Yakima Symphony Orchestra—Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead)
Changing concert demographic through an exchange program in Mexico
The Yakima Symphony Orchestra is nestled in a region where the Latino population comprises nearly half of the demographic, but the orchestra's subscriber base is largely Caucasian. Involvement with Día de los Muertos, a traditional Latino celebration combining pre-Columbian observances and All Souls Day, began as an effort to bring a larger spectrum of Latinos into the orchestra hall; to use music as a welcoming bridge between the two cultures; and as a way for the YSO to be part of the economic and cultural development of Yakima. In 2002, YSO Music Director Brooke Creswell visited Morelia, which is located approximately 120 miles northwest of Mexico City. Morelia is the capital city in the state Michoacán. Through Sister Cities International, Yakima became an international partner with Morelia. Sister Cities International seeks to explore other cultures through reciprocal exchanges and to collaborate with organizations sharing similar goals. When Brooke Creswell visited Morelia as a part of the Sister City exchange, he was one of many Yakima community leaders. Mr. Creswell made contacts with the music community on this initial visit, and then made a return trip to conduct L'Orquesta Sinfonica de Michoacán. He began planning a future concert in Yakima where Luis Jaime Cortes, composer and conductor with L'Orquesta Sinfonica de Michoacán, would share the podium.
Meanwhile, the Yakima Symphony Orchestra began to partner with the Sister City Organization to bring a multi-cultural celebration based on the Mexican Día de los Muertos into Yakima. In an effort to further explore this Latino holiday and how the YSO might better connect with its community, Executive Director Noel Moxley accompanied Brooke Creswell back to Morelia to witness the celebration—a yearly event happening the first and second days of November. Creswell toured La Conservatorio de las Rosas, a 300-year-old school which trains musicians from kindergarten through graduate level. Creswell and Germán Romero, the director of the conservatory, began planning performer exchanges between La Conservatorio de las Rosas and Yakima. Since Día de los Muertos is traditionally an occasion for a major musical performance, the YSO chose this celebration to unite Yakima both demographically and musically. For the conservatory exchange, pianist Gerardo Sánchez Lara was invited to spend a week residency in the Yakima Valley appearing in schools, giving a master class, and performing with the orchestra.
To bring Sánchez Lara to Yakima, Noel Moxley acquired the funding and proper documentation. While the Mexican government and the Conservatorio de las Rosas paid for Sánchez Lara's traveling expenses to and from Yakima, the YSO covered all housing and living expenses for the week of his stay. Sánchez Lara traveled with a visa for cultural exchange, precluding any direct compensation. Grants covered the orchestra's expenses, and were obtained from the Artist's Participation Initiative Grant, a Washington State Arts Commission Grant, and the Kinsmen Foundation in Oregon. Though an entire year was spent planning this event, the results were highly rewarding. During his week-long stay, Sánchez Lara played mini-recitals for four public schools and colleges, and additionally played for the Yakima Youth Symphony Orchestra. He gave several interviews, including one with the NPR Spanish language station; gave a master class for the Central Washington Music Teachers chapter; and met with the Sister-City Organization, musically and personally connecting with many of the Latino and Caucasian children and increasing publicity for the culmination of the week's events—the Día de los Muertos concert in which he performed a Mozart concerto with the orchestra.
Beginning in November 2005, the YSO sponsored a display of altars as a cultural celebration of Día de los Muertos. Bringing together not only orchestra patrons but connecting the evenly split demographic of Yakima, the altars celebrate the memory of ancestors by receiving flowers and lighted candles, placed on the altars by descendents. The YSO was responsible for eleven altars last year, but during this year's event, which lasted from October 28 through November 11, 2006, 24 altars were constructed by various community members. Altars were built by African-American, Philippino, and Latino populations as well as the Fire and Police departments and Women's City Club. The altars were displayed at a downtown mall and attracted over 600 children, who were guided through the display by docents. After visiting the altars through their class field trip, many children brought their parents to the YSO Día de los Muertos concert.
By actively stepping outside the concert hall and facilitating community engagement, the YSO created a publicity buzz, with equal coverage in Spanish—and English—speaking radio and TV stations, while local newspapers included pictures and interviews. The altars and Sánchez Lara's presence in schools created more than just another symphony concert; the YSO became a bridge between the community's demographic split. When the night of the concert finally arrived, word-of-mouth advertising had created such a sensation that the concert hall was nearly filled with of new faces. The YSO had succeeded in drastically changing the demographic of the audience to a near 50-percent split between Latino and Caucasian patrons. From parents, hot on the heels of their eager children, to community members touched by the altars, the YSO brought many new people into their audience. The YSO looks forward to next November, with anticipation of even more community integration.
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