Monday, October 14, 2013

Brazil: Week 32 - Interview with Alex Klein

Joao Pessoa, where the sun rises first in the Americas 
In 2012, Alex Klein was invited to create and run PRIMA here in Paraiba, but his path to this work has been anything but direct and nothing short of remarkable.  Alex grew up in the city of Curitiba, the capital of the southern Brazilian state of Paraná, where he says he grew up as an enfant terrible, and was kicked out of school by 3rd grade.  Ritalin hadn't been invented yet (fortunately, he says) so his parents were forced to find a productive outlet for his boundless energy.  After getting kicked out of swimming classes, his life was changed when he went to a concert at the age of 9 and saw the Argentine oboe player Lido Guarnieri, (who, by the way, taught oboe for many of the early years of El Sistema in Venezuela,) perform a concert and for some reason he felt a strong desire to play this instrument.  By age 13 he was already touring (despite only having a reed to practice on for the first year and a half of lessons), recording at age 15, went to study at the university at 17, and at 19 moved to the US to study at the Oberlin Conservatory, where he later completed his bachelor's degree and an artist's diploma.

Botanical Gardens, Joao Pessoa
After a couple of years teaching at the University of Washington and performing extensively as a soloist, he landed a job as principal oboist in one of the greatest orchestras in the world, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Daniel Barenboim at the time. Alex says it wasn't until the first concert he performed with this orchestra that he really understood what real music-making is, and he then felt that everything he had done before was nowhere close to what he doing as a part of that orchestra.  He became one of the greatest oboe players of all time, even winning a Grammy award for his recording of the Strauss Oboe Concerto with the Chicago Symphony.

But within two years, he started having mysterious health problems.  He started having chest pains, but the doctors couldn't find any reason for them.  He suddenly got the urge to record and be as productive as he could be, recording 1 or 2 albums per year, including recording an oboe concerto written especially for him by his friend Marco Aurelio Yano, who died of brain cancer at the age of 27.  Alex calls the work, which he completed the orchestration of after Yano's death, "probably the most beautiful, the longest, and the most demanding oboe concerto ever written." (You can listen to the recording here.)  A couple years later, after pulling a muscle while waddling like a duck while playing "Peter and the Wolf" in a children's concert, he started to make mistakes he'd never made before in playing repertoire that he had played hundreds of times.  He now had to put in extra hours of practice to maintain the same level playing.  After seeing several doctors, he was diagnosed with focal dystonia, in which a pathway in his brain had somehow been interrupted and he had lost some of the control and independence in the middle and ring fingers on his left hand.  The doctors told him that he would eventually quit the orchestra because of this, which he reluctantly did after 3 more difficult years of struggling with the condition.

Botanical Gardens, Joao Pessoa
At age 40, without a job, unsure of what to do, and unable to do what he spent so much of his life doing, he returned to live with his parents in Curitiba to figure out how to restart his life.  With his reputation and the many great musicians he knows, he decided to start some music festivals, including the Music Festival of Santa Catarina (FEMUSC) which is now the largest of its kind in Latin America.  Additionally, he has taken to conducting, holding posts as music director of the Municipal Theater of São Paulo, the Paraíba Symphony Orchestra, and currently the Ribeirão Preto Symphony Orchestra.

When he was invited to come start PRIMA, he jumped on the opportunity, having been involved with NEOJIBA in Bahia since it's inception, being very interested in education, and loving interacting with children.  Alex came in and first created a very detailed plan for the creation and direction of the project, which of course has been modified as it has been put into action and problems arise.

At less than two years old, Alex says that PRIMA is still in its pilot version and hasn't really begun to "work" yet, and the "real" PRIMA will begin when it begins to truly engage and transform the communities it works in.  There are now close to 1000 students in PRIMA, but by the end of 2014, when all 11 music centers have received their instruments and formed complete symphony orchestras that can play simple arrangements, Alex expects there to be between 3,000-4,000 people involved in PRIMA, a little more than half being students and the rest parents, family members, friends, and other community members that will take on important roles in the program's functioning.

