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Vela and Vásquez Chacón, the BSO's First Resident Fellows

Double bassist Andres Vela, dressed in black in front of a black background, holds his instrument, facing the camera, next to violist Leonardo Vásquez Chacón, also dressed in black and holding his instrument
Marco Borggreve
Double bassist Andres Vela and violist Leonardo Vásquez Chacón

The Boston Symphony's Resident Fellowship Program for Early Career Musicians answers the call of change for American orchestras, and its first participants describe their experiences.

When you go to a concert hall and hear a symphony orchestra in person, you’re hearing a unified vision of a piece of music. Anywhere from 40 to a hundred or more individuals, each with a specific role, are acting as one to communicate a sonic work of art. But before the concert, while you’re settling into your seat, you’ve got a chance to see who those hundred or so people are as individuals, as they each warm up, and maybe get the trickiest passages under their fingers one last time before it counts.

And who, exactly, are you seeing? More to the point, who are you not seeing? When you compare who plays in symphony orchestras in this country to the overall population, you’ll find, according to the League of American Orchestras, that Hispanic or Latinx musicians account for 4.8 percent of the musicians in symphony orchestras. But they make up 18.9 percent of the population. Black or African American musicians make up 2.4 percent of orchestras, but 12.6 percent of the overall population. Meanwhile, the white population of the U.S. is 59 percent, but 79 percent of orchestra membership. And the Asian or Asian American population is 5.9 percent, but 11 percent of orchestras.

The numbers for those underrepresented categories have been trending up over the last ten years or so, but it’s happening at a snail’s pace.

There’s no quick fix for this kind of disparity. But a few years ago, the Boston Symphony Orchestra set out to help change things, launching a program that offers short-term appointments to the BSO for those from historically underrepresented backgrounds, chosen through a competitive application and audition process. It’s called the Susan W. and Stephen D. Paine BSO Resident Fellowship Program for Early Career Musicians.

Benjamin Levy of the BSO’s double bass section is one of the orchestra members who helped implement the program. And he said that the idea for the program was presented to the orchestra musicians in 2020.

“These types of programs have been in other symphony orchestras and arts institutions more broadly.” Levy said. “But this was brought to the players committee to really help do it the right way, to codify actual language in our contracts so that this could have some real bones to it, and could be a great aspect of what the BSO wants to try to do going forward.”

The musicians who play in American orchestras do come from a range of socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds. But pursuing classical music as a career brings with it the obligation to purchase invariably expensive instruments and equipment, to be able to travel to study with the best teachers, and to be available for unpaid opportunities that are the equivalent of internships in other fields.

Beyond that, it seems like you can’t go through a day of paying attention to the news without hearing about the crushing economic realities of Boston’s housing landscape. Imagine being a student at one of the several excellent music schools in town, working out a budget that allows you not only to pay rent and take the T to classes and rehearsals, but also save enough money to fly to two or three far-away cities a year for auditions. Only the very well-resourced can manage it, and the link between who has those resources and socioeconomic status is undeniable.

The BSO Resident Fellows are given a chance to mitigate all of that with steady employment, embedded in the BSO, rehearsing and performing in concerts at Symphony Hall and at Tanglewood. They’re also mentored by BSO members and given support to build the next stages of their careers. Benjamin Levy says this is a critical part of the program.

“When you're talking about symphony orchestras, the opportunity to audition for an orchestra is the last step along that long, lifetime process of getting to that point,” said Levy. “And what a person really needs is to have resources of many different types. Not just money, but community support, health care support, stability in their job and income, and mentorship. So, I feel that's what this program is able to offer. It's not just having someone come in and do the job for a year and then move on. It's providing a myriad of those types of resources.”

The first Resident Fellows of the Boston Symphony are double bassist Andres Vela and violist Leonardo Vásquez Chacón. Vela told me about his hometown, Edinburg, Texas, which is just outside McAllen, and about as far south as you can go and still be within the United States.

Well, it's very hot there,” he said. “And that doesn't change much throughout the year, because we live very close to the border. It's a primarily Hispanic community, and a good majority of people are bilingual. My parents actually don't speak English, so I speak Spanish with them, and then with my brothers, they’re bilingual and we go back and forth. But, I grew up in a place that's really not so busy at all, just kind of very peaceful. You can come out any time of the day, it doesn't matter, and there is zero noise. I think there's something very beautiful about that, and that I enjoy very much.”

