Pursuing Dreams in N. America : Moscow Players Find Baja Rugged


It must be midnight in Moscow, and cool. Very cool. Here in this scrappy little port and tourist town it is 2 p.m. And warm. Very warm. The sun beats down between the palms onto the white stucco walls of the Hotel Riviera, once Jack Dempsey’s Casino. Ensenada is asleep in the midday heat.

But inside the Riviera, now the city’s House of Culture, in a high-ceilinged white-painted room, the atmosphere is intense. A dozen musicians sit in a circle, poised, facing a long-limbed young man with burning black eyes. He holds his white wand at the ready.

“Dvas-i, Va-i!”

The 12 fair-haired players in shorts and jeans drive their bows and oboes into action.


This is the nascent Baja California Symphony Orchestra. The latest forward troops in Latin America’s Cultural Offensive against the ever-aggressive Anglo Culture.

Except none of its members are Latino. They are all musical mercenaries from Moscow. In a remarkable coup, a young Moscow-trained Mexican conductor, Eduardo Garcia, has managed to bring 15 of Moscow’s finest musicians lock, stock and bassoon to become Baja California’s first full-time classical orchestra.

They are rehearsing a piece by Glinka, the “father of symphonic Russian music.” The third movement is supposed to be light and happy.

Today though, everybody’s mind is far away. To where they feel they should be: on the barricades with Boris Yeltsin, outside the Russian parliament. It is Tuesday, Aug. 20.

For three months now, the group, once known as the Little Moscow Symphony, has been battling financial uncertainty, heat, language and cultural barriers, and bureaucracy, to establish itself as a serious orchestra to represent Mexico’s farthest-flung state.

Garcia, their young (30) leader and conductor, is a native of Mexico City but speaks fluent Russian, something he learned during his seven years studying at the prestigious Moscow Conservatory. He met most of his players there. When Baja California wanted home-grown classical music last year, he simply flew back to Moscow and brought out his friends as an “instant orchestra.”

“We came because of the reputation of Eduardo Garcia,” says the cellist Yuri Kytasky, nodding to the conductor. “We believe in our leader.”

They would have to. Despite the tensions and hard times back home, life in the New World has been no piece of cake. For a start, there’s the money situation: precarious. Though Baja citizens have given their heartfelt support, and the state of Baja is doing its best to back them, the players are still living a hand-to-mouth and month-to-month existence. The instruments they brought with them are living on borrowed time--the sound quality is not good enough for Garcia. And they still await their official inauguration.

Meanwhile, the orchestra spends more time performing at weddings and rehearsals than at concerts. Most players exist on $330 a month and, to supplement their incomes, teach classes and play in local restaurants, where they trade nights with local mariachi bands.

Almost all of them speak little or no Spanish. Vladimir Fateyev needs his quicker-adapting 11-year-old son to guide him through the marketplace to buy food. They haven’t had black bread and borscht for months but are valiantly trying to adapt to Mexican food--”without too much of that picante ,” Fateyev says. He doesn’t need hot lips. He plays the flute.

Some have taken to haunting the Soviet cargo ships that occasionally pull into the harbor. Others mention stress in some of the families. The wife of bassoonist Piotr Turkin wants to go home, as do some of the older children. Harpist Elena Mashkotseva tries to put on a brave face. Her husband won’t come; he’s staying with the (full-size) Moscow Symphony.

“I told him I’d be away for a year,” she says wistfully. She brought her mother and daughter for company, but she can’t say how long she’ll stay.

“Maybe they’re not all staying,” Garcia acknowledges. “I can understand their emotional problems. They are an emotional people, but as long as I can help them grow, artistically, I think we will have an orchestra.”

Garcia’s players do remain remarkably upbeat. When they compare the conditions back home, they think they have it pretty good.

“I was sure that it would be easier here than in Moscow,” says horn player Sergei Marushak.

“It is very difficult there now. The chance of getting a flat in Moscow is so small. Here at least there is opportunity.”

Turkin concurs. “We will stay,” he declares. “My wife and kids, they found it difficult to stay, but now we get her a job. Teaching. She will stay.”

Last year, just after Garcia returned to Mexico City, the leaders of Ensenada decided that Baja California needed Culture with a capital C . They asked Garcia’s help in forming an official orchestra for the state.

Without enough accomplished classical musicians in Baja, Garcia thought briefly about hiring players from Mexico City. He didn’t find many takers.

“They won’t come. They are afraid,” he complains.

