Monday, April 22, 2013

Brazil: Week 7 - Arrival in Campos

Campos: my city, my love.
Campos dos Goytacazes (or just "Campos" for short, as most people call it), where I am spending the next two months working with "Orquestrando a Vida" (Orchestrating Life,) is quite a different city than Rio de Janeiro.  It lies in the northeast part of Rio de Janeiro state, a little less than 200 miles away from the big city, and it took about 4.5 hours on the bus to get there.  I was very anxious to be able to see what the Brazilian countryside looks like through the window of the bus (one of my favorite things about travelling in a new country and not having to drive myself), as I'd only been in the mega-cities of Sao Paulo and Rio so far.  Once we got out of the metropolitan area, the highway shrunk down to a single lane heading each way (and I later found out that this highway, BR 101, which stretches 3000 miles up the coast of Brazil, is nicknamed "A Estrada da Morte" [The Highway of Death] due to the many head-on collisions caused by drivers trying to pass others.)  While Rio reminded me a lot of the big cities of Europe that I have been to, riding this thin highway, combined with the beautiful countryside that I was watching roll past, made me think much more about Nicaragua, the only other country I've been to in Central or South America and the 2nd poorest country in the western hemisphere.

There are lots of these around the city, something
that definitely reminds me of Nicaragua.
Unlike Rio, where I was able to learn a lot about the city, research potential rooms and apartments, stores, restaurants, tourist attractions, etc. online prior to arriving, there is very little, and even less in English, online about living in Campos (in fact, the only thing in English I could find about living there said "It is the worst city I've ever been to, anywhere, in my whole life."  Great, what have I gotten myself into?)  So when I arrived, nearly everything that I had to figure out I did so by talking with people, in person or on the phone.  Campos doesn't receive very many tourists (if any,) so there are no hostels to stay at, and have very little in the way of  mid-term housing options (because who would come to Campos for two months like me?  People either come and stay for a few days in a hotel, or they come to live for at least a year)  And to top it all off, I haven't yet met anyone who has a decent grasp of English.

Needless to say, things were challenging for the first two weeks.  It took me 8 days of searching, and waiting patiently, to find an apartment, and then another 4 days to figure out how to get internet access in my apartment.  It was a steep learning curve for me, and VERY frustrating at times, but I now feel like I can accomplish anything in this country and through speaking the language, and I am very thankful that I was able to get so much help from kind strangers and acquaintances.  I definitely wouldn't say this is the worst city I've ever been to, and I'm starting to settle in here and enjoy it.  It definitely has it's problems and its poverty, but I think this will be a great experience for me being here.

The only thing that I don't like about
the vegetarian restaurant.
The best part was that I found the one and only vegetarian restaurant in the city (actually through facebook) and it's really good and cheap!  I can get a full lunch for about $7 (similar places in Rio cost about double this) and it is open everyday of the week, even Sundays! (when almost everything else in the city is closed.)  It is run by a very nice Asian family.  The first time I walked in, I was greeted by a lady who popped up from behind the counter to say "Oi!" (Hi!) although when I asked her in Portuguese if I was supposed to pay before or after eating, I quickly realized that she only spoke 3 words of Portuguese, "Oi," "Obrigado" (thank you,) and "Tchau" (bye.)  I've already been there maybe 7 times in 3 weeks, and there is a little boy there who is so cute, making it his mission to say "Obrigado, Tchau!" to everyone who leaves.

Despite my preoccupation with finding a place to live, I was able to visit Orquestrando a Vida twice during my first week, although I admit that during my visits I was also asking to see if anyone knew of any apartments for rent.  The main headquarters of the project is located in what used to be essentially a junkyard for cars (and you can even see some old clunkers still in the courtyard,) which the project moved into in December.  Before that they spent years in large house a few blocks away in the same neighborhood, but they simply outgrew it.  The facility has numerous classrooms and several rehearsal spaces, and they even utilize the large courtyard as a rehearsal space, often for more than one orchestra at a time (which sometimes sounds like something a Brazilian Charles Ives' would be proud of.)  The halls inside the building are lined with pictures of Gustavo Dudamel, Jose Abreu, and the Simon Bolivar orchestra when they visited Rio in 2011.  They also have pictures of their trip to New York City and performance in Carnegie Hall, which must have been from only a few years back.  The woman who showed me around, Tamires, mentioned that they have two other nucleos in the city located in much poorer and more dangerous neighborhoods.  Altogether, she said they have about 500 students, but are looking for more as they could serve up to 1000 in this new facility.  They teach all the standard orchestral instruments minus bassoon.

