Young Mexican conductor makes terrific Chicago debut with Sinfonietta

Tue Mar 30, 2010 at 1:34 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Alondra de la Parra conducted the Chicago Sinfonietta in her local debut Monday night. Photo: Courtney Perry.

The Chicago Sinfonietta’s season isn’t over and nothing has yet been decided in this interim period with guest conductors auditioning for the chance to succeed the ensemble’s outgoing founder, Paul Freeman.

Still, based on the blazing performances led by Alondra de la Parra in her Chicago podium debut Monday night, it would seem the charismatic young batonsmith has an immediate leg up on the competition to become the chamber orchestra’s new music director.

The 29-year-old Mexican conductor has had ample—at times, over the top—advance publicity wherever she has appeared, but, as she showed Monday night at Symphony Center, de la Parra is the real thing.

Wearing a stylish tuxedoed suit with white flared cuffs, her hair in a ponytail, de la Parra showed impressive command and maturity for a conductor so young. While the orchestra’s playing across all sections wasn’t consistently polished Monday—the Sinfonietta horns veered from adequate to disastrous all night—the performances had notable rhythmic snap, lyric warmth and a crackling electricity, with the musicians’ smiling faces showing that they were clearly enjoying themselves.

As shown in her stage comments, de la Parra is a marketing director’s dream, an engaging and communicative speaker, her easy bilingual style a fine fit for this diversity-conscious ensemble and a city with a significant Spanish-speaking population. And of course, the fact that de la Parra is also a very attractive woman doesn’t hurt.

The conductor’s podium skills were evident in the opening bars of Piazzolla’s Tangazo, which led off this dance-inspired program. She elicited rich, concentrated playing in the slow Chaconne-like introduction, drawing an almost Wagnerian expressive weight from the lower strings. De la Parra managed the segue into the fizzing uptempo section with great skill, getting high-kicking contributions from the musicians, a heinous horn solo apart. She also ensured that the Argentinian composer’s colorful offbeat effects emerged with full impact, like the percussive raps on string instruments and concertmaster Paul Zafer’s “sandpaper” scrapes. (“He’s been practicing that all week,” the conductor proudly told the audience.)

20-year-old cellist Tony Rymer performed music of Marquez Monday with the Chicago Sinfonietta. Photo: Glenn Triest.

Monday night also saw another outstanding debut with cellist Tony Rymer as soloist in Arturo Marquez’s Expejos en la Arena (Mirrors in the Sand). Just 20 years old, the Boston native was a senior division winner last year in the Sphinx Competition, which fosters classical performing opportunities for minority musicians.

Marquez’s work—a cello concerto in all but name—may not be a masterpiece, rarely going deeper than its populist danzon inspiration. But the Mexican composer’s concerto is an extraordinarily effective showpiece and the young soloist threw himself into this music with the gleaming technique and outsized musical personality of a star soloist.

Rymer tackled the call-and-response son style of the opening movement with enormous rhythmic verve and unbridled fervor, de la Parra drawing equally responsive playing from the orchestra. In the more introspective second movement, the soloist spun a soft, finely nuanced solo line, displaying fearless virtuosity in the more dynamic ensuing section. The cellist attacked the dance-like solo cadenza with daunting intensity and eloquence. The syncopated finale—based on a Conjunto-like Polka from northern Mexico—may be musically slender yet proved undeniably thrilling, with de la Parra and the Sinfonietta providing equally full-tilt support to their gifted young soloist.

If anything, de la Parra was even more impressive after intermission in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, leading a fresh, youthful performance that was individual without ever turning idiosyncratic. The conductor drew imposing weight in the introduction and a highly energized Allegro, some wayward flute intonation and more hapless horns apart.

De la Parra took a bracingly fleet tempo in the Scherzo while keeping things on track and the finale was as fast and rousing as one could wish. Yet the performance was most impressive in the Allegretto, where de la Parra elicited notably expressive, subtly shaded playing from the Sinfonietta strings.

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