Heliopolis Symphony – rising from ashes

With the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra booked at the BBC Proms 2012, Brazil’s classical musical prowess on the international stage seems to be on the up. However, there is another orchestra from Brazil that is making waves, with a story that is certain to warm the heart: the Heliopolis Symphony.

Last week, I spoke about the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra, a Venezuelan musical phenomenon that has turned over 500,000 young people in the country (mostly from the poorest backgrounds) into successful classical musicians, while having a lasting impact upon musical education across the world.

Today, we turn out attentions to another orchestra that has been the source of great inspiration within a troubled region of the world.

The favelas of Brazil

Brazil’s relationship with favelas and the people who live within them has, for years, been a difficult one. It’s quite stunning to see some of these areas from above, sprawling micro-cities, many of which stand over some of the most beautiful regions of the country.

From a Western point of view, our thoughts about the favela are most likely skewed by the coverage they have received in recent movies, including ‘City of God’ and ‘Elite Squad’. These films outline the constant friction between the police, the residents of the favelas, the conservative media and liberal intellectuals who see so many issues in Brazil as being a result of wider social attitudes.

So, when in 1996, a fire ripped through the densely populated favelas of São Paulo, causing extensive damage and leading to the loss of seven lives, it would have been easy to think that in the ensuing weeks and months the incident would be forgotten.

Not this time.

Having viewed the coverage of the tragic fire, the Brazilian composer Silvio Baccarelli was left deeply moved, taking it upon himself to form the Baccarelli Institute – a classical music educational organization based in the heart of these same favelas.

From just a few initial students, the institute now teaches over 1300 pupils. The headquarters are based in Heliopolis, which also lends its name to the institute’s orchestra – the Heliopolis Symphony.

The famed conductor, Zubin Mehta is a patron of the project. He also conducts the Heliopolis Symphony in benefit concerts (including one on August 22nd this year), the funds of which are plowed straight back into the institute and play a significant role in supporting their ongoing educational and social agenda.

It has been a life-changing and (perhaps it would not be too much to say) life-saving project that has brought hope to many, many favela residents, while helping to change both social attitudes and those related to the traditional role of classical music in our cultures.

Final thoughts

It’s a constant source of inspiration for me to hear stories of these types of projects. They prove, not just that music can improve lives, but also that people anywhere will respond to classical music when given the opportunity. From Venezuela, to Iraq, to the United States, the UK and Brazil, there is an opportunity to bring classical to the next generation without any boundaries or elitism.

Perhaps a good message for 2012 would be this: support projects like Heliopolis Symphony, support local music ventures and celebrate classical music.

Here’s a video of Heliopolis Symphony playing music from Igor Stravinsky’s 1910 ballet ‘The Firebird’ – an appropriate choice for an orchestra that rose, so beautifully, from the ashes.


For more info on the Heliopolis Symphony Orchestra, follow this link: http://www.heliopolis2012lhennessy.com/index.html

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