It was a delightfully kept secret and the making of musical dreams come true. At each of three specially chosen schools, it came as a total surprise when students from the Cornell University Wind Ensemble (CU Winds) presented as gifts to Costa Rican students the instruments they had been practicing with all day long.
The Ithaca, New York, university students last month donated one hundred woodwind instruments to replace the aging instruments, some at least 50 years old, with which the Tico schools had been struggling. All were immaculately refurbished and contained in special carrying cases – flutes, French horns, a violin, oboes, clarinets, trombones, saxophones and more.
CU Winds initiated its cultural exchange program with Costa Rica two years ago under the tutelage of music director Cynthia Johnston Turner. Twenty-six students made the trip in 2006 to the remote Matapalo music school near Tamarindo, in the northwestern province of Guanacaste, leaving behind 48 instruments. This year, the program’s popularity increased to 49 students who collected some 100 instruments so that they could add two more schools to their 10-day itinerary: the music conservatory of the National University (UNA) in San Isidro de El General, in the Southern Zone, and the music program of the high school in San Pedro de Poás, northwest of San José. The daylong seminars culminated in public concerts in each of the three communities, with the Tico students performing a special work of their choosing along with their CU Winds mentors.
Tears couldn’t be held back as the instruments were presented. One CU Winds student remarked, “We take so many things for granted in the United States and a French horn might not be received so gratefully, but here it was times two.”
The level of musical ability varied greatly among the schools, with San Isidro’s music conservatory being the most advanced. The CU Winds students formed an appreciation of the different levels and approaches to teaching music. With a lot of smiles and hand signing, they enjoyed the experience of instant immersion in Costa Rican culture, provided by homestays in San Isidro.
This year’s tour included a concert in the lobby of Correos de Costa Rica in downtown San José, a performance for the students at Country Day School in the western suburb of Escazú, and a concert for the elderly residents of Hogar Carlos María Ulloa in the northeastern suburb of Guadalupe. At the Santa Cruz Cultural Festival in Guanacaste, they performed a concert in the park and joined the Matapalo marching band in a festival parade through the streets.
Professor Turner, who is from Canada, is related to Lyn Statten, chair of the Outreach Committee of the Canadian Club of Costa Rica. Statten was instrumental in the planning and logistics of each trip. A CU Winds benefit concert at the Eugene O’Neill Theater in the Costa Rican-North American Cultural Center, in the eastern San José neighborhood of Barrio Dent, received critical acclaim and raised funds for the Canadian Club’s outreach program to repair schools and fund scholarships for children in poorer areas of the country. Last year, the outreach program donated $42,000, initiating 17 projects to repair wiring, windows and ceilings, erect security fences and playgrounds, and provide equipment and desks to schools around the country.
The CU Winds itinerary also included a Cornell alumni reception and dinner, as well as a visit to a coffee farm in Santa Bárbara de Heredia, north of San José, operated by Rosamond and Nathaniel Grew,members of a large Cornell family, who were responsible for the inclusion of San Isidro de El General in the CU Winds tour. Roslyn Beswick, through the Women’s Club of Costa Rica Scholarship Program, introduced the San Pedro de Poás school to this year’s tour, while Star Cunningham, Guanacaste developer and longtime sponsor of the Matapalo community, started it all in 2006. Manuel Arce of the cultural center coordinated the San José concerts, tickets and publicity.
Canadian Ambassador to Costa Rica Neil Reeder, in a reception hosted for CU Winds, described the tour as a welcome synergism of “trilateral cultural exchange.”
CU Winds students flock to the Ivy League university from all parts of the United States. Amazingly, only two of the CU Winds ensemble are music majors. Most major in programs from the classics to the sciences, their devotion to music and hours of rehearsal all extraneous to intense undergraduate studies.
Turner’s cultural and language exchange program with Costa Rica requires her students to learn some Spanish to deepen their experience and increase the opportunity to develop longer-lasting friendships with the students they meet here. The performing tour is intended as an intense, transformative experience, challenging students to commit many months of work toward the program’s goals.
“Music functions as the critical tool to unify the groups across cultures,” she said.
Joan Dewar has been a member of the Canadian Club of Costa Rica since she moved here three years ago, and was recently elected to the group’s board of directors.