by Jennifer Stumm, concert violist and Founder/Director of Ilumina Brasil
Above: Young artists of Ilumina performing Beethoven’s Opus 131 in the Sala Sao Paulo, Brazil, January 2020.
Ilumina is a musical social equity project, chamber music festival, and touring ensemble based in São Paulo, Brazil. Our talent development model is to invest deep, not wide. Each year, we select 25 young South American musicians with extraordinary potential, ages 18-26, using an extremely selective YouTube audition and written application. Our hypothesis (we call it “future farming”) is that deep investment and extraordinary access for potential leaders will sow the seeds for exponential transformation and good teaching down the social and educational pyramid.
Ilumina was born out of my experience touring Latin America as a performing artist. The pattern was always the same—a few kids from a social music project would play in a masterclass for me, I would often be amazed by the talent I heard, the amount of heart and openness, but then I never saw them again. Many of these musicians lacked regular private lessons, and almost none had chamber music or leadership experience. No masterclass could bridge those gaps. I came to understand that intrinsic inequality, and the burden on large social projects to do their best for many young people, can mean that for top talents, the glass ceiling between them and the heights of the professional pyramid can feel truly uncrackable.
I dreamed of something radical, a new, healthier musical universe where the best young artists from social projects and diverse backgrounds would receive the same high level of investment as did young artists in the world of privilege, and where international performing artists were joyful partners in this endeavor. This would not be a mono-directional charity but a world where our creativity was amplified by our interactions. I believed that these young artists needed not just the same as everyone else, but better—a world of more intensive immersion, holistic care, and planning, where they could study not just any place, but at the best places, with the best teachers and the richest opportunities. And so, in 2015, Ilumina was born.
For all participants, the Ilumina experience starts with a chamber music festival. Every January, international artists and our young artists arrive to a paradise of birds and flowers at an organic coffee plantation, to live, eat, and work side by side for two weeks. At the festival, we don’t use the words “maestro” or “professor;” everyone is a teacher and a student, everyone is a soloist and a team member. Our skill levels might not be equivalent, but the commitment of our contribution is very much the same. Each day consists of chamber music rehearsals where young artists dive deep into repertoire alongside highly experienced colleagues. We always work together on a large, challenging ensemble project (like Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht or late Beethoven string quartets). There are no conductors or concertmasters—each person has the chance to lead—and we perform standing. There are no scheduled lessons; instead, it’s an open-question environment. For any help a young artist needs, be it regarding technique, music, or life, a hive mind of outstanding artists is there to respond, day and night.
Every element of an Ilumina project is engineered from the perspective of holistic efficiency. Each musical experience amplifies social interaction, and vice-versa. Walks in the rainforest, late night discussions on the future of music, making Beethoven’s music dance to samba rhythms, and many hours of not just making but living music—all these create a high-octane ecosystem of learning where, in two weeks, a young artist can make kinds of progress that in the “real world” might take months. We want to train great future educators in our leaders, and we seek to make every moment of the festival fertile ground for a communicative, teaching mindset.
All festival concerts are free for the local agricultural community, people for whom live classical music is normally non-existent. Concerts take place in the sawmill on our farm, in local churches, and, for our closing weekend, in the city at Sala São Paulo, one of the world’s great acoustical spaces. Our goal is not just to perform, but also to perform with understanding, with every phrase expressed as an organic extension of each unique and powerful musician on the stage, woven together as a whole. We push boundaries with lighting design, movement on the stage, genres and formats, and our young artists help manage every aspect of festival management.
Between yearly festivals, we work to support our young artists past and present in reaching the next step, whether that’s studying at a leading conservatory or setting out on a concert career. For musicians coming from situations where survival is the priority, those steps are fraught with a lack of information. We have found that many otherwise qualified students lose opportunities because of trivial details; therefore, planning, fundraising, and many other practical details are key areas of support. Our info platform, musico.info, provides every practicality needed to apply to and be accepted at a conservatory. For the post-study phase, Ilumina tours give chances for young artists to be seen on the world stage, and Ilumina educational residencies bring smaller-scale versions of the festival experience to other projects, in part led by our former young artists.
Ilumina currently has almost 70 young artists studying at top conservatories around the world where, without us, there might have been no students with social project backgrounds. Almost 100% who applied have been accepted to their top choice schools. They are winning competitions and performing at major festivals. A younger generation now looks up to them as heroes, and reinvestment happens early and organically. Our farm is thriving.
The future of music needs powerful leading voices to emerge from social projects. We should absolutely expect that the grit, flexibility, and spirit of community imparted by a background in a social music project can enable young musicians to fly to the heights of their art. These days classical music is too often viewed as a pacifier, for calming subway stations and keeping kids off streets. But we believe that when we make music with shared commitment to excellence and creativity it becomes a powerful lens, magnifying human potential and setting old divisions and assumptions on fire. Ilumina means “it illuminates” in Portuguese, and that is our mission: for social diversity and advancement to shine a light on new paths of possibility, just as music itself radiates the transformative power of human dignity.