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Symphony, Slum Have a Date in Brazil

A $6.6-million performing arts complex is envisioned for a Sao Paulo shantytown to pull youths away from crime.

April 02, 2006|Stan Lehman | Associated Press Writer

SAO PAULO, Brazil — For slum kids accustomed to the gunfire, police sirens and gangsta rap that echo through the city's largest shantytown, Edmilson Venturelli has something different to offer: Beethoven.

Venturelli and a group of educators and musicians plan to build a five-story, $6.6-million performing arts complex in Heliopolis, a sprawling labyrinth of narrow streets, open-air sewers and improvised shacks.

Venturelli sees classical music as a way out of the drugs, crime and prostitution that prevail among the slum's 100,000 residents.

And his goals are high.

"I am confident it one day will be considered South America's equivalent of the Juilliard School," the world-renowned music school in New York, he said.

The center is a project of the Baccarelli Institute, a nonprofit organization that uses classical music to help slum youths. Venturelli is the institute's director of institutional relations.

The school will include a 600-seat concert hall, 36 classrooms, a library and workshops where musical instruments will be built and repaired, Venturelli said.

The city government has donated 32,290 square feet of land for the complex, and companies sponsoring the institute have guaranteed the money to build it. Construction is expected to start this year and by late 2007 all of the institute's arts programs will have been incorporated into the new complex.

Today, the institute operates out of a rented former fruit juice factory on the slum's Estrada das Lagrimas -- Portuguese for Highway of Tears. Young people from Heliopolis ages 7 to 25 learn to play orchestra instruments and perform choral singing. Ballet and drama courses will soon be offered.

"For more than 10 years I have seen kids with no musical background whatsoever respond quickly to the beauty of classical music and to the discipline it demands -- the beauty and discipline which was never part of their lives," Venturelli said. "I don't know why, but this slum -- and I suspect others as well -- is an inexhaustible wellspring of talent."

The institute has sent architects to visit the Juilliard school to get ideas and make contacts for an eventual teacher-exchange program.

"Hopefully, Juilliard professors will one day come down here and teach some classes to our kids," said Fabio Soren Pressgrave, a cello professor at the institute and a Juilliard graduate who serves as an informal liaison with the school.

Pressgrave said the institute hoped the new school would draw upper-class music lovers to its concerts.

"I know enticing the well-off to venture into a slum controlled by drug lords to listen to music sounds far-fetched," Pressgrave said. "But bridging the social divide, which is what this project is all about, requires breaking down the walls of prejudice that keep both sides apart."

With an annual budget of nearly $1.2 million, the institute has a faculty of 50 professional musicians and almost 600 students, including 64 young members of the Heliopolis Symphony Orchestra.

During a rehearsal of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, Venturelli pointed to a shy 21-year-old woman playing the viola and said she symbolized the institute's goals.

"Before entering the institute she was a drug pusher, and occasionally prostituted herself," he said. "Today she is one of our finest musicians and will soon be able to play in any of the country's orchestras."

The young woman refused to be interviewed and Venturelli asked that her name not be used "because there is no need to divulge her past."

He also singled out Adriano Costa Chaves, an 18-year-old bassist whom he said "enthralled" famous conductor Zubin Mehta last August when he paid a visit to the institute during a tour of Brazil with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

Mehta was so impressed by Chaves' rendition of Domenico Dragonetti's Solo for Double Bass that he offered the youth a scholarship to study in Tel Aviv at a music academy linked to the philharmonic orchestra.

"He will study there for six months and then join that country's orchestra," Venturelli said.

Chaves, the son of a taxi driver, is to travel to Israel in August. Until then, he rehearses eight hours every day and attends Hebrew and English classes.

"Less than three years ago, I had no idea what classical music was, nor had I ever seen -- much less played -- a double bass," Chaves said. "I stumbled into my new life almost by accident when my cousin brought me here and I fell in love with the sound of the double bass."

Israel is a mystery, but it's bound to be better than Heliopolis.

"I honestly don't know what to expect in Israel. It is a country I only recently learned existed," Chaves said. "All I know is what they tell me -- that I will be playing in one of the world's best orchestras. This is the best thing that could happen to me."

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