Connecting Across Continents

October 1, 2019
Erich Burnett
Orquesta Participativa large group of singers and musicians on stage.
Members of Oberlin's traveling contingent were treated like celebrities in advance of their performance with Orquesta Participativa. Photo credit: Sophia Diez-Zhang

College and conservatory students teach a community orchestra in Uruguay.

Alison Chan’s first musical experience as an Oberlin student happened 5,300 miles from campus and three weeks before the start of her first class.

In early August, Chan was one of three Oberlin students who took part in an 11-day trip to the South American nation of Uruguay for a collaboration with musicians in a community orchestra. Their excursion was made possible through the generosity of their host city of Mercedes and the efforts of Oberlin parents dedicated to supporting advocacy and volunteer initiatives for students.

Chan, a first-year student in the College of Arts and Sciences, grew up in Oberlin studying violin and chamber music at the Oberlin Community Music School. She was joined in Uruguay by double-degree student Gabriel Cruz-Ruiz, a second-year flute performance and chemistry major who also performs in Oberlin's Brazilian Ensemble. Also making the trip was second-year college student Sophia Diez-Zhang, who chronicled the experience in photos and video. Her parents, Uruguay native Virginia Diez and husband Kevin Zhang, were driving forces behind the trip.

The students were accompanied by Louise Zeitlin, an associate professor of community engagement from the conservatory.

For a week, Chan and Cruz-Ruiz worked with members of Orquesta Participativa de Soriano and conductor Nacho Algorta, who was preparing the ensemble for a performance with a city choir and the famous Uruguayan singer Chacho Ramos.

The concept for the collaboration was developed by Diez shortly after she learned about Oberlin’s longtime ties to the nation of Panama, where conservatory students have worked with a community orchestra every year for the past three decades. Diez’s connection to Algorta made the Uruguay experience possible.

“With this trip, I was trying to tie together all the threads of my life,” she says. “It is so rewarding that I can help create bridges between a college I really believe in and people who have shared values. It accomplishes something that is very close to my heart.”

For Algorta and other Uruguayan arts advocates, moments such as these have been years in the making. Older residents of the region recall a period between 1973 and 1985 known as “The Dirty War,” which was marked by severe violations of human rights toward citizens of Uruguay and other South American countries. Music and literature of the era were heavily censored, and the art of songwriting—a fabled pastime in Uruguay—had dissolved almost completely out of fear of government retaliation.

For many years since, the nation’s arts have enjoyed a steady period of recovery amid a growing wave of nationalism, and Algorta’s orchestra—created in hopes of reviving joy through music—has been a major beneficiary of this enthusiasm. Spanish for “the Participatory Orchestra,” Orquesta Participativa welcomes performers of all backgrounds and abilities (its concertmaster, for one, is an electrician), and its roster consists of a decidedly unconventional assortment of instruments.

Chan and Cruz-Ruiz led daily private lessons, master classes, and sectional rehearsals with musicians young and not so young, in addition to their contributions as members of the orchestra. Chan also led a workshop on violin playing, Cruz-Ruiz discussed the music and history of his native Puerto Rico, and Zeitlin presented on music pedagogy for a group of teachers from the Mercedes Conservatory.

After experiencing the visitors’ workshops and a private lesson with Chan, a 12-year-old violinist vowed to take her lessons more seriously from now on—because “I want to be like Alison when I grow up,” as she put it. Hers was just one of many displays of appreciation throughout the week. Even the media took notice.

“The trip was an amazing learning and cultural experience,” says Zeitlin, who serves as director of the Community Music School, which is operated by Oberlin Conservatory. “All of us from Oberlin were a bit like celebrities, giving frequent interviews for the newspaper, radio, and TV. This exposure was a great experience for our students.”

The trip also underscored Oberlin’s commitment to providing exceptional opportunities for students in the College of Arts and Sciences to experience music in meaningful ways. In addition to the college’s Musical Studies major, Arts and Sciences students are eligible to take a number of conservatory theory and musicology classes and to perform in numerous small and large ensembles. Each semester, more than 300 students in the college also take courses in the conservatory—and Chan, in only her first semester at Oberlin, already is among them.

For her, the trip was one of two musical milestones over the summer: In June, she took part in a tour of Austria, Slovakia, and Hungary as a member of the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra. Her August experience in Uruguay, to her own surprise, ultimately overshadowed the European adventure.

“Working in the Uruguay program was the best experience of my life,” she says. “It gave me the chance to teach, perform, learn, and make connections. I would consider working there now, and I would not have thought of that before the trip.

“The final performance was the first time I’ve played in a concert where the audience responded so much,” Chan says, recalling a throng with arms waving in the air and colored lights more typical of a rock concert. “I’ve played a lot of classical concerts, but classical audiences don’t usually sing along!”

View Sophia Diez-Zhang’s additional photos.

Parents interested in learning more about supporting the Oberlin experience are encouraged to contact Amy Raufman, director of Parent and Family Giving, at araufman@oberlin.edu.

Orquesta Participativa in Concert

Oberlin students and PACE professor Louise Zeitlin took part in this August 15, 2019, performance by Orquesta Participativa, a community orchestra in Mercedes, Uruguay.

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