The BBC National Orchestra of Wales in Patagonia

Viola player Laura Sinnerton describes the thrills of the BBC NOW's tour to Argentina

The BBC National Orchestra of Wales in Patagonia
Grant Llewellyn, conductor of BBC NOW in Patagonia

The BBC National Orchestra of Wales has spent the last couple of weeks on a tour of Patagonia in the south of Argentina. Viola player Laura Sinnerton describes the experience and reflects on the history and future of music in the Welsh Patagonian community.

In 1865, a hardy group of Welsh pioneers set sail aboard the goods ship Mimosa for the distant shores of Patagonia. One-hundred-and-fifty years later, ahead of the main orchestra's arrival for our tour of South America, a small group of BBC National Orchestra of Wales musicians, along with conductor Grant Llewellyn and harpist Catrin Finch, embarked upon a week-long residency in Patagonia. Our schedule involved engaging with the Welsh community, including music making in retirement homes and private homes, working with amateur and youth orchestras, presenting workshops in mainstream education schools, and, alongside long-time BBC NOW collaborator Andy Piddcock, visiting as many schools for children with special and additional needs in the Puerto Madryn and Trelew areas as possible.

As we flew into Puerto Madryn, the landscape of Patagonia stretched out, an almost featureless desert for as far as the eye could see. What a shock for the original Welsh settlers it must have been after being promised verdant pasture land, and what resilience they have shown that 150 years on this small but vital community is still present. 

The Welsh community in Patagonia has survived in part by retaining a strong sense of home, and the importance of roots, of lineage and history. Many of the Welsh Patagonians we met have never had the opportunity to visit Wales but, from the youngest to the oldest, given any opportunity to sing Calon Lan they will raise the roof, and the impact of the Welsh language remains subtly noticeable in the towns of Puerto Madryn, Trelew and, in particular, Gaiman.

During our residency we worked with over 1000 children. We spent time in mainstream schools with little-to-no music provision, where we presented music assemblies, introducing the instruments of the orchestra to the students. In many of these schools, there is a palpable lack of resources and, indeed, for many students it was their first encounter with orchestral instruments. 

Our aim wasn't just to stand up on a stage and perform, neither was it simply to help educate or train the next generation. Music is an art of communication, and the nonverbal nature of music offers a means of communicating with and for those for whom traditional communication is limited or impossible. It was, therefore, a privilege to work again with Andy Piddcock to extend our specials schools work to the schools of this region. It is an exciting and humbling experience to see a child who is incapable of independent movement, sometimes incapable of speech, suddenly lock eyes with you in reaction to the music that you play for them. There is sometimes a widening of the eyes, a light that switches on - each child has their own way of communicating and reacting, and deserves the opportunity to do so.

If I were to pick a personal highlight of our residency, it would be our time with the members of the INTA Youth Orchestra. An offshoot of the El Sistema, the music education scheme that began in Venezuela and has spread across South America, the orchestra is conducted by the wonderful Mariana Navarro and Dario Del Fabbro. Dario also adapts and arranges all of the orchestra's music so that is appropriate for multiple levels of ability (in a similar way that Gareth Glyn has created multi-ability parts for our BBC Ten Pieces work in the UK).

The resourcefulness and ingenuity of the organisation is staggering - they have a vegetable stall at a local market where the profits from their produce go towards buying instruments for students. The students treat each other like family, and watching the older students help the younger students practice through their parts before rehearsals begin is a truly heart-warming experience.

The BBC National Orchestra of Wales can be heard live in concert from the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires at 7.30pm, 3 November on BBC Radio 3. After broadcast the performance will be available on iPlayer. 

  • Article Type: | Blog |
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