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Live Mexico City and Havana

Sue Fox

In June of I 999, the New England Conservatory Youth Philharmonic Orchestra YPO spent fifteen days in Mexico and Cuba. It was a groundbreaking tour in ways none of us could have imagined! During the first rehearsal, held in the 400-year-old Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel, Orizaba, Mexico, the earth literally moved to the power of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony. An earthquake measuring 6.7 on the Richter scale shook this small town, reminding those old enough of the devastating earthquake that had hit in 1373.


It was terrifying. Not just for the l00 young musicians from NEC, but even more so for the school children of this community who had simply come to listen and wonder at the American teenagers rehearsing in their beloved cathedral. Where seconds before all their eyes had been alive to the excitement of hearing a symphony orchestra for the first time, now they were filled with panic. Within seconds of the first rumble, 800 screaming children had spilled out of the church into the courtyard. For YPO concert mistress Yuna Lee, the experience brought back terrible memories of an earthquake in Guam, where she lived with her family before coming to America. "I was so scared I was shaking all over, but I had to put that to the back of my mind and just think about the music."


In the 28 years of my tenure as conductor of the orchestra I have taken YPO, in its various formations, on 11 international tours, so I knew that I could rely on the players to handle themselves responsibly even in the face of such a crisis. And, indeed, half an hour after the initial shock, they took up their instruments and went back to Shostakovich. As one of the violinists explained: "We just put on our rehearsal face. Somehow, the act of making music seemed to calm everyone down." Later that evening a miracle took place. When the municipal authorities deemed the Cathedral unsafe for a public concert because a massive crack had opened up in the cathedral's four centuries-old tower, it was decided to move the concert venue. The grand piano, all the instruments, the players and the audience were relocated to a sports stadium across town. The telephones were down; it was pouring rain. How the audience knew where to go is still a mystery, but, one hour later than scheduled, the first concert took place. There wasn't a spare seat in the stadium. Parents brought their children. A thousand people cheered and wept. It was a scene which would be repeated throughout the next fourteen days.


YPO may be an orchestra of children aged 12-18 years of age, but when it comes to making music, they are breathtakingly mature and totally professional. Of course, these young musicians play their instruments extremely well, but the main thing is that in the preparation of the music no concession is made to their age. At their best, if you close your eyes, you may well think you are listening to one of the great orchestras. When young people are encouraged to go to the absolute limit of their abilities, they seem to be able to achieve almost anything and they know, deep down, that being asked to settle for something less doesn't serve them well at all.


One of the features of these international tours is the opportunity it affords to not only meet young people from other cultures, but also to make music with them in joint rehearsals and concerts. In Mexico City, their new stand partners were members of the Orquesta Sinfonica Juvenil Carlos Chávez, in Veracruz it was the Orquesta Juvenil de Veracruz. Later, in Cuba, YPO's 100 musicians and 80 young players from the Havana based Cuban Youth Orchestra shared the stage. We have long since discovered that when you put musical instruments in the hands of young people they can communicate effectively with others all over the world, whether or not they have a language in common.


The tour was extremely demanding. Certainly no professional orchestra would take on such a punishing pace of rehearsals, chamber recitals and thirteen public concerts plus all the sightseeing and social exchanges that could be crammed into the fourteen days.


In Mexico City, YPO was the first non-professional orchestra to be invited to play at the Palacio de Bellas Artes, one of the most beautiful concert halls in the world. Indeed, the Director had been indignant at the suggestion that a youth orchestra be invited to perform in such a prestigious venue until he heard the orchestra actually play Then he became like a proud parent showing off the orchestra to everyone as if he had discovered it! A knowledgeable and sophisticated audience attended the concert at the Bellas Artes. Bank Boston, the main sponsor for the Mexico portion of the tour, had every reason to be delighted with the three standing ovations and the endless clamoring for encores. A special hit was the mesmerizing poignant Tango by Piazzola from the film Oblivion, with its subtle harmonic palette and haunting suggestion of loneliness, performed by the orchestra's first oboist Lauren Kruskall.


