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Tchaikovsky on the altiplano

Moments before an evening concert by Bolivia’s National Symphony Orchestra in La Paz last July, scalpers outside the Municipal Theater were selling tickets at four times their face value.

Inside, a capacity crowd was soon clapping thunderously to the beat of a cueca, a traditional ballad and folk dance from the Bolivian highlands. Three subsequent performances of the program—which featured popular Bolivian singers and traditional songs arranged for orchestra by Bolivian composers—were also sellouts. A commercial recording of the concert is due out shortly.

This is not the kind of thing that Bolivians normally associate with their country’s only permanent symphony orchestra. For most of its 54-year history, the orchestra has appeared only a few times per year to perform scaled-down operas or ballets for a loyal but basically elite audience. Until recently, performances were held in an elegant patio that seated only 200 and whose acoustics made it difficult to determine whether the playing was good or bad. Tickets were close to $10—a prohibitive sum for most Bolivians.

After years of financial and artistic difficulties, the orchestra faced a crisis in the summer of 1997 when its conductor and artistic director resigned days before several scheduled performances. David Handel, a 33-year-old U.S. conductor who had previously guest-led the orchestra and happened to be visiting friends in La Paz at the time, received an urgent call asking if he could stand in. He did, and the concerts were so well received that Handel was subsequently offered the vacant job.

He faced a difficult choice. After working for some eight years as a guest conductor based in Chicago, Handel’s career was finally taking off. He had recently received offers from two other Latin American orchestras and one in the United States—all of them musically superior to the one in La Paz. But several factors ultimately persuaded him to choose Bolivia. One was the audiences, which Handel described as “very enthusiastic and supportive” during a recent interview in his La Paz apartment. Another was the fact that the orchestra had a tradition of working with corporate sponsors, even though it is primarily financed by the government. Finally, Handel saw a number of areas where he thought he could bring about immediate improvements—if he was given a decisive mandate. Tito Hoz de Vila, the Bolivian minister of Education, Culture and Sports who is responsible for the orchestra, made it clear that Handel could count on the government’s support. In short, “I thought it would be possible to build something here,” Handel recalled.

He has been building very fast. During his first season, the orchestra performed 50 concerts, up from eight the year before. In order to attract larger audiences and offer better acoustics, Handel moved the orchestra from its patio to the Municipal Theater—La Paz’s most prestigious venue. To make performances accessible to a broader audience, he introduced student discounts and replaced the single ticket price with a range of prices that starts at less than a dollar for students.

Doubled revenues. The public response was immediate. Within a year the total audience size grew by 500 percent and ticket revenues doubled. Nearly half of the new audience was under age 40, thanks to concerts and publi-city targeted at university students. Media coverage increased dramatically as Handel took the orchestra on seven national tours in one season, up from just one the previous year. In addition to concerts in major cities like Sucre, Tarija, Potosí and Oruro, the orchestra performed for the first time in El Alto, an immense working-class suburb of La Paz that is populated primarily by Aymara Indians. “We performed twice in El Alto to completely full houses,” Handel recalls. “It was very emotional, because for years the orchestra had been emblematic of classism, and we were saying that’s not what we’re about.”

Handel is aggressively expanding the orchestra’s repertoire. He has established formal relationships with several Bolivian composers, both to arrange traditional music that has never been scored for orchestra and to premiere original compositions. He is also conducting works from the standard classical repertoire that have never been attempted by the orchestra. His second season included Bolivian premieres of major works by Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich.

On the management side, Handel spearheaded the creation of the Fundación Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional, a nonprofit entity designed to promote the orchestra and supplement government funds with an expanded program of corporate and private sponsorships. Handel says that during its first year the foundation was able to increase revenues by around 80 percent thanks to tireless fundraising by a board of directors composed of leading figures from local corporate and artistic communities. “Our main goal is to generate the resources to improve the orchestra, raise our musicians’ pay and hire additional musicians,” says Miguel Navarro, a vice president at Bolivia’s Banco Bisa who heads the foundation’s development committee.

Although the new revenues made it possible for Handel to give his musicians a 20 percent bonus after his second season, he wants to do much better. Musicians’ pay is still so low that orchestra members must hold daytime jobs and rehearse in the evenings. By next season, Handel hopes to raise the payroll budget to the point where musicians will be able to work full-time for the orchestra. He also intends to hire 20 additional musicians. “This would allow us to become a fully professional orchestra capable of handling a more demanding repertoire,” he says.

Question of relevance.. Handel’s ambitious agenda in La Paz did not spring from a vacuum. As a guest conductor in the early 1990s, he purposefully sought out opportunities in Latin America, where he says there are many fine orchestras that tend to be overlooked by foreign conductors. He performed on numerous occasions in Mexico, Guatemala, Argentina and Bolivia. In addition to perfecting his Spanish, which he first studied in high school, these experiences deepened his interest in what he sees as cultural parallels between Latin America and the United States. “These are societies whose social and political development was very much determined by an immigrant population,” he says. The blending of indigenous and European cultures—and the challenge of making a classical orchestra relevant in a multicultural society—are as evident in Chicago as they are in La Paz. So are the pressures of an open market economy where public funding for the arts is scarce.

“I’m an American just like a Bolivian is an American,” says Handel, “and so I thought it might make sense for my broader career to help develop an orchestra in an environment that is culturally akin to the U.S.”

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