2017 is a landmark year for the Queensland Symphony Orchestra in many ways. It’s their 7oth birthday and the official commencement of Alondra de la Parra’s appointment as the new Musical Director. De la Parra is a wunderkind of international acclaim. She began conducting at 13 and at 23 she founded the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas and is already breathing new life into the orchestra at QSO. Further, it is a coup that Maxim Vengerov, known as one of the greatest living violinists, is QSO’s 2017 artist in residence.
I was lucky enough to attend an In Conversation event between de la Parra and Vengerov. It’s clear they both admire each other very much, although it emerges that Vengerov has not yet seen de la Parra conduct. De la Parra begins the conversation by delving into Vengerov’s background and the drive behind his incredible musical career. For 17 years Vengerov was a student of Rostropovich- who himself learnt from greats like Britten, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev. “Next to him, I felt very humble, but he made me feel comfortable”, says Vengerov. While Vengerov is renowned as a performer, he in fact took up an instrument in order to become a conductor. He explains it was just expected- “I had to start playing an instrument. The great Russian tradition of conducting is based on playing an instrument first.” Vengerov chose the violin because “no one can see the woodwind section.” Rostropovich told him it was inevitable he would become a conductor, but his first inspiration for this was his mother who taught piano and conducted a choir at an orphanage. “She wanted me to become symphony conductor from the start”, he says. His father was also a musician, a woodwind player, and as Vengerov puts it, “I grew up watching the Maestro from the front row…I grew up in music…I played my first concert when I was 5.”
And so Vengerov began conducting at the age of 26 not, as de la Parra points out, with a community orchestra or high school orchestra as you might expect, but with the English Chamber Orchestra “Because you’re maxim Vengerov”, de la Parra teases. “I’m starting to hate you”, she laughs. Vengerov says this first experience of conducting was odd- “To stand with no violin, to take the baton, you feel naked.” He then decided to study conducting “very profoundly”. He is now finishing a 2-year diploma in conducting at the Mozart Institute and will conduct his final concert of the degree later this year. De la Parra says how much respect she has for him and how remarkable it is he showed such humility by going back to school, when many such acclaimed performers step into conducting without truly learning the art. He shrugs off the suggestion that it’s remarkable. “We were raised with responsibility”, he explains. “If you did something, you did it well.”
De la Parra then asks Vengerov what qualities do you need from a conductor? He takes a contemplative pause:
When I didn’t conduct, I had a different perspective of what a good conductor is. If I felt good on stage, comfortable, that was a good conductor… Good conducting is not just about the good technical expression, it’s about how we communicate. So imagine you play with the most extraordinary conductor, but you don’t feel great. The energy is not there, the telepathic connection is not there… The conductor’s energy has to be greater than any musician playing in the orchestra.
He goes on to further explain:
You cannot make 30, 40, violins breathe together with you, with the score. They may be physically with you, but not together emotionally… There cannot be colour, mélange of colours with all the instruments… As a conductor, you first study how to conduct, and then you start studying how not to conduct.
De la Parra casually suggests she may have a conducting gig for him and then moves on to ask if he ever compose. “Forget about it for the next ten years. At least!”, he laughs, “It’s the long term dream.” “Will you also be going to school for that?” de la Parra asks. “Of course. It’s another world… I look to my wonderful predecessors, they were all composers… it was normal.”
When the floor is opened to take questions from the audience, I take advantage to ask Vengerov about his experiences as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF. He was appointed in his 20’s, after he had given a number of concerts to fundraise for the organisation. When they offered the position, Vengerov asked if he would be able to visit children “in the field”, as he puts it. “They umm and ahhed” and said it would be difficult, so he made it a condition of his contract.
One of the first places he traveled was to Bosnia Herzegovina, and Uganda and was overwhelmed by some of the things he saw and people he encountered. He recounts meeting child soldiers in Rwanda who had missing limbs and countless other injuries, and didn’t know what to do, so he picked up his violin and began playing. One boy there had a homemade instrument (a couple of strings on a stick) so they played and improvised together, and danced. “Music can create miracles”, Vengerov muses. It’s wonderful to see someone using their talent and position for so much good, and from the emotion in his voice as he speaks, these experiences have clearly had a profound effect on him as well as those he has helped.
The next audience member asked what music Vengerov listens to other than classical. He unexpectedly responds, “I spend a lot of time with my family, so I listen to cartoons like Peppa the Pig… I also spent breakfast with Peppa Pig!” laughs de la Parra. This moment encapsulates what came across through their conversation- de la Parra and Vengerov are two ordinary (in the sense of being very accessible and relatable), extraordinary people with incredible lives. They inspire us mortals to go home and live more fully. At one point Vengerov says “For me the symphony or any musical composition- it’s about creating illusion.” If this is so and if it extends to other areas of music and life, both he and de la Parra create beautiful illusions.