Utah Symphony performs virtual duets with Haitian youth

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SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – Musicians all over the world have continued to make music together, using click tracks and editing apps, during the pandemic. Chances are, few of those performances, though, have been as meaningful as a series of duets with two members of the Utah Symphony and a group of young musicians in Haiti.

Four years ago, Utah violinist Yuki McQueen and cellist John Eckstein traveled to the island nation – the poorest in the Western Hemisphere – to teach at a music camp sponsored by the non-profit BLUME Haiti.

With the help of their Symphony colleagues, they eventually started the Haitian Orchestra Institute – an annual workshop for young Haitian musicians.

“What the program has done for music in Haiti is extraordinary,” said Janet Anthony of BLUME Haiti, who helps organize HOI. “It creates another image of Haiti that’s very, very positive.”

“Our goal has never been to create virtuoso musicians,” Anthony said. “It’s more to play a small part in helping to develop their civil and civic society.”

The year 2020 marked a series of anniversaries for the island – the 10th anniversary of the 2010 earthquake among them – and it was going to be a big year for HOI. It was to include the workshop and a music festival.

Salt Lake’s Baldassin Pianos restored a donated 1932 Beckstein grand piano for the event.

But in March, with the festivities less than two weeks away, they were forced to postpone their plans.

McQueen was heartbroken, but not as disappointed as Haitian cellist Emantero Valbrun.

Emantero Valbru and Yuki McQueen play together virtually. (Photo: KSL TV)

The 20-year-old musician taught himself to play the cello by watching YouTube videos, something which mystifies Eckstein.

“It’d be like looking at a baseball player and deciding I want to be in the MLB,” Eckstein said. “You just don’t do that.”

Valbrun is now so passionate about the instrument that he practices 10 hours a day, and last year, didn’t let a three-hour motorcycle ride with a cello strapped to his back and an armed holdup keep him from attending the workshop.

Because of poverty, political instability and physical isolation, Valbrun and other Haitians just don’t have other musical opportunities like HOI.

Isolated by the pandemic, Valbrun posted a series of solos on Facebook.

“It was like he was crying out in the wilderness by himself with his cello,” McQueen said. “I could just feel his isolation and his loneliness just looking at those videos.”

She thought maybe Valbrun and the other Haitian musician didn’t have to play alone.

Cellist John Eckstein with the Utah Symphony (Photo: KSL TV)

McQueen arranged a series of duets – “duets at a distance” – Eckstein and herself performing with Valbrun and students John Karly Fils Menard, Jericho Pierre Noel, Berlande Alexis, Sarah Colimon, Alexandre Santya, and Getro Joseph.

Playing side-by-side with professionals, even if doing it virtually, meant a lot.

Emantero Valbrun, speaking through an interpreter, said he was hopeful.

“Yes, we still have hope. It is this hope that gives us life. Corona, the virus, is not eternal,” said Valbrun. “If we always work at home and have contact with international teachers, it will be ok.”

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