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Music that Opens Doors

Photo by Claudio Vásquez

Music that Opens Doors
UMaine virtuoso mentors youth orchestras bringing social change to Guatemala

Anatole Wieck
Anatole Wieck

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(Editor's note: Full-length version of story.)

From his student days, Anatole Wieck learned that music "is an indicator of a spirit that exists in a society."

The idea was ingrained in the Latvian-born violinist and violist as a youth studying in Riga and Moscow, then at Juilliard from 1973. Throughout his career as a soloist, conductor and college professor, Wieck imparted this philosophy inspired by his mentor, the iconic Russian composer Iosif Andriasov, to audiences and students across Europe and North and South America.

But in 2006, it was a youth orchestra Wieck mentored that showed him the ultimate ability of music to not only lift the spirit of a society, but also to bring about social change.

It happened in Guatemala.

Wieck was invited to spend three weeks in residence with the Jesús Castillo Orchestra and the national youth orchestra of the Music and Youth Foundation in Guatemala City, which provides classical music education and instruments to children and youth from all socioeconomic backgrounds, especially the rural and urban poor.

"Some of the kids are from middle-class backgrounds and others are from poor and underprivileged backgrounds without a chance to study music except for this program," says Wieck, a professor of music at the University of Maine since 1986. "But that's the amazing thing. They are taught by young professionals who gather them into the orchestra, and almost immediately by some kind of miracle they start making music.

"It happens because of the enthusiasm of the kids, driven by inspiration of the teachers and their young director and conductor Bruno Campo. I have to say that in 2006, I was skeptical, yet I had a feeling it might work because I met the people behind the program, who are very passionate about what they're doing."

"When you have such passion, drive and love for music and children, then miracles happen," Wieck says.

During his residency, UMaine Professor of Music Anatole Wieck led rehearsals and tutored members of the violin section of the children's orchestra.
During his residency, UMaine Professor of Music Anatole Wieck led rehearsals and tutored members of the violin section of the children's orchestra.

Photo by Claudio Vásquez

The Metropolitan Youth Orchestra and school, founded in 2006 by Bruno Campo with the help of Isabel Ciudad-Real, president of the Music and Youth Foundation, is modeled after Venezuela's National System of Youth and Children's Orchestras that started more than two decades earlier. Guatemala's symphony began two years after an historic peace accord was signed between the government and leftist rebels in that country, ending 36 years of civil war.

It was Alvaro Arzu Irigoyen, the President of Guatemala, who managed to put an end to the civil war that nearly destroyed the country. After he stepped down as president, he was elected to be the mayor of Guatemala City and turned his attention to alleviating poverty, finding creative ways to revive the arts and education, and improving the natural spaces of the city. One of the ways he accomplished this was to get the starving children off the streets by paying them to help create parks and green spaces. Such programs have been very successful in combating crime and poverty, and helping revive community spirit.

The arts program was one of his latest visions. With the energy and talent of some of the city's young musicians, he launched the music program that has, in turn, sparked a cultural renaissance in the city.

Music is "an important part of humanity," according to the foundation's statement of purpose on its Web site. "Respect, tolerance, discipline, solidarity, teamwork and leadership are some of the values to be developed and strengthened as the foundations for living in a democratic, sensible society in a culture of peace. The practice of music in an ensemble provides ideal tools in this process."

Similar national systems of orchestras for children and youths have been established in other Latin American countries, such as Argentina, Mexico and Bolivia, as tools of education, social development and cultural advancement. Music is considered an avenue of social action — a means of improving society and the lives of the youngest citizens.

In Guatemala more than 15 choirs and five orchestral ensembles now use music "to change people's lives and (the) social fabric of the most (needy) communities." The Metropolitan Youth Orchestra is becoming the model for other orchestral programs in the country, supported by the Guatemala Ministry of Culture.

Wieck's residency, originally funded by a Fulbright grant in 2006, involved tutoring and leading master classes for the members of the Jesús Castillo Orchestra and students of the National Conservatory, ages 18–23.
That year, the symphony performed in the inaugural concert for the opening of the foundation's new arts center, where many of the members are now instructors for younger, incoming musicians.

It was those youngest musicians, ages 6–16, who brought Wieck back to Guatemala early last fall.

"I was touched that I was invited back, that they considered me one of their own," says Wieck. "It's such a fantastic project. I feel it's a real privilege to be part of it."

The new youth orchestra pairs some of the most talented children with the young professionals, not only for instruction, but also for performance. In concerts, the more seasoned musicians perform next to the children in an atypical mentoring relationship Wieck says "is working."

"Theoretically, the children should be more nervous (before a concert) because they have less experience, but they feel secure because their teachers are with them," Wieck says.

Wieck says signs of success are evident in the artistic quality of the performances. When the students play with their teachers in the advanced orchestras, they reach almost professional level. The music making in this group has passion and "a distinct feeling." Students performing in the younger group sound like a middle school orchestra.

"Yet, there's something else you don't expect in a performance by musicians at these ages with little experience. It's very appealing, with a definite excitement, and the audience feels that," Wieck says. "When people play with passion, they begin to shape the music. These are not kids playing separate notes. Their performances are compelling. That's what impressed me."

It was in his one-on-one sessions with the children that Wieck realized their individual drive — and their intensity. Most were performing on instruments provided by the foundation. In the week leading up to the public concert, the youngsters arrived daily by 9 a.m. and practiced throughout the day. It was in the rehearsals, without mentors performing at their side, that the young musicians had to "step up," says Wieck.

"For example, there was a boy about 14 from an underprivileged family who a year ago didn't know anything about classical music. He not only was introduced to it, but also learned to love and perform classical music as a percussionist. While his teacher spent time in rehearsals helping him find his place (in the music), in concert, the boy played Beethoven's Fifth correctly."

For some of the students, their participation in the national youth orchestra will lead to musical careers. For all, it opens doors to high culture.

"The way they're being taught opens a whole new world of beauty through music," Wieck says.

Despite his 34-year musical career, Wieck says he learned some powerful lessons from the young musicians. One of the most important: how strongly they feel about the privilege to be a musician.

"In a time when many rich countries, including ours and some in Europe, begin to think the arts expensive and, as a result, fund less and less, Guatemala, a country with limited resources, decided this kind of arts program is important and had no problem finding money. This is an example for everyone. It also really shows that supporting the arts is a question of priorities. I'm impressed that people in that country have the right priorities," he says.

"My mentor Iosif Andriasov always talked about the importance of the arts in society," he says. "Music is not just entertainment. This experience goes to the core of that philosophy, showing that music can bring people together in a profound way that may improve their quality of life. And music is not just for one person, but for a whole society. That's what the Guatemalans behind this project believe."

by Margaret Nagle
March-April, 2008

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