I had been preparing for this trip for a long time. Whether it had been in practicing my instruments, (piano and violin), learning Spanish, or packing clothes, I had done a lot of it, and there was no reason whatsoever to feel nervous about not being ready for my first trip out of the U.S. Needless to say, on the morning of our flight, January 1, 2010, I was so tense, I nearly threw up.
Back in August, I accepted an invitation from Caroline Frazer to come to the 25th International Festival in Lima, Peru. Caroline Fraser, the director of the conference, had invited me to do a solo piano recital at the end of the second week of the festival and to participate in the orchestra as a violinist. The next five months were spent retrieving some piano repertoire and learning a few new pieces. I planned several small recitals here in San Diego in order to help me raise the money needed, primarily for travel (which was quite a lot). My repertoire was to consist of a Haydn sonata, two selections from a Bach French suite, a prelude and fugue, the piano part to the first movement of a Beethoven piano trio, a Chopin etude and nocturne, three Spanish pieces, a Debussy prelude and a Joplin rag. I was also to include a composition of my own, which was a structured improvisation including many elements of jazz and blues. That took a lot of time to get together, and, as fate has a special sense of humor when it comes to me, the thirteen pieces of orchestral music I was to memorize before I even went to Peru did not arrive by email until two days before I was scheduled to leave. It was at this point that our printer chose to bite the dust, so of course, we couldn’t print any of it out.
So it was that on the first day of the year at four a.m., I woke up after two hours of sleep and was rushed to the airport with my piano teacher, Doris Koppelman, my mother, my father, my uncle Bob, and no orchestra music. I felt really nauseous for no apparent reason, so, before we left, Dad threw together some white rice to settle my stomach—which it didn’t really. When we said goodbye to my dad at the baggage check-in, he said that he’d miss us, and that I shouldn’t worry about being sick—it was probably just nerves, and it would most likely get better once I was on the plane. Honestly, I didn’t believe him, because my mind had gone into automatic pilot, in accordance with my stomach. He turned out to be right, of course.
As it was New Year’s Day, the security at the airport was even more stringent than usual. It’s actually quite an interesting sensation to be frisked, especially if you’re hoping against hope that you don’t throw up on the security guard. My piano teacher likes to do things ahead of time, so we had a lovely two-hour relaxation period in the terminal of the airport, in which my mom and Mrs. Koppelman visited merrily, and I crouched over my paper bag, white-faced and sweating, waiting to deploy. Thankfully, I didn’t, because the moment we boarded, and the plane took off, I felt completely well again. When I finally got comfortable in my seat, I started to enjoy the flight, and at one point, about five and a half hours in, I realized that this was probably the farthest I’d ever been away from home.
After an eight-and-a-half hour flight, we arrived. It was a cloudy night and was actually raining, which it never would normally do in the middle of a January summer. It wasn’t really all that different from any other city, except that almost every sign was in Spanish. But there was a certain vibrant energy about the place—it always seemed to be moving, even when we were driving through an empty street (it was two in the morning in Lima).
A mother and daughter, Haydee and Luciana, picked us up at the airport. They were the kindest people—they drove all the way across Lima at 1 a.m. to pick us up at the airport in a VW bus that was on the verge of dying. It actually “kicked the bucket” halfway to the hotel. So we waited for another two hours in the rain at a gas station while Haydee called two cabs for us, and Luciana called her boyfriend to help fix the bus. When we finally got to the hotel at four in the morning and said our goodbyes for the night, we were laughing fit to burst.
The Yeyas Hotel where we stayed is decorated with beautiful paintings of Indian lifestyle. It’s very homey, has two dining rooms of moderate size, and one pretty big one, with a small stage for musicians who performed every Saturday and Sunday. Over the next couple of days, dozens of kids, parent and teachers from Brazil, Argentina, Columbia and Bolivia began to arrive at the Yeyas to participate in the festival. The small children practiced on their instruments all day, morning till night, (the Yeyas also had very thin walls) and ran up and down the stairs with their violins and violas, shouting and yelling in a fervor of ecstatic happiness. In short, it was a kind of wonderful, glorious madness.
