Almost a year after playing New York's fabled Carnegie Hall, several members of the Utah Symphony performed at a venue their music director, Thierry Fischer, deemed equally important to the orchestra's mission: the Dessaix-Baptiste Music School in Jacmel, Haiti.
Fischer and the 16 players spent their spring break, March 26-April 2, in Jacmel as mentors to 113 music students and teachers, creating the first-ever Haitian National Orchestral Institute. Utah Symphony cellist John Eckstein and violinist Yuki MacQueen spearheaded the project in cooperation with the nonprofit BLUME Haiti — Building Leaders Using Music Education.
In addition to volunteering their time and paying their own airfare, the musicians raised nearly $30,000 to cover transportation, room and board for the students, who came from all over Haiti. They also rounded up more than a dozen instruments to donate to the cause.
"I'm grateful to John and Yuki, who had the vision to build such a huge project," Fischer said afterward. "It was very moving to see what we could bring through music to the kids in Haiti."
Eckstein, MacQueen and Utah Symphony oboist James Hall spent a couple of weeks in Haiti last July volunteering with BLUME Haiti, whose founder and president, Janet Anthony, is a longtime friend of Eckstein's. Fellow Utah Symphony members who followed MacQueen's Facebook updates about the project started asking how they could get involved; before long, Eckstein had assembled a roster covering nearly every instrument in the orchestra. He emailed Fischer to give him a heads-up and ask if he had any advice. The conductor instead declared he'd like to go along.
"I had been confronted with poverty, but it had been a while," said Fischer, who spent half his childhood in Zambia and Ivory Coast as the son of Christian missionaries from Switzerland.
Joining Eckstein, MacQueen, Hall and Fischer were violinists Claude Halter, David Langr and David Porter, violists Roberta Zalkind and Whittney Thomas, cellist Anne Lee, bassist Jens Tenbroek, flutist Mercedes Smith, clarinetist Lee Livengood, bassoonist Leon Chodos, hornist Stephen Proser, trumpeter Jeff Luke and percussionist Eric Hopkins. Because the Utah Symphony was conducting trombone auditions back in Salt Lake City that week, the Detroit Symphony's David Binder stepped in. Also in the delegation were Canes Nicolas, a BLUME Haiti alumnus who is now a visiting assistant professor of music at Southern Utah University and served as Fischer's assistant conductor in Jacmel; Scott Harrison, executive director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, who instructed students in arts management; Salt Lake City luthier John Paul Lucas, who taught string-instrument repair; and Proser's 16-year-old daughter, Helena, who volunteered to teach English as a second language. "I told her, 'You have to find a job; if I'm working, so are you,' " the elder Proser said.
Anthony, who spends 2 ½ to three months in Haiti every year ("not all, but a good number of my vacation days"), said she isn't aware of another endeavor on this scale by any other American orchestra in Haiti. "Especially with their music director coming, it was really just extraordinary," she said in a phone interview from her office in Appleton, Wis., where she teaches cello at Lawrence University.
The first four days of the institute included four-hour sectional rehearsals and private instruction — mostly on the wharf or in other outdoor locations — and afternoon rehearsals with the full orchestra. "We were not really counting," Fischer said. "We said we'd rehearse until we were tired. They were never tired."
"These kids want to play," Luke said. "They'd listen to every word and work on it more the more things you gave them. That made it very rewarding."
Fischer said the students' work ethic and eagerness to learn quickly dispelled any qualms about "talking about intonation when they don't have a roof over their heads." Beyond musical technique, he hopes the lessons learned at the institute strengthened skills and traits the students can use throughout their lives: "persistence, consistency, determination, discipline."
The institute faculty played chamber music at the school Thursday night, then Fischer and Lamothe led the students in music of Gabrieli, Schubert, Beethoven, Grieg and Haitian composer Ludovic Lamothe at a nearby church on Friday night.
Even more than the young musicians' work ethic in rehearsal, Luke and Langr said they were impressed with their ambition to study in the U.S. — not just for themselves, but so they could return to Haiti and teach others. Independent of one another, several orchestra members started fundraising and networking to secure additional opportunities for their students as soon as they got home.
"The fan-out effect is a big part of all this," Eckstein said. "We hope by teaching hundreds we're touching thousands."
"What John started will have a profound impact on the musical and cultural life of the country," Anthony said. There is heightened interest in establishing a national orchestra in Haiti, but "it's hard to know what that actually means," she acknowledged. "To do it right would take government support. But the Ministry of Culture did send representatives" to the closing concert.
"A lot of music administrators talked to us about the idea of using music as a tool for social development," Anthony said. "So many people tell us they want to give young people trumpets and violins instead of guns and knives."