January 15, 2013

Tour day 7

Day seven, and our delightful homestay families returned us to Wayzata Community Church to depart for Des Moines, Iowa.  This was our first homestay of the trip, and choir members shared stories about the wonderful hospitality and accommodations provided.   On the lengthy bus ride to ‘give Iowa a try’ (thank you Meredith Wilson for providing the soundtrack for this particular leg of our journey), we watched a recording of the Westminster Symphonic Choir’s performance with Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Orchestra at Carnegie Hall last December.

I have not yet written about this performance for this blog because, frankly, I haven’t had the words to describe it.  I’m not sure if I have them now, but I will do my level best to frame an out-of-language experience into the bounds of black and white text.

First, a bit about the orchestra from Anna Lenti, a soprano in Westminster Choir and a second-year choral conducting graduate student.  She first introduced me to the music education system in Venezuela last year, when we watched Tocar y Luchar (To Play and to Fight), a documentary about the El Sistema: 

The Simon Bolivar Orchestra comes from a larger system in Venezuela known as El Sistema. Begun in the 1970s by Maestro Jose Antonio Abreu, the system strives to put instruments in the hands of every child in Venezuela, supply them with high quality lessons, and most importantly, give them the opportunity to play in an orchestra. Maestro Abreu believes that the act of playing in an orchestra creates the ultimate community – one in which every member comes together with the sole purpose of creating something beautiful, and where everyone must work together in perfect harmony to obtain this objective. In a country with high levels of poverty, Abreu believed that this system could bring purpose, vitality, and hope to a community that needed it badly. And he was right. Financed entirely by the Venezuelan government, El Sistema currently oversees 125 youth orchestras in Venezuela, and more than 320,000 youth and children own and play instruments provided to them through this program. Between 70 and 90 percent of these youth live in poverty, but their lives are immediately enriched through the opportunities that are granted to them. Not only do the upper-level orchestras play frequently with guest conductors and artists throughout the world; the emotional benefits to these youth are overwhelming. The proof is in the way they play – with joy, freedom, and a vitality that is unmatched.

The Simon Bolivar Orchestra is the premier orchestra of Venezuela.  It is huge, and creates a sound so enormous with a fire so rich that its pull on the listener is like the gravitational pull of a star – it is a force of nature that simply cannot be ignored.  I believe strongly, and I am certainly not alone in this, that the fierce authenticity and in-your-face humanness of this orchestra are the powers that crack open the hearts of the listening audience and drive the music deep into the soul.

At the end of the rehearsal with Maestro Dudamel, the orchestra applauded for the choir with huge grins, and for the longest amount of time of any orchestra we have collaborated with thus far.  There are a handful of native Spanish speakers in the choir, but the vast majority of musicians on stage had no language in common other than music.

The concert was a staggering success.  We performed Chôros No. 10 by Heitor Villa-Lobos and Cantata Criolla by Antonio Estévez, which both challenged the choir with language, inflection, varied tempi (in some places, it was the fastest singing I have done so far in my life), tessitura, and cultural context.  Many daily Symphonic Choir rehearsals were dedicated to building facility and skill specific to these works, and every ounce of work served us well.  It wasn’t until we performed with the orchestra and Maestro Dudamel that we realized the freedom that comes through the discipline.  They played with all of their guts.  They looked at one another when they played, like we look at one another to communicate while we sing.  Unlike some of the other world class orchestras we have been lucky enough to make music with, the Simon Bolivar orchestra treated their instruments as things not too precious.  Rather, they seemed firmly fixed on each other, and their individual instruments were conduits for the collective passion instead of untouchable musical icons.  Nowhere was this more evident than in the encores (there were three.)

When we finished the listed program, the audience vaulted to their feet and literally screamed for more.   Most did not sit down until every musician had finally exited the stage (after all of the encores).  During these three pieces, members of the orchestra would stand up and dance with their instruments – sometimes as choreographed movements and sometimes just for joy.  The energy in Carnegie was like nothing I have seen – usually, the choir will stomp their feet to show appreciation for an orchestra because it isn’t really ‘proper’ to clap (it seems strange if an ensemble appears to be clapping for themselves).  But this was not anything about decorum and all about a pure, unadulterated desire to commune with one another through our art, and the choir was clapping and cheering along with the audience.   We were dancing and laughing when the audience started screaming for Mambo.  Maestro Dudamel stepped off of the podium to consult with the percussion section and a few other instrumentalists – none of the orchestra had brought the music, perhaps because they hadn’t planed on more than two encores.  So they played it from memory!!  The audience (and the choir) went utterly wild, and there were no less than seven Venezuelan flags waving around the house.

Between the experience of being on stage and the words Dr. Miller shared with us before the concert, we were each of us changed that night.  Dr. Miller often speaks with us before a performance, sometimes giving notes, sometimes reading poems. Sometimes he is very brief and sends us off with a warm smile.  Tonight, though, he started speaking and said some things that members of the choir will carry with them always.  He told us to ‘put away your judgments and reservations,’ and reminded us that ‘ you can’t just sit in a practice room or a classroom if you want to be an artist. ‘  My favorite Millerism of the night, though was this:

“Do not be afraid.  You can only gain by giving.”

So, after reliving the wonderful experience of the Simon Bolivar orchestra performance, we had another wonderful concert.  This one was in Des Moines, Iowa at First Christian Church.  The music keeps getting better and better, with every syllable artistically and appropriately inflected and every phrase sung with authenticity.   We were once again hosted by kind and generous families, which seem to be in terrific abundance in the choir world.   My roommate, Mary Hewlett, and I stayed with Tom and Joelle, both of whom are Des Moines natives and for whom music is a big part of life.  We stayed up late into the night talking about our families, and about making music, and forming bonds of community.

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About Westminster Choir

Westminster Choir is composed of students at Westminster Choir College of Rider University, a center for music study in Princeton, N.J.
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