Journey of Engagement
by Chester Lane
Sharing the fruits of "Anglo" culture in New Mexico
Kevin Hagen doesn't like the word "outreach." The New Mexico Symphony, based in
Albuquerque, serves a state that is 40 percent Hispanic and 9 percent Native
American, and Hagen, the orchestra's executive director, delights in bringing
music of the European classical tradition to children and adults who've never
experienced this "Anglo" art form before. But "outreach," says Hagen, "implies a
missionary-style, do-gooder program to bring 'culture' to poor, wretched
unfortunates who have none." It's a mind-set he has no use for.
The New Mexico Symphony's justification for what it does, Hagen believes,
"arises from the unique characteristics of where we live. Given our demographic
and economic facts, it's clear to us that the practical ability here to sustain
and grow an orchestra in the way one might in Boston or Philadelphia is very
limited. Diversity and broad community engagement is not only the right
thing for us to do, it's also the New Mexican thing to do."
And it must be rooted in respect, not noblesse oblige. New Mexico's Native
Americans, Hagen points out, are among the only people in the U.S. "who live on
the same lands their ancestors occupied 1,000 years ago. They and our Hispanic
neighbors worked out ways of living together hundreds of years before Anglos
arrived on the scene in the mid-nineteenth century. The members of our community
who do not now share the fruits of Anglo culture we represent are in no sense
'without culture.' They have a deep and rich culture that is very meaningful to
them. If we want to share the culture we have to offer, and in turn learn from
others, that's fine. But let's drop the superior attitude."
This "sharing of culture" has greatly enhanced the orchestra's value among
its Hispanic and Native American constituencies. And in June of this year these
efforts were recognized through a new awards program, the MetLife Awards for
Excellence in Community Engagement. Each of the five orchestras selected for the
award has faced a different set of challenges, and the awardees vary greatly in
mission, geography, and scope of activity. An especially interesting and unusual
feature of New Mexico's efforts has been the successful cultivation of Native
Americans. Hagen says that cities such as El Paso and San Antonio provided him
with some clues about how an orchestra could go about engaging a large Hispanic
community, but as for the Native American population, "there were no models that
I was aware of anywhere in the orchestra world."
He credits former Music Director David Lockington for "much of the spiritual
origin of our journey of engagement." Beginning in the mid-1990s the orchestra
collaborated with a number of Hispanic artists, and Lockington's programming
included not only works by Hispanic composers but Native American ones as well.
A signal success was the performance of PauWau: A Gathering of Nations by
Brent Michael Davids, a descendent of the Mohican Nation whom Lockington had
commissioned after hearing some of his choral music in Santa Fe (see "American
Sound Redefined," SYMPHONY, May-June 2000). The orchestra also brought local
significance to such classic repertoire as Billy the Kid--Copland's
musical monument to a legendary New Mexico outlaw--and Prokofiev's Peter and
the Wolf, performed on a state tour with narration in English, Spanish, and
What Hagen calls a "key relationship" was formed when the National Hispanic
Cultural Center (NHCC) was formed in Albuquerque through an $8 million
federal/state partnership. An intensive program in Albuquerque's overwhelmingly
Hispanic Barelas neighborhood, he says, brought several dozen ensemble
performances to the Barelas senior center, community center, and elementary
school, culminating in a performance by the full orchestra at the NHCC with a
local folk orchestra. And when Lockington announced he was stepping down as
music director at the end of the 1999-2000 season, the orchestra formed a search
committee that included the NHCC's executive director.
"David Lockington's example and vision broke down many perceptions of elitism
and inspired enthusiasm throughout the organization," says Hagen. "This vision
survived his departure and became institutionalized in our 2000 Long Range Plan
as a commitment to strive to be a distinctively New Mexican organization
accessible and relevant to all." In the 2000-01 season the orchestra convened
four discussion groups comprising more than 60 individuals and representing such
organizations as the NHCC, the Albuquerque Hispano Chamber of Commerce, and the
Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. "Following extended (and not always comfortable)
discussions," says Hagen, "the group concluded with attendees taking on
themselves the formation of a Minority Advisory Council to monitor the
orchestra's activities, and to advise, help, and, when appropriate, advocate for
He notes that all of the orchestra's efforts "received an incalculable boost"
when Guillermo Figueroa was named music director in May of 2001. "As a Puerto
Rican-born native Spanish speaker, he offers us the opportunity to walk through
doors that other efforts have opened."
The Long Haul
Figueroa feels that Albuquerque citizens as a whole have
taken him to their hearts, "but the Hispanic sector in particular went totally
out of their way to throw events for me, make me feel welcome, introduce me. I
think they felt 'wow, this is a big deal for us, we have a chance to be seen and
represented and heard.' It's not because of anything particularly great about
me, it's the recognition that an Hispanic has come to a position like this
that's made everybody proud."
