The time of their lives

Medellin's new maestros: Santiago Isaza, Santiago Tabares, Jorge Garcia, Conductor Andres Orozco-Estrada, and Andersson Flores

The New World Symphony’s New World Center seems luxe enough to the culturally and materially jaded (or at least complacent) here in Miami, but to 17 year old violinist Juan Pablo Parra, of Medellin, it’s paradise. “Being here is like a dream,” Parra told me on Saturday night, after performing with the symphony in their gleaming, acoustically perfect hall. “I’ve never seen anything like it and I probably won’t see anything like this again. It’s like paradise for a musician here – a place where people live for what they love.”

Parra is one of five musicians from Medellin who’d spent the week at NWS rehearsing and studying, part of an exchange between New World and a program in Colombia that has taught thousands of students – mostly from poor neighborhoods and families – to play classical music. “People there are prejudiced about studying classical music, they think it’s just for the elite,” said Parra, whose mother started him in the program when he was 7, soon after his father died in a car accident. Tiny and wiry, with big black horn rimmed glasses, he was a shy kid, and his mother, who works in a pharmacy, worried his father’s death would make him retreat into himself even more.

Now Parra is one of the 100 best students in the program. He was chosen to come to Miami, a door to the rest of the world. Saturday’s concert, a program of music inspired by Romeo and Juliet, was sold out, conducted by Andres Orozco-Estrada, a hot, internationally known conductor also from Medellin, and introduced by Jaime Bernstein, daughter of Leonard Bernstein (they played music from West Side Story). They got a standing ovation. Afterwards Parra and his four companeros were invited to a private reception upstairs, in a sparse, elegant room with good wine, with donors and New World executives. Only one of them had ever been out of Colombia before, Andersson Gutierrez Flores, a violist, and that was only to Venezuela. “But it’s not Colombia!” he pointed out. None was older than 22. They beamed and beamed, accepting congratulations, beautifully, heartbreakingly young. “We never imagined we’d get such a huge chance,” said Santiago Tabares, 20, also a violinist. His father works in a cloth factory, not someone who could afford violin lessons.

But they weren’t shy. I told them I knew Juanes, the most famous person from their home town. “So now he’ll be glad you know us,” said Santiago Isaza, 18, who plays the cello. Trompetista Jorge Durango Garcia, 22, joked that their friends would snub them when they got home with their NWS t-shirts, then turned serious. “No, they’re going to be really proud of us. On Facebook they were telling us how great this was.” Not only great for them. Even for those students who don’t go on to an international career, they will have music in their lives. In a city of four million, which was long a byword for the worst of Colombia’s drug violence, that’s enormous. “The idea is to put an instrument in kids’ hands instead of a gun,” Parra said. “It’s not common yet, but it’s more usual than it was.