Riverdale’s ‘maestro’ to lead Big Apple concert

Venezuelan conductor will lead the New York Philharmonic downtown


Alejandro Hernandez-Valdez was only a teenager in Mexico when he wanted to give up his career as a pianist.

However, what he would believe to be his last performance changed his life. Now he will lead a chamber choir in an upcoming one-night-only concert on the Upper East Side.

As artistic director and conductor of Musica Viva NY since 2015, he continues its 2022-23 concert series, “The Sorrow and the Beauty,” on March 12 in All Souls Church.

Musica Viva NY, an organization established more than 40 years ago, includes 30 musicians and skilled volunteers. Sometimes it consists of a chorus, orchestra, or chamber groups that mostly perform on the Upper East Side.

“There will be a number of composers — all leading composers,” Hernandez-Valdez  said.

Musica Viva NY presents six meditative works of today’s top contemporary composers: Arvo Pärt — most often performed contemporary composer— David Lang, Caleb Burhans, Caroline Shaw — who just won a Grammy — and Eric Whiteacre.

“Normally, we have a moderator discussing the pieces in the program and people are free to ask questions,” he said.

If there are living composers, they will step on the stage and explain the music pieces they will play, which Hernandez-Valdez says it is very interesting and enjoyable.

Riverdale “maestro’s” guest conducting appearances were in Washington, D.C’s Kennedy Center and New York’s Lincoln Center. Internationally, he conducted in the Degollado Theatre in Guadalajara, Mexico, where he led the Jalisco Philharmonic.

Their mission is to bring music to a widening community through its concerts, outreach programs and an ambitious vision.

Because of economic inequalities, “All orchestras, all choirs tend to have similar makeup —especially orchestras. And it has to do with the fact that music is not inexpensive,” he said.

A violin can cost $4 million and pianos can cost $200,000 or more. Music lessons — the most modest teacher will charge $85 in New York City, the musician told The Riverdale Press.

Social economic dynamics has played a part in children from underserved community’s lack of performances or participation in choirs and orchestras. The majority of musicians are White or Asian.

The League of American Orchestras reported on ethnicity and gender diversity within the musical world. They found with data analysis from James Doeser, African-American and Latino instrumentalists, in particular, remain low.

Since their first diversity report in 2002, Asian and Pacific Islander orchestra musicians increased by 70 percent in 2014. Meanwhile, Latin musicians grew from 1.8 percent in 2002 to 2.5 percent in 2014. Yet, African American musicians hovered around 1.8 percent throughout the 12 years.

College of Mount Saint Vincent Conservatory teaches chamber music, performance classes and has private lessons for all ages. For ages 5 and under, 32 lessons of 20 minutes cost $1,067 per year. Thirty-two private lessons of one hour are $3,200 per year.

Tuition at The Juilliard School is $52,520. And sometimes, parents don’t want to invest this amount of money, even with the most talented and ambitious, because music doesn’t pay Hernandez-Valdez said.

Meanwhile, in 2022 the Harmony Program introduced kids to music — for free. The organization brings instruments and teachers to schools and community centers that do not have access to it.

But music was already in Hernandez-Valdez’s life in Guadalajara, fringing the Pacific Ocean, known for its tequila and music — especially mariachi music.

Music is in Hernandez-Valdez’s blood. His father led a group of musicians to play the bass, the largest yet low-pitched string instrument known in symphony orchestras.

Hernandez-Valdez’s parents placed him in a children’s choir as a young boy. Eventually, his parents considered several lessons.

“I never really took it seriously, I practiced 30 minutes before my lesson,” Hernandez-Valdez said. “I was playing mostly soccer honestly.”

Ironically, he was good and did not fall behind. An American teacher took him in as his student, and the young musician’s skills improved. But that changed at the age of 15 when his father died.

“I started to say goodbye to the piano because I didn’t think it was realistic to actually make a career,” he said. “How am I going to make money in Mexico as a pianist?”

Two years later, as he concluded his last recital, a couple — one American and another English were in the audience that night. They noticed talent when they saw it. With connections in America they wanted to help him pursue a career in music, and not put his musical score away, despite not speaking English.

“There’s great talent in Mexico. There’s great talent all over the world, but in the United States, there are resources to channel that talent in the right way,” Hernandez-Valdez said.

Through their contacts in America,  Hernandez-Valdez was accepted into conservatory in Virginia and earned his master’s and doctorate in music at The Sarah and Ernest Butler School of Music at University of Texas.

“But we (students) came together to study the same language, music,” he said

While in college, he sat in the cafeteria and felt like he was in the United Nations. People of all cultures and languages. No one understood each other. And then, he spent hours in the English as a Second Language course.

However, despite the talented musicians who performed nationwide, it is less common than in other demographics. But recently, one musician made Venezuelans proud.

“Today, above all, I am grateful. I am grateful to the musicians and leadership of the New York Philharmonic as we embark upon this new and beautiful journey together,” Gustavo Dudamel said in a news release on Feb. 7.

The Venezuelan musician, Dudamel, will leave Los Angeles Philharmonic after over a decade and step into the Big Apple. He will serve as the music and artistic director for the New York Philharmonic, which is set to start in the 2026-2027 season. He will be there for a five-year term.

In 1975 José Antonio created “El Sistema” in a parking garage, which young Dudamel was a part of in Venezuela. The program blossomed into dozens of orchestras with over 700,000 students, with plans to expand to one million. Now children below the poverty line in El Sistema have grown up with orchestras, understanding its instruments and music.

And at 12, he picked up the baton when his conductor fell under the weather during rehearsals. Dudamel did not study but gave it a shot, and was good.

At 15 years old, he found himself at the podium of Venezuela’s flagship orchestra, which was expected at a young age, he said in an interview.

Dudamel, Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and other partners founded Youth Orchestra Los Angeles in 2007, now providing 1,500 young people with free instruments with intense instruction and leadership training.

“Gustavo Dudamel is a rock star,” Hernandez-Valdez said. “I admire him a lot and I think he’s opening doors to people that look like him and me, of course.”

Alejandro Hernandez-Valdez, Musica Viva NY, All Souls Church, The Sorrow and the Beauty,