Maestro Benjamin Zander left just after our last concert weekend to spend the week of Thanksgiving in Mexico, where he gave a series of talks on “The Art of Possibility,” and subsequently led a rigorous two-day training for a dozen conductors teaching under the Orquesta Sinfónica Esperanza Azteca, an El Sistema-inspired music education program. Now a national program with 80 orchestras and over 16,000 participating students, this initiative grew from the efforts of one teacher in Puebla, Mexico and the help of a few leaders who shared the maestro’s vision of possibility.
In 2009 Ben went to Puebla to give a presentation at a conference. A chance conversation with his conference liaison upon arrival led to a spontaneous visit to the school where her two children were participating in a fledgling music program. The teacher in charge was growing discouraged, Ben’s liaison said, and would benefit greatly from the maestro’s encouragement and perspective on the power of possibility. Not one to pass up such an opportunity to see music in action, Ben agreed – and in a hasty departure across the city, excitedly suggested that a fellow conference attendee, a Spanish television host with his film crew from Madrid, come along for the ride.
The visit began not at all as expected – a single dark, narrow room held about twenty students and a few of their parents. The children began to play, struggling with basic melodies and lacking energy. Initially unsure of how to proceed, Maestro Zander soon joined the lesson, conducting and moving around the room with the children. The shift in energy was palpable as smiles broke out and tempos increased. Great fun was had, and the Spanish film crew captured the lesson on video, as well as several interviews with Ben and the students’ parents.
An afternoon of new energy soon took on a life of its own. Ben enthusiastically recounted his adventure to the school to several other conference attendees, including Ricardo Salinas, owner of a vast network of Mexico’s television stations. In the coming weeks, the Madrid television host who had accompanied Ben to the school aired a segment about the Puebla music program, and the conference liaison who brought Ben there, Leonor Mastretta, delivered a copy to the office of Mr. Salinas. He was so moved by the impact that music and the right energy had on the children that he made it a personal mission to build a nationwide music education program in Mexico, modeled after the Venezuelan El Sistema program.
Five years later, Leonor is the president of the Orquesta Sinfónica Esperanza Azteca, a national program serving each state in Mexico and funded by federal, state, and local government agencies as well as Ricardo Salinas’s philanthropic efforts. Maestro Zander receives updates and regular invitations to be a part of the program’s growth, and he joined the conductors of these student orchestras last month to provide intensive training sessions on conducting and musical engagement, another breath of new life in a program that continues to grow. To see how much has been accomplished from just a few people being open to possibility is incredible, Ben reflects: “It had a feeling that it was just reaching out into every corner of the community.”
In a meeting of the Boston Philharmonic’s board of directors upon his return, Ben told of profound transformation that the conductors and young musicians experience through this program. The vision of the Boston Philharmonic, “passionate music-making without boundaries,” carries through everything we do, in Boston and beyond, from the board room to the rehearsal room. This story is played out in different forms every day, through community engagement and education, providing access to world-class concerts for a family experiencing music for the first time, and more. All we have to do is open ourselves to the possibility.