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Mexico’s Sizzling, Sensual Soul

Alondra de la Parra: Mi Alma Mexicana

July 20, 2010

Mi Alma Mexicana abounds in revelations. That its all-Mexican classic repertoire, which ranges from sedate, 120-year-old, European-influenced salon music to uncommonly savage modern fare, arrives with such wide-eyed freshness and power owes as much to the abundant gifts of 29-year-old conductor Alondra de la Parra as to the artistry of the young members of her 6-year-old Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas (POA).

De la Parra, who holds the distinction of being the first female conductor from Mexico to conduct in New York City, chose the 13 works on the program after spending two years researching Mexican music of the last two centuries. Much of what she uncovered is as new to our ears as it was to hers. The two-CD set, released worldwide by Sony on August 3, commemorates the bicentennial of Mexican independence.

“Of the 13 pieces,” she explained in a recent phone interview, “there are four best-sellers that everyone knows. These include Moncayo’s Huapango, Márquez’ Danzón 2, the Rosas, and Revueltas’ Sensemayá. The rest is quite new to everyone except the scholars who manage the archives. Even connoisseurs and professional musicians may not be aware of half the CD. I didn’t know the pieces existed, and I’m a Mexican conductor!”

Listen to the Music

Sobre las olas (excerpt)

Huapango (excerpt)

Let’s start with the arrangement of Juventino Rosas’ Sobre las olas (1884). Who woulda thunk that this carousel-type waltz, which I always knew as the song When You Are in Love, It’s the Loveliest Time of the Year, was Mexican? Although it sounds as Mexican as My Yiddische Mama, it’s no more confounding than Gustavo E. Campa’s Mélodie pour violin et orchestre, Op. 1 (1890), which wins the prize for European-sounding sentimental fare suited for gaslit salons. The contrast with José Pablo Moncayo’s Huapango (1941), which abounds in quintessentially Mexican verve and color, could not be greater.

Recounting all the pieces on the CD will rob you of the joy of discovery. One of the gems, from 2006, is jazz-influenced, while others serve as reminders that Stravinsky once walked the earth. But it’s doubtful that he ever attended a Mexican soccer match, or knew all the authentic cheers that are ingeniously worked into Enrico Chapela’s fabulous ínguesu. You may not know them, either, but the percussion and effects will nonetheless slam into your gut with savage intensity.

Reviewing from a prerelease pressing, which lacks some of the air and color I hope to find on the final release, I am nonetheless swept away by the breadth and richness of this music. Suppressing a wry smile as I am seduced by Campa’s sensual charm, all the while knowing that it paves the way for Revueltas’ near-phantasmagoric ritualistic passion, I urge you to buy the recording and hear for yourself. Even before it’s available, hasten to Dolores Park in San Francisco early on July 25, when de la Parra and the San Francisco Symphony play three of the works at the start of their free 2 p.m. Mexican bicentennial tribute concert.

Jason Victor Serinus is a music critic, professional whistler, and lecturer on classical vocal recordings. His credits includes Seattle Times, Listen, Opera News, Opera Now, American Record Guide, Stereophile, Classical Voice North America, Carnegie Hall Playbill, Gramophone, San Francisco Magazine, Stanford Live, Bay Area Reporter, San Francisco Examiner, AudioStream, and California Magazine.


De la Parra is definitely one of México's many treasures.
Wonderful to have her here in the U.S.

It's a shame that SFCV had no reviewer for her three concerts at Davies last Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Too often these summer concerts are dismissed as Pops and ignored by the critical observers. A brilliant playing of the difficult Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto #3 by Joyce Yang last Friday, conducted by Ms. De La Parra, was totally ignored by the reviewers and missed by the general public. De La Parra's conducting of the American works last Saturday demonstrated her talents, which were acknowledged by orchestra members in her final bows each evening. Let's hope we can hear more of the work of this fine musician soon.

I was in attendance at the Friday concert which featured Glinka, Rachmaninov Piano Concerto
#3, and Mussorgsky-Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition.

Joyce Yang was impressive with the Rach 3 (what we could hear of her piano in the rear
orchestra...Davies isn't kind to that instrument in balance with the orchestra). The high
point of the concert ended up being her encore of the Schubert-Liszt "My Joys" which was
gorgeously played.