Entrance to the new headquarters of Orquestrando a Vida
During this first visit, I wasn't able to meet the head director or head conductor, as they were both in Brasilia meeting with Abreu, Dudamel, and the Simon Bolivar orchestra during their performance there.  But I was able to meet one of the conductors, Marcos Rangel, who conducts the second-most advanced orchestra at the project, the "Orquestra Sinfonica David Machado" named after the Brazilian conductor and husband of Fiorella Solares (as I talked about in my previous blog post,) after I was able to observe them rehearsing.  Marcos is just about my age, and he himself grew up as a student in the program.  This kind of continuity is something that he stresses as the big difference between this program and other El Sistema-inspired programs around Brazil.  In 15 years here, the program has not grown that much in size, because they wait for the students to grow and become the next generation of teachers, and they can pass down the same ideology to the next generation, instead of bringing in outside musicians and teachers (except, of course, those from El Sistema in Venezuela.)  Marcos has been to Venezuela and seen El Sistema there in person, and he said that he sees no differences between that they do there and the project here.  In fact, and I have gotten this vibe from most people I have talked with so far, that here they consider themselves simply a part of the actual El Sistema, just a little further away.  They don't consider themselves as something inspired or similar to it, but that they are it.
One of the clunkers still left over from when it was a junkyard.
At least they know where to get a brake drum whenever they
need one!

The next night, the top three orchestras gave a short concert in the local municipal theatre, the Teatro Trianon.  The first orchestra to play was the top orchestra, the Orquestra Sinfonica Mariuccia Iacovino, which Marcos conducted as the directors were still in Brasilia.  They played Glinka's "Rusland and Ludmilla Overture" which showcased the group's technical abilities, especially the strings with their rapid-fire scales at the beginning.  They are certainly much more advanced than any of the orchestras I heard in Rio at Ação Social pela Música, though I certainly expected this to be the case.  There are about 85 students in the orchestra, and they certainly play at a high level for their age.  They followed the Glinka up with Bernstein's "Mambo," which has been a favorite encore of the Simon Bolivar Orchestra, and these Brazilians did their best to copy them exactly, complete with all the dancing, choreography, spinning of instruments, even having the cellist kick out the conductor and take over leading the group (I have no idea if the Venezuelans do this last bit.)  They followed that up with Wagner Tiso's "Frevo," another of their "fun" repertoire but this time Brazilian, which also included choreography (and sounded like it could be the theme song of a game show on TV).  In both these last two pieces, however, the percussion drowned out everything except the brass (kind of like a marching band.)
"To Play and to Fight" -the motto of El Sistema

I really wondered why they didn't have this top orchestra go last on the concert with all these fun encore-type pieces, as everything afterwards seemed anti-climactic, but next up was the third best orchestra, the Orquestra Sinfonica Infanto-Juvenil, which was comprised of much younger students about at a level of the best orchestra I saw at ASM.  I also noticed that some kids from the top orchestra sat in and played with these younger kids.  This peer-teaching and mentorship from the more advanced students is something I've been seeing a lot here.  They ended with the Orquestra Sinfonica David Machado playing Brahms "Hungarian Dance No. 5," the theme to "Swan Lake" by Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saëns' "Danse Macabre," and Sibelius's "Finlandia."  Once again, some of the students from the top orchestra played along too, and these were close to, but not quite the original symphonic versions of these pieces.  For example, there was no xylophone "rattling the bones of the dead" in the Saint-Saëns.
Orquestra Sinfonica Maruccia Iacovino - the top orchestra

Orquestra Sinfonica Maruccia Iacovino during
their performance of Bernstein's "Mambo"
The concert was actually very informal, and I believe that most everyone there in the audience was a family member of the performing students.  Many people were videotaping the concerts with their phones and Ipads, and there were camera flashes going off in the performance.  Also strangely, after the final note had been played of the last piece, the audience broke out in wild applause, but became instantly quiet when the conductor left the stage 15 seconds later.  This makes me think most of the audience hadn't been to formal classical music concerts before, and the lady who introduced each ensemble had to ask the audience if they would like to hear an encore!  It was a bit awkward.

I also heard this week that during Abreu, Dudamel, and the Simon Bolivar Orchestra's trip to Brasilia, Abreu met with Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff and Minister of Culture Marta Suplicy.  Besides Abreu receiving Brazil's highest honor from the president, the "Ordem Nacional do Cruzeiro do Sul" (National Order of the Southern Cross,) they agreed on what seem to be some big steps for "El Sistema Brasil," although I don't quite understand it all.  It seems that the Brazilian government is going to fund and create 300 El Sistema nucleos in Brasilia with some support coming from Abreu and Venezuela, and that a new bi-national orchestra of 200 Brazilians and Venezuelans will be formed in December.  Diogo Pereira, who I met last week and was present in Brasilia during the meeting and concert, says that this was the "inauguration ceremony of a huge program," and that it was a "historical day" where "the government understood the values and impact of El Sistema work for the future of education."  Perhaps this is the start of something really big: governmental support for El Sistema in Brazil (!) which nearly everyone I've talked to says is so crucial to making a real impact in this country through music programs.  I'm sure I'll learn more about this in the near future and what kind of impact this is going to have in Brazil! Stay tuned!
Orquestra Sinfonica Infanto-Juvenile - the 3rd most advanced orchestra.

Orquestra Sinfonica David Machado - the 2nd most advanced orchestra.

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