An American Conductor's Bolivian Composition

"The idea was, if it's the National Symphony, it really ought to represent everyone in the country," conductor David Handel says. (By Juan Forero -- The Washington Post)
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By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 18, 2008

LA PAZ, Bolivia -- He had apprenticed with legendary German conductor Kurt Masur and conducted youth orchestras in Chicago. Then, almost on a lark, David Handel, an American violinist, came to this isolated capital in the center of South America -- a city 12,000 feet above sea level, seemingly stuck in a time warp and, with its enormous indigenous majority, not exactly a hotbed for Bach and Stravinsky.

Handel remembers that when he arrived in 1997, the National Symphony Orchestra he was hired to remake was a shambles -- it had no concert hall, generated little public interest and was barely able to muster seven or eight sparsely attended concerts a year and pay its musicians a few dollars per performance.

It could have been, Handel recalled with a wry smile, a calamitous career move. Instead, it has become his life's work, molding a ragtag group of musicians into a highly competent orchestra.

Handel, then 33, saw it as a unique, if entirely unconventional, opportunity. "My aim was to conduct an orchestra and make a big social impact," he said.

Indeed, Handel could teach, experiment and construct from the ground up, and in the process bring the music he loves to barren, forgotten corners of a poor country that some dismissed as a wasteland for high culture. Handel began by taking the orchestra on tour, the first stop being El Alto, an extensive warren of adobe and cinder-block homes with a population of 800,000 -- and considered Latin America's most indigenous city.

"When we started out, the orchestra's public was tiny; the orchestra itself was tiny," said Handel, now 44. "The idea was, if it's the National Symphony, it really ought to represent everyone in the country, and it's a country that demographically is very diverse."

The orchestra's eclectic group of musicians -- some of them teachers, others part-time mariachis, a handful of them university students -- traveled across the high plains to Oruro, a mining town where nearly everyone is Aymara Indian. They also played in Bolivia's lush Amazonian lowlands and in resource-rich Tarija in the south, regions with a rich musical tradition, but folkloric music, heavy on windpipes and melancholic lyrics. While some in La Paz advised Handel to "Bolivianize" the orchestra, he said it was vital to stick to what orchestras do, play masterworks, while building a mixed repertoire that includes Bolivian composers.

"The point was that you don't talk down to your public; you speak to your public, you express to your public on the same level," he said. Recalling his first concert in El Alto, on an old basketball court, Handel said he was not sure what Bolivians would make of a repertoire heavy on the classical workhorses, such as Beethoven and Tchaikovsky.

"It was completely European," he said, "and people loved it."

With a shaved head and piercing blue eyes, Handel, who as a young man trained with Masur at the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, couldn't on the surface seem more out of place in this country of 9 million. But in his trips throughout Latin America -- Handel has been guest conductor for 40 orchestras in many countries -- he's learned to speak nearly flawless Spanish, complete with the soft cadence of most Bolivians.

Perhaps most importantly, he has become something of an expert in Bolivian music, easily pointing out the finer points of Bolivian composer Alberto Villalpando, the love songs of Enriqueta Ulloa or the protest songs of Luis Rico. But the onetime budding violinist from Buffalo, where he grew up regularly attending the highly regarded Philharmonic Orchestra, is obsessed with the majesty of classical music.

And he wants to share it.

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