Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Most Dangerous Orchestra in the World?

This afternoon, NPR had a segment on their show (All Things Considered) about the UACJ (Universidad Autonoma de Ciudad Juarez) Orchestra.  Juarez is, of course, one of the most dangerous cities in the world, if not the most dangerous.  Violence has gotten out of control – to a point way beyond what anyone anticipated - and the authorities are overwhelmed.  The violence is amplified by the fact that, more often than not, it is unpredictable.  In that context, about five years ago, a symphony orchestra was formed by a young but experienced conductor from Mexico City, the Juarez University, and about 45 intrepid musicians from Chihuahua City, Ciudad Juarez, and the U.S.  Northern Mexico had few trained classical musicians so finding players from this side of the border was crucial. Everything we now play is being heard live for the first time. We played Beethoven’s Ninth two years ago – that was a premiere for Juarez.  We did Beethoven’s Fifth – same thing. We played Carmina Burana two weeks ago – same thing.  From Bach to Vivaldi to Mozart to Puccini – everything is a premiere.  We presented the Nutcracker ballet last year for the first time and (the demand was so great) we had to add an extra performance this year.  Every opera we have ever done is a first for Juarez – we double as a pit orchestra and we have already played eight or nine different operas.  We are not the Berlin Philharmonic (not even close) but everything we play is received enthusiastically – mostly to sold-out houses in a theatre that accommodates 1800 concert goers.  The theatre is just eight minutes from the border (by car) but there is no guarantee you’ll make it there (and back) safely.  Since many of the American players have frequent engagements in the U.S., the orchestra’s schedule has to be designed so as not to interfere with concerts on this side.  Last Spring, due to several well-publicized murders, more than half of the American contingent refused to venture South again but replacements have been found (though we could use two more viola players.)  The great irony in all this is that while our audiences in Juarez cheer wildly after concerts there, our sparse audiences here – in the safest city in the U.S. – only applaud politely.  I give our magnificent Juarez audiences lots of credit because I know that beyond the courage it takes to play the concerts, it takes courage to attend them.  (Violin photo courtesy of Daniel Houck)

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