Two groups, one orchestra

HRO TourThe Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra traveled to Argentina this summer to play music. They did that. But they also learned about the culture, found new friendships and learned Spanish -- un poco. 

By NaYoung Yang ‘18
Guest Blogger

NaYoung Yang ’18 is a resident of Lowell House concentrating in human developmental and regenerative biology, with a secondary in music. She is a violinist in the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra and also serves the organization as its president. She works with various groups on campus, including Partners in Health: Engage, Global Mental Health Coalition, and the Asian American Mental Health Initiative, to spread awareness and advocacy of mental health. She aims to use music as an outlet as she pursues a medical profession, along with using it to spread the power of music and its ability to bring people together as a source of healing and change.

The Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra embarks on an international tour every other year, with three objectives in mind: perform in wonderful halls in the cities that we visit, participate in local outreach that has a mission to share music for social change and bond as an orchestra musically and personally. When I started working on the HRO 2017 Tour to Argentina, my co-director, Henry Shreffler ’18 and I were faced with the daunting task of raising $200,000 to bring a 90-person orchestra together for a four-concert tour in Argentina that would allow the students to experience the culture of Argentina while forming bonds with each other to become a family.

Over the months prior to the tour, we faced crises in raising money, finding ringers, hiring buses to transport a whole orchestra and booking hotels through our travel agency. In the moment, it seemed like tour would never come or end, but looking back, through managing this tour, I learned a lot in negotiating price deals, making sure items were all accounted for and being responsible for a college orchestra.

There was some comfort in the fact that the travel agency would handle many things once we landed in Argentina. However, one aspect that I was worried continuously about was our outreach partnership. Instead of professional ringers, we decided that for this tour we’d partner with the Proyecto de Orquestas Infanto Juveniles de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires led by Nestor Tedesco. The project teaches music to students from the shanty towns of Buenos Aires in efforts to give them goals and dreams to pursue through music. The youth orchestra would audition their own members to perform and travel with us during the duration of the tour. In return, we’d provide housing and food during the traveling portions and also perform in an outreach concert in a local school for their families and comm

The musicians after the Buenos Aires concert at the CCK
The musicians after the Buenos Aires concert at the CCK

Not having professional ringers suggested that students might not be the level that we’d hope for in ringers. I only had phone calls and email exchanges with Tedesco, but had never met him. Our conductor Federico Cortese met him once during his pre-tour site inspection, but he didn’t hear the orchestra. While we looked forward to the cultural exchange, we were nervous about the musical quality of our actual concerts.

However, once we landed, all such worries vanished. Los argentinos not only proved themselves more than capable in performing our repertoire but also great travel companions. The students from the OIJCBA brought a lightness and vivacity to the orchestra, especially when HRO was exhausted from the rehearsals and travel, not to mention that half of the HRO members caught a traveler’s stomach bug. In the beginning, both sides were awkward and hesitant about the language barrier, but after a couple days, both sides opened up. Through various degrees of Spanglish and combinations of hand motions and translators, questions flowed back and forth about the life styles and personal stories of students on both sides.

From the first rehearsal all together, a subtle yet dramatic change happened throughout the orchestra. For the first time that year, Harvard students were able to focus solely on music, without the burdens of school in the back of their minds. Our soloist George Li ’18 wowed everyone with his amazing playing that, truthfully, was too beautiful to come from human hands, motivating us to play well enough to accompany him as friends and colleagues. In addition, the excitement and passion of the students of the Proyecto de Orquestas Infanto Juveniles pushed us to perform better than we have ever performed. During rehearsal, they joked about our “too straight-forward way” of playing Ginastera’s 4 Dances from “Estancia” and Piazzolla’s Libertango. We responded by teaching them different card games and Rubik’s cube tricks that they had never played before.

The concert hall in Argentina
The concert hall in Argentina Photo: Veronica Sosa
We practiced our Spanish with them (or tried to) while they attempted to speak English as they showed us around town to various sites, not all of them tourist locations. We danced tango and salsa together at La Viruta with the help of the Harvard Alumni Association of Argentina. We mingled with them during the eight-hour bus rides between cities and got to know each other more. The last night after our final concert in Córdoba, we all went to a bar-club to celebrate. When I look back on these moments, I realize that we weren’t two different groups of people, but one orchestra. We shared one journey together throughout the past two weeks through music, cultural exchange and newfound friendships.

I couldn’t spend nearly as much time with them as I wished to, but from the first hesitant “¿Cómo estás?” to the last tearful “¡Adios!”, these Argentinian students left a mark on the 2017 HRO Tour that would never be forgotten. The concerts were amazing, and so was the joint orchestra that created these performances. While I won’t be a part of the orchestra by the time the next tour comes around, I look forward to what HRO accomplishes, and I hope that every member now and in the future gets to experience the wonderful interactions that HRO tours manage to create through music and cultural exchange. And who knows? Maybe I’ll join the trip as an alumni member.