Our first day in Peru was almost entirely spent sleeping. We eventually got up, got acquainted with the neighborhood outside, which was filled with little shops that fitted our every need, exchanged our money for Peruvian money (great for us as the exchange rate was unbelievable) and met the taxi that was to pick us up and bring us to a welcoming party at Caroline Fraser’s house.
The party was fantastic. There were musicians of every sort—jazz, classical—wind, percussion, keyboard, strings—and we played and played late into the night. I played a lot of jazz violin with an unbelievable pianist. I also played a Spanish piece by Ernesto Halffter, while my Mom danced flamenco to it. The food and the company were also great. I was struck by how open Latin people are. People whom you’re being introduced to for the first time would hug you and sometimes kiss you on the cheek, and it would be totally normal behavior. (You can imagine my face turning bright red.) All of the musicians at the party, whom I had never met before, were quite happy to play with me, even before they’d heard me play a note. I was definitely on a different, strange, wonderful continent.
I spent the next day getting to know the teacher trainers of the conference (really wonderful people, and great players) as we all walked around the neighborhood of Miraflores. We walked a lot. We walked through the park, which was decorated with statues and trees, and many young Latin couples. We walked among the shops, forever full and bustling. We walked down to the beach, where the rocks were large, smooth, and round and the water is a kind of silver color, reflecting the clouds above. These clouds actually did have a silver lining—the sun shone around the edges of them everywhere, brighter than someone from California would expect. It was a kind of white light.
The rhythm of the city is interesting; it’s a quick tempo. The drivers are very skilled, go very fast, and are forever honking at each other. This honking is different. In California, when you honk at someone, it’s personal. You aren’t saying, “Now let’s please move along, shall we?” You’re saying something more along the lines of, “MOVE, JERK!” In Peru, it’s a kind of friendly, pushy cacophony. The horns on the cars aren’t loud—they’re musical and comic. There are different pitches, and the drivers don’t lean on them; they tap them lightly, like they’re playing little bells.
The next day, I went to Newton College, the venue for the conference. One of the great things about it was that it was a five-minute drive from the Yeyas Hotel. The arts section of the school (where the conference was) was built around a big courtyard with lunch tables and a food booth. On one side of the courtyard was the theater in which all the major performances would take place. The buildings surrounding the courtyard were three stories high and were made up of many classrooms. The bottom floor classrooms of these buildings were the ones with the pianos in them, and all of them were taken by someone-or-other all the time. This presented a problem, as I really needed to practice for my recital. Caroline Fraser came up with a brilliant solution. She proposed that I use three hours in the morning to practice in the theater on the best piano in the campus since it was not being used for classes or rehearsals at that time. Not only did I get three hours to myself for quiet, uninterrupted practice, I got to really feel the piano out and get accustomed to the acoustics of the hall and of the piano itself. After about two hours, the janitors started cleaning and listened to me play. This was not distracting; on the contrary, it was helpful, as I was playing for an audience every morning and got used to it. The staff at Newton was always polite, friendly and very helpful. This was the routine for nearly all my mornings: wake up, go to a bakery called Karlita’s for breakfast, get to Newton College via taxi, practice piano in the theater from 9:00 a.m.–12:00 p.m., have lunch in the cafeteria, attend a three-hour orchestra rehearsal starting at 1:00 p.m., hang out around the school for a while, maybe watch Mrs. Koppelman teach her class, and then attend the nightly recitals, which started at 7:00 p.m.
I began studying violin back in San Diego four years ago with a wonderful veteran teacher named Nick Stamon. At first, I only wanted to familiarize myself with another branch of classical music, while always acknowledging the piano as my first instrument, but eventually the violin became the other focus of my life. On this trip, all the study and practice I had put into my relatively new instrument absolutely paid off.
