LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
It's Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And I'm Renee Montagne. In Bolivia there's a movement brewing, but has nothing to do with political turmoil that's plagued the South American country in the past. Instead, it's about music, classical music played by a little known but up-and-coming orchestra. It's spreading the sounds of Bach and Beethoven across the capital and even into some of Bolivia's most forgotten places. NPR's Juan Forero reports from La Paz, Bolivia.
(Soundbite of orchestra tuning up)
JUAN FORERO: The concert hall is sparkling new: new wood floors, row upon row of soft new seating, new lighting, even a new heating system. And David Handel's orchestra is rehearsing the works of one of his favorite composers, Brahms.
(Soundbite of song "21 Hungarian Dances")
FORERO: Welcome to Bolivia's National Symphony Orchestra, high in the Bolivian Andes. Its musicians were once a struggling ragtag group of artists who moonlighted in local clubs, and when they played classical, it was in local gymnasiums or worse. Now, the orchestra has its own concert hall, a concert hall that was once part vaudeville theater, part porn cinema.
(Soundbite of hammer)
FORERO: It's still being renovated, but now the work is just months away from completion, thanks to $3 million in donations. Handel is an American born in Buffalo, New York, and he's been a conductor for a decade. He provides visitors with a personalized tour of the new performance space.
Mr. DAVID HANDEL (Conductor, Orquesta Sinfonica Nacional Bolivia): (Breathing heavily) And as you can see, we've completely torn down a part of the building, of the old building, a 19-century building, and rebuilding it part by part to reflect the needs of the orchestra. And of course, I'm out of oxygen, because we're at 12,000 feet...
FORERO: To an American symphony, having its own concert hall may not sound like such a big deal. But just a few years ago, the orchestra here scrounged to pay its musicians a few bucks per performance, and it held, on good years, no more than 10 concerts attended by 2,000 people, tops. Jose Hurtado plays the viola and has been with the orchestra about 15 years.
Mr. JOSE HURTADO (Viola, Orquesta Sinfonica Nacional Bolivia): We can show that the orchestra exist. Before we used to play for five, six times a year, and the people here in La Paz, maybe they didn't know that the orchestra was playing. Now, I can say the orchestra is much better than five years ago or 10 years ago.
FORERO: The orchestra was founded at the end of World War II; its founding members, Jews from Austria and Poland. Their philosophy was that classical music speaks to everyone, even here in the center of South America, far from European high culture. Then came hard times; interest waned and the orchestra found itself in crisis. David Handel came as a guest conductor, then was asked to take over. It was an unconventional path for a violinist who trained with the great German conductor Kurt Mazur. But Handel said it offered a unique opportunity, to build an orchestra from scratch and to experiment. The first thing he did was go back to basics, under the theory that everyone loves the classics, no matter that this is a country where the majority of people come from indigenous communities that have not received wide exposure to European master works.
Mr. HANDEL: It's the national symphony; it really ought to represent everyone in the country. And it's a country that demographically is very diverse. So, we - one of our first initiatives was to take the orchestra to El Alto.
FORERO: El Alto is poor; it is also vast, with almost 800,000 people, and most of its residents are Aymara Indians. But they and similar communities around Bolivia have packed concerts and loved the music, whether it's Tchaikovsky, Strauss or an arrangement that includes Bolivian composers. Juan Ortega is the president of the orchestra foundation, which raises money and organizes concerts. He's watched as the number of people attending has increased 12-fold in a decade, but he says more needs to be done to make the orchestra more accessible to audiences and more professional at the same time. It means raising more money.
Mr. JUAN ORTEGA LLANDA (President, Fundacion Orquesta Sinfonica Nacional Bolivia): We have to make more affordable, more sustainable, all this plan, to make more presentation in such a way that we get more money which have to go to the musicians.
FORERO: That's because, even now, many of the musicians in the orchestra have to teach or play on the side to make ends meet.
(Soundbite of rhythm being counted)
FORERO: Still, the musicians say they're working harder than ever, driven by Handel's demanding rehearsals and inspired by the orchestra's new found promise. Juan Forero, NPR News, La Paz.
(Soundbite of song "21 Hungarian Dances")
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