SANTA FE, N.M. — At a rehearsal earlier this week, an ensemble of Santa Fe musicians started working on an orchestral arrangement for a huapango, traditional Mexican folk music and dance.
Later this summer, the small group of middle- and high-school students will travel to Icheon, South Korea, and perform the same tune with kids from around the world as part of the city’s Global Sister Cities Youth Orchestra Festival.
The huapango is Santa Fe’s contribution to the event. Each of the participating cities is asked to supply a song that represents part of its local culture.
When the festival gets underway Aug. 2, all of the young musicians – having had time to practice the various selections in their home countries before they come to Korea – will play everything together as one large orchestra.
Icheon, in South Korea’s Gyeonggi province, is one of Santa Fe’s international sister cities. For this first youth music festival, delegations from 10 of Icheon’s sister cities in China, Japan, France, Bulgaria, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. were invited. In addition to Santa Fe, orchestras from other U.S. cities invited to the event include those from Paducah, Kentucky, and Fairfax County, Virginia.
It is not yet known how many of the other invited cities will participate, said Jeff Case, a member of the Santa Fe Sister Cities Committee.
Parts of the Santa Fe students’ upbeat song were starting to come together by the end of their run-through on Monday. But mastering it will take much more practice, said Lee Harvey, one of the students’ instructors and a strings orchestra teacher at the Santa Fe Waldorf School. She is co-instructing the orchestra with Carla Kountopes, a professional violinist and teacher with the Mandela International Magnet School, the New Mexico School for the Arts and Santa Fe Public Schools.
Harvey emphasized that while the Santa Fe players are putting in effort, they know that the other students across the globe are doing the same.
“We … have been working and rehearsing to come together to create beautiful sounds with everybody else,” she said. “You can see this is the beginning of that journey. And that’s what, I think, is the most important thing.”
In all, 10 students from Mandela, NMSA and the Santa Fe Waldorf School will perform in the festival. Nine of the orchestra members will rehearse here throughout the summer and make the 16-hour trip from New Mexico. The tenth student, already in Asia with her mother for the summer, will join the group in Icheon. Harvey and a parent chaperone will accompany the kids.
Harvey likened the experience to an “international music camp.” Aside from the four days of joint rehearsal and the final performance, all the youth musicians will also stay in the same hotel.
“I’m looking forward to … playing with different people from around the world, because I think a big part of playing in an orchestra is learning how to get along and playing with your peers,” Jacqueline Buenviaje, a 13-year-old violinist from the Mandela school, said of the trip.
Nathan Christensen, a 13-year-old cello player from the same school, agreed. He said he’s largely excited about seeing how the musicians’ playing styles may differ by country.
“Just to come together and play as a group, it might be different in a way,” said Christensen.
Other students added that they’re excited for the cultural experiences, like trying the local cuisine and taking in the new scenery. For a majority of them, it will be their first time traveling internationally. And Icheon, they pointed out, is also famous for its rich history of ceramic art.
“This is kind of the Korean Santa Fe,” said Grace Maurice, the ensemble’s trombonist going into her freshman year at the Mandela school.
The other participating musicians include 11-year-old violinist Lilah Chang, 14-year-old cellist Solomon Ehlers, 14-year-old violinist Gabriel Boston-Friedman, 15-year-old violinist Lily Clark, 15-year-old viola player Rebecca Sciarretta, and 15-year-old Claire Christensen, also on viola.
Bringing a Mexican flair to South Korea
The ensemble is officially called the Santa Fe Sister Cities Youth Orchestra, though Harvey jokingly calls the ensemble “the rogue musicians” because the students come from several different schools. The mayor of Icheon extended the invitation to the Santa Fe Sister Cities committee in January to send a group of orchestra/string musicians. According to Harvey, from there, the committee was connected to Kountopes, who put out the call for interested students. Harvey was later tapped to do the same. There was no formal audition process, Harvey explained.
“It’s not about how well the students play. It’s more about the passion for working with other musicians in different countries and being ambassadors of Santa Fe to those other countries,” she said.
Ahead of the festival, local South Korean conductors will lead four days of rehearsals to work on the performance pieces.
“It’s going to raise their levels of playing,” Harvey said. She explained that all the groups were instructed to provide a medium-level composition, and what’s considered intermediate here may be completely different from another country.
The musicians from Limoges, France, chose a pavane by 20th-century French composer Maurice Ravel. The South Korea entrants will play “Arirang,” a traditional national folk song, and the ensemble from Paducah, Kentucky, selected “An American Rhapsody” by Richard Meyer.
Santa Fe’s huapango doesn’t seem difficult at first, Harvey said, but the timing is challenging, even for adult musicians. It goes between 3/8 and 6/8 time signatures, sometimes with different instrument sections playing different time signatures at the same time.
“It’s like trying to fit a puzzle piece into something that won’t fit,” said 16-year-old bass player Lynette Gassner. “That’s how the meter is.”
Harvey also pointed out that the tune has stylistic elements that will likely be new for the other students at the festival, whether they are from the U.S. or not. In different parts of the piece, the violinists strum their strings with their fingers rather than use their bows. In another section, to simulate the sound of huapango dancers’ footwork, the cello players tap the wooden bases of their instruments.
“Typically, in classical music, you never do that,” said Harvey. “So this is our selection creating excitement (and) the Mexican flair; it’s going to be very exciting.”
The city of Icheon will pay for the group’s lodging, food, transportation and tourist activities. To help pay for everyone’s airfare and potentially gifts to present to the local officials, the orchestra has raised nearly $10,000 of its $17,000 fundraising goal, Harvey said.
About $2,700 has come from an ongoing online crowdfunding campaign on Dollars4Teachers, Meow Wolf has committed $4,000 for airfare, and a recent fundraising dinner organized with the help of local Korean organizations yielded $3,000. The orchestra will also perform Saturday morning at Betterday Coffee.
The students have been active in the fundraising process. With city licenses in hand, some of the young musicians said they have been earning cash busking on the Plaza. One player has been working a part-time job ahead of the trip.
“They’re working their tails off making this happen,” said Harvey. “And that’s … something that for me I’m just so proud of.”