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Alexandra Arrieche holds her hands in front of her as she directs an orchestra out of frame.
Henderson Symphony Orchestra

Henderson Symphony Orchestra’s Alexandra Arrieche talks about overcoming obstacles, conducting to Marvel movies, and embracing her audiences

Alexandra Arrieche has been the music director of the Henderson Symphony Orchestra since 2016, nearly half of her career as a professional conductor. She works with both classical and pop music, and brings a rock star sensibility to the art of conducting, engaging audiences with her infectious enthusiasm and informative banter. She marked the 25th anniversary since she first set foot on a podium by talking to Desert Companion about Night of the Proms, movie scores, the film Tar, and more. An edited excerpt follows. Hear the full conversation in the audio included here.

So, 25 years? You must have just been a teenager when you got started. How did that happen?
That happened when I was about 15, 16 years old, and I was a composer, actually. I started composing when I was very little. And when I moved to São Paolo, I went to music school, and was writing for my friends, because until then, I had private lessons only. So, when I went to music school, I found all the instruments, and I was writing for my friends. All of a sudden, I started writing for big groups. And they needed a conductor, and the only person who knew the music was me, so I stood up in front of my friends and conducted. So, that was the first time I ever conducted a group, was when I was a teenager with my friends.

How common was it at that time, in São Paulo, for a young woman to be a conductor? Was it more common than I’m thinking?
No, no, no, no, it was not common at all. In fact, it was a student opportunity that I had. And at that time, I think everybody thought that was just for fun, you know, because it was never seen as a possibility for a woman to become a professional conductor in any country, but especially in Brazil, because we don't have as many orchestras as there are here. And so, I always heard, if it's hard for a man, imagine for a woman. So, I always postponed that dream.

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When did it become a dream?
I always loved it. Since that first experience, I felt at home. I felt that that was my calling. I felt that that was what I was born to do. But I always put it aside, because I didn't think that was a possibility. And then one of my teachers, in Brazil, he said, “You know, you have a talent, you have a voice, and you should try.” And I talked to the other (teacher), to the composition one. And he said, “You know what, writing is always going to be there for you. But conducting is not. So, if you want to be a conductor, you have to start now.”

So, you must have been really passionate, to stick with it, despite those obstacles?
I think that when I started investing in that career, all the doors started opening, and I was very lucky to be in the right place, at the right time. And to be the right person for the position. And I grabbed all the opportunities I could, and I think that gave me a boost of confidence and made me believe it was kind of like life telling me that's what you should do. … Until then, I didn't even know music was going to be my profession, because I don't come from a family of professional musicians. So, in my family, it was always seen as a hobby. So, I never had the model of seeing someone becoming a professional musician. But I remember one of my friends made this comment like, “She is always talking about music.” And that was the comment that I think that changed everything, because I was like, You know what, that's true. And I realized that the moment I woke up, I was thinking about music. The moment I went to bed, I was thinking about music. I'm constantly thinking about music and projects and listening to it. So yeah, it's a passion. It's something that you cannot live without.

You're known for fusing different musical genres, such as pop and classical. When you're listening to music just for yourself, what do you listen to?
I'm a huge fan of Lady Gaga. I really am. I think that as an artist, as a performer, she is absolutely fantastic. And her voice is incredible. So, when I want to get my mind out of classical music, I will usually go for Lady Gaga, or Queen. I love Freddie Mercury. In fact, the first CD I ever bought was Queen — like I had Brahms and Queen!

