Music in an unexpected landscape

Chile’s Chamber Orchestra held a concert in the heart of the Atacama Desert for an audience of hundreds, including several heads of state. Along with two concerts in Vallenar to the south, the concert was part of a tour through the mining region of the country.

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On Saturday, Sept. 11, at Pan de Azucar national park, where the arid slopes of the Atacama meet the cold, cobalt waters of the Pacific, more than 800 people gathered for a performance of Chamber Orchestra of Chile under the baton of Juan Pablo Izquierdo. Despite the cold winds blowing in from the sea, and the thick gray clouds that sat low over the hills, spectators flooded in on free municipal buses from towns around the region–from the beach town of Caldera 90 minutes down the coast, from Diego Almagro inland to the east, from the regional capital of Copiapó more than two and a half hours away, and from the ramshackle mining town of Chañaral that seems to crumble from the hills into the ocean at the park’s doorstep.

Chile’s administrative Region III is a narrow strip of rugged hills, straight highways through empty desert and dirt roads passing between the dusty foothills of the Andes into the harsh, mountainous expanse of the altiplano on the border with Argentina. Along these raw stretches of road, trucks and buses transport workers to and from some of the country’s most productive copper and gold mines, Chile’s primary source of wealth and the lifeblood of the region.

Along the Panamericana, the highway that passes by Copiapó, large signs read “Fuerza Mineros,” a constant reminder of the ongoing rescue efforts taking place at the San José mine an hour to the north. Over the last month the situation there has been the defining reality in this region of mines and miners, cause for both suspense and celebration, and attracting an unprecedented number of international news media.

Even under normal circumstances less stressful than these, the largely working-class population makes an unusual audience for a classical orchestral concert, especially one comprised of lesser-known works by Beethoven and 20th-century Chilean composer Carlos Zamora. Given the timing, the concert seems almost unthinkable. But demonstrating their characteristic resilience, Chileans showed up en masse. Well before the concert began the 500 seats set up had filled with school children, church groups and families. Those unable to fit in the space lined up alongside it or picnicked on the nearby rocks.

New beginnings for old symbolism

Programmed as a national Bicentennial event, the concert in Pan de Azucar had cultural and symbolic, as well as musical resonances.

The concert commemorated the 25th anniversary of Pan de Azucar’s being designated as a nationally protected wildlife area. With President Sebastian Piñera, First Lady Cecilia Morel, Minister of Culture Luciano Cruz-Coke and Mining Minister Laurence Golborne all in attendance, the event inevitably turned its attention to the trapped miners. Before the music began, the families of the miners, represented by the son of miner Pablo Rojas, presented the President with a Chilean flag signed by all 33 of the men.

President Piñera referred to Ministers Golberne and Cruz-Coke as “the two ministers who best exemplify the duality of human life. The Mining Minister, Laurence Golborne who…has the tremendous responsibility of governing the principal source of wealth for our country, which provides us with what we need to live. And Luciano Cruz-Coke, Minister of Culture, who has the incredible task of showing us what we live for.”

Such contrasts were a defining feature of the event from its inception, amongst them the concert’s evocative date. Despite Chile’s remarkable ability to unite in the face of disasters like February’s earthquake and the recent mine collapse, political and cultural divisions here remain deep-seeded, and never more so than on days as politically fraught as this.

For conductor Juan Pablo Izquierdo, the fact that the concert coincided with the 37th anniversary of Pinochet’s military coup was incidental.

“Personally I think it’s very significant because perhaps a couple of years ago it would be ‘why September 11? Is it for or against?’ In my opinion now it’s neither. It’s just another day in the calendar so let’s move forward. I mean move forward does not mean forget…There is a memory that cannot be erased, but there is an attitude that should be changed.”

President Piñera was the first to draw explicit attention to the concert’s date. “I want to finish by saying that today is the 11th of September, a day that normally is dedicated to visions of destruction, pain and death,” Piñera said. “Indeed, Chile’s negative associations with September 11 often resulted in anger and disorder in subsequent anniversaries.

“As the President of Chile, I hope to have even a speck of the talent of Juan Pablo Izquierdo to draw the best from each and every Chilean so that this country can live smiling, can live singing, and can live as a country of brothers.”

Music for everyone’s sake

As the audience joined the orchestra in a rousing encore, it was clear that they had gathered at the concert for nothing more than the music itself. Offering a free concert and providing free access, the Ministry of Culture and regional government have helped demonstrate the power of the arts to cross geographic and economic boundaries.

Before the concert Minister Cruz-Coke commented, “we are here because today is a day of unity” drawing an implicit line between the historic divisions of the day, and the healing power of the arts. “Those of us who work in culture know exactly its transformative power… [it] is not a luxury or an accessory, but rather a tool for social development.”

Events like the Bicentennial concert in Pan de Azucar, which bring music to unexpected places and unexpected audiences, demonstrate a serious commitment to the arts and an important step toward bridging the socio-economic gaps that remain a daily reality of Chilean life.

This post is also available in Spanish