Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Van Cliburn Competition, in Sao Paulo

It was a fortuitous meeting at a private home after a concert (Josh played with orchestra, and I was not part of the concert that night). The pianist Cristina Ortiz was there. She was a friend of the host, and passing through Sao Paulo. We greeted each other as if old friends, that strange condition of "celebrity" (within the classical music world, at least) making our life story familiar to the other, our faces instantly recognized, and yet never having met, not knowing how tall the person would be, the turn of the voice, the physical presence.
Our conversation went quickly to our common thread - the Van Cliburn Competition. It was by chance that I had just attended one of the nights of the finals only a few days before in Fort Worth, TX, and so the results of the competition were still fresh - I still had little bits of news that had not reached the general knowledge banks yet.
We commiserated on the daunting task in front of the two first prize winners - Hauchen Zhang, 19 years old, and Nobu Tsujii, 20 years old and blind since birth - something that she experienced herself as the young winner of the 1969 Van Cliburn. During her competition, Cristina was hosted by the Sampsons, well before Alann Sampson became the Chairman of the Van Cliburn Foundation board, before she became involved with the competition besides being a host to candidates. It is so interesting to see how careers develop in unforeseen ways.

We noted the fact that the top three winners were from China, Japan and South Korea. I think this marks the official domination of Asia in what used to be a traditionally Western art form.
I was heading to Paris in a couple of days, and Cristina was also heading to France, the Southwest, and we tried to figure out if she was going to be going through Paris on the day of my concert, so that she could at least say that she had heard me play! She was not. I'm sure the next time we cross paths will be many years from now. What a strange world, this tiny universe of Classical music...

Instituto Baccarelli in Sao Paulo, Brazil

It's been a few weeks already, but still the memory of this visit to the Instituto Baccarelli persists - the energy, the incredible talent, the intensity of the work ethic. The Instituto is located in the favela of Sao Paulo, and the children who attend the school live among drug dealers, prostitutes, the most needy and the most troubled of the incredibly huge city.
In the spirit of the Youth Orchestra program that was created in Venezuela, many South American countries have established musical/social programs, with the idea that the work ethic necessary to excel at playing an instrument can guide a child through difficulties, both personal and environmental.
Joshua Bell and I were on tour in SA, and the morning of our recital in Sao Paulo, we were scheduled to visit this school. In the middle of a tightly-packed tour, this visit most certainly felt like an obligation - something both Joshua and I do with the idea of encouraging young musicians, young audiences - but there was a moment of revelation, when we realized that what we were dealing with was something much greater than just a neighborhood social program. Instead, we were enthralled by such beautiful music-making, especially on a group level. These young musicians (teenagers, at most early 20's) were listening to each other and working together on a completely professional level.
Joshua said to them, after an enthusiastic performance of Mendelssohn's Finghal's Cave Overture, that he had not heard that kind of inspired and intense music-making in most of the professional orchestras he plays with.


They caught Josh in the right mood at the right moment, and he accepted to play some of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with them on the spot. It turned out to be not just a part, but in fact the entire piece, and Joshua put in what I felt was a bit of extra energy and focus, carried on the shoulders of these young musicians.


We left the school, being pried away by our chaperons from the crowds of kids demanding pictures and autographs, and stepped into cars that drove us past graffiti-covered buildings, shacks and trash, and finally into the nattier parts of town. We saw a number of students at the concert later that evening, and I wondered if they had been there at the school in the morning. If so, then the school had really succeeded in their mission of converting people and place through the practice of music.