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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

It has been a rough couple of years in Juarez, the murder capital of Mexico. Drug violence and organized crime are rampant. An estimated quarter of the population has fled and thousands of businesses have closed. This year, for the first time, the city even canceled its Independence Day celebration.

But as NPR's John Burnett reports, the Juarez Symphony Orchestra plays on.

JOHN BURNETT: Tuba player Steve Haddad stands backstage in his tux with some of the other brass players in the Juarez Symphony Orchestra.

Mr. STEVE HADDAD (Tuba Player, Juarez Symphony Orchestra): We are members of the world's most dangerous orchestra. Because Juarez is the world's most dangerous city, that immediately makes us members of the world's most dangerous orchestra.

BURNETT: You just gave me my lead.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of music)

BURNETT: The Symphony Orchestra of the Autonomous University of the City of Juarez was founded five years ago. Then the cartel war broke out, and the city began its descent into lawlessness. But the Juarez Symphony is thriving in spite of the city's 12-a-day homicide rate. Here, they produce more operas than any other Mexican city outside of the capital. They're presenting five operas this year, including "La Boheme" and "The Marriage of Figaro," along with five orchestra concerts.

(Soundbite of music)

BURNETT: How do they do it in a city so inured to violence that headless corpses have become passe and schoolchildren practice diving for cover? The dynamo behind the ambitious music program is the 42-year-old conductor Maestro Carlos Garcia Ruiz.

(Soundbite of music)

BURNETT: A native Chihuahuan, Garcia studied in Vienna, he's guest-conducted orchestras around the world, and he serves as director of the university's burgeoning music program.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. CARLOS GARCIA RUIZ (Conductor, Juarez Symphony Orchestra): When the violence was really increasing, the economy was going down, also we start making more concerts, more operas. And that's why in the same time that the things really is going bad, also we can have a good artistic health.

BURNETT: This is not to say the Juarez Symphony is immune to the violence. Most of its well-heeled local patrons have fled to El Paso, and many professional musicians who live in the U.S. and play for the El Paso and Las Cruces Symphonies refuse to come to Juarez anymore. Their seats were filled with student musicians.

With the city's crime epidemic, orchestra members have been robbed, carjacked and extorted.

Mr. MOMCHIL GOZDOV (Cellist, Juarez Symphony Orchestra): I've received calls trying to extort me, but I didn't pay.

BURNETT: Momchil Gozdov is the principal cellist and a native of Bulgaria. Four Bulgarians play in the Juarez Symphony. They say they love Mexico and this orchestra in particular.

Mr. GOZDOV: It's a light in the darkness.

BURNETT: Though Juarenses are accustomed to locking themselves in their homes after dark, music lovers still come out at night. A chef named Rosa Maria Olivas says she wouldn't miss a concert.

Ms. ROSA MARIA OLIVAS: (Through translator) The orchestra represents enrichment for the soul and the spirit. A moment of peace, a moment of enjoyment in this madness we're living.

BURNETT: One El Paso musician who still has the cojones to play in the world's most dangerous orchestra is trombonist Steve Wilson. He says it's the audiences in Juarez that keep him coming over.

Mr. STEVE WILSON (Trombonist, Juarez Symphony Orchestra): There's been times when we've played two, three encores after a concert. And they'll just keep clapping until basically make us play another piece.

(Soundbite of music, "Jesusita en Chihuahua")

BURNETT: This was the case last month when the symphony played a program of music by Mexican composers to commemorate the Mexican Revolution. After the orchestra finished the crowd favorite, "Jesusita en Chihuahua," the audience gave them such a long encore, they had to play it again.

(Soundbite of music, "Jesusita en Chihuahua")

(Soundbite of applause)

BURNETT: As the ebullient crowd leaves the theater, tuba player Steve Haddad steps down from the riser and smiles with satisfaction.

Mr. HADDAD: You see what we're talking about as far as the appreciative audience. People looking for a refuge anywhere we - they can, and this may be one for the wonderful citizens of Juarez.

BURNETT: There are even bigger plans for 2011. Believing that music has the power not just to revitalize listeners but to rescue a life, there's a plan to take classical music into the most marginalized neighborhoods of Juarez.

Maestro Garcia has been selected by the Federal Counsel for Culture and Arts to create 10 youth music ensembles in the toughest barrios where rootless young men become teenaged assassins. Then once a week, all 200 young musicians from across the city will gather in the concert hall to play as the Juarez Youth Orchestra.

Again, Carlos Garcia.

Mr. GARCIA: We say (foreign language spoken).

BURNETT: Translation: He who has an instrument in his hands in the afternoon won't pick up a weapon at night.

John Burnett, NPR News.

BLOCK: And you can hear a performance by the Juarez Symphony Orchestra at nprmusic.org.

(Soundbite of music)

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