Wabash Moments

Encounter with El Presidente: Rain, hail, and blood on the altiplano
by Peter Prengaman ’98

So in February Lorena, my Chilean girlfriend, and I are visiting La Paz, Bolivia. Like many South Americans, we went to Bolivia for two main reasons: its spectacular geographical beauty—the altiplano (high plain) makes Montana look like Little Sky Country in comparison—and the price.

Bolivia is cheap. That's because it's one of the poorest countries on the planet. And even a traveler feels that crushing poverty every minute. In La Paz, the capital and richest city, the majority of people don't have running water or electricity. Many houses are made of mud. And far too many people obviously don't have enough to eat.

So here we are visiting a prison (a real story in itself) when it begins to hail. Even inside this large federal prison the thundering ice balls make it sound like we are being bombed.

When we leave the prison an hour later, the hail has stopped, but it's still raining hard. Vendors are scooping hail out of their shops with shovels. Women, carrying babies on their backs, criss-cross the streets looking for anyplace to get out of the rain. We navigate, slipping and sliding, through the steep and winding streets.

We stumble up to our hotel room and snap on the tube to get the latest on the storm.

A state of emergency has been issued and newscasters are calling this “the biggest storm to hit La Paz in 20 years.” It's 8 p.m., and already 40 people are dead. Some have been smashed between sliding cars. Some have drowned because they couldn't get out of the way of mud and waves of water rushing down the hills. Others found shelter only to be crushed by collapsing houses and buildings.

The sensationalist Bolivian television stations go from the flooded streets to the morgues in search of the best images, which for them, in this case, are the most gruesome.

“The authorities are urging every Bolivian to donate whatever he can for the victims,” say the newscasters. “Money, clothes, and blood.”

Lorena and I look at each other. We are students, so there is little money to speak of. We are traveling, so we don't have more than one change of clothes. But blood?! In Bolivia!

“Negro,” Lorena calls me by my nickname, “you know what we should do, right?”

I do. I'm afraid of needles, and the thought of having a few pints of blood removed has never been an attractive one. But my blood type is B-negative—one of the rarest—and I know that if we don't at least try to help it will eat at me.

“Okay,” I tell her. “Let's go.”

The hospital is chaotic. In the waiting room hundreds of people are standing or sitting on the floor because there are no chairs. And many, especially mothers who have just received bad news, are crying hard.

Every time a nurse or doctor walks in, they are bum-rushed by people wanting to know about loved ones.

We push our way to a nurse.

“We are here to give blood,” I yell to her, making myself heard over the noise.

“Blood?” she asks, confused. “Oh, blood. Great! You are the first people here. Come!”

As we get pricked, Lorena and I look at each other.

“It's 11 p.m. on a Tuesday night in La Paz,” I say out loud. “And here we are about to give blood. Hard to beat that for adventure.”

SUDDENLY, NURSES START to run in and out of the room, as if expecting someone important.

Then he walks in. Dressed in khaki slacks, an open collared white dress shirt, and a brown leather jacket, Bolivian president Jorge Quiroga Ramirez looks like your average white American 43-year-old businessman, well-kept enough to be going on 35.

“That's the president! That's the president!” I whisper to Lorena as the man walks toward us.

President Quiroga addresses us in Spanish and extends his hand.

“Hi, Thanks for coming.”

“You are the president,” I tell him.

“Yes,” he laughs. “I am the president.”

“Negro,” Lorena whispers, “Close your mouth. You look shocked.”

The president is here to publicly donate blood, and a hoard of TV news cameras is transmitting every drop for anxious viewers.

Within minutes, the nurses have a needle in his arm. The president's wife, a blond American woman, arrives a few minutes later.

Lorena and I just look at each other and shook our heads. The nurses have completely forgotten about us, but this is adventure!

As the president's blood fills the plastic sack, he keeps looking at me, as if mystified. He knows I’m not Bolivian—my Spanish accent and pasty-white skin-color give that away—most Bolivians are Quechua or i Indians.

When he finishes, he slowly stands up and walks toward us, the cameras and bodyguards following closely.

“You don't work for an NGO or do some kind of internship here?” he asks me in perfect English. The question surprises me, both for its content and the fact that it is being asked in English. This is the first time I’ve had heard English in Bolivia.

I tell him that I don’t work for an NGO, and I don’t even live in Bolivia—I’m a Rotary scholar in Chile and am just visiting Bolivia.

“I've read a lot about your policies,” I tell him. “I really wish you the best, not just in this crisis, but in moving the country forward.”

The president smiles. Then he rattles off a few things about the challenge of modernizing such a poor country. Probably everyone standing here is wondering just what the heck the president and the gringo are talking about.

“Who is the woman next to you,” he asks me.

“Lorena,” I tell him. “My girlfriend.”

“Ah,” he says switching into Spanish. He pauses for a moment, then smiles at his blond wife.

“Be careful,” he says. “It’s not a good idea for Latinos to marry Americans.”

Pete Prengaman has returned from his Fulbright Fellowship in South America and is a reporter with the Associated Press.