The to-do about Alondra De la Parra mystifies me. Pictures at an Exhibition was just plain
dull...the poorest performance I've ever experienced. Tempi were slow, often to the point
of stopping forward momentum. Phrasing, particularly in the brass, was "smoothed over"
to extremes. Articulation, and Pictures calls for lots of it, was non-existent! It seemed
that the life was sucked out of the piece just to do something "new".

The SFS managed to sound like a very good second-tier orchestra, but minus vitality.

De La Parra knew the score, beat every beat, swooped with her left arm a lot and gave
the impression of a very talented conducting student who didn't know what to do with
one of the finest orchestras in the land.

Of course, the audience gave the requisite standing ovation. Any musician in this era
knows how little that really means these days...especially at these types of events.

Ms. De La Parra's cd was playing at intermission. It sounded good. Maybe she needs
a few more years among the regional and pick-up orchestras to truly find out what a
first-tier orchestra is all about.

This concert was a disappointment.

It was appalling to begin with that an outfit like the SFSO which has such an overabundance of administrative functionaries mismanaged the "will call" windows so badly that even at 8:15, they were still processing a line of paid-up patrons who were still snaking out the building. This for a program that they made no effort to delay by way of compensating for their administrative oversight and dysfunction. I for one dropped nearly $400 on six tickets and missed the Glinka entirely, hearing only part of Rach 3. I was, and I remain seriously pissed off. If there is any consolation, it would be only that the concert was largely forgettable except for the stunning Joyce Yang who prevailed in spite of La Parra's useless stick waiving and purposeless left hand waffling which served only to hinder an excellent orchestra that sounds exhausted and ready to take a holiday. The band tried their best not to reveal their disdain for this overrated unfortunate conductor who is way out of her depth. Their compensatory efforts to support the extraordinary soloist, Ms. Yang were gallant, but hardly adequate.

The 2nd half's Mussoursky/Ravel was shameful. This orchestra could have done "Pictures" better conductor-less without the distraction of this poor student's distracting accompaniment. As it was, they were caught in the middle, overworked, distracted and as I said, clearly tired.

The economics that might explain how to justify bringing in such a top drawer soloist but a young, inexperienced would-be conductor who had no clue how the piece goes, to prepare Rachmaninoff 3rd on only one 45 minutes rehearsal are impossible to justify. I promise that l will NEVER patronize this sad excuse for a professional outfit again. I was ripped off!
This unforgivable concert was a more than a disappointment - it was a travesty.

Perhaps Spreading and Anonymous were part of the audience that charged out of the hall as soon as the last notes were played by the orchestra. The vast majority stayed and loudly applauded La Parra and the orchestra. Perhaps many of that majority are as learned in evaluating musical abilities as these two critics. The fact that orchestra members gave her a solid hand when she came out for the last "curtain calls" each evening indicated their view of her talents. I value their opinion, assuming they know something about quality conducting. I would welcome her return in the regular season in future years.

1. I do not charge out at the end of concerts...I DO know what happened at this one.
2. I am a professional musician. I know a lot about conducting...I do it.
3. I don't expect the whole audience to be as knowledgable as I am.
4. I don't look down on them because of that.
5. I attend many, many concerts yearly. I have expectations and standards.
For a "world class" organization like the SFS, I will not consider the quality heard
in the Friday night concert as acceptable.
6. Anonymous and I did not review the other concerts, so they don't count here.
7. You are totally uncritical of everything, even Anonymous' missing a part of the
concert due to a box office problem. Why was this event so wonderful for you?
8. SFS concerts are not American Idol. I do not make up my mind about the music
and performance by the way the audience reacts at the end. I am actively
involved as the performance evolves. It is my right to disagree with the usual
standing ovation after every soloist and at the end of the concert. And I will tell
you why. I did so in my review. I am an individual with informed ideas of my
own...not the audience's, nor the newspaper critics, nor yours. By-the-way, the
orchestra was courteous (2nd or 3rd curtain call at end) but hardly enthusiastic
in that ovation...some of us know the difference as we watch them.
9. Ms. De La Parra came with much hype. I expected some excitement. I expected
something dynamic. I expected the SFS to play with, at least, enthusiasm. The
mis-interpretation of Pictures at an Exhibition into a dull stroll through some third-
rate gallery at the Wharf was absolutely unacceptable for such a fine ensemble.
10. All of your arguments won't change my mind. All of mine won't change yours.