The orchestra rehearsals were great. I got the music for the first violin parts my first day in Lima … and it was unbelievable music. We weren’t playing Beethoven or Mozart. We were playing South American songs arranged for orchestra—one piece from each country represented at the festival (eleven in all), and two pieces from Peru. The pieces are full of gorgeous melodies and very complex rhythms. I had played Latino music before (I actually have a little Mexican and Honduran blood), and the music I’ve played in San Diego is no less beautiful, but it is different to play it in a Latin American country because everyone identifies with the music you are playing immediately. Playing this beautiful music for and with the people who love and relate to it is a priceless experience.
The kids in the orchestra were all great to hang around. Most were younger than me—9-13 years old on average—and they all had buoyant, bright personalities. Even the older kids seemed to emanate happiness, and they all loved the music, a nice change from regular youth orchestra, where there is at least a little bickering among the ranks about the piece. These kids had come from all over South America. To see all these cultures get together and play music around me, to be a part of that, was unbelievable.
The sectionals that sometimes took place in the allotted time for orchestra rehearsal were equally great. Most of the first violins were from Bolivia, and all of them were staying at the Yeyas. So, I got to hang out with them at the hotel as well, and made many friends. In fact, we got to like each other so much that sometimes we could not stop talking, which caused some problems for the conductor, an Argentinean named Dario Dominguez, but he was always on top of the situation. He had an intensity about his conducting that always kept us focused while we were playing. When we started to talk or lose attention during rehearsal, he never lost his temper. He simply explained the situation to all of us, and told us that it is useless to divert time from the orchestra, when we have the opportunity to play such beautiful music. We still never did quite shut up, but we got the point. Though I spoke relatively little Spanish, I could be friendly and effectively communicate with him, in spite of the fact that he spoke only a little English. He won all of our respect.
Another wonderful experience I had in relation to the orchestra was being directed in Spanish. Spanish was one of my first languages when I was very, very young; however, it was drummed out of me in elementary school where it was never spoken. I have never spoken Spanish in the last ten years as well as when I spoke it when I was five. Having all the directions given to me in Spanish by a conductor who could not translate it into English put my mind to work and made me learn it all the faster.
In fact, it was my lack of proficiency in Spanish that earned me many laughs from many people—in particular, from Sara, Mayra, and Cesar, some of my best friends in the whole festival. They were from Columbia, and Sara and Mayra understood about as much English as I understood Swahili—none, that is. Many a time I would forget and start speaking quickly in English. The looks on their faces were priceless! When I would say something really incorrectly in Spanish, it was first a look of confusion, and then they would glance at each other, and burst out screaming laughing—not ridiculing, but with a kind of jubilant ecstasy, marveling at my stupidity. And, at this point, Cesar would look at me with a hopeless expression on his face, and say, quite simply, “womens.” We would hang out in the big patio at lunch and during break times, and visit, laugh and play violin together. It was wonderful. I made many other friends during this trip, but those three kids emanated light and inspiration with every smile and every word they spoke, and it made me feel lucky to be around them.
Thursday was the first day of the really long orchestral rehearsals. I mean six hours. They were really long. These rehearsals, which went from Friday to Sunday, were quite fun, even though we were all pretty tired by the end of the day. The children’s chorus, the sikuri (panpipes) players, and the Latin percussionists were included in these last rehearsals, and the sound was unbelievable! There were sections in some pieces that didn’t quite make sense with strings and winds alone, but when everyone else came in, it became fantastic. When the big native drum played, it was like giants clapping in time to the music.