An accomplished violinist--he has spent three decades with New York's Orpheus
Chamber Orchestra as one of its concertmasters, and has also served as
concertmaster of the New York City Ballet--Figueroa provides another kind of
role model for the children in his new community. During a recent school visit
by NMSO musicians, he says, "one of the teachers told me, 'just the fact that
you are a male Hispanic playing the violin in front of them--that's something
they've never thought about before. It never occurred to many of them that it
was a possibility. A boy might play in a mariachi band, but not classical
But just as Figueroa--whose conducting credentials include his music
directorship of the Puerto Rico Symphony--was "not hired because he's Hispanic,"
according to Hagen, his programming in New Mexico of music by Roberto Sierra,
and his engaging of such soloists as Cuban-born pianist Santiago Rodriguez and
baritone Justino Diaz, a native of Puerto Rico, is driven by art, not political
correctness. "We never hire anybody because they're Hispanic--our soloists are
great artists, and they're engaged not to play salsa, but Rachmaninoff," says
Figueroa. "We are a symphony orchestra, and we're not going to play mariachi
music. We'll leave that to the pros."
That said, Figueroa does believe that the presence of Hispanic artists and
composers in New Mexico's offerings makes things "a little more interesting and
relevant" to its audience. "You advertise in a certain way, tell these artists
that you want them to be active in the community, to be present at meetings, to
meet the children. More often than not, they do."
Bernalillo County, where Albuquerque is located, provides $25,000 annually
for a series of three concerts in senior and neighborhood centers. The
investment is whole-heartedly supported by Daniel Gutierrez, the county's
director of economic development. A native of Albuquerque, Gutierrez says he
"had always heard about the New Mexico Symphony, but it was always at a
distance. Then I started seeing this interaction with the community over the
last three or four years, and now it's hard to think of Albuquerque without the
"I've seen Guillermo Figueroa speak to the children. Just to see the faces of
kids who have never been exposed to this type of music, or to learning an
instrument--their hands shot up to ask questions every time he stopped talking.
I was watching one child who was real quiet, but after the performance he said,
'when I grow up I want to play the violin.' For a kid to say that when he's had
no exposure to this music--it was mind-boggling!"
As for the Native American community, a parallel observation recently came
from Stuwart Paisano, a Bernalillo County policeman who also serves as the
tribal governor of Sandia Pueblo, a community of about 400 near Albuquerque.
Through its casino, the pueblo is now one of the largest contributors to the
orchestra's annual fund, supporting both the pops series and the youth concerts
for fourth graders who come to Albuquerque from up to 100 miles away, including
some of the state's least affluent communities. Paisano remembers watching
Lockington and musicians from the orchestra perform with a drumming group from
the pueblo, a performance also witnessed by Governor Baca--Paisano's
predecessor--and members of the pueblo's tribal council. "It was moving to see
tears come to Governor Baca's eyes when one of the second-grade boys tugged on
his trouser leg on the way out to say, 'Governor Baca, I want to play the
Working with the Native American community has not only been an education in
values--Hagen says their attitude toward western-style progress is often
informed by the notion that "the whole earth is sacred and you shouldn't build
anything anywhere"--but has presented logistical challenges as well. For the
past three years the state tour has included Zuni Pueblo, a community near the
Arizona border with 10,000 residents and a per-capita income of $3,000 a year.
"It's about two and a half hours from Albuquerque, and every year someone has to
go out there to make arrangements for the concerts--there are no telephones."
But the orchestra's annual visit to Zuni is well worth the effort, according
to Hagen. "It's always a real highlight for us. They jam every last kid on the
reservation into a gymnasium, and they're as quiet as they could possibly
be--1,700 kids, from kindergarten through high school."
Hagen reports that the orchestra's community engagement program "can be said
to serve as many as 80,000 people." This includes 45,000 Albuquerque-area
students in grades K through twelve (88 percent of those enrolled in public
schools here are below the poverty line, he says); 15,000 heavily Hispanic and
Native American adults and young people in the six to ten New Mexico cities to
which the orchestra tours each season; and up to 20,000 adults and young people,
again mostly Hispanic and Native American, who are served by "neighborhood" and
other free concerts in the Albuquerque area. Hagen is encouraged by the personal
interactions that occur when Figueroa and other NMSO musicians speak with kids,
citing in particular the Hispanic boy who responded to a piece of music by
expressing the sadness he felt at the divorce of his parents. "If we can have
communication on that kind of level," says Hagen, "I feel in my bones that in
two years, three years, eventually, we'll get these people into our audience."
The orchestra's current subscription audience, he estimates, is no more than
5 or 6 percent Hispanic, and includes virtually none of the area's substantial
Native American community. Hagen expects no miracles as he works toward
broadening his audience beyond what he calls "the 2 to 3 percent who normally
support orchestras in any city." For him, community engagement is not a specific
set of programs, but "a state of mind that informs everything the organization
does, and manifests itself in hundreds of ways." His advice to orchestra leaders
is threefold "First, be patient. Don't start a program you don't expect to be in
for the long haul. Second, ask questions, then listen, listen, listen--do not
assume that what you intend to offer is what people want.
"And finally, be open to new experience--bring a sincere hunger to learn what
other cultures have to offer you. Those cultures can bring great enrichment to
your experience of your own culture."
Chester Lane is senior editor of SYMPHONY.