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.
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.
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?!
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.
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.
here to give blood,” I yell to her, making
myself heard over the noise.
she asks, confused. “Oh, blood. Great! You
are the first people here. Come!”
As we get pricked,
Lorena and I look at each other.
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.”
START to run in and out of the room, as if expecting
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.
the president! That's the president!” I
whisper to Lorena as the man walks toward us.
addresses us in Spanish and extends his hand.
the president,” I tell him.
he laughs. “I am the president.”
Lorena whispers, “Close your mouth. You
is here to publicly donate blood, and a hoard
of TV news cameras is transmitting every drop
for anxious viewers.
the nurses have a needle in his arm. The president's
wife, a blond American woman, arrives a few minutes
Lorena and I just
look at each other and shook our heads. The nurses
have completely forgotten about us, but this is
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.
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
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.
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.”
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
the woman next to you,” he asks me.
I tell him. “My girlfriend.”
he says switching into Spanish. He pauses for
a moment, then smiles at his blond wife.
he says. “It’s not a good idea for
Latinos to marry Americans.”
Prengaman has returned from his Fulbright Fellowship
in South America and is a reporter with the Associated
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,
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Catus has been singing in choirs since the third
grade and was accepted by audition into the Columbus
Symphony Chorus in 1986.
Columbus Symphony/Chorus Carnegie Hall CD is available
from the Symphony Web site at www.columbussymphony.com.