Vásquez Chacón grew up in the vastly different surroundings of Lima, Peru, an enormous city. “It's millions and millions of people,” he said. “In some ways it's similar to Tokyo, in the sense that once the city starts, it really never ends. All of it is inhabited, and it's just very industrial and very, very big and very busy, as busy as Manhattan. Boston is calmer, and I'm really happy about that. But once you live in a city like Lima, you do get used to it. I lived there for 21 years. So, you develop a way to be there. It's totally fine.”

Both Vela and Vásquez Chacón were raised in families that weren’t particularly musical, and they found their way to their instruments through programs at their schools. Just after graduating from high school, Vela spent a summer on tour as a member of the National Youth Orchestra of the United States. Traveling to New York and seeing places he had never been before convinced him to pursue music, which he did first by going to college in his hometown, at the University of Texas - Rio Grande Valley.

For Vásquez Chacón, the road had an extra couple of twists and turns. He said that, as he was approaching graduation from high school, he was headed to medical school.

“I went to med school for one full year,” he said.

“And somehow, by chance, during that one year of med school, I became really close to some musicians from Lima who were playing gigs or who studied at the National Conservatory, which I had never been in. I had never stepped foot in there, just because my parents were not musicians. I didn't know that that's what I would have had to do to become a professional musician if I wanted to. So, I would go to med school in the mornings, and then meet with these musicians. And they told me, ‘Oh, you should come to the National Youth Symphony, and maybe you can play.’ And I went and then became a member. And that's how I really started interacting with music in a more formal way.

“So, through that first year of med school, that was also my first year of real exposure to music. That's when I realized what I really wanted to do. And it's not that I didn't like medical school, but it wasn't really what I really wanted. I think I had always had that bug inside me, wanting to do music, but I never had outlets or avenues for me to approach it in a good way.”

Since joining the Boston Symphony as its first Resident Fellows in the fall of 2022, both musicians have discovered not just what it means to play in a major orchestra on a musical level, but also what it means in the pace of the work they’re doing, as Andres Vela said.

“I never spent this much time with a professional orchestra before. So, I think one of the things that surprised me was the amount of repertoire that they cover," he said. "For example, at Tanglewood they play three different programs a week. I've never had to do that, ever, in my life. I was certainly surprised by that, but at the same time, I was very excited about it, just because I get to play all these pieces I've never played. And what’s surprising is the little time that they need to put it together. They’re obviously amazing musicians. But many of them have played some of these pieces 10, 20, 30, 40 times. Assistant Principal Bassist Lawrence Wolfe told me he's played Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony 50 or 60 times in his lifetime, maybe more. And then there's me, playing it for the very first time.”

As for the musical side of things, Leonardo Vásquez Chacón described what makes the BSO and Andris Nelsons special.

I think the way in which the orchestra and Andris are able to take time in such specific ways and understand each other is so amazing. I remember last year when we were doing Mahler 6, and I practiced a ton to hit all the notes, as much as possible. And still there were so many spots where everyone knew, except me, exactly how many milliseconds had to be taken before the next bar hits or lands. It's that control that Andris has over everybody. But at the same time, the whole orchestra trusts him, and they trust the sound that is already happening. There's an inevitability to the way they take time, or do a ritardando, or an accelerando.”

All of that experience — from the sheer pace of preparing the number of pieces the Boston Symphony plays every year, to understanding and picking up the fine nuances of how this particular orchestra interprets music, to every other aspect of life in an orchestra — is what Andres Vela and Leonardo Vásquez Chacón will leave the BSO with later this year as they begin writing the next chapters of their musical lives.

And as they depart and the next Resident Fellows take their places on stage at Symphony Hall next season, what does it mean for the BSO? Why is the fellowship program important? Benjamin Levy sees it as relevant to both the audience of today and the audience of years to come.

“We're trying to bring in audiences that are also underrepresented,” he said. “And that's not to say that our audience now isn't valued and important, because they are. But, if you're talking about art, which is what we do, access is a big part of art and allowing and encouraging that open access, regardless of your background or socioeconomic status, is very important. And I think having black and brown faces on the stage matters. And belonging is an important thing. It's not just diversity, equity, and inclusion. It's diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging.”

Visit the BSO to learn more about Andres Vela and Leonardo Vásquez Chacón and about the Resident Fellowship Program.

To learn more about the demographics of membership in symphony orchestras, visit the League of American Orchestras.

Brian McCreath is the Director of Production for CRB.