Spending spring break on the beach in Florida is a venerable college tradition. Members of the University of Wyoming Symphony Orchestra did that too - but only during a long layover between flights in Miami. You see, the UWSO spent its spring break in Bolivia, performing, teaching, and absorbing the culture.
The idea behind this cultural exchange originated with Dr. Javier Pinell, UW violin professor and a native of La Paz, and Fredy Cspedes, concertmaster of the National Symphony of Bolivia and conductor of the Municipal Orchestra of El Alto. Dr. Pinell, Dr. Naomi Gjevre, and Dr. Stephen Barnhart of the UW music faculty spent part of Christmas vacation teaching in El Alto. Then in January Maestro Cspedes was the guest conductor of the UW Chamber Orchestra, assisted by a percussionist and an actor from Bolivia. Finally the culmination of the project came in mid March, when 70 UW musicians boarded American Airlines flight 922 to La Paz.
The orchestra gave four concerts in Bolivia. In La Paz, the highest capital city in the world at 13,000 feet, they performed at the Centro Sinfnico, the home of the National Symphony Orchestra of Bolivia. After a full concert and three encores, I finally had to plead with the audience to let the UWSO off the stage. We were out of music and hadn't had dinner yet, to boot.
In El Alto, an impoverished community just above La Paz, our performance was at a local arts center, home of a youth orchestra that has miraculously sprung up there. This Municipal Orchestra of El Alto is filled with young musicians who have fallen in love with symphonic music and have devoted themselves to their art. The UW musicians and Dr. Pinell spent an entire day teaching in El Alto, sharing their skills and their love of music with their young Bolivian colleagues. Despite the language barrier, the sessions were incredibly productive. The concert there was shared between the two orchestras, even performing a Bartok suite together.
In the village of Viacha the town church was packed by schoolchildren, residents of the town, many in traditional Aymara clothing, and even soldiers from the local army post. There were so many they stood in the side aisles and spilled out of the back of the church into the plaza. Again we had to do encore after encore.
In another village, Tiwanaku, the UWSO performed in a plaza in the center of town, under a large picnic shelter. Residents sat on pews borrowed from the church or on chairs borrowed from City Hall, while children sat on the stone floor around the orchestra. A village dog happily nestled between the violins and the flutes.
The orchestra brought traditional orchestral fare to Bolivia, including music of Beethoven (the 5th Symphony), Mozart, and Tchaikovsky. UW faculty composer Dr. Anne Guzzo wrote a work especially for the UWSO to premiere in Bolivia. Her Fanfare for Mountains and Peace was well received, and the residents of El Alto felt especially privileged to have something written just for them. Aaron Copland's Hoe-Down is a quintessential American work that was a frequent encore, and the UWSO learned a Bolivian work, Rosa Carminby Nestor Olmos Molina, that was instantly recognized and appreciated. Much to our surprise, audiences even clapped along at the same spot in the music every concert.
Some UWSO members had to opportunity to stand out from the ensemble. Principal Trombonist Loralee Slough of Rapid City and Concertmaster Edgar Toumadjian of Armenia performed concertos with the orchestra, while student conductors Amy Lenell of Cheyenne and Lee Wolfinbarger of Laramie led an overture at one performance each.
Many of the El Alto children followed the UWSO from concert to concert, absorbing everything they could, and getting extra lessons from the Wyoming students. I led the El Alto musicians in one rehearsal and one performance, and even gave a lesson to the Assistant Conductor of the National Symphony of Bolivia.
Sightseeing was also on everyone's agenda. The UW contingent took a boat ride on Lake Titicaca, explored the pre-Columbian ruins at Tiwanaku, wandered La Paz, and had a dinner at a Pea, a club-restaurant with folk music, folk dancing, and Bolivian cuisine. I can report that Llama shish-kabob is delicious!
Some moments stick out in my mind. Our first joint rehearsal on the Bartok with the El Alto students reminded us how music can transcend barriers of language, culture and economic conditions. I was struck by the difference between rehearsing Beethoven's Fifth on stage at the Centro Sinfnico Nacionalin the morning, and walking past women in native dress herding sheep on an island in Lake Titicaca in the afternoon. The children who sat fascinated on a large stone bench not three feet from a first violinist in Tiwanaku careful not to use too much bow, Chantal! The Aymara woman carrying her baby in a blanket over her back at the concert in Viacha was so pleased when I smiled at her child: it's not only music that can overcome cultural differences! The El Alto residents protested delays in delivering propane in a most peaceful but effective manner: they lined up quietly and peacefully at the appointed places, but directly across the streets so all traffic, including our busses, had to detour around them. The genuine, prolonged applause at all the concerts was most gratifying. Finally the effort, the caring and the musicality of our UW musician despite the altitude, the strangeness, the many last-minute changes, and later the exhaustion was an inspiration to me and to everyone involved in the project.
Funding for this trip came from many generous sources. The government of Bolivia graciously waived the fees for the UW contingent to receive visas. In La Paz the American Embassy helped with the hotel rooms, while the government of El Alto contributed towards food and busses. The local Burger King chain even supplied one lunch. American Airlines offered a reduced fare and some free tickets. The UW Foundation made a very significant contribution, and UW officials helping included the President, the Vice President for Academic Affairs, the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and the Office of International Programs. The Symphony Association for the University of Wyoming was of course a lead contributor, and Laramie Pediatrics, First Interstate Bank, Realty Executives of Laramie, and Hill Music of Casper all were significant corporate sponsors. The local Rotary and Kiwanis Clubs were generous with their support, as were numerous individuals including Terry and Beverly Roark, Sue Wedel, Mary Winger, and many others. Given all this wonderful help, the students ended up paying almost nothing, while the few community members of the orchestra only had to pay for their air fare.
Many individuals were incredible helpful in the "nuts and bolts" of putting this trip together. Dr. Pinell was a tireless contact between UW and La Paz, translated innumerable documents, and served as tour manager while we were on the road. Dr. Brinkman, Chair of the Music Department, was solidly behind the project and a source of great encouragement and support. As I worked through the chain of the UW Administration, I found nothing but encouragement and help from Dr. Tom Buchanan, President of the University, Dr. Myron Allen, Vice President for Academic Affairs, Ben Blalock, President/CEO of the UW Foundation, Dr. Nicole Ballenger, Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs, Dr. Oliver Walter, Dean of A&S, and Dr. Anne Alexander, Director of International Programs. The Symphony Association Board was incredibly helpful and made the largest single donation in the Association's history towards this project. And last but certainly not least, huge thanks go to the music department secretaries Laurie Kempert, Office Associate Senior, and Leslie Gallagher, Office Assistant Senior for the tremendous number of hours they put in on this project.
If the number of alpaca sweaters seen around Laramie seems to have jumped, you now know why. But it's not just sweaters and souvenirs that the musicians have brought home with them. They have vivid memories of a distant land, separated from us by language, tradition, and economics, but united by a love of music.