Botanical Gardens, Joao Pessoa
In the long term, because PRIMA is a program funded through the state government's education budget, there is always the fear that it could lose its funding tomorrow, especially if different administration is elected into power.  To ensure its future, they will soon begin a fight to pass a state law guaranteeing its funding and existence, while enabling them to hire teachers to full contracts.  Alex believes that when PRIMA reaches 10,000 participants, then they will really begin to start making a positive impact on the poverty and crime of Paraiba on a large scale.

Because the cities of Paraiba have a lot of pride and traditionally have maintained their own separate identities, Alex said that a program that is centered in the capital city, like El Sistema in Caracas or NEOJIBA in Salvador, would not work here in Paraiba.  Instead, he is using this pride in their local culture and identity to let the students and these communities decide most aspects of how the program is developed and functions at their local music center.  Each center receives the same number and kinds of instruments and will be guided by the PRIMA method, but nearly everything else will be up to each center to decide and implement themselves according to what is most important to them.

Alex is also not very concerned with the cultural impact that PRIMA will have on the state, that should come naturally anyways just by the fact that they are establishing these orchestras.  He is much more concerned withand concentrating his efforts on the educational side, because what use is culture and classical music without also receiving a quality education?  For this reason, the student's academic performance within school is tied to whether or not they get to participate in PRIMA.  If they maintain a poor grade or have discipline problems within the school classroom, their instrument is immediately taken away from them and they are suspended from PRIMA.  For the grand Christmas concert that they are organizing for the end of this year, which will bring together all 11 centers around the state, they purposely scheduled it during final exam week so that any student that does not receive an early approval and high marks will not be able to skip the final exams and will then miss out on the concert.  They are also monitoring the crime rates in the neighborhoods where PRIMA operates, as each was chosen because of their level of crime and danger.  While crime rates have seemingly risen in Venezuela despite the work of El Sistema, Alex is really hoping that PRIMA can reduce the amount of crime in these communities.

It's been hot here lately...
As Alex has lived about half of his life in the United States and the other half in Brazil, I was particularly interested to hear what advice he might have for El Sistema-inspired programs in my native country.  As one of El Sistema's most important goals is to eliminate economic class differences by providing free high-quality music education to those that can't afford it otherwise, he recommends that we begin investing in the poor black communities and strengthen them before mixing in people of other races and economic classes into our El Sistema-inspired programs.  Because classical music and the institution of the orchestra comes originally from Europe, mixing in whites and blacks, for example, in these programs too soon could mean that the blacks will become discouraged, not take as much pride in the music, and not improve as rapidly as the white children as it is harder for them to identify culturally with it.  He thinks that if classical music is a "white thing" then we should first bring the level of performing this music by poor black children up to a level that is on par or better than their white counterparts, much like how El Sistema has proven that young Latino kids can play European classical music better than almost anyone.  This way, it becomes a part of their culture and they take ownership of it.  Once they reach this level, then they can integrate successfully (and perhaps the white kids can learn to play Jazz as good or better than the blacks at the same time.)  This is opposite of what Ricardo Castro at NEOJIBA suggested to me, that we should mix the children at a very early age, beginning music study at the same time together before they become aware of their racial and economic differences.  I'm not sure at this point which strategy, or perhaps a mix of the two, would work best in the US.

Alex also said we should take advantage of the musical resources already in our public schools, but it would be better to keep music as a non-formal activity, one that is not a part of the standard curriculum and hence not subject to the horrors of standardized testing and grading.  This way, the kids have to choose whether they participate or not, and they participate because they enjoy it and are curious to learn more.  This model sounds a lot like most middle school and high school jazz programs that I know, which are completely extra-curricular and voluntary, taking place before or after school.  The question then, of course, is what can El Sistema bring to improve or supplement what we already have in our country?  I'm still very much grappling with that question.

1 comment:

Glenn Thomas said...

Thanks Keane,

So well written, and full of good content. Loved the background on Mr Klein's childhood.

Delving into racial questions is bold, and I salute you for your courage. You presented two views and left us to think.

You are a treasure for the movement- you're first hand accounts are remarkable.

Hoping you are well and encouraged.

Glenn Thomas
Sistema Global