Orquesta Juvenil de Curanilahue: Reflecting on the 25-year History of One of Chile’s First Youth Orchestras

By Jessica Tufte, Hazel Ross, and Caroline Campos, Global Leaders Program 2020

Photo: Jerson Mella.

When you arrive in Curanilahue, Chile, one of the first things you see is a large statue of an upright wooden hand. The smaller replicas available for purchase in town read, “Tengo las manos ásperas pero hay pan en mi mesa,” which roughly  translates to: “Though our hands are worn, there is bread on the table.” This blue-collar mantra embodies the economy, culture, and subconscious of the region. From an outsider’s perspective, people are humble and work hard when given the opportunity. Small sheet-metal houses line the streets, and nothing really stands out.

In 1995, Francisco Ruiz Bardiles had an idea that sought to embrace this regional attitude. As the head of the Curanilahue high school, he decided to develop a music-training program in tandem with Américo Giusti, a violinist and professor in Concepción. Together, they presented the idea to the National Arts Fund of Chile (FONDART), which provided start-up support for purchasing instruments and paying teachers. Their combined will and talents led to one of the first youth orchestras in Chile: the Curanilahue Youth Orchestra.

Photo: Jerson Mella.

Throughout the last 25 years, the orchestra has continued providing lessons and performance opportunities for its members under less-than-ideal circumstances. Sometimes teachers go months without pay and some students need to regularly share instruments. Despite this, Curanilahue still holds a national reputation for helping to start the youth orchestra movement in Chile—a place of true historical significance in the music world.

We joined forces with the Curanilahue Youth Orchestra through the Global Leaders Program in January 2020. In collaboration with musical director Jerson Mella, we delivered a week of masterclasses, workshops, and teacher-development opportunities that culminated in a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The quality of the students’ musicianship, maturity, and enthusiasm surpassed all expectations. Students lined up for daily lessons and chamber music coaching sessions, undaunted and excited by the prospect of studying with visiting artists from the U.K., U.S., Brazil, and Paraguay—even though two of our visiting members could not speak their language. Students engaged in group discussions every morning, which many said were the highlight of the week. Sessions provided opportunities for all to speak about different topics, from how best to support each other to the challenges of being a music student. Young musicians immersed themselves in practice all week, with the sounds of works such as Haydn’s Emperor String Quartet and Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto heralding our arrival each morning. A week after our arrival, the Youth Orchestra performed a concert that was standing room only. The rousing finale of “Ode to Joy” filled every space on the stage with all participating students playing together—from the most advanced to those just starting their musical journey. As the youngest student, age 7, joined the concertmaster on stage to acknowledge the applause and recognition, the audience members were visibly moved. Students and audience alike will remember this poignant moment long after the last note has faded.

Youngest students and concert master. Photo: Jerson Mella.

María Eugenia Muñoz, a steadfast supporter of the orchestra since its inception, confirmed that concerts are consistently standing room only—and on the evening of this culminating concert, alumni rushed to her to donate to the orchestra. There is currently no mechanism for the Curanilahue Youth Orchestra to accept donations, and this catalyzed us to think about our potential impact on the orchestra after leaving Curanilahue. We are continuing our work with the orchestra and our first priority is to ensure the establishment of NGO status, which would allow for donations from the community and world at large. These funds would offer stability and encourage exciting new proposals for orchestra-supported initiatives, which could change the future of the orchestra, the students, and Curanilahue itself.

Curanilahue is situated in one of the least developed regions of Chile. The sophistication of the Curanilahue Youth Orchestra has been described as an inspiration—a surprise, even—considering how it “started from zero,” as Américo Giusti said in a 2000 interview. However, after getting to know the students, teachers, and orchestra supporters, it is clear that the program did not start at zero; once we saw the passion and commitment of the participants, the orchestra’s quality and success were not a surprise at all.

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