Making classical music education accessible for youths has always been something dear to my heart, especially for children living in disadvantaged communities. So naturally, I was delighted to learn I had been invited to The Bahamas as part of a special event for El Sistema, a special music program with Venezuelan origins that has succeeded in changing the life trajectory of countless youths, simply by giving them a musical skill.
In the midst of having performance arrangements finalized on the island, a Bahamas Opera director had also caught wind of my pending island arrival. He contacted me directly, expressing dire need of a substitute concert pianist for one week of orchestral performances occurring in tandem. I agreed to step in at the last minute for the performances, and was stunned to receive a Fed-Ex parcel next-day air, complete with a very hefty music score the width of a 1980s telephone book. With under 2 weeks remaining to prepare for these events, I set to work at a feverish pace.
As my Toronto flight made its Bahamian debut from above the clouds and commenced its descent over Nassau, the sight of crystal blue ocean, wood-thatched roofs, palm trees and greenery were soon apparent and filled me with delight. In airport arrivals, the distinct soothing murmur of pan steel drums became audible, welcoming everyone, and confirming without a doubt that I was indeed in the Bahamas! After clearing airport security, a shuttle bus driver soon arrived to shuttle us over to an all-inclusive resort.
Work ventures in the Caribbean can be a rather tantalizing experience; paradise, endless beaches and eternal sunshine are literally always within reach, and are yet seemingly intangible, due to the need to constantly be in rehearsals for different events. In this case, I now had 3 separate events happening on the island, including one on my official day off, meaning even less time for fun in the sun. On this particular Caribbean work venture, I also learned a little something about the concept of “Island Time”. When time is limited, North America’s more rigid and inflexible work ethic, aligned with the much more relaxed easygoing Bahamian approach could only spell disaster. On the first morning of orchestral rehearsal, I took a leisurely minibus ride over to the Theatre; I say ‘leisurely’ because the driver’s radio was blaring the unmistakable, soulful voice of Gladys Knight. And so I arrived at the theatre with my structured North American work ethic, armed with the knowledge that I’d have a total of 4 rehearsals with orchestra before the shows began. So, imagine my stark bewilderment upon discovering that the orchestra didn’t show up…!!! Suddenly 4 rehearsals became 3, and I suddenly found myself with an unexpected day off. After a few hours of intense practice on a glass lidded, Liberace-inspired grand piano and a session to review tempi with the maestro, I decided to head outside, and try my hand at the high trapeze swing on the resort grounds. Probably a milquetoast attempt, in hindsight, to relive my long-gone days as a competitive gymnast. I soon learned it wasn’t a wise idea, as my muscles ached for days afterward.
Word about the El Sistema concert was all over the island by the time I had arrived; it had been well publicized by newspaper articles, concert posters and radio advertisements, and a few Bahamian locals recognized me from published magazine articles. What was rather worrisome was that this special event would be held in part of town where different ethnicities notoriously had not intermingled for decades; there was no telling whether this minor factor would rear its ugly head in spite of this well-intentioned event, resulting in a low turnout. Would the concert be a flop, or would this be the music event that brought different cultures together?
Incredibly, the El Sistema concert was a raving success. Every seat in the hall was filled from top to bottom with youths and seniors, music novices and aficionados, news reporters and the “who’s who” of the Bahamas. Most importantly, the hall was resplendent with the united colours of Bahamas. It was evident that many people had made a real effort to be there, which was particularly touching. Even though the event successfully achieved its fundraising goals, the bigger accomplishment was in using music the bridge of unity amidst a long-standing cultural divide. Music, once again, proved to be both savior and the equalizer bringing people together as one,