Changing lives

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  December 15, 2006

At the Caracas business school, Zander, who spends much of his non-conducting time traveling around the world to talk about leadership to CEOs of major international corporations, includes in his presentation a performance of a Mozart Divertimento movement by the four principal string players of the senior Venezuelan youth orchestra. They play musically, even elegantly, but without much expression. Zander spends 20 minutes trying to get them to be more flexible in their phrasing, to make an emotional leap from sighing resignation to darker melancholy and finally to joy. By the end of the session they are beginning to get it. How long must Rattle have spent getting the whole orchestra to phrase the satirical Scherzo of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 with such slippery, nuanced innuendo? The afternoon before the big YPO concert in Caracas, the Simón Bolívar Orchestra gives an impressively played but inert performance of Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony, under a visiting senior conductor from Korea, Sung Kwak, and a glitzy, uninhibited, breathless Pops-style version of Bernstein’s “Mambo” from West-SideStory, led by the charismatic but unsubtle Dietrith Parades, a recent graduate of the Venezuelan program. The stage becomes a carnival of spinning cellos, tossed tambourines, and juggled drumsticks. The orchestra needs more Rattles, Abbados, and Zanders. Before we leave Venezuela, Zander is invited back to conduct the Mahler Ninth.

At the big Caracas concert, Maestro Abreu and NEC’s Mark Churchill sign the “Friendship Agreement” between the Inter-American Center and the New England Conservatory, “the oldest independent music conservatory in the united States.” Both institutions, the agreement says, believe that music and the other arts can serve as a unifying force in the Americas, creating models of partnership and cooperation that can inspire governments in other segments of society.” The elements of the partnership include student and faculty exchanges, joint performances, teaching and research residencies, and “joint advocacy in support of music education and the use of music to address social need.” The “contract” ends, however, with some metaphorical small print: “It is understood that this agreement does not imply a commitment of institutional funds to joint projects and programs by either institution.”

Churchill spoke in more personal and passionate terms. Six years before, he said, he discovered that he “had come to a land where music was always played with love, passion, and intelligence, along with the greatest discipline and skill. I had come to a land where the belief in the power of music to transform and uplift all human beings was more profound than anywhere else in the world. I wanted more than anything for all of my students to find the same treasures I did.” Then, as a token of respect and friendship, he presented to Maestro Abreu, who had four years ago received an honorary degree from NEC, an award “which is given far more rarely”: the “Ludy,” a miniature bronze replica of the huge statue of Ludwig Von Beethoven that stands in the Jordan Hall lobby. It’s inscribed “with heartfelt thanks for bringing great music to all mankind.”

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