On Sunday, the orchestra had half of a rehearsal, because it was the day of our first performance. In the two hours or so between the rehearsal and when we all had to rendezvous at the bus for the ride to the concert hall, my mother and I went back to the Yeyas to have lunch, and take a little catnap. To my absolute delight, two professional Peruvian musicians were performing during the lunch hours—a guitarist and a cajon (a type of Latin drum) player, who both sang and played beautifully. After about the second number, I asked if I could play violin with them. I had never played Afro-Peruvian music before, and it sounded so good. It was so much fun to improvise with them, and after the first number, each of them stood up and actually hugged me. After about the third number, one of the Bolivian parents started dancing, the rest of the kids, parents and teachers were our audience. I was in heaven. I played with them for about half an hour, to the cheers of everyone else in the room. We eventually had to leave for the school, but before I left, they both got up and hugged me again and told me how well I played, and how much they enjoyed it. I’ll never forget how good it felt.
Soon after, we all left for Newton College in order to meet the bus that was going to take us to our performance venue. It was a church in the neighborhood of Comas. Comas is a very poor neighborhood. On the way there, we saw shacks, lots of graffiti, and lots of stray dogs in the streets. The trip there was over an hour long by bus. Luckily, I was able to go with the Columbian kids and teachers, so Sara, Mayra, Cesar, and many of their friends were on the trip with me. We spent the whole bus ride telling stories and jokes—most of which were completely lost in translation for them, but were fun anyway.
When we arrived at the church (a big building which was not very fancy), we spent about two hours waiting for the audience to arrive. We waited in a basketball court behind the church, warming up on our instruments and visiting. When we finally were called to perform, we walked into the church from the side door, in front of the seats, which were packed. I walked up to my seat with everyone else, got myself set up, and looked to my left, at which point I realized that there were at least two hundred people packed into that church, waiting for us to play. They had crammed the seats, and there still wasn’t enough room, so they just filled up the center and side aisles. When we got to our second piece, I glanced at the audience again, and realized that there were also about a hundred people standing outside, listening to us through the open church doors. It was at this point that I realized that they probably didn’t get too many orchestras playing in their neighborhood—certainly not for free. They were excited. Why else would so many people have shown up and stood outside to hear a bunch of young kids, albeit talented ones, play a bunch of songs? It was their music, their culture, presented grandly and proudly by an orchestra. I realized it was important to them.
They clapped riotously after every number. And with the church’s acoustics, the noise was unbelievable. They simply loved us. The real killer was when they all started clapping and singing along with our last number, a Peruvian song called “La Veguera.” They knew all the words. After that we got an encore. We hadn’t prepared any, so we just repeated a piece. They went crazy anyway. We got another one … and another. We ended up doing four encores that night, all repetitions of pieces we already had performed. They still loved us. All of the kids, including me, were on an extreme mental high after that performance. We had not seen that experience coming. At least, I didn’t. It was one of the most magical performances I’ve ever been a part of. We spent the entire bus ride home singing.
The next day, we performed in another part of town, in a lovely hall and where two important things happened. One was the flag presentation. This was a ceremony before the concert in which every student in the orchestra would come in delegations from their countries, present their flag to the audience, wait for applause, and then take their seats in the orchestra. Since I was technically the only student from the U.S. participating in the orchestra, I got to go up with only my mom and present our flag. Since the cultural attaché of the U.S. Embassy in Peru was in the front row, this actually was quite an important thing for me to do. At one point in the performance, he nodded in acknowledgement to me.
The other important thing that happened was that I met Martin Cappi, the most advanced flute player in the festival. I had heard him play a flute concerto in one of the nightly performances at Newton College, and he really impressed me with his gorgeous tone, beautiful vibrato and soaring sound. When I had the chance to visit with him as we waited for the second performance of the orchestra to begin, we became instant friends. I played for him on piano and violin, wanting like crazy to impress him. After I played he laughed and declared me “loco.” My head swelled to twice its usual size. The next day, before our third and final performance at Newton College, I asked Martin if he felt like playing together, and he said “absolutely.” It was at this moment that I realized that I didn’t know any piano/flute repertoire, so I asked him if he knew how to improvise, and he said no.
“Would you like to learn?”
“Ah . . . sí, okay.”
