Raphaela Lacerda ’23 Makes Her Mark in Conducting

As hundreds of audience members watched, Raphaela Lacerda, MM ’23, took the stage to conduct the San Bernardino Symphony Orchestra (SBSO) for the first time. Lacerda was guest conducting Georges Bizet’s Farandole from L’Arlesienne Suite No. 2 after an invitation from renowned conductor Anthony Parnther for the SBSO’s final performance of 2022. Having only rehearsed with the orchestra for 20 minutes the day before the show, Lacerda remained confident and everything went smoothly as the audience burst into applause as the piece ended. “A lot of people came up to talk to me after the show, complimenting the performance and commenting on how young I was,” Lacerda said. “There were even a few kids who said they wanted to be like me when they grew up. That was a special moment, to think I could be a role model for them.”

Lacerda was remarkably young to be conducting a professional orchestra. In fact, this debut conducting performance at the SBSO happened six months before she graduated with her Master’s in Conducting from Azusa Pacific University. Yet Lacerda’s performance caused Parnther to immediately recognize her potential for greatness. Panther knows what it takes to succeed, having conducted for numerous blockbuster movies including Oppenheimer, Avatar, and Black Panther and at dozens of orchestras across the world.

“From the moment Lacerda stepped onto the SBSO podium at the California Theatre, she demonstrated a command and professionalism rare for a musician her age,” Panther said. “It was at this moment that I made the rare decision to take on an assistant conductor to mentor, and learn the ropes of what it really takes to run and grow a regional orchestra.”

After graduating in May, Lacerda began working as the assistant conductor of the SBSO, fully engaged with Parnther both on and off the stage, aiming to excel in her role. “His musicianship is amazing. I’m learning to listen like him, to hear what he hears. As his assistant, sometimes my job is to stay in the audience during rehearsals and talk about the performance and what I heard,” Lacerda said. However, the performance aspect is just one facet of her multifaceted role. She also actively participates in the behind-the-scenes operations that ensure the smooth functioning of the SBSO. This involves coordinating venue setup, assisting with brand sponsorships, and contributing to the orchestra’s website and social media. “I’m working on promoting the SBSO because although we are one of the oldest orchestras in Southern California, not many people know how much we’ve changed recently,” she said. “If you watch a video of us from five years ago, it’s nothing compared to now and it’s great to hear response from people noticing how much we’ve grown.”

Lacerda’s impact on the SBSO has already received recognition. In July, Lacerda was named the recipient of the Emerging Professional Award from the Association of California Symphony Orchestras. “Raphaela’s work distinguished her as a true emerging professional from the day we met her,” said Anne Viricel, executive director of the SBSO. “We quickly received phone calls from community members and local music teachers asking when she would be back on the podium!” This award is the culmination of years of practice and rehearsal on Lacerda's journey to becoming a great conductor.

Lacerda began her musical journey as a young child in her hometown of Sao Paulo, Brazil. After years of playing the violin, she began studying music seriously at a conservatorium and performing in youth orchestras. It was in one of these orchestras that she discovered her passion for conducting. “Each season, we would have a new person leading us. I grew curious because each conductor had a different style,” she said. “The good conductors could identify things and say, trumpet two, play it this way. It was magical seeing how talented their ears were and how they could communicate to help us play better as a whole.”

As Lacerda watched her conductors, she began to come up with ideas on how to improve her orchestra’s performance and realized she wanted to become a conductor one day.

After years of musical experience in Brazil, Lacerda decided to pursue a master’s degree in America. She researched more than 100 universities and began narrowing the list down until there were only 20. APU stood out among these institutions because of its close proximity to Los Angeles, scholarship opportunities, and great reviews from other Brazilians who had attended the university to study music. Perhaps the most important reason Lacerda chose APU was because of the professor she would be mentored by, Chris Russell, MM, an accomplished conductor who was still active in the industry. Lacerda contacted Russell and sent videos of her performances. “Immediately, I was impressed and I thought she had quite a bit of potential,” Russell said.

Although Lacerda’s APU journey was delayed by two years because of the pandemic, she was not deterred, moving to Azusa in fall 2021. “I noticed quickly that she had a very natural feel for conducting, she was a born leader, and she was always curious about how to get better at her craft,” Russell said. Lacerda had a strong rehearsal technique, diagnosing issues in the orchestra and helping them improve before performances. “The orchestra really liked performing with her. Whenever she was conducting, they were in good hands,” he said. “With each piece I gave her, she continued to get better.”

The pinnacle of Lacerda’s time at APU came during her master’s recital in March. Wanting to give her a challenge, Russell tasked her with conducting the New World Symphony by Antonín Dvořák, one of the most beloved symphonies ever written. She had four rehearsals to put together a program before the recital. As Russell sat in the audience, he was in awe of Lacerda’s conducting performance. “With the orchestra in her command, I didn’t feel like I was hearing a student production, I felt like I was in a professional concert,” he said. Soon after her master’s recital, Lacerda received the 2023 Dennis Royce Graduate Achievement and Academic Excellence Award from APU.

“Raphaela is one of the most gifted students I’ve ever had the pleasure to teach. She will make her mark in the conducting world. I’m excited to see what God has planned for her.”

Lacerda is excited to continue learning from Parnther at the SBSO, building her conducting resume. While a return home to Brazil may be coming in the future, that would be a long ways away and for now, she is focusing on refining her craft. “I’m very grateful for my experience at APU and I’m blessed to be conducting here in San Bernardino,” she said. “God opened the right doors for me and I trust He will continue to do so. I’m open to whatever God has planned for me.”