Opera, the Devil and the Wabash Man
by William B. Catus III '77

"A chorus in sync telepathically senses and registers- the mental communion is immediate and profound. You know instantly when you're 'on' and flowing together."

Walking onto the stage of New York City's Carnegie Hall in front of almost 3000 people, the white arc of the gently curving balconies filling your field of vision, you may think you're a long way from Crawfordsville. But as I prepared to take the stage as part of the Columbus Symphony Chorus, I couldn't help but feel a connection to the Wabash College community I knew in the 1970s: avid chamber music performances led by David Greene, Dick Strawn, and Fred and Diane Enenbach, the Glee Club with Fred Ford. I was about to sing opera on the Carnegie stage. But opera, too, was in the Wabash I knew—a touring production of Mozart's 'Don Giovanni' by the Goldovsky Opera Theater that delighted with its champagne high spirits.

Tonight it was our turn, as the Columbus Symphony celebrated its 50th anniversary season with a Carnegie Hall appearance, along with the Chorus and Columbus Children's Choir, led by our vivace Italian conductor, Alessandro Siciliani.

The music went back 150 years, to the colorful, party-hearty life of Arrigo Boito and his hyper-Romantic opera on Goethe's 'Faust', Mefistofele: the Devil with an Italian taste of campari.

Boito himself is worth a Wabash Cultures & Traditions course unit of his own. As a young man in his 20s in the 1860s, Boito had already written words for music for Italy's greatest opera composer, Verdi, for a World's Fair (they collaborated later on Otello and Falstaff). Boito participated with Garibaldi's Red Shirts in the unification of Italy and was part of an avant-garde literary movement called ‘Scapigliati, 'The Raggedy Scamps' (sounds like a group of Bert Stern's Wabash creative writing students). These upstarts blew through the formal structures of Italian poetry and art.

Boito had wine, women and song and a fascination with the Devil as embodied in poetry that burned its way across the mid-19th Century European cultural scene, Goethe's Faust. Before Boito, two of music's heavyweights, Berlioz and Liszt, had composed ambitiously massive settings of 'Faust' that had stretched and twisted symphonic and operatic form to the breaking point. Gounod had done a more traditional operatic Faust that was wildly popular around the world.

Undaunted, Boito launched on a heaven-storming Faust epic of his own, first performed in 1868 at La Scala in Milan. Mefistofele roils with the cynical, anarchic energies of a Devil who guffaws, whistles, and snorts in derision as Boito's anti-hero.

The most recent group to do this music at Carnegie Hall was the New York Philharmonic, then under the direction of Leopold Stokowski, quite an act for musicians from Columbus, Ohio to follow.

The music from Mefistofele we were singing that night was “Prologue in Heaven”, which, after immense brass fanfares, opens at the softest dynamic level possible, like a sound barely heard on the horizon, growing to a shimmering, crystalline cascade of paradisal loveliness that crests in wave after wave of sustained harmony and exuberance. The Devil proclaims his determination to corrupt Faust in a wager with God, and the music closes with a chorus of penitents, a dramatic crescendo over several pages of music, concluding in gigantic Aves sustained without break. A challenging work, to say the least.

Yet simply performing in Carnegie Hall inspires you to new heights. I had heard music there before our concert. But when you're on stage, the acoustics are phenomenal. In most venues, you have to push the sound out- in Carnegie Hall, it's as if the sound magically appears and floats off the stage. The effect is like a czar's Faberge egg nestled on a black velvet pillow: diamond sound. And preparing in the Carnegie rehearsal and dressing rooms, you know those walls hold a myriad of fascinating stories to impart.

The wings and Carnegie stage itself are surprisingly small. You come though a plain door and there you are, on the most fabled concert stage in the world. On the night of our performance I carried in my music folder a list of the music teachers and choir directors who had taught and inspired me over decades; I wanted them to be there with me.

Concert time. Maestro Siciliani waited for total silence to fall in the auditorium. Brass ensembles in the Carnegie balconies hurled the opening fanfares of Mefistofele, a magnificent frisson. Einsteinian relativity took over—time slowed in the intensity of the performance's concentration. A chorus in sync telepathically senses and registers—the mental communion is immediate and profound. You know instantly when you're “on” and flowing together.

At the fortissimo conclusion of the “Prologue”, the balanced, beautiful sound of 275 musicians shook the floor and air of Carnegie Hall, the auditorium itself acting as one vast resonator. The capacity crowd gave a full-throated roar and stood for a long ovation for us and for our Maestro Siciliani—lion-like in his audacity and prowess. The New York Times review said the concert was given with “confident virtuosity.” The Columbus Dispatch wrote that the performance “alternately breathed fire and spoke poetry.”

After the Carnegie performance, a group of us choristers rode on the backstage elevator with our Devil, Stephen West, who grinned as he held the large bouquet of flowers given to him onstage. We pressed “UP”—but, of course, the elevator went down, while our Mefistofele chuckled in his rumbling basso.

Bill Catus has been singing in choirs since the third grade and was accepted by audition into the Columbus Symphony Chorus in 1986.

The Columbus Symphony/Chorus Carnegie Hall CD is available from the Symphony Web site at www.columbussymphony.com.