Monday, May 13, 2013

Brazil: Week 11 - Interview with Jony William and Symphonic Festival begins

Jony William (left) and myself with
our Symphonic Festival shirts on
I finally got to interview Jony William, the founder and director of Orquestrando a Vida, this week.  He grew up in Campos and studied piano here as a child before going off to Sao Paulo to study conducting.  Looking for work, he was invited by a friend to become the director of a small social project in a Sao Paulo favela.  Despite many difficulties there, he started a choir for the kids and the entire experience changed his life and his view of music.  He later returned to Campos and started a music school, the Centro Cultura Musical (Center of Musical Culture) which is still going strong after 23 years.  A few years later, Fiorella Solares contacted him and the rest of the story I've already written about.  At this moment, they serve about 700 students and hope to grow by 200 per semester and create a new orchestra.  They also have 52 teachers and monitors as well as 6 orchestral and 4 choral conductors.  In addition to their main headquarters, they have 3 other nucleos around the city, but only one is currently functioning.  These are all in favelas and dangerous neighborhoods, and the ones that aren't running are because of a lack of resources, not being able to buy instruments and other necessary supplies.  I will be making some visits to these nucleos soon.  They also used to have a large program with choirs through 38 schools where the project trained a leader from each school by bringing them to the headquarters twice a week.  Unfortunately, governmental support and funding was cut at some point, although Jony is optimistic that this program will return next semester.  Last year, they also worked with a group of 100 children with attention deficits and learning problems, and the improvement in those students means they will receive another group of 70 more this year.  They are also discussing plans to open nucleos in Vitoria and Vila Velha, which are the largest cities in the state of Espirto Santo, which borders the Campos to the north.

Jony also mentioned to me how the project teaches students about their rights and duties as a citizen.  Last May, the project was without any sponsors and they were on the verge of having to close their doors, so they took to the streets with 3 or 4 thousand people hoping to gain some support from the city government.  They mobilized the families and students and friends, bombarding the city hall with letters and writing editorials in the newspaper.  At the same time, the city was looking to hire and create it's first municipal orchestra and chorus, the first professional orchestra ever for the city, but have it comprised of musicians brought in from outside the city instead of looking towards the musicians already here, which infuriated the people here.  Eventually, the city finally asked Jony if Orquestrando a Vida would administer and run the municipal orchestra and chorus, but Jony would only accept it if the orchestra and chorus would be solely comprised of members of the project, as they have been the dominant, if not the only, force for classical music in the city and nobody would even want a professional orchestra in the city if they hadn't created these youth orchestras.  They now employ almost 90 musicians and administrators and this is how they are currently funded and the municipal orchestra is essentially a smaller version of the top youth orchestra of the project, the Mariuccia Iacovino orchestra (and the kids in the orchestra do get paid.)  Jony believes that if you truly want and believe in something, you need to fight and struggle for it. This is the true meaning of "Tocar e Lutar" ("To Play and to Fight,") the motto of El Sistema.

Venezuelan teacher leading the orchestra
When I asked him what kind of progress El Sistema has made in recent years in Brazil and around the world, Jony told me that 5 years ago he had to write a thesis for a degree and he chose the topic of El Sistema.  He submitted it 4 times and it was rejected all 4 times by the faculty, as they couldn't believe that a Latin American country was truly doing something this important and successfully in classical music.  But he returned and re-submitted this year and it was accepted by everyone on the committee, so there has been a big change in how El Sistema and social music programs are viewed, especially by professional musicians in Brazil.  There have been attempts at creating a network of El Sistema programs in Brazil to work together and help the movement grow, but Jony told me how meetings to discuss this typically end in fierce arguments with nothing getting accomplished.  Jony was in Brasilia a month ago when Abreu and Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff announced an agreement to create 300 El Sistema nucleos in Brasilia, and he tells me that this is a very important step for the El Sistema movement in the country.  By the end of next year, they are planning on having 500,000 kids (!) in these programs in Brasilia, and if it is successful it will be a huge positive example that programs in other states, like here in Rio de Janeiro, can leverage to gain more support and funding.

Mariuccia Iacovino orchestra in rehearsal
I had my first opportunity this week to sit in on a rehearsal of the "Orquestra Escola "(School Orchestra) which is the orchestra comprised of recent beginners, all of a young age (probably around 10 years old.)  The orchestra is conducted by one of the advanced violin students from the top orchestra, and she is helped by several other advanced students that sit in with the young students, play along, and help them out.  In this orchestra of probably 50-60 young kids, there were at least 7 of the older students there to help.  And interestingly enough, it seemed the entire orchestra and rehearsal was directed and managed by these older students, as I never saw an adult enter during the entire rehearsal.

I was also able to sit down this week with Mariana Andrade, who is both the mother of one of the students and a social worker at the project, beginning her work here a little over a month ago.  She told me that more than 50% of the students here come from families from the lowest economic level.  Campos is a very big city in terms of area, covering over 1,500 square miles (about the size of Rhode Island).  While the vast majority of people are clustered in densely populated center, Mariana told me that there are more than 30 districts and Orquestrando a Vida serves kids from 80 different neighborhoods.  Some are more than an hour's drive away and the mothers come with their children, but instead of returning all the way home, they stay until the kids are done, so one of the things she does is an arts and crafts group with the moms to take advantage of their time waiting.  She also sees children and mediates conflicts and helps families to understand the project and what they do here.  They also have a psychologist who usually visits once a week with whom the children can make appointments with.

Venezuelan conductor leading the orchestra
This weekend marked the beginning of the first Symphonic Festival held by the project.  This is basically all for the benefit of the students here, as Campos is not a hotbed of classical music and professional classical musicians, so they have brought in prominent teachers and professionals from Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and a few other places around Brazil, plus 3 from Venezuela, to work with the kids.  It has been really interesting to watch the Venezuelans, who don't know more than a few words of Portuguese, work with the students.  The conductor, for example, just speaks Spanish to the kids, and it seems like everyone still understands it.  I've gotten to speak with the Venezuelans briefly, and hope to interview them, but speaking Spanish now is so hard for me as I've been immersed in Portuguese for the past several months!  The festival continues until Wednesday with several concerts the next few evenings.

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