An Interview With Hilda Ochoa of the Youth Orchestra of the Americas

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The Youth Orchestra of the Americas is just winding up the 2010 four country, 20-city tour of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Brazil. Highlights included concerts with Joshua Bell in Colombia and the South American premier of Philip Glass' Cello Concerto, recorded for commercial release in the Fall, in Quito, and performed in Quito and Lima, and most importantly the launch of the Colombian Youth Philharmonic, in partnership with Batuta and Fundacion Bolivar Davivienda, to provide high level orchestral training opportunities to deserving Colombian youngsters.

As a member of the Board of the Orchestra I had the opportunity to join the Youth Orchestra for unforgettable concerts in Lima and Sao Paulo. What follows is an interview with the Founder and Chairman of the Orchestra, Hilda Ochoa, over a long and delicious lunch in Sao Paulo elegant Jardina district under the spreading limbs of an enormous ficus tree at La Figueira Restaurant where we were joined by her husband Arturo Brillemborg. The professional, enthusiasm, excellence and energy of the musicians are infectious. By the end of each performance the audience is on its feet dancing with the orchestra. The concerts are a combination of great music and great fun!

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William: What is the origin of the Youth Orchestra of the Americas?

Hilda: The project for me began with a phone call from the Director Steven Reiffenberg of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard University an institution that focuses Harvard's resources on issues of Latin America. Arturo and I have supported an Arts Chair at the Center to encourage interest in Latin American music, literature and the visual arts. He suggested that we get involved in the creation of a Youth Orchestra of the Americas. I was immediately interested as I knew of the important role the established  youth orchestras of Europe and Asia play in enriching musical life and in providing opportunities for young musicians.  Furthermore I was aware that Jose Antonio Abreu, a former teacher and friend was involved in an ambitious project to use classical music training as an important tool for social change. Steven had been approached by members of the New England Conservatory to explore this idea and he asked me. My first step was to convene a group of interested people in Washington DC where I live. At that meeting we created a group called the Friends of the Youth Orchestra of the Americas. Jose Antonio Abreu the founder of the Simon Bolivar National Youth Orchestra and a program of music education called "El Sistema" of Venezuela, was a member of this group and was very helpful to us in our formative years.  It also became evident early on that if I wanted this to happen, I would have to play a central organizing role. I liked the idea so I decided to do it.

We were fortunate that several groups donated their services. Booze Allen Hamilton drew up a strategic plan pro bono. People at Harvard's Rockefeller Center were very encouraging. A leading law firm in DC, Wilmer Cutler (now WilmerHale) did our legal work pro-bono.  Deutsche Bank provided significant early funding for our Latin American tours. The Youth Orchestra of the Americas was officially incorporated in 2001.

 

William: What is your motivating idea of the Youth Orchestra?

Hilda: From the beginning the concept was to create an orchestra that served a broad social and development mission. We decided that YOA would be much more than an exceptional performing orchestra.

 

Excellence is central to our mission. The YOA is intended to be an exceptional place for exceptional young people from all the 24 (36 if you include the Caribbean Island States) of the Americas. The Orchestra provides a platform for exceptional musicians in all these countries.

 

Very often the countries of the Americas do not see each other at their best. Politics, trade, immigration issues take precedence. YOA creates a showcase of what is best in our relationship. The musicians focus on one another and see that they all strive for excellence. Audiences see the Americas from both continents and all nations working to create a harmonious whole. We are much more than the sum of our parts. We are a powerful living force for performance at the peak. I believe the Orchestra provides an example of what the Americas can be! More importantly it serves as a powerfully motivating force for our young musicians to achieve dreams of excellence and as a platform to obtain valuable music fellowships in world class conservatories, they would have never reached without YOA training and exposure.

Benjamin Zander, the Conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, and Carlos Miguel Prieto, have also played an essential role in the development of our philosophy. Zander sees an orchestra as a metaphor for cooperation and effective leadership. An orchestra demonstrates that creativity can flourish and be adapted improving the performance of an entire group. Any organization should focus on creativity, excellence, exactitude and coordination as does an orchestra. YOA provides an example of how societies can work at their best. Prieto has been an exceptional role model for our musicians, engaging them with a deep understanding of music as an art form and a channel for the intersection of intellectual and emotional balance. Gustavo Dudamel started conducted YOA when he was only 21. YOA was his first international orchestra and the one who first forced him to learn English. In 2002 we needed simultaneous translators to handle the four languages of the continent. Today, the musicians themselves serve the role, when needed.  Most musicians end up learning at least three languages after a tour: Spanish, English and Portuguese.  Learning salsa and Samba are de rigueur as well.

 

Another key precept is that the Orchestra creates a home for the young musicians. Many of our Orchestra have little home or community support. A profession in music, especially for the beginner is often isolating. We provide a home for our young musicians. We help them with their education, we help them find scholarships and with admissions to advanced music training programs. Our concept is that the networks they form here create a family for life.

 

The other major concept is that we give back to the communities of our musicians. We encourage each of our musicians to work in their communities to help identify, educate and encourage other young musicians. Witnessing how generously our young musicians give back to their communities and how they have become leaders of the musical communities in their own countries is one of the most satisfying and rewarding aspects of the orchestra for me.  These community development programs are called "Access to Excellence" or AX+EX.

For example members of the Orchestra have created important community music training programs in underserved communities in Chicago, Hawaii, Haiti, Colombia, Panama, Brazil, Chile, Bolivia and Uruguay.  The YOA musicians help each other by offering their services as teachers in cross-cultural exchange. If you want to have a sense for these programs, visit our website YOA.org.
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William: Please describe the recruitment process.

Hilda: We have an open admissions policy. Admission is by audition. Today auditions are done virtually. A repertoire is selected for each instrument. The candidates submit their performances via UTube. They send the work directly to us.

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William Haseltine is a former professor at Harvard Medical School, where he researched cancer and HIV/AIDS. He is the founder of Human Genome Sciences, where he served as chairman and CEO, and the president of the William A Haseltine Foundation for Medical Sciences and the Arts. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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