It was exciting to have Arturo Marquez, the composer of Mexico's latest classical pop sensation, Danzon No. 2, in the audience while these gringos tried to portray the exotic rhythms of its Cuban/Mexican dance style. Did we get it right? No, not really, but it was certainly helpful to have had the example of some of the fabulously talented young Mexicans who played along with us in Veracruz, who have the sultry, sensuous tropical rhythms coursing in their veins. The composer was generous to suggest we were on the right track if not quite there yet!


The wild applause and standing ovations in Jalapa's Teatro del Estado was something that few of us had ever experienced. Literally hundreds of people lined the walls, stood on the staircases and surrounded every exit. Everywhere we were amazed at the involvement, the passion and excitement of the audiences.


In our sophisticated, sound-bite city lives, how many audiences realty listen with all their hearts? In Mexico and Cuba everyone listens. Audiences unstintingly gave YPO their hearts. As one young violinist remarked, "Some of the people here look as though they don't have enough of anything, but there's an openness and joy I've never seen before."


The two main works on the tour were Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 and Rachmaninoff's 2nd Piano Concerto, played night after night by the impeccably disciplined 16-year-old, Korean-born, Hong Chun Youn. The tour was a glimpse of what Hong's life is likely to be in the future. There seemed to be no doubt in the mind of the chief music critic of Mexico City's main newspaper that here was a major star in the making, conjuring such names as Horowitz and Weissenberg for comparison.


Everywhere YPO played, this shy teenager touched hearts with his passion and his poetic nature and caused almost pop-star-like reactions from other teenagers in the audience. Hong's friends in YPO were continually awed at not only his incredible consistency, but also how each night he brought some quite new insight into his performance. To YPO, Hong was a star. Audiences everywhere wanted his auto-graph. But Hong isn't into stardom. At least, not yet." 1 haven't always had a very good piano to play, but this tour taught me that a pianist has to learn to make a beautiful sound out of any piano. The audiences were really moved by what we did. I guess music is a language for the whole world."


Cuba was always going to be the highlight of the tour. None of us had ever been to Cuba and the Cubans had met few if any American youngsters. Even so, not even the experience in Mexico could prepare us for the overwhelming enthusiasm of the reception we received. Playing Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, with its powerful message of protest against Stalin's oppression might be seen to be risky; would it be seen as a confrontational gesture? We need have had no fear! Shostakovich's symphony is about courage, about affirmation and about the power of people to overcome their circumstances, however grim. The audiences were extremely moved, I believe, to have that message delivered to them by children.


After a performance at Havana's beautifully restored Teatro Amadeo Roldan, a woman said to me",Playing the Shostakovich was a truly wonderful present to bring to the Cuban people. Hearing those young people play actually will help me to cope better with my life."


For many YPOers, the highlight of the visit to Havana was playing together with the high-school aged National Youth Orchestra of Cuba, a Cuban and an American sitting at each stand. And for me too it was a revelatory experience for another reason. The two orchestras, totaling 170 musicians, performed two works together; the first, Guaguanco, was written by the brilliant, free-spirited conductor of the Cuban orchestra, Guido Lopez Gavilan. It is a colorful work completely dominated by its complex Cuban rhythms. I had made a decision not to prepare our orchestra in advance because I thought it was such a rare and valuable opportunity for the orchestra to work on a piece from the very beginning under the direction of the composer himself. This proved to be a mistake. Rhythms like these are simply not part of the training of young American musicians and they cannot be mastered by counting. This is music of the body, everything is done by finding the impulses which float in the air, in the cultural ambience of the people, the way that Viennese waltzes really can be played only by the Viennese - although even more so!


Maestro Gavilan began rehearsing his work, but it soon became clear that the piece was beyond the grasp of the young Americans. They simply couldn't play it. He became concerned, frustrated, and finally, after about forty minutes, he gave up. He turned around and said from the podium, "I'm afraid this is not going to work. We will have to cancel the performance." This outcome was completely unacceptable to me. It was one of the cornerstones of the trip that our young musicians are able to perform with their counterparts in each country we visited. Without thinking, I leapt to the stage and said to the young Cuban players through an interpreter",Your job is to teach your stand partner how to play these rhythms." And to the American players I said, "Just give yourselves over to your partner and be led by them. Trust that you will get the support you need." I asked Maestro Gavilan to try again.


