Column by Thomas M. Becker
Monday night of Week Eight, the Music School Festival Orchestra took the stage in the Chautauqua Amphitheater to perform their last concert of the 2014 season. Eighty musicians, selected by Maestro Timothy Muffitt, spent the summer at Chautauqua in an intense mode of learning, performance and bonding. Tim selected the Mahler Symphony No. 5 in C Minor as the coda to the season precisely because of its demanding complexity and intensity. In a very real way, they worked all season to deliver this piece.
The concertmaster for the Monday performance was Kenneth Jones Madrid, a Venezuelan-American whose talent and passion for music was developed by the remarkable El Sistema music system. The visionary Jose Antonio Abreu created this system in 1975, gathering five kids in a parking garage. Today, El Sistema involves over 500,000 children — most of which come from families who live below poverty lines — in a program that, at once, develops their musical talents, disciplines and knowledge, and teaches the participants to care for one another as the student becomes the teacher.
Kenneth received scholarship support for his participation in the MSFO from the Ernie Mahaffey and Sheila Penrose Fund. In the second year of that support, Kenneth’s father had a stroke and lost his business, causing Kenneth to suspend his plans for attendance at Oberlin and return to Venezuela to help support his family. He joined the Venezuelan National Orchestra as first violinist. Working under the dynamic Gustavo Dudamel, also a graduate of El Sistema, Kenneth traveled and performed internationally.
This summer, Kenneth was granted leave from the orchestra to return to the MSFO. And he brought with him two other very talented string players from the El Sistema program.
Last Monday evening before the performance, Kenneth and several other members of the MSFO shared a dinner at the President’s Cottage with the members of the Hultquist Foundation, funders of the MSFO for the last 13 years. I had the pleasure of sitting with Kenneth and hearing his story. What I found most interesting was his focus on the people he loved (his family — his eyes shone when he spoke of his mother), those he felt immense gratitude toward (his teacher Almita Vamos, Sheila and Ernie), and Maestro Muffitt, whom he admires for both musicianship and humanity.
So, I asked him what he wanted to achieve with his career. He said he would like to become the Commissioner of Culture for Venezuela. Venezuela would be lucky to have him.
There are hundreds of stories of generosity and care and sacrifice that run through these grounds each year. Kay Logan has been “adopting” artists and teachers here for decades. Jane Gross travels the world to support the careers of “her kids.” Toni and Joe Goldfarb likewise devote themselves to supporting Marlena Malas’ voice students as they compete for prizes in the New York area. And on and on.
This devoted sense of connection is so much more than an interest in music. Rather what happens in these activities is an investment in a contributory life; one with a profound sense of the obligation to give back and bring others along. At our best this activity represents Chautauqua’s el sistema.