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 Navajo.

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 NMSO programs."

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 violin!'"

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 symphony.

"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 clarinet.'"

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.