In September 2021, former ICSOM Chair Bruce Ridge and I spent a residency week in Puerto Rico to support the musicians of the Orquesta Sinfónica de Puerto Rico (Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra, PRSO), a member of ICSOM since 2003. It was my first visit to Puerto Rico, and it was very special to be in San Juan during the city’s 500th anniversary year. I quickly grew to understand the allure of Puerto Rico which has been a muse for many.
Legendary Spanish cellist Pablo Casals came to Puerto Rico in the 1950s to escape the political turmoil in Spain. His mother was Puerto Rican, and he reportedly found the beautiful setting of Puerto Rico to be very inspiring. Casals went on daily walks along the beach and noted the ever-changing beauty of the ocean and sky. His love of nature led him to foster classical music on this idyllic island.
Casals once uttered the legendary phrase “making music is what interests me, and what better instrument is there than an orchestra.” How inspiring it is to see the continuation of his dream with the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra in place today.
AFM Local 555 President Miguel Rivera (PRSO ICSOM delegate and Assistant Principal Trombone) and AFM Local 555 Secretary/Treasurer José Manuel Villegas (PRSO Acting Assistant Principal Viola) were key in setting up our itinerary, which was filled with meetings, interviews, and site visits. Our schedule culminated on September 11th when we attended a PRSO concert on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The orchestra and chorus were in top form for their performance of the Faure Requiem, paying tribute to this tragic event in our country.
Our week in Puerto Rico included meetings with government officials to promote the orchestra and the PRSO Musicians (Músicos de la Orquesta Sinfónica de Puerto Rico), and to explain the significance of their ICSOM membership. We were honored to have been granted a lengthy meeting with Puerto Rico Governor Pedro Pierluisi and eight of his staff members, including the Secretary of State, in which we were able to identify the chief concerns of the PRSO Musicians who have not had a pay raise in sixteen years and whose government pension plan has not been funded adequately. Under Pierluisi’s leadership, we believe the future will be brighter for the orchestra and the PRSO musicians, who serve as cultural ambassadors.
Other meetings had an equally positive impact. We were pleased to speak with Nelly Ayala, President of the Puerto Rico Workers’ Federation and the organization’s first woman leader. For this discussion, we were joined by José Martin (former ICSOM delegate and PRSO Principal Timpani and President of the PRSO Pension Plan Committee).
Ignacio González Sampayo from the office of the Speaker of the House of Representatives was gracious to meet with us as well during our visit. In addition, we met with the management and staff of the Orquesta Sinfónica de Puerto Rico. All of these meetings were very respectful and highly productive.
Media coverage during our residency included a radio interview on 89.7 FM San Juan (Cadena Radio Universidad de Puerto Rico) which was captured on video and from which a Facebook event was created as well as streamed on the PRSO Musicians’ YouTube channel. For these broadcasts, Bruce Ridge, Miguel Rivera and I served as panelists, and we were moderated by José Villegas (who also did an outstanding job of creating and editing the video). Our panel discussion provided listeners with the many reasons to support orchestras and classical music, as well as the importance of the arts for our society and in our world.
Music education in Puerto Rico is highly accessible, ranging from after-school programs throughout the country to the highly-acclaimed Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music. Not only do many of the PRSO Musicians teach at these music schools, but most of them are products of this training. Libre de Música, the public school system in Puerto Rico specializing in music education, has six locations across the island, and we traveled to Caguas and Arecibo to meet the teachers and students. We also visited an after-school program “100 x 35” which is modeled from the popular El Sistema and named for the quadrants of the island.
All were enthusiastic about our tour of their schools, and it was good to see that education for classical music is available to all Puerto Rican children.
Bruce and I attended several PRSO rehearsals and led a question and answer session with the musicians after the dress rehearsal for their September 11th concert. From all of my interactions with them, it is very clear that the PRSO Musicians are passionate about their art. They love their orchestra. They love performing orchestral music. They love teaching music students. They love Puerto Rico. All of their actions show this, and ICSOM is proud to have them as one of our 53 member orchestras. We wish them well in their quest to promote and preserve their national treasure, the Orquesta Sinfónica de Puerto Rico.