Monday, August 5, 2013

Brazil: Week 22 - Interview with Ricardo Castro, Founder and Director of Neojiba

A child practices piano in a rehearsal hall
in the Castro Alves Theater
Ricardo Castro, the founder and director of Neojiba, let me sit down and interview him this week to learn more about the organization.  Before creating Neojiba, he says that his story is of the typical successful classical pianist.  He was born in the interior of Bahia but grew up in Salvador, started playing piano at age 3 and had a natural knack for it.  He saved enough money to go to Europe at age 18 and studied there, then started winning competitions (including the Leeds Piano Competition in 1993,) recorded CDs, performed with orchestras all around the world, and made friends with other pianists like Martha Argerich, Friedrich Gulda, Alicia de Larrocha, and Nelson Freire.  But being around older pianists like this showed him that something was missing in this life of a traveling concert pianist and that it could be very lonely.  What seemed to be missing for him was teaching and collaborating.  In the early 90s, he took a post teaching masterclasses for one week a month at a conservatory in Switzerland, a position he still holds, and started a piano duo with the Portuguese pianist Maria Joao Pires.  Through Pires, who shares many of his views on collaborative music and how it can be used socially, Castro was able to learn about a music project that she developed in Portugal and began to visit similar projects in Bahia to help.

But it was finally in 2005 when he traveled to Venezuela to perform and saw El Sistema in person that he was inspired to create something on his own.  As El Sistema developed in a South American country that is very similar to Brazil in many ways, this gave him the courage to try to create a similar project in Bahia.  He met Jose Abreu who told him that if he started an orchestra, then they would send him a conductor and teachers to help them get off the ground.  When he returned to Bahia, he started telling everybody about El Sistema and how he wanted to create something similar here.  One of the friends he shared this wish with was Marcio Meirelles, a theater artist who soon after was appointed Secretary of Culture for the state of Bahia.  The government then invited Castro to create the project in 2007.

He started with one assistant and a budget of about US$100,000 (which today is now 33 employees and a budget of more than US$3 million.)  Through the media he put out a call out for youths to come and audition for a new youth orchestra.  They had about 60-70 youths audition and chose about half of them, not just on their technical ability but on how teachable they were.  Castro describes their musical level upon entering as being able to play scales or music at their church at a basic level.  Some of them were students that were left over from a failed state-funded youth orchestra in a favela that was of very poor quality and hardly known in the rest of the city.  Other were students from the Federal University of Bahia that graduated but had not been sufficiently trained to create a career in music.

'Saint Anthony Orchestra and Choir'
CESA nucleo in Simões Filho 
Castro then assigned 12 of them to be section leaders and brought them to Venezuela for a week of immersion in El Sistema methodology.  There they witnessed the amazing youth orchestras and were inspired by they could accomplish themselves in the near future.  They returned to Bahia with "El Sistema in their veins," as he put it, and Abreu sent a 25 year-old conductor named Manuel Lopez Gomez (who is currently here in Salvador this week to lead the orchestra in their first performance of a symphony by Gustav Mahler on Wednesday) who in just 15 days took these kids whom had never played together and gave a concert in the Castro Alves Theatre in which Castro says was filled with people crying because they couldn't believe that this was possible, that Bahia youths could play in an orchestra and play so well.

8 months later, they recorded a DVD of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 and an arrangement of Stravinsky's "Firebird" Suite, which gave them the power to grow.  Castro's connections throughout Europe enabled them to create a tour and became the first Brazilian youth orchestra to perform in Europe, just 3 years after their founding, and their focus on high quality has enabled them to always meet or exceed people's expectations.  The growth in the quality of the orchestra in just a few short years has been nothing short of amazing.

Creating the best possible youth orchestra first has always been Neojiba's strategy.  While I had pointed out that holding auditions for the top orchestras of Neojiba seemed contrary to El Sistema's philosophy, Castro has convinced me of the necessity of his method.  Not only did creating the best orchestra they could as quickly as possible give them lots of visibility and a good reputation for quality, it has set a standard for the youth of Bahia to strive for, a standard which has never been there before.  When Castro grew up in Salvador, he says he barely practiced because there was the beach, the heat, no in-tune pianos, no one else that played at a high level, etc.  But now, kids all over Bahia are practicing and studying because they want to make it into this orchestra one day.  For some of these kids now, their greatest goal is now to play Mahler's Symphony No. 1, whereas 6 years ago they didn't know anything about classical music.

Additionally, he believes that this is how Abreu started El Sistema, which was founded in 1975 and in 1977 their top orchestra performed at a festival in Scotland and returned home with a prize, more support, and were welcomed with governmental funding, (although in Neojiba's case, Castro says that he would follow this method whether or not they had government funding.)  What they are doing is creating a demand for classical music and orchestras from the bottom up through the grassroots, the opposite of creating a law requiring music education for all children as has been created in Brazil but has not been implemented or enforced at all.      

