Defying Obviously Long Odds, A Music Garden For Kids Is Blossoming

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Leonardo Pineda conducts the CMI Chamber Orchestra and faculty violinist Siwoo Kim takes a solo turn in Astor Piazzolla’s ‘Four Seasons of Buenos Aires.’ (Photo by Siggi Ragnar)

SAN ANTONIO, Tex. — It was perfectly obvious, back in 2010, that nothing would come of a career firefighter’s quest to establish a professional chamber orchestra in San Antonio, a city with a long tradition of short rations for its venerable symphony orchestra. And then, when the Chamber Orchestra of San Antonio had its debut concert in 2012 under guest conductor Carlos Izcaray, it was perfectly obvious it would not last. And then in 2016, when the chamber orchestra spawned a summer intensive institute for Bexar County youth, hosted by a school district serving one of the poorest sections of the inner city, it was perfectly obvious it would flop.

Paul Montalvo founded San Antonio’s Classical Music Institute.

And now that firefighter/co-founder/artistic director Paul Montalvo entertains dreams of expanding the two-week summer session to a year-round program with full-time faculty, it is perfectly obvious that … oh, never mind.   

The tail and the dog have traded places. The organization Montalvo founded — together with pianist Silvia Santinelli and her husband, environmental engineer Robert C. Ehlers — is now called the Classical Music Institute, and its faculty is the core of the CMI Chamber Orchestra. Last year’s institute had to be canceled because of COVID-19. Some parts of this year’s institute, June 12-26, were conducted virtually in a concession to the lingering pandemic.

Although the organization’s educational mission is now primary, the performance standard of the chamber orchestra has leapt from its presentable but uneven 2012 debut to mostly consistent excellence, and its programming, curated entirely by Montalvo, has been extraordinarily interesting.

Daniela Diaz rehearses string students, beginner to advanced, for the student-faculty concert. (Siggi Ragnar)

Izcaray was a product of Venezuela’s famed network of government-sponsored youth orchestras, El Sistema. He introduced Montalvo to other Sistema alums who helped develop the CMI program and have remained central to the faculty. Among those are Leonardo Pineda, a violinist who took up conducting at Montalvo’s urging, and Daniela Diaz, one of the chamber orchestra’s three concertmasters. The two are co-directors of CMI’s Junior Orchestra for Youth (JOY), launched this past spring.

Also crucial to CMI’s development was the brilliant Spanish violinist Francisco Fullana. At a friend’s suggestion, Montalvo met him in New York and invited him to perform with the chamber orchestra in a 2013 concert.

“I was so impressed with Francisco (he was 22 at the time). I then asked him to become our concertmaster, and he accepted,” Montalvo recalled. “Since then, and especially since 2016, Francisco has helped tremendously in building the core of CMI faculty artists.”

Violinist Francisco Fullana, seen here in ‘Autumn’ from Piazzolla’s ‘Four Seasons of Buenos Aires,’ helped build the core faculty. (Siggi Ragnar)

Home base for the institute is the Edgewood Fine Arts Academy, the oldest high school campus in a school district covering 16 square miles southwest of downtown San Antonio. The district serves nearly 10,000 students, 97 percent of them Hispanic, 94 percent economically disadvantaged, 76 percent deemed at-risk. Many CMI participants this year came from the county’s wealthiest districts, but Edgewood was the most heavily represented.

In the student-faculty concert that closed the institute, the very brief one-finger tunes played by some of Tomomi Sato’s piano students might not seem much of an achievement — until you realize that, a few days earlier, some of them struggled mightily to identify a C on their keyboards. Voice students showed considerable progress after less than half an hour with bass-baritone Christopher Besch.

When they’re not formally teaching, faculty members might play side by side with the kids in rehearsals and the student-faculty concert. In one rehearsal by the JOY ensemble, each of the two student double-bass players got pointers from a faculty bassist sitting next to her.

In a class for Edgewood strings, taught by Pineda, a few had been playing their instruments for several years — and a few others had been playing their instruments for almost 24 hours. The third day in, an experienced 17-year-old Edgewood violinist participated in a master class with Zongheng Zhang via Zoom from Bard College in New York; he had taken first prize in the 2020 Bard Conservatory Concerto Competition. There’s more to CMI’s Bard connection: Pineda has studied conducting under Leon Botstein and others at Bard, and he is director of youth music education and South American music curator for The Orchestra Now, Bard’s pre-professional training orchestra. He hopes to establish an exchange program between CMI and The Orchestra Now.

