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BARBARA KLEIN: Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Barbara Klein.
STEVE EMBER: And I'm Steve Ember. This week on our program, we look at musical diplomacy, past and present. And we talk to an actor whose most recent role came from his own childhood. But first, we meet a group of high school students who started their own orchestra.
BARBARA KLEIN: The Student Symphonic Orchestra of Fairfax, Virginia, near Washington, recently celebrated its first anniversary. A young man named Matthew Martz started the group in his last year of high school. It began with twelve friends from the school orchestra. Michelle Bui was one of them.
MICHELLE BUI: "Matt is one of my very good friends, so I did it as a friend, but also because I love playing the violin."
STEVE EMBER: Michelle, who is now in college, says she likes that the students run the orchestra themselves. Music choices are usually decided by a majority vote.
MICHELLE BUI: "We've played pop music. We're playing "Phantom of the Opera." We're playing John Williams, who is a famous composer who did 'Indiana Jones' and 'Star Wars' and 'Superman,' in addition to the classical music."
Orchestra member Lizzie Culberston plays the French horn.
LIZZIE CULBERSTON: "It has a versatile sound, first of all. I can do so many things with it. It can be really pretty or it can be really angry."
BARBARA KLEIN: The Student Symphonic Orchestra now has more than thirty members. Sixteen-year-old violinist Nicholas Black joined after he read a story about the group in a local newspaper. He says he likes that the music is more challenging than what he plays with his school orchestra.
NICHOLAS BLACK: "The music here is more complicated and harder, but I think it's partly because it's also with woodwinds and brass, basically with a band. At school we do just strings. We don't have a complete orchestra or anything."
Thirteen-year-old oboe player Kanika Sahi is the youngest member.
KANIKA SAHI: "They just show me how to be better, different techniques of playing and stuff like that."
Matt Martz leads the orchestra as the conductor. He says having musicians of different ages and abilities is not a problem.
MATT MARTZ: "A player who hasn't been playing for very long, I try to keep them next to the section player, or leader as we call it, that has been playing a while so they can always ask questions say, 'Hey, I don't know what that means.'"
Matt is now in college, studying music education. The orchestra's rehearsals bring him back to his hometown every weekend. He says the orchestra gives him the chance to improve his teaching skills.
MATT MARTZ: "This experience teaches me how to, more or less, teach teenagers, how to say 'OK, we're having a problem with this section, let's clap it, let's sing it.'"
The orchestra performs for free but receives donations that help pay for necessities like sheet music.
MATT MARTZ: "In our first concert, we made eleven hundred dollars, which was fantastic. That helped pay for a lot of music that we had purchased. Then this last concert in January, we made over fifteen hundred dollars which is just incredible."
BARBARA KLEIN: Art and culture can bring people together. So they can often be effective instruments of public diplomacy. For the United States, one of the most successful public diplomacy efforts of the late twentieth century was the Jazz Ambassadors programs.
An exhibit launched in Washington looks back at this exercise in musical diplomacy.
STEVE EMBER: "Jazz ambassadors" like Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and Dave Brubeck traveled the world. These musicians visited more than thirty-five countries from the nineteen fifties to the seventies. They traveled in the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Their music influenced the image of the United States and helped ease Cold War tensions.
Curtis Sandberg at the Meridian International Center in Washington is curator of the exhibit called "Jam Session."
CURTIS SANDBERG: "No one traveled back then, if you think about normal people. Who in nineteen fifty-six would get on an airplane and go to Burma? It was just unheard of. Or Thailand? Those were romantic locales for most people. And so the jazz ambassadors were really quite famous and were really hailed as America's diplomats musically. And the legacy that they left is still valid."
BARBARA KLEIN: A jam session is when musicians get together and play whatever they like. The exhibit sponsored by the State Department will travel around the world over the next three years. It includes one hundred photographs from twenty-two years of the Jazz Ambassadors program.
CURTIS SANDBERG: "These guys were remarkable. They braved dangers and sickness. Those were really tough tours. They were kept out very often for up to three months, under some pretty grueling conditions. They were heroes."
STEVE EMBER: Today the State Department has a program called Rhythm Road. It brings together different forms of music, from jazz and blues to Cajun and hip-hop. The aim is to share American music with the world and improve cross-cultural understanding. State Department official Maura Pally says cultural diplomacy remains extremely important in the world today.
