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BOLIVIA-MUSIC May-21-2008 (1,310 words) With photos. xxxi

In remote corner of Bolivia, a Jesuit legacy of music

By Barbara J. Fraser
Catholic News Service

CONCEPCION, Bolivia (CNS) -- Santiago Luzardi raises a hand, and strains of Antonio Vivaldi rise energetically from the violins, violas and cellos of two dozen earnest young musicians in the sanctuary of the old Jesuit mission church on the plaza.

At a time when their peers are more likely to listen to rap or pop singers, the youthful string players seem out of step with the times. But they are part of a far older tradition, connected at the G clef with their indigenous ancestors and the Jesuit missionaries who brought classical music to this remote corner of eastern Bolivia.

The scrubby, tropical region known as the Chiquitania, with its unpaved roads, cattle farms and sunflower, soy and sugar plantations, seems an unlikely place for a musical revival, but every town has a children's orchestra or chorus, and a biennial early music festival draws performers and visitors from throughout South America, as well as Europe and the United States.

"It's nice to play and live music," cellist Gary Chavez, 17, said shyly after the impromptu Vivaldi concert during the weeklong festival that ended May 4.

Four years ago, he dropped in to watch the orchestra, and a teacher invited him to join. When he graduates from high school, he hopes to study music at an academy in Santa Cruz.

In some ways, Chavez has Jesuit Father Martin Schmid to thank for his vocation. Swiss-born Father Schmid, one of the missionaries who served in the Chiquitania between 1691 and 1767, built at least three of the mission churches in the area. He also was also an accomplished musician who preached as much with melody as with words.

Father Schmid is depicted in a painting in the sanctuary of the church in San Xavier playing a violin while a fellow missionary plays the organ and indigenous Chiquitanos huddle around.

"Now I see why divine fate guided me to learn music from a young age," the priest once wrote. "I have been able to take advantage of it to make of these Indians not only faithful Christians, but also musicians."

An 18th-century inventory of the 10 mission communities in eastern Bolivia lists organs, harps, violins, cellos, clarinets, trumpets, psalteries and clavichords among the evangelizing instruments. One surviving organ from that era, a delicately painted, single-rank instrument in the choir loft of the church in Santa Ana de Velasco, has been restored.

"It has enormous historical value," Bolivian organist Masaru Sakuma said before playing a noontime concert in the church. "It is the only one remaining" from the early missions.

In a country in which little emphasis is placed on classical music and art, "I think it's magnificent that something like this (music festival) can take place here," Sakuma said. "The kids here don't have music teachers. There are no conservatories or music schools. But they pick up their instruments and play with feeling. They have a lot of enthusiasm and a great deal of talent."

For the youths of the Chiquitania, music builds discipline.

"The idea is to keep them away from drugs and alcohol," said Luzardi, who moved to Bolivia four months ago from his native Argentina, where he also directed a mission orchestra.

His students in San Jose de Chiquitos rehearse four hours a day in an effort supported more by passion than by money. Luzardi would like to expand the string ensemble to a full orchestra, but woodwind and brass instruments are more expensive than the relatively inexpensive imported violins he can get.

Because it is difficult to balance the many violins with the few viola, cello and bass players, he sticks to pieces like Vivaldi, which allow for a bigger sound, instead of the baroque religious music composed and played in the missions.

For performances, the San Jose de Chiquitos musicians wear traditional white shirts and three-quarter-length pants with colorful geometric trim that echoes the vibrant designs painted on the walls of the baroque mission churches.

The churches were the centerpieces of the mission communities, known as reductions, where the Jesuits settled indigenous people from the surrounding forests, setting up schools and teaching crafts and farming. While some critics say the reductions were a way of subduing the Indians, they provided protection against slave traders and unscrupulous landholders who pressed local indigenous people into forced labor.

When the Jesuits were expelled in 1767, many people left the reductions and returned to the forest, but in Santa Ana de Velasco, the council of local indigenous leaders completed the church that was under construction. While sparer than the other mission, the church is still imbued with elegance and grace.

"I'm not sure why people like Santa Ana so much," woodworker Rolando Salvatierra, one of the carpenters who learned fine woodworking techniques while helping to restore the church in the 1990s, said of the simple building.

Salvatierra now heads a 26-member association of craftspeople, including carpenters, woodworkers, potters, leatherworkers and jewelry makers. Some use flecks of mica, scoured from roadsides, to give their work a sheen. That technique was perfected by the early builders of churches like the one in San Rafael, where the elaborately carved pulpit and the sanctuary shine like polished silver in the dim light.

While Jesuit missions in Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay fell into ruin after the order was expelled, the churches in the Chiquitania survived until Franciscan missionaries arrived more than a century later. In the 1970s, Swiss architect Hans Roth began restoring the churches, and in 1990 they were declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.

"We are the heirs of a great mission," said Bishop Carlos Stetter of San Ignacio de Velasco, who said his diocese -- measuring nearly 1,000 miles from north to south and more than 600 miles from east to west -- is among the largest in the world.

Keeping the missions afloat, however, is a challenge. Upkeep is a constant battle, and the church in San Rafael needs a new roof. Bishop Stetter calculated that about $10 million has been spent on restoration since the 1970s.

The music and art "give people a link to the past and a sense of pride that is very important," he said. In San Ignacio, where nearly two-thirds of the population is under age 17, the orchestra builds esteem, not just for the young musicians, but for the other students and their families who fill the church for concerts, he said.

The passion for music starts early. Cuban cellist Eduardo Silveira, who directs the orchestra in San Xavier, performed with three young violinists and a small chorus. In the middle of the concert, beginning musicians, some as young as 6 or 7, take the stage for a simple piece. "The next generation," as he calls them, is tutored by older students.

"There are no violin teachers here. There is no funding. We survive thanks to the sale of our CDs," said Silveira, who works in Santa Cruz and makes the four-hour trip to San Xavier every weekend with his wife to coach the orchestra and choir.

"They call me the tyrant," he said with a grin, "but to get results, you have to have discipline."

The youngsters' hard work was rewarded last year when the orchestra did a six-week tour of 24 cities in Germany.

Silveira's dream is to start a music school that will provide a steady flow of musicians to replace the ones who graduate and move on. He said he gets great satisfaction from seeing the youngsters playing the pieces that are the musical heritage of their communities and from helping them "see life in a different way."

But the most gratifying moment is yet to come.

"That will be the day when I am out there, in the audience, applauding them," he said.


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