“Of Baja California, they think it is still the Wild West. I can’t pay them enough to come,” he says, “so we have to go halfway around the world to find our orchestra. Crazy, but it may be just what we need to make this thing work.”

Garcia, who studied viola and conducting at the Moscow Conservatory, proposed to recruit the orchestra he had formed during his student days, the Little Symphony Orchestra of Moscow. A patronato group in Mexico paid $15,000 for the airline tickets, and in January the first five players took the leap into the unknown. Over the next three months, 10 more followed. A 16th player is due any day now.

Support for the orchestra has been widespread. Some of Ensenada’s prosperous citizens have offered free use of their spare apartments and beach houses. Scientists from the nearby National Observatory have offered meal tickets. A group of doctors gives medical care. Restaurateurs offer meals.

The state government has kicked in with facilities for rehearsal and free use of concert halls around the state, as well as a financial contribution to a $120,000 fund. The interest it earns helps pay the orchestra’s salaries.

But despite a designation as the official orchestra of Baja California, Garcia’s group has yet to be launched by the state. Even when it does become affiliated, it will be competing with the State Band of Baja California for funds and will be dependent on outside fund-raising.

But the orchestra is preparing for an official inauguration anyway, in the presence, it is hoped, of Baja’s Gov. Ernesto Ruffo sometime in October. There also is no official start date for its music season, which is supposed to have 53 concerts through May in Mexicali, Tijuana and Ensenada.

“This is an enterprise,” Garcia says, “to create an orchestra for Baja California. An independent orchestra. We exist with the help of the people. They truly appreciate having us here. There is a doctor, Rodrigo Rodriguez, who has bought some of our instruments, given us about $30,000--including a car for me, because he wants to bring culture to this state. Baja California is on the brink of change . . . big change. We are part of it.”

Still, the pay is anything but special. Although the five top Soviet players earn $830 a month, the rest exist on $330.

On top of that, everyone in the group teaches music classes on his or her instrument. That adds $85 a month. At the Hacienda del Viejo restaurant, one of several where the performers eat free, they play in a quintet twice a week. And they rehearse--six hours a day.

“Baja California is down, culturally,” trombonist Vladimir Zontag says, swooping his hand toward the ground.

“But we came to help. I have been here five months. (The Mexicans) are a very beautiful people. We give many concerts. As an audience, they appreciate us.”

Since the players took up residence in Ensenada, the group has played 33 concerts, mostly close to home. Garcia says his orchestra is playing a wide repertory, from Mexican composer Sylvestre Revueltas to Mozart to Messiaen. Additionally, Garcia has an Ensenadan composer, Ernesto Rosas, at work writing contemporary pieces for the orchestra.

Garcia hopes to expand his orchestra using Baja Californians trained by the Soviets. His members already teach 40 students. Nine of them, he says, show the potential to become professional one day. He has high hopes for a tour north of the border and the chance to have the orchestra’s talents recognized in Southern California and beyond.

Last week, though, all that faded as the group watched their greatest nightmare come true.

“The first reaction in the group was panic,” said Garcia. “That all was going to hell back home. They worried about their families. We rehearsed Monday and Tuesday, but they were two very heavy days. We are still waiting to hear from the pianist and the bass-clarinetist to see if and when they’re coming.”

Garcia says there were no tears though. “They are accustomed to this . . . in some ways they are prepared by everything. Besides, an artist can forget life in his music. Last week we tried hard to enter the musical world, to shut out the other world. But it was very difficult. I’m just thankful we decided to bring them all out from Moscow straight away, rather than one at a time, which would have been easier on the finances. We knew last December it would happen. We decided then it would be better to get them out while we could.”

“I couldn’t do anything (when the coup happened),” said Alexei Rexnick, the orchestra’s arranger. “I couldn’t concentrate. I couldn’t sleep. All I could do was sit and wait. The rest of the orchestra was the same. I didn’t expect Yeltsin to succeed. But when he did, our country became . . . a whole society.”

It is 6 p.m. the light is chalky, the breeze is gentle. The players are drifting out of rehearsal into the evening air, dragging their instrument-laden bicycles down the stairs and out into the park.

The horn player Marushak and his wife, Tatiana, a soprano, are on bicycles too. But it turns out that’s only because his car is being repaired. They have somehow become the proud owners of a 1980 Chevy Caprice.

“Eight cylinders!” he says. “In Moscow only high government bosses drove around in eight-cylinder cars. Here we are starting to be bosses.”

Perhaps his friends back home are too, now. Except they don’t yet have Chevy Caprices to prove it.