MAURA PALLY: "Cultural diplomacy offers us a unique way to connect with people that we otherwise wouldn't. Art and music in particular transcends religious, political, and language divides in a way that nothing else does. "
Penny von Eschen is a history professor at the University of Michigan. She says cultural diplomacy should be used as a model for international relations.
PENNY VON ESCHEN: "It is a lesson to many countries to open up and have far more cultural exchange and make that a priority for diplomacy. It remains as relevant today as it would have been in the nineteen fifties and sixties."
BARBARA KLEIN: Music remains an important part of American public diplomacy. The newest generation of jazz musicians includes nine-year-old trumpet player Geoffrey Gallante. He started performing when he was five. He is the youngest jazz instrumentalist ever to perform at Washington's Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and at the White House.
GEOFFREY GALLANTE: "Well, I got to play with the president's own piano player. I did not play for President Bush, because I think he was on a trip to Iraq. It's a cool style of music and I want to keep doing it."
STEVE EMBER: Rene Rivera is an actor who has appeared on TV shows like "Law and Order" and in many films. He is also a theater actor. His most recent play was personal. It followed his journey from poverty in Texas to the theater in New York City and the film world of Hollywood, California.
He performed the one-man play called "The King of the Desert" at a small historic theater in Hollywood. The name of the play came from words he heard from his father. His father told him that their ancestors were the kings and queens of the Olmecs, Toltecs, Mayans, Aztecs and other ancient peoples.
Here is Rene Rivera playing his father, who is talking to "mijo," or "my son," as a young boy in San Antonio, Texas.
RENE RIVERA: "Tonight you, with your dark skin and foolish tears, you have that blood running in your veins, mijo. Your ancestors were the kings and the queens of the desert."
BARBARA KLEIN: Rene Rivera's wife, Stacey Martino, is a playwright. She wrote "The King of the Desert." She wanted to explore her husband's Latino roots as a family project, as a way to teach their young daughter.
STACEY MARTINO: "Rene really identifies as an American. And I kept saying 'But you're a Mexican American.' I want to understand the Mexican part. So I sat down and I researched a lot about the stories and the legacy of the Mexican culture. And from that, I decided to really write my version of Rene's personal mythology."
STEVE EMBER: The story begins in the barrio, a poor area of San Antonio, Texas where many Latinos live. Rene Rivera says strong family ties and a shared Catholic faith helped people deal with the hard life in their community.
RENE RIVERA: "There's a very poetic beauty in that, in that kind of urban war zone Americana that is not really known, not really talked about, not really seen, and yet it is part of the spine of America."
But he says there was too much alcohol and too little communication. And sometimes there was violence.
RENE RIVERA: "And with that, we hear fireworks. We're thrilled, until we realize it's still daylight and the fireworks are in actuality gunfire. The gangs in our barrio are awake. I lie on the ground covering my head."
BARBARA KLEIN: Rene Rivera found a way out of the barrio through school and theater. He studied at a Catholic university in San Antonio. Then he entered the Juilliard School, the nation's leading training center for the performing arts.
RENE RIVERA: "That fall, I moved to New York, got there on a Greyhound bus, and started living in New York, and started going to school. And it was an amazing, amazing shock and eye-opening experience. It was like going to a different planet. It was beautiful, it was an amazing, a frightening just yet invigorating experience."
STEVE EMBER: In "The King of the Desert" he plays members of his family and other characters. He tells the story of a boy in an immigrant neighborhood that connects two cultures, Mexican and American.
Rene Rivera has performed in many Shakespearean productions. But he says he found "The King of the Desert" more intense. He says experiencing old emotions can be difficult. But the process has helped him better understand where he came from.
BARBARA KLEIN: Our program was based on reporting by Faiza Elmasry, Amra Alirejsovic and Mike O'Sullivan. I'm Barbara Klein.
STEVE EMBER: And I'm Steve Ember. We have a link to a video of the Student Symphonic Orchestra of Fairfax on our website, voaspecialenglish.com. You can also find us on Facebook, Twitter and iTunes at VOA Learning English.
We leave you with the orchestra in a concert recorded at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Virginia. Conductor Matthew Martz is a student there.
Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.