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Stars and Students Align to Help Haiti With Music

October 1, 2013

Sing With HaitiThe cause is so compelling that Sing With Haiti is looking more and more like the star-studded benefit concert and gala reception of the season. Scheduled for Oct. 2 in Grace Cathedral, the evening to aid the rebuilding of Haiti’s Holy Trinity Music School in Port-au-Prince, which was destroyed in the devastating earthquake of 2010, keeps attracting major performers to its lineup.

Hosted by soprano Deborah Voigt, who will give her first public performance since withdrawing from the role of Isolde at Washington National Opera, the 7 p.m. concert also includes sopranos Kiera Duffy and Laquita Mitchell, mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, tenor Nicholas Phan, Bishop Yvette Flunder, pianist/composer Jake Heggie, and conductor Donato Cabrera. Cabrera will conduct an orchestra made up of San Francisco Conservatory and Haitian music students, along with members of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra.

Deborah VoightAt their side, so to speak, will be a host of distinguished choirs. Headed by Holy Trinity Music School’s Les Petits Chanteurs and La Chorale des Fillettes (accompanied by perhaps 10 instrumentalists from the school), the choirs also include the superb Chanticleer spin-off Clerestory; the LAB Choir (Chanticleer Education Program); select members of the Grace Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys; and school choirs from Branham High, Harker, Head Royce, Los Altos High, Hoover Middle, Napa High, Presidio Middle, San Francisco Waldorf High, Ukiah High, and Washington High.

Sponsored by Sing With Haiti, a nine-month-old nonprofit organization headquartered in San Francisco, the benefit and gala are an outgrowth of the work of documentary filmmaker Owsley Brown III. Brown has been feted for his documentaries Night Waltz, about writer/composer Paul Bowles, which won the Independent Spirit Award in 2000, and Music Makes a City, an exploration of the commissioning and recording project of the Louisville Orchestra in the 1950s, which received the 2013 Gramophone Award for best DVD documentary. He found himself inspired to explore the work of Haiti’s Holy Trinity Music School by his studies of Tibetan Buddhism.

“The whole Buddhist teachings of altruism and service motivated me to go to Haiti,” Brown told SFCV. “I went with David Cesar, a friend of the family who has devoted 30 years of his life to serving the people of Haiti through the music school and its outgrowth, the Haitian Philharmonic.”

Optimism in the Face of Disaster

Having discovered the subject for his third documentary, which is due out later this year, Brown began filming before the 2010 earthquake devastated Port-au-Prince and leveled much of the Episcopal Church complex that houses the Holy Trinity Music School.

“When I first saw the school, which reaches about 1,200 kids from all economic brackets each year, I couldn’t believe my eyes and ears,” he reports. “It was just amazing, walking through the hallways and seeing all these starry-eyed, beaming faces of both the children and instructors who were communing with each other in this gorgeous manner of love and openness through music.”

After the earthquake, the school rebounded. Even as students strove to continue their work amid the rubble, studying and playing outdoors and in tents and other makeshift structures, enrollment increased.

“The students are clearly smart, healthy, open, loving, and kind people who are working and playing together. They have a sparkle in their eyes and a glow in their faces.” – Owsley Brown III, documentary filmmaker

“This school is not just educating future musicians; it’s educating the future leaders of Haiti,” says Brown.

When I walked around the facility, I discovered how many healthy human beings there are there. They’re clearly smart, healthy, open, loving, and kind people who are working and playing together. They have a sparkle in their eyes and a glow in their faces. These are the people you want to have in any country, especially one that has as many needs as Haiti. Not all are aspiring to be professional musicians. Music is a means to an end … a means to a happy and joyous life.

HaitiBrown was especially enchanted by the school’s unique mix of classical music and traditional Haitian drumming, which is particularly relevant because of its unique role in Haitian culture.

It’s my understanding that part of the intention of the colonizers who brought to Haiti slaves from different regions and tribes who spoke different languages was to ensure that they wouldn’t have any chance to collaborate and rise up. But, despite the best efforts of the French, the drum became the common language that all Haitian slaves could speak. It couldn’t be taken away, and it lived on as perhaps the principal unifier of Haitian voodoo culture.

At the school, the drum has emerged as a beautiful symbol of Haitian history and culture, and has been incorporated into fabulous orchestral pieces by Haitian composers. It’s amazing to see a European vernacular embraced and expressed through Haitian culture in this school.

