October 24, 2017
The musicians of the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra would like to express our deepest gratitude to our fellow ICSOM musicians for their support in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Your show of solidarity has brought us priceless encouragement and hope in a difficult time.
A handful of our musicians have suffered significant and even catastrophic property damage from the storm and subsequent flooding. Many need to repair leaks, replace broken windows, repaint, fix cisterns, and attend to water damage. Your extraordinarily generous donations will help them rebuild their homes.
Even the most fortunate of us are feeling a financial burden due to the lack of electricity and safe drinking water. We have to buy bottled water every week (when we can find it, anyway), because tap water is still of questionable safety in some neighborhoods. Many of us have lost clothing, furniture, sheet music, and other items due to water damage or mold. For those of us city-dwellers who don't own cars, the right to charge our phones usually entails making a purchase somewhere. In addition, some of us are running low on musical supplies (reed-making equipment, strings, etc.), and we will soon have to pay abnormally high shipping costs to receive them in a timely manner. All these little expenses really start to add up after a month, and they show no signs of stopping soon.
Currently, we are very fortunate to have the support of Puerto Rico's governor and first lady, Ricardo Rosselló Nevares and Beatriz Isabel Rosselló and the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz. They have all acknowledged the cultural value of our orchestra, and they enthusiastically praise our social initiatives to bring hope and healing to the people of the island.
At first, I must admit that I personally questioned the value of presenting concerts to people who have lost their roofs and have no running water. I wondered, "Is a concert really what they need right now?" However, after speaking with my neighbors in San Juan and observing our audience members' faces, I've become convinced that concerts are exactly what these people do need. For the first few weeks after the storm, people were in shock; they are just now beginning to process their emotions. They are feeling exhausted, angry, depressed, and afraid. Their minds are full of anxiety. They are also feeling bored - imagine a month without Netflix or Hulu (or work and school, for that matter)! My neighbors expressed to me a strong need to have something to do to feel normal again. Members of the orchestra have been sharing informal chamber music concerts with their communities and in shelters, schools, and elderly housing facilities all over the island.
Classical music offers people more than a temporary distraction from their problems. Orchestra concerts give people a safe place to process their emotions and begin to heal. While disaster relief organizations take care of people's physical needs, the orchestra has the unique ability to help people to restore their emotional and mental health. The Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra's social project concerts combine rich classical repertoire with high-quality arrangements of Puerto Rican folk and patriotic music. Our music director, Maximiano Valdés, has chosen selections from Elgar's Enigma Variations and Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 as cathartic musical experiences for the audience. These profoundly beautiful and emotionally complex works help people navigate through negative emotions to come to terms with loss and reach a more hopeful mindset.
We also perform colorful arrangements of popular Puerto Rican patriotic music. Every audience member knows the words to these songs; the lyrics celebrate the beauty of the island and the loyal spirit of its people. Some of these songs hold such sentimental value that Puerto Ricans see them as secondary national anthems. The orchestra always ends concerts on an upbeat note with fun works driven by fast syncopated rhythms. These Puerto Rican pieces make the audience feel patriotic, proud, and united. Our concerts give them extra encouragement to keep working together to rebuild.
We started rehearsals on October 10th, less than 3 weeks after Maria tore through Puerto Rico. At our first rehearsal, we all felt a little tired and sweaty, but we were very relieved to see each other and to get back to work. Moreover, we eagerly looked forward to sharing music with hurricane survivors all over the island. We gave our first concert on October 13th at the San Juan Department of Recreation and Sports in Santurce, where people of all ages were receiving aid and shelter. We played a second concert on October 18th for people taking refuge at the Coliseíto Pedrín Zorrilla in Hato Rey, San Juan.
On Saturday, we traveled by bus to Utuado, one of the most dramatically stricken areas of the island. The highway bridges into Utuado collapsed during the storm, and people had to invent creative ways to transport aid into the town (you may have seen the photo of a shopping cart attached to a zipline strung across a gaping gorge.) Fortunately, at least one road into Utuado has been repaired. Along the highway, we saw hundreds of destroyed homes, many of which had blue tarps installed as temporary roofs.
On their own initiative, orchestra members collected and personally delivered a sizeable donation of bottled water, canned food, rice, and clothing to distribute at the concert. I was impressed by everyone's generosity at a time when some of us still struggle to find certain items. We performed at a military-run Stop and Go aid distribution center in a school gymnasium, and we treasured every minute interacting with the residents of Utuado. They were a delightfully respectful and appreciative audience. They kept excellent time while clapping along with our encore piece, Seis Chorreao. Principal oboist Ivonne Pérez turned to me and remarked proudly, "They have great rhythm, because they're mountain people like me!" The audience left with lifted spirits and arms full of practical aid.
For the next couple weeks, the orchestra plans to perform free concerts outdoors in the Plazoleta of our own concert hall in Santurce and in several shelters, housing projects, and churches. Please stay tuned for more information as details are confirmed.
If you would like to support the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra's work, please consider doing one of the following things.
1. Donate to our orchestra by writing to ICSOM president Paul Austin at AustinLPaul@gmail.com.
2. Write or call your local representatives and senators to convince them to vote in favor of generous aid packages and helpful economic legislation for Puerto Rico.
3. If you're a native Puerto Rican, write your governor and local politicians to encourage them to continue to fund your symphony.
Thank you all very much for your concern and well wishes!
Photos: Elisa Torres