I showed him the chord sequence to a twelve-bar blues, and played a really slow backup for it. He then started to play, not too well at first, but eventually, after only about two minutes, he really began to get the feel of improvising. And what a pleasure to hear his magnificent ideas and incredible tone, as I played alongside on piano! To see him come alive and to help awaken that possibility of improvising inside him made me feel most strongly that there was a reason I was there. We would have continued for a long time, but we had to prepare for the performance. This was one of the more wonderful experiences I had in Peru, and it helped forge the friendship between Martin and me. Tuesday was the day that most of the students from the orchestra, including Mayra, Sara, left for their hometowns. It was very hard to say goodbye, but we promised to keep in touch, (email, facebook, thank you!)
On Thursday night of this second week of the festival I performed the 45-minute piano program for which I had been preparing for the past several months. I also began to rehearse the first movement of the Beethoven trio with two very talented musicians and alumni of the Lima festival, a cellist from Lima and a violinist from Cusco. The performance featured “Invited Guests and Alunmi” and it was a blistering success. After the trio, I continued with my solos starting with the Haydn sonata, and then the rest of my repertoire. I think I performed with good technique, I made hardly any mistakes in the more difficult compositions, but the reason I think that the recital was a success was that, from what people told me, it seemed to make the audience feel real emotion. One teacher told me that she had been feeling quite sick that day, and had almost not come to the recital, and that from the first note I played, she felt immediately better. That made me very happy. For an encore, I played a composition of my father’s and mine, a Mexican love song without words.
The next day one of the teachers, Diogenes Gomez, wanted me to play violin in his tango group, which consisted of teachers from different Latin American countries—four violins, two cellos, a piano, guitar, and two singers. We were preparing to perform that same evening in the recital of Latin American music performed by the teachers attending the conference. I quickly learned the first violin part of a Piazzola tango, Adios Nonino, and a folk song from Paraguay, which was Diogenes’ home country. I asked him if I could improvise on the Paraguayan folk song, and once he heard me try it, he added five repeats to the part I was to improvise on, just so I could do it more!
Sunday, our last night in Lima, was spent hanging out with Cesar, his family and new friends in the downtown sector. We were in an enormous town square, surrounded by countless buildings of 16th century colonial Spanish architecture, which included Peru’s presidential palace. It was the anniversary of the founding of the city, and there was a famous musical group playing Peruvian music on an outdoor stage. The crowd was enormous. The noise was unbelievable, and it was a great night to hang out with friends for the last time.
Monday, the last day of our trip to Lima I spent saying goodbyes at Newton College, taking photos and making sure to share emails. Later we went to a souvenir shop, and I got a hand woven jacket which I love to wear. It was a peaceful day, even if I was sorry to leave.
By the time we left for the airport, most of the teachers had left Peru already. We went through the old routine—long lines, water bottles confiscated, check-in, and security—although I didn’t get frisked this time, nor was I feeling sick. On the plane flight home, I asked myself, “Well, David, what have you learned from this?” I thought about it for a while. It took me a while to decide what I had really gone away with now that I had officially traveled the world.
After about an hour, I realized that it was that music, what I’m dedicating my life to, is a connector, a link between all people. I spoke limited Spanish, and yet I got along fine with so many people after they heard me play. The communication was in the notes, in the phrasing, in the dynamics. All I had to do was to play a piece for them, and they immediately knew who I was. My first impression of the Latinos in Latin America was that they were more inspired and open than those of us who live in the U.S. Certainly they were more open . . . but when I thought about it, I came to the realization that no-one could not be inspired in such a charged atmosphere, so full of music. Music . . . I suppose the best way of defining it is that it’s a way of communicating, a language which expresses all that cannot be expressed through speech. It is universal inspiration, and it brought out the best in all of us. And then, I thought if we have something so large in common, if it can affect all of us so profoundly and so similarly, then perhaps all the different peoples of the world are not so different after all. On the outside, oh yes, definitely, we are different . . . but not in what inspires us. And I think that’s what counts.