Laquita MitchellCesar’s relationship with Brown was central to his learning process. “The school was founded in 1960, and sits within the walls of the Episcopal Cathedral compound right in the center of town,” he says. “Before the earthquake, it contained a cathedral, primary school, trade school, high school, the music school, and a convent of Episcopalian nuns. David Cesar’s mom was teaching at the primary school when he was born. The nuns looked after him as an infant, and he has spent most of his life within those walls.”

Both Brown, who is cochair of Sing for Haiti with the Rt. Rev. Marc Handley Andrus, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of California, and Sing for Haiti’s executive director, Philip Wilder, see the Oct. 2 event’s benefit as being the formal beginning of their fund-raising project. Their goal is to raise $10 million over the next few years.

“We want to rebuild Holy Trinity Music School in a bigger, better way, by creating relationships and connections with North American lovers of classical music,” says Brown. “We will use the evening to really tell a story, introduce Holy Trinity to their largest audience in the Bay Area, align the school’s voice to that of all these other great artistic voices via a show of solidarity between the North American artists and Haitian artists, and propose to our audience the kind of collaboration we’d like to foster.”

“We want to rebuild Holy Trinity Music School in a bigger better way, by creating relationships and connections with North American lovers of classical music.” – Brown

During the earthquake, many of the instruments used by its students and the Haitian Philharmonic were destroyed. When Brown returned a year later, after the collapse of the physical structures, he discovered that the school was feeling stronger than before the earthquake. He attributes this to the level of seriousness and the love of the entire endeavor shared by students and teachers.

“Getting an instrument into the hands of one of the members of the school community is a life-changer,” says Brown. “If we really want to help Haiti or countries in situations like Haiti is in, maybe we need to think how we’re doing it. Maybe a place like Holy Trinity is exactly the place where we can see a huge return on our investment.”

Stars Pitch In

Susan GrahamVoigt, who is a 1985 alum of San Francisco Opera’s Merola Opera Program, told SFCV:

When I was asked to participate, the fact that the benefit will help rebuild a music school very much resonated within me. I grew up in an environment where I had easy access to music education. It was part of my normal class work when I was a child in the suburbs of Chicago. To learn that these youngsters experienced the destruction of something that was such an influential part of their lives really spoke to me.

Homes, of course, are important things that they need to survive. But they also need to have a creative outlet and something that really speaks to their souls. That is why the study of music is so beneficial.

Voigt soon discovered how easy it was to recruit her colleagues to join in the effort. “It all pretty much speaks for itself,” she notes. “That’s what’s wonderful about being involved with something like this; you don’t have to twist arms to get people to think about what we’re trying to do.”

“These kids, who had invested so much of themselves in music beforehand, were striving to continue on in the face of immense disaster. To see the joy with which they went at it … really touched me.” – Susan Graham, mezzo-soprano

Graham, who, like Voigt, began her relationship with San Francisco when she participated in the Merola Opera Program in 1987, learned about the music school when Brown and Wilder invited her to view before-and-after footage from Brown’s forthcoming documentary. She was immediately struck by the passion and the power of what music was doing before the earthquake, and the zeal with which students and faculty were struggling to put lives back together and regain some footing after the devastation.

These kids, who had invested so much of themselves in music beforehand, were striving to continue on in the face of immense disaster. To see the joy with which they went at it as they were playing their little instruments in a tent and in outdoor shelters with folding chairs really touched me. I’m sure their ability to return to music was the stabilizing force in many of their lives. I believe so strongly in helping them rebuild the school, which has so many untold benefits for the future of the nation. Even if they never become musicians, their lives will be enriched.

Stars such as Voigt, Graham, Mitchell (Merola Program, 2002), Duffy, Phan, and Heggie frequently get asked to perform in benefits. At the end of our talk, I asked Graham what made her decide to devote her time and energy to this one in particular.

“For me, to conceptualize a cause or project is one thing. But to experience it, especially through the eyes of a gifted documentarian such as Owsley, was something that made it very tangible and immediate to me. I wanted to reach through the screen and embrace each one of these children. I can’t wait for the chance to really go there and have the opportunity to do that.”

For more information on Sing for Haiti, see its website or its Facebook page. For concert tickets, go to Ticketmaster. And for tickets to the postconcert Gala Reception in the Fairmont Hotel, call (415) 625-2942.

Jason Victor Serinus is a music critic, professional whistler, and lecturer on classical vocal recordings. His credits includes Seattle Times, Listen, Opera News, Opera Now, American Record Guide, Stereophile, Classical Voice North America, Carnegie Hall Playbill, Gramophone, San Francisco Magazine, Stanford Live, Bay Area Reporter, San Francisco Examiner, AudioStream, and California Magazine.