Conductor Allows All Voices to Rise at All Souls

The musical director of All Souls Church on the Upper East Side hails from a small town in Mexico where he started singing in a children’s choir at 8. When he was 17, he was given a scholarship to Shenandoah Conservatory in Virginia–before he even knew how to speak English.

| 30 Oct 2023 | 01:30

Conductor and pianist Alejandro Hernandez-Valdez, the music director of All Souls Church on the Upper East Side and artistic director of the chamber choir Musica Viva NY, takes us on the musical journey that led him to New York

As a teenager in Guadalajara, Mexico, Alejandro Hernandez-Valdez would purchase sheet music just to practice conducting. “I would often buy a score of music accompanied by a CD and I would just listen to the music and try to gesture to it,” he recalled.

His father was the principal bass player of the Guadalajara Symphony, so Hernandez-Valdez was exposed to music since birth. He joined a children’s choir at 8, and by 12, was taking piano lessons. When he was 17, he was discovered during a piano recital and given a full scholarship to study at Shenandoah Conservatory in Virginia. At that time, he didn’t even speak English, but pursued his education in the States, going on to eventually earn his doctorate in piano performance. After realizing that playing for hours alone each day could be lonely, he went on to do his postdoc in orchestra conducting, and the rest goes down in the musical history of Manhattan.

In 2015, he relocated to New York after being selected as the new music director of All Souls Church, a Unitarian parish on Lexington and 80th Street. He also became the artistic director of Musica Viva NY, the chamber choir based at the church whose alumni include Renée Fleming. The historic Upper East Side church, which was built in 1932, was renovated a few years ago, and Hernandez-Valdez said it acoustics are ideal for performances. “It allows for the voice to really shine,” he said. “So choral concerts there are just very, very beautiful.”

When did you know you would pursue music professionally?

I thought about music as a profession, probably as a teenager. My dad was the principal bass player of the Guadalajara Symphony and a lot of his brothers and cousins are musicians. So music was all around me when I was growing up. I used to sing in a children’s choir when I was a kid, at the age of 8. And then when my voice broke, at around 12, my dad decided that I should take piano lessons. But, you know, I never thought of it as a career, of course. And to be honest with you, I would play soccer more than piano when I was that age.

But when I turned 15, I met a teacher from the United States and he saw that I had talent, so I started working harder. My dad got sick around that time; he passed away when I was a teenager. And then I gave a recital because I applied to go to the university; I wanted to study architecture. I gave a recital just to wrap things up with piano because I thought I wouldn’t be able to really do it anymore. At the recital, there was a couple who were just walking around the neighborhood and saw the recital by accident. I didn’t speak English at that point, but through my brother they told him they had some contacts in the United States that they wanted to check on to see if they would be interested in me. They helped me apply to a conservatory of music in Virginia called Shenandoah Conservatory, and I was given a full ride.

How did you get into conducting?

When I went for my undergraduate degree, as a piano performance major, I saw that a great opportunity to just learn more. So I started taking all kinds of extracurricular things like composition, orchestration and conducting. Then, I went to do my master’s and I immediately contacted the conducting teacher and started working with him. I went on to do a postdoc at the University of Maryland in orchestra conducting, so it’s been with me for many, many years.

What is the secret to being a good conductor?

I don’t know if there’s a secret, but it’s about human communication. Working with a large group of people, it’s challenging sometimes and you have to be generous, able to collaborate, be a leader and all of those things have to be kept in balance. That is the reason I became a conductor. I love playing the piano and have a doctorate in performance, but I always felt that being a pianist was rather a lonely activity. You have to spend six, seven hours a day on the instrument on your own, so that’s why I started working with people. I started conducting groups and found that very rewarding.

Explain Musica Viva NY and tell us about its members.

We present chamber music, orchestral and choral concerts. The main engine of the organization is the choir with some professional full-time singers and some very experienced volunteer singers. The group is about 30 people and we do four large concerts a year. And then we do several fundraisers for smaller concerts during the year, so it’s a full season. We’ve got some pretty important singers on our roster. Renée Fleming was in the choir back in the ‘80s. The current Aladdin [on Broadway], as a matter of fact, Michael Maliakel, was in the choir and performed with me for a while.

What does your job as musical director at All Souls entail?

I’m in charge of everything that has to do with music put in the church, all the services. I have a whole team, an assistant, organist, librarian. It’s a large team, I don’t do it on my own. But I’m the person that leads that team. I’m also in charge of special programs. It’s a full-time job.

What is the best part of your job?

The best part is I get to work with people. I love working and collaborating with people. I just love the traction, the feedback. I love to see when eyes are sparkling, when we’re making great music and we’re really connecting; I like to feel that connection.

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