whenever I am confronted with prejudice and resistance. It is a tough, demanding job.
I recently spoke with Cate Blanchett about her film “Tár,” in which she plays a fictional principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. She told me that during the preparations she talked with several female conductors including you.
Yes, the Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron had introduced us to each other. Cate Blanchett’s performance in the film is wonderful, she did a great job and worked very hard for it.
Blanchett told us that after she learned about the conducting profession, her impression was that a woman conductor had to spend 70 percent of her energy on eliminating preconceptions and prejudices before she could develop her musical abilities. Is she right?
I agree with her in that respect. Unfortunately. Which you can also see by the fact that in my career so far, I have given perhaps two interviews in which I have not been asked about the professional position of women in the Classical music business. Just think about how many interviews you conducted with my male colleagues, in which it is never about what it is like for them to conduct as a man.
Touché. You’re right about that. It is nevertheless a topic that is obviously important to you, which you address several times in the documentary. You were 13 years old when you wanted to become a conductor. Your statement “Conductors are usually German, very old men and have white hair” was often quoted. According to a study, in 2013 of the top 100 orchestras, only one of the top 100 orchestras was led by a woman; by 2020 there were already eight. Is the pace of change in your industry sufficient?
When I started conducting 20 years ago, it was a completely different world. We’re on a good path, but we’re not there yet. I sometimes think to myself that I will probably live to see the change towards more equality, but not as a working conductor anymore. I am 42, when I will be 65, it will hopefully be more normal to see more women conduct – and that they are supported in their job when they have children.
You are a single mother of two children. What was that like for you?
It wasn’t easy for many years. When I was pregnant and later had children, I had to cancel concerts. As a result, I didn’t get many offers after that. In such cases you could say: “Okay, you are pregnant. No problem, we’ll cancel your concerts, but we’ll agree that you can make them up in two years. We guarantee that.” There must be an understanding that female conductors also need an environment that supports them when they become pregnant. And not this “God forbid!” attitude. I don’t want to have to decide between by career as a conductor and being a mother, after so many of work and effort invested in it. Things are changing gradually, which for the time being makes me very happy. In the meantime, there are colleagues like Joana Mallwitz, who aalso has a child…
The chief conductor and artistic Director of the Konzerthausorchester Berlin.
Yes, or Karina Canellakis, the chief conductor of the Radio Filharmonisch Orkest” in the Netherlands, also has a child. Fortunately there are colleagues who work with children. Simone Young, principal conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, was the first to combine a child and a career together. Then nothing more came for a long time. In my generation, for a long time I was the only conductor who was also a mother. I had to go through hell at times. I hope that it will be easier for my colleagues and successors, that the industry will support them more.