American Seeks to Put Bolivia on the Musical Map

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Reese Erlich reports from La Paz, Bolivia, on an American conductor directing a major Bolivian symphony. Through Andean folk music, David Handel has appealed to indigenous residents and hopes to make Bolivia a destination for world-class symphonic music.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, writer David Gregory Smith has a hit novel, "Dinner with a Perfect Stranger." We'll have a conversation.

First, though, to La Paz, Bolivia, where an American is changing the country's music scene. Originally from Buffalo, New York, David Handel is music director of the Bolivian National Symphony Orchestra in La Paz. They are playing to good crowds these days. David Handel has commissioned imaginative arrangements of Andean folk music and tried to bring in some of Bolivia's indigenous people. Reporter Reese Erlich has been listening, too.

(Soundbite of music)

REESE ERLICH reporting:

A few years ago, the National Symphonic Orchestra of Bolivia was in pretty bad shape. Musicians were underpaid, the orchestra had no permanent concert hall and the quality of the music wasn't great. But that didn't discourage David Handel, a native of Buffalo, New York, who became the orchestra's music director in 1997.

Mr. DAVID HANDEL (Music Director, National Symphony Orchestra of Bolivia): Des Moines, Iowa, isn't the center of symphonic activity on an international scale. Nonetheless, the orchestra in Des Moines is outstanding. Today, you know, you'll find fine orchestras virtually anywhere in the world. The question is: Can you really make something dynamic happen? And that was what was interesting.

(Soundbite of music)

ERLICH: Like many symphony orchestras around the world, Bolivia's relied on an audience of well-off and educated classical music lovers. But Handel wanted to make the orchestra relevant to Bolivians who had never attended a classical concert. He commissioned symphonic orchestrations of traditional Andean music, such as this composition, "Romance of Guadal Cavir(ph)," performed with folksinger Enriquetta Olor(ph).

(Soundbite of "Romance of Guadal Cavir")

Ms. ENRIQUETTA OLOR: (Singing in foreign language)

ERLICH: Michael Morgan, music director of the East Bay Symphony in Oakland, California, knew David Handel when they both worked in Chicago. He says some of the best orchestras in the world are trying to become more relevant to non-traditional audiences.

Mr. MICHAEL MORGAN (Music Director, East Bay Symphony): The trick is to take your orchestra and, through a combination of old and new, build up a repertoire that is of interest to as many people as possible who live right around the orchestra. And then once you get the word out that you are being that sort of inclusive and inviting, then you start to get a reputation as being a welcoming place and your audiences will start to get bigger and more diverse.

(Soundbite of "Romance of Guadal Cavir")

Ms. OLOR: (Singing in foreign language)

ERLICH: Handel did exactly that when he took the National Symphony outside the downtown La Paz concert halls where it had always performed and drove up the road to El Alto.

Mr. HANDEL: El Alto has the largest community of people of indigenous origin in Latin America concentrated in a city which is poor. So I felt: `What more striking gesture could we make than to say that this is your symphony?' And they had vehicles with megaphones announcing, `The National Symphony will be performing at 8:00 in the basketball arena.'

ERLICH: David Handel performs with a number of South American orchestras and encourages them to incorporate their own musical traditions. This composition, "Alma Il Anera(ph)," was performed by the Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, with Handel as guest conductor.

(Soundbite of "Alma Il Anera")

ERLICH: Michael Morgan says an orchestra performs better when the music reflects its own culture.

Mr. MORGAN: You get much more incisive and vibrant string-playing, for example, out of the orchestra because they know what every second of the piece means. That's really important. And it's really important for an audience to feel as though it's reflected in what it hears from the stage.

ERLICH: Morgan says Handel has long understood the importance of performing both the European classics and new works from local communities.

Mr. MORGAN: He was picking up on this fact even before he left Chicago, an orchestra that embraces and engages its community. That's the orchestra that not only will survive, but that's the orchestra that should survive.

(Soundbite of music)

ERLICH: The National Symphonic Orchestra of Bolivia now has its own concert hall in La Paz and plays a full season. This year, it will travel throughout Bolivia and has scheduled regional tours in Peru and Chile. For NPR News, I'm Reese Erlich.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. There's more coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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