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In Unruly Bolivia, Orchestra’s Chief Wields Baton Against the Brickbats

LA PAZ, Bolivia — Dozens of street protests have paralyzed downtown La Paz since David Handel first became conductor of the Bolivian National Symphony Orchestra in 1997.

Turning violent at times, the protests have forced two presidents out of office.

Handel has learned to take these extraordinary events in stride in a city that is also at an extraordinary altitude, 12,000 feet above sea level.

“When dynamite sticks are going off and there are angry mobs right outside the concert hall,” Handel said, “I have to make the decision whether to cancel rehearsal for the safety of members.”

For the record, he canceled rehearsal three times last year. The hall is only a block-and-a-half down a cobblestone street from the central plaza that houses the presidential palace and Congress.

If Handel, a Jew from Buffalo, N.Y., has gotten more than he bargained for in coming to Bolivia, he certainly hasn’t let it slow him down.

Many Bolivians credit him with revitalizing the national symphony, which was founded in 1945 along with Jewish refugees from Europe but later fell on hard times.

Handel has increased the number of performances to 50 a year from 12, recorded the group for the first time, enlarged the symphony to 65 musicians from 40, raised salaries and increased the yearly budget to $1 million from $100,000. He also has lowered ticket prices for students and raised the number of season ticket holders to 1,000 from none. Finally, he found the group its first-ever home in a one-time vaudeville theater and has taken the symphony to locales where it never had performed.

“When I came here, the orchestra was just a public institution subject to decisions made by the corresponding minister or vice minister,” Handel said recently, as he sat on the renovated concert hall’s stage. “It was a recipe for failure. My plan from the beginning was to free the orchestra from government handcuffs. I wanted it to be like other successful orchestras in the world.”

Handel’s work resulted in an appointment outside the country. In December 2004, he was hired to conduct the symphony in Mendoza, Argentina. He splits his time between La Paz, Mendoza and guest-conducting gigs around the world.

In La Paz, Handel has brooked no nonsense. He has insisted that musicians show up on time and learn their music.

But he has avoided being seen as the ugly American. He attributes this to what he calls his “progressive, humanist” upbringing in Buffalo, where his parents had a subscription to the local Philharmonic orchestra.

In 2001, Handel took the symphony out of its home in La Paz to perform Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and orchestral arrangements of indigenous folk music in the Salar de Uyuni, an immense salt lake surrounded by the Andes.

That same year, the group played with Los Kjarkas, a popular folkloric group, before sold-out audiences in Sucre, Cochabamba and Santa Cruz.

Most recently the orchestra performed in Oruro, a one-time mining center that has fallen on hard times.

“It was a full house [500 seats], with a long line to get in,” Handel said. “We could have performed three times. It defies expectations about who your consumer is. I think it’s a result of the work we’ve done over the years. I’m in newspapers every week for one thing or another.”

So in a country in which the new socialist president, Evo Morales, has forged close ties with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Handel has become an unlikely celebrity, hailed by policemen and congressmen alike on the street as “Maestro.”

“He is very respected in his job,” Vice President Alvaro Garcia, a former guerrilla, said in an interview.

Handel said he never has been criticized for being from the United States.

“My being Jewish,” he added, “is a non-issue.”

He said the matter has come up only once, after he fired a lazy and unprofessional musician who denounced him as a Jew during a live television interview.

“As soon as the journalist heard the antisemitic tirade, he threw the guy off the show,” Handel said.

La Paz’s small Jewish community — with only 300 families in a city of 1.5 million people — has been welcoming. When the orchestra needed a place to practice and perform, the Jewish community center offered its auditorium.

“Some of the biggest and most committed donors are Jews,” Handel said.

Creating a foundation to manage donations, he has led a fund-raising drive that refurbished the one-time vaudeville hall into a 500-seat home with excellent acoustics. He has gotten the German government to donate house lights, the American government to cover transportation costs and Andean Development Corporation to provide the elevator that lifts pianos onto the stage.

“He’s doing a job that others before him couldn’t do,” said Pablo Susz, a member of the orchestra foundation who was one of the 10,000 Jewish refugees who came to Bolivia to escape the Nazis. Susz, one of the few who stayed, has known all the conductors of the orchestra. He said of the current maestro, “Everybody connects the orchestra with David Handel.”

Now 41, Handel began playing the violin at 7 and at 15 began to conduct.

“I knew immediately what I wanted to do with the rest of my life,” he said.

After earning his master’s degree in orchestral conducting from the University of Michigan, he did an apprenticeship to famed maestro Kurt Masur, who was then music director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in East Germany. Handel then spent six years based in Chicago while accepting guest conductor jobs at every opportunity — including gigs in Guatemala, Argentina and Bolivia. He learned Spanish along the way.

A year after the guest job in Bolivia, Handel completed an engagement in Argentina and decided to visit friends in La Paz. While there, the orchestra asked him to take over as conductor.

“They asked me to take over the next concert,” he said. “We hit it off.”

Handel said he made a conscious decision to move to Latin America, figuring that the traditionally overlooked region would create more opportunities for him. He was right.

“Compared to my colleagues,” he said, “I’m on the road a lot, conducting constantly.”

Even though he expects eventually to take a position in the United States, Handel takes special pride in being the national conductor in Bolivia.

“It is odd that a North American is conducting the orchestra in the highest big city on earth,” he said. “But it makes all the artistic sense in the world. It’s all about making great art and having an impact.”

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