FROM THE JULY 2015 ISSUE OF “STRINGS MAGAZINE”:
It started out as a simple rule I had with my manager: every concert season, I wanted a week in the Caribbean. And not just to sunbathe and escape Cleveland winters (well, not entirely).
The various recital series and orchestras in this glamorous part of the world were beckoning, and the last few seasons have included recitals and concerto appearances in Puerto Rico, St. Croix, Anguilla, St. Maarten, and the Cayman Islands. It was with this snowbird mentality that we reached out to Kenneth Listhrop in Trinidad and Tobago, struck up a warm dialogue, and, waiting in the airport on a snowy day this past March, I found myself wondering just what exactly awaited me on this island nation just a few miles off of Venezuela’s northeast shores.
After a 14-hour journey and myriad naps, I arrived bleary-eyed and dazed to the Hilton of Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and Tobago’s capital. A profound temperature difference from Cleveland (about 80 degrees in the more pleasant direction), extreme humidity, and extraordinarily welcoming people greeted me, and I settled in for this week’s project: two appearances with the Trinidad and Tobago Youth Philharmonic (TTYP) with Vivaldi’sSpring, the Bruch G minor concerto, and five programmed encores with the music director on piano.
The next morning, I had interviews scheduled with Trinidad’s “Morning Brew” and the drive-time radio station. I immediately became aware that this concert series was being heavily promoted, and darned if the orchestra board wasn’t trying to ensure that everyone on their island (approximately the size of the state of Delaware) was aware that classical music was in their midst.
The rehearsal process for my typical week with a professional American orchestra is quite predictable: out of the two-and-a-half-hour union-scheduled rehearsal, the concerto might be rehearsed for 50-60 minutes, I leave, and the conductor continues with the symphonic program. In Trinidad, every rehearsal began with recapping the events of my day to eager young faces. There were perpetual smiles, inspiration, and sheer drive to impress Kenneth, Hemath (their coach from nearby El Sistema in Venezuela), and myself.
The staggering improvement each day and the sheer energy nearly bowled me over. I learned that I was the first concert violinist this orchestra has worked with, and I tried to impart various rules about collaborating with (never accompanying) a guest: reacting swiftly to tempo changes, scaling back dynamics, and committing to selling the character of the music to the concertgoers. I swiftly became singularly focused on one goal: ensuring that the students of the TTYP channeled their focus and enthusiasm toward the finish line of this marathon week: two performances at Port-of-Spain’s Queen’s Hall.
Several live TV interviews later (including one or two that may have been on-air prior to any sane rooster crowing), we moved into the performance venue for a dress rehearsal and concerts. By this point, I was becoming more of an experienced Trinidadian—the food was spicier than I was accustomed to, there was a daily rain shower that made the pegs on the violin virtually useless, and I would say a little prayer in the car on the way to rehearsals, as the island drivers are rather passionate about their liberal interpretation of safe distance from other cars. Also, I had virtually given up on etching out practice time for upcoming engagements (the Beethoven concerto and trios of Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky) as I became fully committed to ensuring that our weekend could elevate the bar for Caribbean orchestras.
Once we moved into the cavernous Queen’s Hall, the whole dynamic (bad pun) changed, and cajoling comments from earlier in the week turned more concise and professorial. Everyone straightened their backs, dropped their sotto voce conversations, and adopted tunnel vision. Though the concerts were billed as “An Evening with Andrew Sords,” I was determined to have the evening reinforce the idea that every urban area, whether it’s Caribbean, Central American, or otherwise, should have a self-sustaining, respectable youth orchestra.
Walking out onstage under those bright spotlights, I was convinced that not only would the orchestra deliver a sizzling show, but also that something exciting was about to unfold on Trinidad.
I can only hope that the youngsters in the TTYP felt a spark, but I can say with certainty that I was deeply moved and changed from our collaboration. I’ll be wholeheartedly looking forward to the Tchaikovsky concerto in Trinidad in 2017!
American violinist, teacher, and intrepid blogger Andrew Sords is recognized internationally for his performances combining visceral virtuosity and ravishing tone.