Portland, OR — Andrés Lopera spent his youth surrounded by mountains, though his hometown of Donmatías, Colombia — nearly 30 miles from Medellín — was not quite isolated enough to be overlooked by a government seeking to encourage youth to “drop the arms and embrace instruments.”
“It was pretty rough, violent times in Colombia at that point,” Lopera recalls. Thanks to a government program geared toward forming bands in small towns, at age 11 his small arms picked up a trombone for the first time.
He told his teacher he wanted to play the cornet — not out of a great love for the horn, but because it was the only instrument he’d heard of.
Oh well, I have a trombone,” the teacher told him. “Take it or leave it.”
The teacher did not, however, have a working knowledge of the trombone, and so would strike a key on the piano and have Lopera sing then play the note. He would also loan the boy CDs, instructing his pupil to write the music he heard down and teach himself how to play it.
Lopera learned all the music by heart and was eager to fill in on new, unfamiliar instruments when his peers would fall ill.
“My dad was really resourceful, and he taught us to be resourceful,” Lopera says of the man with a third-grade education who supported his family through various businesses, such as collecting and sorting recyclables. Lopera would help out after school, and later contributed by videotaping local weddings and funerals.
Lopera wanted to experience the world outside Donmatías, and saw music as the ticket — both through travel and by serving as a link to composers in other cultures.
He studied trombone and conducting in Medellín before earning a master’s degree in trombone at the University of Texas at Austin and then a master’s in orchestral conducting at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. His talents have landed him conducting jobs with ensembles ranging from the Colombian National Symphony Orchestra to the Youth Orchestra of the Americas to Sembrando Talentos Uruguay. He was the founder and conductor of the Boston Latin American Orchestra, and is now finishing up his first season as conductor and music director of Portland’s Metropolitan Youth Symphony (MYS), an educational organization with 13 performing groups made up of over 400 youth, elementary to college age.
All this, and more — from a man only 29 years old.
“I’m a really passionate person,” Lopera says. “I put a lot of passion into my conducting, into my rehearsing, into everything. I give it a lot of thought. … For me, music is life, and somebody took the time to sit down in front of that white piece of paper, and took the time to put all his creativity and all his thoughts … into this piece of music.… I see my position as a conductor as a liaison between the composer and the music and the musicians, and as a source of energy [for]the 80 people in an orchestra….”
“I was thinking about that [recently] — it’s such a miracle,” he adds, “the whole idea of a symphony orchestra. It’s 80 people at the same beat, playing the same music, and inspiring more people.”
Lopera and MYS are dedicated to taking that miracle to as many people in the community as possible, through outreach concerts at schools, collaborations with the Oregon Symphony, and by finding ways to ensure MYS is accessible to aspiring musicians. The youth symphony currently requires only one year of musical training before auditioning, but they’re working on doing away with even that hurdle. The organization also offers financial aid, installment plans, and, according to Lopera, a mission to “to not leave kids behind.”
Despite his inherited resourcefulness, the young conductor knows he “wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without scholarships.”
For children and their parents wondering if they have enough money or time for music education, Lopera says that at MYS, “We have a place for you.”
“Opportunities are there,” insists Lopera, who sometimes wakes up in disbelief over how far music has taken one small-town Colombia boy. “The most important part is just for you to believe in yourself, and just to have an idea, feel passionate about it, and believe in it. When you have a firm belief in something, as cheesy as it sounds, the world shapes to make it happen.”
Just as it did for a trombone-playing child, reshaping itself to give him a view — and an avenue — into the world beyond his mountain-ringed home.
New and returning MYS students may register online for auditions to be held June 17-19 and June 26 and 28 at Lewis and Clark College for the 2013-2014 season. The 2012-2013 season closes June 9 with “Finale!” at 7 p.m. at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. For registration and information on auditions and the concert, visit playmys.org/.