Think “classical music conductor,” and the image of a young, beautiful, hip female doesn’t typically spring to mind. But that aptly describes Alondra de la Parra, the 27-year-old founder of the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas. She is a rare commodity in the world of classical conductors simply by virtue of her sex. And she’s a conductor Vermonters will be able to see in action this week at the Festival of the Americas in Stowe.
De la Parra is something of a prodigy. She grew up playing the piano in Mexico and graduated from the Manhattan School of Music in New York City. She studied conducting there, and has since garnered recognition from opera luminaries such as tenor Placido Domingo and media including the New York Times. De la Parra’s list of conducting debuts is impressive: the Washington National Opera, the Russian National Orchestra, the New York Pops Orchestra, Mexico’s Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional and the Houston Symphony Orchestra. She is purported to be the first woman from Mexico to conduct in New York City and was recently tapped as a cultural ambassador for Mexican tourism.
De la Parra was only 23 in 2004, when she founded the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas in New York City to promote the work of young soloists and composers with Latin American and Mexican roots.
With a core group from the Manhattan School of Music, the orchestra gradually began to encompass friends of friends who wanted opportunities to perform. It’s grown to include 55 classical musicians, nearly all of them in their twenties and early thirties. In 2008, the philharmonic performed a tribute to Gloria Estefan at the Latin Grammy awards. Recently the group toured Mexico twice, and played a gala concert at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall.
This week de la Parra brings her orchestra to the music festival founded eight years ago by her father, Mannelick de la Parra, who lives part-time in Stowe. The three-day event typically draws audiences of 350 to 500 people to Stowe High School. This year, the concerts will be performed at the Topnotch Resort & Spa on the Mountain Road instead — the tennis courts will serve as the concert “hall.”
The philharmonic’s program includes a number of popular classical music selections. The first night features chamber music — selections from Schubert, Schumann, Gershwin and Ravel. Friday night, two of Domingo’s protégés, tenor Jose Ortega and soprano Jennifer Lynn Waters, perform opera classics with the orchestra, including arias and duets from Carmen, La Bohème and Die Fledermaus. Ortega and Waters are sponsored by the Domingo- Cafritz Young Artist Program of the Washington National Opera, currently under Domingo’s direction.
The festival’s grand finale offers selections from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in E Minor.
Though this lineup could have been drawn from a music appreciation class syllabus, the trip down classical music’s memory lane is likely to be a lively one with the energetic de la Parra and her band of young musicians on stage.
De la Parra is a bit unconventional in her stage manners, at least by classical conducting standards. She likes to talk to the audience before concerts, telling stories about composers and performances, according to Biddle Duke, publisher of the Stowe Reporter and a board member of the Music Festival of the Americas.
“She’s quietly and deliberately chipping away at classical conventions,” Duke says. “She’s trying to drop the formality and strictures of classical concerts. I’ve never seen a conductor get up in front of an audience and chat.”