Now twenty-nine years of age, New York City-based Mexican maestra Alondra de la Parra founded the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas in 2004 while a student at the Manhattan School of Music. Three years later, the orchestra inaugurated Niños, its New York City public-school arts-in-education pilot program that teaches eight- and nine-year-olds the basics of music composition. In September the orchestra’s Mexican tour culminated in a bicentennial celebration in Mexico City, where the musicians performed popular works as well as selections from its double CD, Mi Alma Mexicana (Sony), a collection of orchestral works by Mexican composers from the past two hundred years that has reached No. 2 on the Mexican popular charts.
Tell me about the Mexican bicentennial celebration.
When you see forty thousand people at such a popular event from every socioeconomic level — all sorts of people from different backgrounds, all sharing this moment together — it’s amazing! It’s classical music in Mexico, where classical music has never been the popular thing — it’s not Germany, you know. This was the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas’ final concert of its nine-city tour, held on the official day of Mexico’s bicentennial. There was a three-hour-long parade, which I was watching from my hotel window right above. It was great to see the entire history of Mexico parading before me. We played right after the parade — tremendous exposure — and I was so nervous. I never get nervous before concerts, but there I had to drink two shots of tequila before I went onstage.
The concert was a mix of classical and traditional?
We played thirty minutes from our CD as well as songs with pop and rock singers who are very popular in Mexico, maybe ten different Mexican songs from different popular styles, boleros, et cetera, songs every Mexican knows. We worked on arrangements and harmonies with the singers. I wanted to establish that it’s all good music and that we could go from one style to the other with no problem.
Listeners may be surprised to hear that Mi Alma Mexicana is an album of classical music by Mexican composers that sounds like classical music, that not everything Mexican and instrumental is “Cielito Lindo.” We hear a lot of European influences. . . . Can we call this Latin music? Can we call it Latin classical music? Is it too broad for a label?
I think it’s too broad for a label, and that’s exactly the point. You see this [indicating the crowded-with-images CD cover art]? And this used to be much more filled with stuff.
They made you take some of it off.
They didn’t let me. . . . You see the soccer ball, the serpent, The Angel of Independence, the piano, the piñata, and there’s much more that didn’t make it in that I wanted to include because Mexico is really a melting pot of many cultures and traditions: indigenous, huge cultures that had their own everything — astrology, religion, traditions, food, dances, music. But not just one — there are hundreds of indigenous tribes and communities in Mexico! Then you have the Spanish that came, so there is this European influence. And then centuries of developing as a culture, as a force, as a third-world mixed with a first-world country — food, dances, intellectual streams. So for us to be defined by a postcard or by what you see on the news, it’s absurd.
And that’s what fascinates me about my country, that it’s so filled with stuff and things and ideas. So when I see that Mexican classical music is represented by two or three pieces, I think the world is missing out. And so are we as Mexicans for not sharing it and listening to it and enjoying it. This is the point of Mi Alma Mexicana: let’s dive into the outpour of music from my country in the last two hundred years. You can’t box it in: there’s jazz, pieces based on soccer matches, folk, contemporary music. We are an extroverted culture — smiles and laughter and charisma — but we are also introverted, and there are some introverted pieces about searching in our consciousness, in that space where dreams occur. That’s what I wanted. When I feel Mexican that’s what I feel: a combination of things that’s hard to define.
Programmatically, I wanted to make sure there were no pieces resembling the others, with as wide a range as possible, and to keep everyone’s interest. When I program a concert, I want everyone to leave loving one piece and hating one piece, because then I know that everyone was challenged and pleased.
How do we bridge the gap between standard repertoire and projects like this?