At the Henderson Symphony Orchestra, you've made it a goal to base programming on the needs and tastes of the community. That seems to have translated into more accessible concerts, such as the recent Marvel-themed event (Black Panther movie concert, September 29). Is that an accurate way to describe your approach?
Yes … I think classical music was always accessible. You know, we were just packaging it in a very stiff way. Symphonic music is everywhere, and is totally based in classical music. If we go to the movie theaters, if you go to watch a Marvel movie or a DC (movie), or like Star Wars, it's symphonic music, but it’s set up where we observe it in a different way. That type of music is easily translated to the stage. We can easily play John Williams, Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer, without the image and the music will stand by itself. And the same thing with Beethoven, the same thing with Brahms, the same thing which Tchaikovsky — there is always a story behind it. … I always give the background, and that makes the audience look for the details. And it makes it more accessible, but also shows that good music is good music, regardless of if was written yesterday or 200 years ago.

What's the difference between conducting in Henderson and say Antwerp, another place where you are also a principal conductor of the Philharmonic Orchestra?
Well, they’re philharmonics, mostly, that do the Night of the Proms (concert series), which is the crossover show that I do in Europe. For me, I truly don't see the difference. Musically, if you're doing Beethoven or Tchaikovsky, I treat it the same as if we're going to do Toto, for instance. (Toto is going to be is our next headliner.) So for me, it's the same. When I get the scores, I study them the same way. But that said, there are technical differences of being a conductor in a show like that and being a conductor of the Henderson symphony, where we are in control of everything. … And there is a technicality of it not being an acoustic show. So, I think that's more technical than musical.

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How about the feeling of those two different situations? Is there one you prefer?
It is just a different emotional experience. And I have to say, what I've learned a lot with the Proms, and the reason why today I curate programs based on the audience and based on what people need to hear is because of my experience with the Proms, because it's a completely different approach that a pop artist has. … In the pop world, the artists are always making sure that the audience is having fun. So that's something that I learned. And that's something that I am bringing to every orchestra I conduct — I always make sure that the audience is having fun. They feed us with energy, and we feed them with energy, and it's like a mutual experience.

How do you do that, during the performance?
Just by talking to them … An element of multimedia really helps as well, but most of the time it’s just talking to them, not ignoring them. And if they want to clap, they clap. There's no reason why, you know, I mean …

It's not church.
Yes, and that's exactly what (music historian) Christopher Gibbs said in the (“Beethoven Was a Rockstar”) podcast. Instead of entertainment, it became a church of classical music.

What's your outlook for classical music in Henderson? Where do you see it going?
This community is so, so vibrant, and so accepting. Sometimes I would program something, and I would think people wouldn't like it, that it would be a little bit too advanced. And they always love it. I remember when I programmed Mothership by Mason Bates a couple of years ago — it’s a piece for orchestra and computer, so it's basically a DJ that's doing some beats and orchestra — and I thought, maybe that's going to be a push. Everybody loved it! Everybody did, you know? And so, I think I’ll just keep exploring, and the community will tell us what the future is, you know. But I just think that more collaborations and more multimedia, that has to do with the future as well.

Because the movie Tar was out last year, and it was so huge, I have to know your opinion of it.
Oh … well. I just think it’s sad that the first time that a woman is portrayed as a conductor, it has to be that way. There are many other aspects that I would rather not go into right now, but it's also sad because I adore Cate Blanchett. And I do think she did a fantastic job like conducting the orchestra. As a conductor, I believed she was a conductor. … So yes, we have to give that to her, because she did a very good job. The Julliard scene — she played the entire thing, like, she played the piano. So yeah, she's a fantastic actress. The movie itself and the whole plot, I think it was sad, and they should rethink lots of things (about it).

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So, a great performance, but an unfortunate first portrayal of a woman conductor.
That said, if you want to watch a movie about a real woman conductor, I highly recommend The Conductor. That's the documentary about my teacher, Marin Alsop. It tells the real story of Marin Alsop and what she had to deal with and still has to deal with in her career as a woman, like she was the first woman to conduct the Night of the Proms, for instance. And I'm honored to say that she's my teacher.

Desert Companion welcomed Heidi Kyser as staff writer in January 2014. In 2024, Heidi was promoted to managing editor, charged with overseeing the Desert Companion and State of Nevada newsrooms.