by Mike Telin
On Saturday, March 19 at 6:00 pm at Near West Theatre, the MYCincinnati Ambassador Ensemble under the direction of its founder Eddy Kwon will present a concert featuring his String Septet. The piece was created as part of the Ambassadors’ year-long project that combined critical discussions around issues of social justice and identity with creative music making and performance.
The ensemble’s Near West concert will also include the screening of Michael and Henry Wilson’s documentary about the project (click here to view a trailer). The event, co-hosted by the Case Western Reserve University Social Justice Institute, will also include a moderated talkback immediately following the performance. In addition to their visit to Cleveland, the ensemble will also present concerts in Pittsburgh and Columbus.
“We really want to engage with people and start a conversation,” Kwon said during an interview. Founded in 2014, the six members of MYCincinnati Ambassadors began the project with three months of intense group discussions around issues of social justice. Kwon then culled the members’ personal stories into a 40-minute composition. The stories touch on the themes of sexism, patriarchy, catcalling on the street, racial profiling, being accused of shoplifting, bullying, and teen suicide
Kwon noted that the Ambassador Ensemble grew out of the El Sistema-inspired MYCincinnati Orchestra program. “Four of the members were part of our original eleven students, so in essence they are MYCincinnati. They understand the program probably more deeply than any of the teachers do, because they grew up in it. Even before I created the group, the kids already had a strong bond not only to each other but to the community as well,” Kwon said.
Kwon, who earned his undergraduate degree in jazz studies at the University of Cincinnati Conservatory and is himself a violinist, said that because the members have been in the program for so long, they have developed a sense of ownership. “When they come into our building I get the feeling they think of it as home. As a teacher, and as someone who has watched them grow, that’s a wonderful feeling.”
As a result of the project’s intense, intimate, and vulnerable conversations in a safe place, the members have also been able to connect through shared experiences.Those conversations have also enabled the members to bridge their differences.
Kwon said that another result of the year-long project is that all of the Ambassadors have taken on formal and informal leadership roles at MYCincinnati. “Many of them are teaching younger students on a regular basis. I guess you would say that they volunteer, but really they’re just around helping the teachers. So there is not only that sense of ownership, but also one of responsibility. That’s been a subtle but important shift in their attitudes.”
Being part of the Ambassadors Ensemble prompted some of the members to start self-directed creative projects. “We have one violinist, Kalla, who has probably written one hundred poems and spoken word pieces since the Ambassador program started,” Kwon said. “ She’ll perform them for whoever will listen. She’s really trying to refine her voice as a poet, which is remarkable to see.”
The Ambassadors also had the opportunity to work with the Swedish singer-songwriter Jens Lekman through a collaboration with the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati. “The performance with Jens was on a huge rock & roll stage in front of six hundred people,” Kwon recalled. “It was a life changing experience for them: they got to be rock stars, and not just for a day. They still get recognized on the street because of that performance.”
Kwon is very proud of the Ambassador Ensemble, which he said is both supported and celebrated by the larger community. “I think the members have a lot of pride, and have a feeling of accomplishment as result of being in the program. I think that gives them the sense that they can achieve whatever they put their minds to. Also that they can make positive change because they have the tools that are needed to enact change.”
Eddy Kwon believes the Ambassadors Ensemble program has been successful because MYCincinnati is more than just a music school. “It’s about building community and coming together for a shared purpose,” he said. “As a musician at this time and in this political climate, we have a responsibility. I want to make sure that my students who are coming up through MYCincinnati not only understand that responsibility, but are excited by it, and think of it as a means to guide their artistic growth.”
Published on ClevelandClassical.com March 17, 2016.
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