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Borinquen Brass Play Music in Every Corner of Puerto Rico

They started as a group of five students at the Conservatory of Music of Puerto Rico, each playing a different type of horn, who got together to fulfill a chamber music requirement. Today, the brass wind ensemble Borinquen Brass [es] has 13 members, including a percussionist, and six years of experience giving free concerts in different churches and concert halls in Puerto Rico over the Christmas season and the summer.

The group is a rarity in Puerto Rico. Not only are there few active chamber music ensembles in the country, but the members of Borinquen Brass also play without any sort of compensation. Some come from out of the way neighborhoods to rehearse, sometimes driving more than an hour at night after working all day. The ensemble's endeavor is to offer a valuable community and educational service to audiences that otherwise wouldn't have access to this kind of music, which is normally heard only in concert halls particularly near San Juan, Puerto Rico's capital and main cultural hub. The group plays in towns across the island, and tries to play as often as possible outside of San Juan.

I had the opportunity to speak with Professor Rafael Enrique Irizarry, the group's director, and Felipe Rodríguez, one of its founding members, who was recently selected as First Trumpet for the Symphony Orchestra of Puerto Rico [es], about the work that Borinquen Brass does, their plans for the future, and how a group like theirs has successfully used social networking.

Borinquen Brass at its 2011 Christmas concert in the prestigious Pablo Casals Symphony Hall at the Luis A. Ferré Fine Arts Center. Admission to the concert was completely free. Photo taken from Borinquen Brass's Facebook page.

Rafael Enrique Irizarry (REI): Yo pienso que la piedra fundacional de este conjunto ha sido la voluntad de servicio libre de interés pecuniario. Y eso le ha imprimido a todos los miembros del grupo —y eso es muy raro, no son cinco, son trece personas— le ha imprimido al grupo que lo importante no es hacerlo por el dinero, lo importante es el deseo de hacerlo bien, hacerlo por el placer de hacerlo bien, y compartir eso con los demás. Por supuesto que, como todo en la vida, pues, hay una faceta estrictamente práctica. Para él [Felipe], como primera trompeta de la Sinfónica, y los demás compañeros esto es una forma de mantener un acondicionamiento estrictamente mecánico de tocar —punto— al igual que es la exposición continua, lo que llaman en teatro la tabla escénica, que se va puliendo y perfeccionando en esta exposición. Pero no quepa la menor duda que en este grupo el tejido unificador es la gratificación de hacerlo porque nos gusta.

Rafael Enrique Irizarry (REI): I think that the foundation of this group has been its willingness to provide a service separate from any financial interests. And that is the outlook of every member of the group—and that's quite unusual, since it's not just five, it's thirteen people—the outlook of the group is that what's important is not doing it for money, what's important is the desire to do it well, and to share it with everyone. Of course, like everything in life, well, there's a strictly practical side. For him [Felipe], as First Trumpet of the Symphony, and for the other members, this is a way to maintain a strictly mechanistic playing ability—period—as well as continuous exposure, what they call in theatre a platform, to keep polishing and refining their ability in this setting.

Borinquen Brass is one of the ensembles to most successfully harness the potential of social networks, something that the genre of what is called “classical music” has largely been unable to do in Puerto Rico. Both men said that the group's success in self-promotion is due in large part to the possibilities offered by social networks and the way in which they help bring musicians closer to their audience, a closeness which may be lacking in a concert hall.

Felipe Rodríguez (FR): Facebook ha sido básico, esencial. Nosotros, tan pronto confirmamos una fecha, ya creamos el evento. […] Este año añadimos video, […] habíamos grabado algunas presentaciones […] y entonces hicimos algo decente, un video de varias selecciones. […] También tenemos la cuenta de YouTube, que es bastante reciente —la de Facebook es mucho más antigua, ya lleva varios años que la tenemos— pues entonces, con la de YouTube […] no es que nos hemos sentado a preparar un video, sino que nos hemos aprovechado de grabar los eventos que hemos hecho en vivo. […] Cuando se apaga la temporada, pues se apaga un poco el uso de la página, aunque sí la hemos usado para postear videos viejos que hemos encontrado. […] Tan pronto acabamos los conciertos, siempre aparecen entonces los saludos, los agradecimientos, de gente que uno ni conoce […]. Y pues, así vamos creando el público.