Cello class at the CESA nucleo
Neojiba has put much more emphasis quality over quantity first.  Castro did not want this to develop into a project where they reach 10,000 kids but all of them play poorly.  He was criticized at the beginning because they only had 140 after the first year or two.  But from these 140 students came 40 good teachers which then when on to teach many more students, and it is only now, 6 years into the project, when they are starting to really grow their numbers.  They also bring in the best musicians and teachers from around the world, such as members of the Berlin Philharmonic, to inspire music-making at an ever higher level.

Castro is glad that there are other El Sistema-inspired projects in Brazil, and he hopes they will continue to grow, but he has set the still ambitious yet realistic goal of creating such a system just for the state of Bahia now, which is larger than many countries and is home to over 14 million people.  The biggest challenge that they have faced has been a lack of infrastructure throughout the state, as there simply is very little designed for classical music or the arts, and as bad as it is in Salvador, the rest of Bahia is much worse.  For example, he told me that outside of Salvador, Bahia only has 6 movie theaters.  While they have been housed in the Castro Alves Theater, it really does not have adequate space for them and they have spent the last 4 years trying to get their own theater.  The quality of music teaching that already exists in Bahia is very low, and children's access to music is "catastrophic," as he puts it.  Additionally, here in such a hot and humid climate, a spacious rehearsal hall with air-conditioning is an absolute necessity to be able to perform advanced repertoire.  He even goes so far to say that it was impossible to perform a Mahler symphony in the tropics before the invention of air-conditioning.  

Brazilians have a stereotype of being rather lazy and loving the beach and parties, but this stereotype is most prominent here in Bahia, especially with regards to poorer people.  As a result, very few believed that poor Bahian children could create classical music at a high level, but Neojiba has shown that this stereotype is unwarranted and can disappear once these kids are given the opportunity and the infrastructure.  (It seems very similar to our stereotype in the US due to the achievement gap between rich and poor students, something which KIPP schools have proven exists because of a lack of opportunities for learning outside of school.)

Cello student at CESA nucleo
Another challenge they face is connecting more with the various regional cultural identities within Bahia itself.  The region here in Salvador and around the Bay of All Saints has a huge African influence, but the interior has much more of a Hispanic influence, while the far north of the state has a prominent culture centered around Forro music.  They haven't had time to do much yet on this front, but in the future they plan on connecting the world of the orchestra with these regional cultures and their popular music styles in a way that still maintains a very high artistic quality.

Castro also thinks that creating this in Salvador has actually been harder in some ways than it was in Caracas, with that city being the national capital, had a few more and better professional orchestras than Salvador, and had better existing infrastructure.  He believes that if they had started this project in Sao Paulo, it would be much easier.  They would run into much less resistance, have much better infrastructure, and take advantage of a more developed culture of classical music.  He doesn't know whether we could have a national system of projects across all of Brazil within 30 years, but he does know that there will be many more orchestras created around Bahia in the future.

I asked him if he had any advice for El Sistema programs in the US, and his answer was something I hadn't considered before yet I think is very important to consider.  He has been to Los Angeles and seen the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles and noticed that this project and other El Sistema programs in the US seem to be exclusively dedicated to minority populations and poor communities.  The US already has a very developed system of youth orchestras, but very few minority and poor students are members of these ensembles because they don't have the same opportunities nor can they afford it.  Because the US is such a stratified and racially segregated country still in many ways (much more so than Brazil,)  instead of creating orchestra programs just for these excluded populations, he suggests creating integrated orchestras.  Start when the kids are very young and haven't learned the racial and economic differences between them, take them from both rich and poor neighborhood and bring them to a neutral location, give them the same shirts to wear, and have everything equal, so that they will grow together and become friends through music across their differences.  Thinking more about this, bringing children from well-to-do families might also bring the opportunity to raise funds from these families as well, because they are in a position to contribute financially as well.  I think this is certainly something programs in the US should think about.

Violin class at the CESA nucleo
At the end of the week, I made my first trip to one of Neojiba's satellite nucleos.  This one is called CESA which stands for "Centro Educação de Santo Antonio" ("Saint Anthony Education Center") and is located in the city of Simões Filho, which borders Salvador.  CESA is a public school that has several buildings on its small campus.  Children have school classes either just in the morning or the afternoon, so Neojiba has created a partnership with them since 2011 to offer free music classes during the opposite session, so either before school or after school.  There are 140 students here in the music program currently.  On Monday and Wednesday they have a choir for the younger students aged 7-10 years, and for the older children, ages 10-16, they have a string orchestra and theory classes on Tuesday and Thursday and sectionals/group lessons on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.  Many of the teachers are members of the top orchestras at the central nucleo in Salvador.

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