What happened next startled us all. The focus shifted away from the conductor, toward the pairs of players at each stand. Already more expressive than most young musicians I had seen, the Cubans became fantastically engaged and energized, exuberantly conducting with their instruments, each leading along his or her American partner enthusiastically. The American kids, basking in the lavish attention, gave themselves over to the process and began to play the rhythms the way they were intended to be played. As surprised and pleased as I was, Guido nodded to me that everything would be fine. As one young YPO member remarked, "With a little more time, we could accomplish something great. The Cubans have an insight into the music that we don't have. We're so strict. We play by the book. They just feel it. "


Then it was my turn, and I rose to conduct the other piece that was to open the program: Bernstein's brilliant but fiendishly difficult little masterpiece, his Overture to Candide. The spirit of unquenchable optimism in the face of all the evidence would surely present no difficulty to the young Cubans, but the technical demands of the piece are notorious, hence our decision to send the parts down to Havana three months earlier to make sure that the Cuban orchestra would have the opportunity to prepare. As we were getting ready to rehearse, I casually asked the young Cuban concert master whether the orchestra had enjoyed working on the overture. "But, we've never seen it",he said, obviously perplexed. It turned out that the music had been languishing in the Cuban post office for all that time.


I could feel the blood drain from my face. I simply couldn't see how we were going to be able to perform this piece under these conditions. Our youth orchestra had taken months to master the virtuosic demands of this overture! Then I looked at the players and saw many of them smiling. Of course! We had only to reverse the process that had been so successful earlier in the rehearsal! The American kids now sprang to life, energetically leading their stand partners through the bar lines; and it went off brilliantly. Again, the attention shifted away from the conductor on the podium to the partnership on the stage. The energy level of each local "conductor" rose dramatically. No less remarkable was the willingness of the young Cuban players to be supported and led by their close companions- and how much more effectively than by the distant figure on the podium.


You can hear the performances on the CD (Download this CD on this site). In the cold light of day they may seem less than completely polished, but as a memory they remain high points of the tour.


Suddenly, the possibility of a real harmony between America and Cuba seemed to take on a voice of its own. Concertmistress Yuna Lee said of Reynier, her new stand partner, "He taught me so much. He was incredibly energetic and it was so much fun." After a rehearsal, Iohanna, a fifteen-year-old Cuban violinist, broke down in tears. "What happened between us we will never forget. This is so big a thing in my life. I think we will be friends for a long time."


YPO arrived in Havana with boxes of gifts of music, instruments and equipment; various Boston hospitals had donated medical supplies. But I think the young Americans went away with more than they brought. They had formed friendships which taught them much more about music and life than they could possibly have imagined. It's not about what you own or even what opportunities you have, but rather about the capacity to move and feel and dance. That's something you can't buy. You can only absorb it through your molecules if you're there.

The final concert in Havana will always remain a powerful memory. After the first two pieces with the two orchestras playing together, Hong Chun gave his freest, most impassioned performance of the piano concerto, as if Rachmaninoff's spontaneous outpourings of melody had at last become his own voice. The Shostakovich felt even more immediate and moving, for now we could hear the music through the ears of this courageous and passionate people. After several encores, The Stars and Stripes Forever, complete with twirling cellos in the Boston Pops tradition, was greeted with an uproar of approval and full audience participation. At nearly midnight we finally played Elgar's Nimrod from Enigma Variations, the ultimate musical expression of love between friends, that noble utterance that seems to smile through tears, fully cognizant of the sorrow of loss. I spoke a few words to. the audience through the translator about what it had meant for us to be in Cuba and how much we would take away from the experience. "Our governments do not see eye to eye",I said, "but our children feel heart to heart." Before the interpreter had got a word out, the whole audience rose to its feet and clapped and shouted and waved for six full minutes. It was hard to say goodbye not only to the Cuban people but also to each other. Fully one third of the orchestra would be leaving and going to college. When I turned to face the audience I realized that not only half the orchestra was crying but so was half the audience.


Benjamin Zander


With grateful acknowledgement to

Tour Journalist Sue Fox for her contribution.



   


 
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