And now for something completely different

Rodrigo Guerrero, the International Affairs Coordinator Deputy Director of International Affairs for Fesnojiv, is fond of telling people that I’m the only person he knows who has ever said: “I can’t wait to get back to Acarigua.” He’s joking, of course, the suggestion being that Acarigua is essentially the Venezuelan equivalent of Podunk, but I remind him and others (again) that it’s not where you are, but what you’re able to do there that counts.

So if I were to say I’m in the middle of nowhere, or rather, the middle of rural nowhere (since it’s possible to confuse Indianapolis with the former) with an orchestra of young people preparing Beethoven Symphony No. 5 in a cowshed, it might be a safe assumption that I’m back where I was just over 2 weeks ago. But no, even I am somewhat surprised to find I’m currently in Salzau, Germany, participating in the Schleswig Holstein Music Festival meisterkurse with Iván Fischer, principal conductor of the National Symphony in Washington DC.

Even beyond the setting and the weather (it’s about 15-20C cooler here than it was in Venezuela) comparisons are inevitable. This might be the middle of German nowhere, it might be rural, but it certainly isn’t rustic. The cowshed has been transformed into an admirable performance space, properly lit and climate controlled, fully sheltered from the elements. There are at least a dozen festival staff members to coordinate all the activities, not just two or three overworked managers, and the musicians perform from beautiful new Bärenreiter parts, not 14th generation Breitkopf miniaturized photocopies.

In some ways it’s nice being able to focus on the music entirely, without the environmental and material challenges we faced in Acarigua, but at times it feels as though there’s something absent from the experience. It’s Tocar y Lograr here, not Tocar y Luchar and definitely not Luchar y Lograr. There was a moment in rehearsal this morning when Fischer, exasperated at the less-than-enthusiastic playing of the extremely talented orchestra, had the musicians stand as they played the opening measures of the finale of the Beethoven. In a wonderful analogy, he likened the transition between the third and fourth movements (from c minor to C major) to the image of a sole revolutionary (Símon Bolívar?) standing up out of the crowd, inspiring another to do the same, and another, and another, until the gloriously cataclysmic moment when everyone is standing, musically liberated.

Perhaps it was the novelty of playing while standing (contrabasses, cellos and bassoons excepted) or the power of the image, or both, but only then did the orchestra start to get it.  Celebrating that moment emotionally didn’t come naturally or easily. When the orchestra in Acarigua played those first C major chords in the final performance, it was glorious and cataclysmic because the musicians had worked so hard, had overcome so much to get to that moment.

It’s not about how technically challenging the work is (it may make my Acarigueñan friends smile to know that this exceptional orchestra here had a lot of trouble with bars 90-132 in the Scherzo too) or how many mosquitoes were swatted or how many rainstorms interrupted, it’s what the act of coming together to make music together represents. I’ve said it before and I will say it again: struggle without success may be demoralizing, but success without struggle is meaningless. And I … would prefer my work to be meaningful, and in multiple dimensions. Unless I’m conducting one of the great, great orchestras (which I probably never will, being realistic), Beethoven Symphony No. 5 represents a paycheque for the musicians and two hurried, inadequate rehearsals for me.  (The two are related, of course.) When we performed it in Acarigua, it was Everest, and we planted our flag on the summit.

One thought on “And now for something completely different

  1. Great Job Jonathan. I’ve been reading your blog and following your adventures in Venezuela. Once you see/experience being there (tocando y luchando), then you think that many things are possible in this life and almost everywhere…
    Regards,
    Regina Giraldo

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