Faculty violinists Siwoo Kim and Daniela Diaz, cellist Clare Bradford, and violist Jordan Bak play Eleanor Alberga’s String Quartet No. 2. (Mariana Vela)

Switching from teaching to performing, the faculty made a strong impression in five concerts — two by the full orchestra, three by small ensembles — presented at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. Music by dead white males figured prominently on the faculty concerts, but so did music by living women of color — Clarice Assad from Brazil, the Jamaican-Briton Eleanor Alberga, the African-American Jessie Montgomery, and Edna Longoria, born in McAllen, Texas, and reared across the border in Reynosa, Tamaulipas.

The astonishing performance of the opening work on the opening chamber orchestra concert, Francesco Geminiani’s Concerto Grosso No. 12 in D minor (“La Follia”), established what might almost be called a house style of quick tempi and pulse-quickening excitement. Dispensing with a conductor, the two violin soloists, Fullana and Siwoo Kim, a South Korea native reared in Columbus, Ohio, exchanged volleys in an electrifying battle of the bows. Fullana was more attentive to Baroque style, but both produced crisp, imaginative details and were totally engaged with the music. For the performers and the audience, it was a blast. With Pineda conducting, Fullana returned as soloist in the concert’s finale, Max Richter’s The Four Seasons Recomposed (2012). That modernist take on Vivaldi has many moods, and Fullana drove all of them home with his rich tone, incisive rhythms, and sometimes a wit that brought a wide grin to the face of a normally morose music critic.

Faculty bassist Rowan Puig works with students during a rehearsal. (Siggi Ragnar)

Pineda favored fast tempos and shapely phrasing. Parts of Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht flew by too fast to convey the emotional struggle of the woman in Richard Dehmel’s poem, but Pineda’s balances were excellent. He was adept at navigating the orchestra safely through the most rhythmically intricate material.

That trait proved especially handy in the closing concert. The only widely familiar work on that program was Astor Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, in Leonid Desyatnikov’s arrangement for string orchestra, with interpolated quotes from Vivaldi. Stellar solo turns were taken by Kim (“Summer” and “Winter”), Allison Lovera (“Spring”), and Fullana (“Autumn”). The rest of the program occupied the same level. Assad’s Impressions, one of her finest achievements, was most notable for the theme-and-variations opening movement, including bassist Rowan Puig’s no-sweat account of a demanding solo cadenza and the moto perpetuo sprint of the fourth. The pizzicato grooves and lyrical bowed lines of Montgomery’s Strum drew (not too obviously) from African American traditions.

Longoria contributed a remarkable world premiere, originally scheduled for last year’s Beethoven sestercentennial. Her Partita Latina, scored for strings, piano, and percussion, wove tiny but recognizable bits of Beethoven through music based on Latin American dance forms, with side trips through jazz and evocations of romantic Mexican movie music. That description might make it seem a hopeless mishmash, but in the hearing it proved to be a seamless, seductive amalgam, skillfully crafted.

The chamber concerts provided a showcase for top-drawer musicians. In addition to the concertmaster troika, special notice must go to the exuberant Jamaican-American violist Jordan Bak, the elegant American cellists Brook Speltz and Clare Bradford, and the American bassists Puig, from Puerto Rico, and Andrés Vela, from the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas. The latter, now studying at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music, recently won the school’s Presser Graduate Student Award, a $10,000 stipend that he’ll use “to commission, perform and record eight new works to be composed by people of color.”

Among the memorable chamber music performances were a crackling, crystalline account of Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet (Fullana, Bak, cellist Pedro Bonet González, Vela, Sato) and a taut, pristine performance of Alberga’s String Quartet No. 2 (Kim, Diaz, Bak, Bradford), a masterpiece of inventive, intricate counterpoint with a Mahlerian emotional range. On her website, Alberga’s biography describes her as a “mainstream British composer.” That’s true in the same sense that an F-type Jaguar is a mainstream British car.

In several ways, CMI goes against the usual grain of the American classical music establishment. Montalvo says the majority of CMI’s donors and audience are new to classical music. About half of the board members are Hispanic — highly unusual, even in majority-Hispanic San Antonio, for an organization whose mission isn’t culturally specific. About half the faculty for this year’s institute came from South America, Mexico, or Spain. In virtually every aspect of its operations, CMI practices inclusion without making it seem forced or paternalistic or political.

And that’s a powerful political statement indeed.