Felipe Rodríguez (FR): Facebook [es] has been fundamental, essential. As soon as we confirm a concert date, we create an event…. This year we added video… we had taped some performances… and then we put together something decent, a video of various clips…. We also have a YouTube [es] channel, which is fairly recent—our Facebook page is much older, we've had it for several years—so with YouTube… it's not that we sat down to make a video, just that we've been able to record the events that we've done live…. When the season is over, we use the page less, but we do keep using it to post old videos that we've found…. As soon as a concert ends, the greetings and thank-you's always appear from people we don't know… And so that's how we're creating an audience.

REI: Hemos tenido dos compromisos cruciales en la Sala Sinfónica en que no hemos dependido de publicidad de prensa escrita ni la publicidad comprada y particularmente [en] el de Navidad [del año pasado], la sala estaba básicamente a capacidad […]. Y es obvio que Facebook, particularmente, tiene un alcance que por momentos, puede ser insospechado.

REI: We have had two important performances in the Symphony Hall for which we haven't relied on promotion in print media or on paid advertising, and the Christmas concert [last year] in particular was completely at capacity…. And it's clear that Facebook especially has a reach that at times can go beyond one's expectations.

FR: Cuando empezó el quinteto como tal, la primera página que abrimos fue la de MySpace. La página existe todavía. […] Lo interesante de esa página de MySpace es que se prestó para hacer contacto con otras agrupaciones internacionales, incluso de España. Me acuerdo que tuve algún contacto, algunas conversaciones, con completamente desconocidos, jóvenes también, que estaban estudiando en universidades en España, tenían su quinteto de metales también.

When the quintet began as such, the first page we set up was on MySpace [es]. The page still exists…. What's interesting is that the MySpace page let us contact other international groups, including from Spain. I remember that I had some interactions, some conversations, with complete strangers, also young people, who were studying in Spanish universities and also had a horn quintet.

Regarding future goals for the group, Felipe makes it clear that independently of any plans they may have, the principle they will follow is their commitment to serve:

FR: Parte de la vision o la misión que tenemos como grupo es seguir sirviendo.[…] Pero la idea es que siga siendo un servicio a la comunidad. […] Aquí mismo en Puerto Rico, y esta es mi opinión muy personal, todavía nosotros tenemos, cuatrienio tras cuatrienio, que explicarle a los políticos, que explicarle a la gente, por qué es importante la Orquesta Sinfónica de Puerto Rico; imagínate un conjunto de metales, que no es una tradición aquí. Nuestra misión es esa, es convertir esto en una tradición […] y crear espacios para otros que van a venir detrás de nosotros.

FR: Part of our vision or mission as a group is to continue to serve…. But the idea is to stay as a community service…. Here in Puerto Rico, and this is my personal opinion, we still have, as governments come and go, to explain to the politicians, to explain to the people, why the Symphony Orchestra of Puerto Rico is important; imagine a brass ensemble, which is not traditional here. Our mission is that, to make that a tradition… and to create a space for those who will come after us.

He also spoke about his goal to commission works by Puerto Rican composers:

FR: Cada uno hemos aportado para crear un minifondo, y de ese minifondo hemos trabajado en vías de otra meta que tenemos, que es comisionar obras para esta agrupación a compositores puertorriqueños. […] Y esa es la meta, seguir promocionando, tanto esta agrupación a la comunidad para que el pueblo de Puerto Rico la descubra, y a la misma vez también promocionando la comisión de obras nuevas para grupos, así sea folclórica, así sea de música clásica puertorriqueña como tal, para grupos [de vientos metales], así que eso es parte del compromiso.

FR: Each of us have contributed to the creation of a mini-fund, and with this mini-fund we have worked on another goal of ours, which is to commission works for this ensemble by Puerto Rican composers…. And that's the goal, to continue promoting both this group among the community so the people of Puerto Rico can discover it, as well as commissioning new works for groups, of folk music, of classical Puerto Rican music as such, for [brass wind] groups, so that's part of our charter.

Lastly, Professor Irizarry noted with satisfaction what is to him an indisputable sign of their success:

REI: Ahora mismo hay alumnos del Conservatorio que tienen ilusión de sentarse a tocar aquí algún día. ¿Qué más hace falta?

REI: Now there are students in the Conservatory who dream of playing here one day. ¿What more do we need?

*Photo taken from Borinquen Brass‘s [es] Facebook page.

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