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A Classical Move

How a string quartet binds an urban community.

Vanessa Centeno has been counting the days until her birthday. She can't wait, because then she'll have a Sweet 16 party. Her mother took a second job cleaning offices to save up for it. Vanessa has the party all planned. There will be lots of music -- salsa, merengue, and bachata, which is the music of the Dominican Republic, her mom's homeland. And of course there will be hip-hop and rap. And there's one other thing Vanessa wants for her Sweet 16: She wants the Providence String Quartet to play. And if the entire quartet can't make it, then maybe violist Sebastian Ruth will. She'll invite him anyway, even if he says he won't play. Vanessa has already decided that. But the thing is, he probably will play. He'll do it for Vanessa, and for all the other party guests. Not to mention he'll need a break from the hip-hop and rap. Heaven knows he and the others in the quartet hear enough of it. They can't escape it. Every time a car rolls past their West End storefront with its speakers thumping, the strings of their instruments quiver in their cases.

Vanessa's been hanging out with the string quartet since she took up violin at age 9. Now the musicians are like family. Ruth, 28, and violinist Minna Choi, 29, sometimes give her rides. And every morning when Vanessa brushes her hair, she looks at a snapshot of 27-year-old Sara Stalnaker hugging a cello. It's tucked into her mirror, along with photos of her best friends and cousins. And violinist Jesse Holstein, 29, he's the coolest. They're all cool. But Jesse is kool with a "k." Of course she's inviting them to her Sweet 16 party. They're her teachers. And they're from the neighborhood. Well, not exactly from the neighborhood. The musicians come from New York, Oregon, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. But they're here now. And they're not showing any signs of leaving.

THE PROVIDENCE STRING QUARTET MAY BE THE COUNtry's only urban string quartet-in-residence, meaning the musicians work, teach, and live in the neighborhood. Under the umbrella of the nonprofit Community MusicWorks, it is housed in a former spandex shop on the street floor of a converted Victorian in Providence's West End. On warm days, when the door is propped open to the sidewalk and there's a break in traffic, when the mechanic down the block sets down his air wrench, and the bus pulls away from the curb, you can hear strains of Bach or Beethoven filtering out into the street. If you look through the broad, high windows, you'll see the musicians so absorbed in their music that they don't seem to realize that the shouts and roar of the neighborhood are swallowing up each note they play.

But the musicians are aware of the world outside their door. The music is their contribution to the social blend that constitutes life in Providence. And they're as much a part of the West End as the guys on the white plastic chairs in front of Armando's Meat Market, peddling lobsters and fresh fruit to passersby. Ruth, the nonprofit's founder and artistic director, and Choi, Holstein, and Stalnaker spend the better part of their days practicing their music, organizing events, and giving lessons to neighborhood children. Nights, they fan off to their other jobs with orchestras in Boston, New Bedford, and Providence.

Sixty children are enrolled in Community MusicWorks' education program, which provides lessons and the use of instruments for free. Another 80 are on the waiting list.

Vanessa Centeno is one of the lucky ones. She got in early, before parents and children started spreading the word about Community MusicWorks, and all the spots filled up. She got to be pretty good at the violin. Unlike many of the children, who coax squeaks from the instruments by timidly scraping bow against strings, Vanessa digs in, drawing out strong, deep notes. Last year, she earned a spot in the Ocean State Youth Orchestra. She auditioned successfully again this year, making only one mistake. "I actually did good for the first time," she says. "I was actually very proud of myself."

Pride, self-discovery, glimpses of the unknown -- those are the experiences Ruth set out to give children when he started the music program six years ago with a $10,000 grant from the Swearer Center for Public Service at his alma mater, Brown University. Taking Ruth's own childhood violin teacher as a model, the musicians would serve as mentors while pursuing musical careers.

"We wanted to allow people to be performers at a high level," Ruth says, "but to do it in a way that impacts the world and addresses poverty and problems in the inner city."

During a recent lesson in the spare room of a Providence high school, Vanessa stands confidently with her violin, her right foot curved slightly inward and her cheek bulging from the lollipop tucked inside. Ruth, who had left the room with his cellphone to call a missing student, walks back in, points to the candy, and raises his eyebrows. "Would you mind putting that away for now?" he asks. Vanessa folds the wrapper around the lollipop and picks up where she had left off in Niccolo Paganini's "Witches' Dance."

Throughout the lesson, Ruth and Vanessa talk easily about Vanessa's audition for the youth orchestra, about an upcoming performance for the nonprofit's donors, and about the Paganini composition. Their conversation flows so naturally that Ruth at one point asks Vanessa to play through the piece one more time, "without talking in between."

It's because of Ruth that Vanessa tried out again for the Ocean State Youth Orchestra, despite her fear that she would be too busy with schoolwork this fall, as a sophomore at the Providence Academy of International Studies.

"I did it for my teacher. I did it for Sebastian," Vanessa says. "I didn't want to let him down."

And there was her mother to think of, too. Virginia Centeno came to this country 17 years ago for a better life. She wanted to be a ballerina, and she wanted to learn to play the electric guitar. Now she works days soldering metal in a jewelry factory. Nights, she cleans offices. She has funneled into her daughter all of her earlier hopes. She knows exactly what she wants for Vanessa.

"I want her to be Miss Rhode Island Latina," she says.

Over the years, Virginia Centeno has scraped together enough money to pay for Vanessa's dance lessons and to send her to modeling school. So when a friend told her about the free violin lessons at Community MusicWorks, she signed Vanessa up right away.

Classical music, she says through Vanessa, who translates her mother's Spanish, "is nice, delicate, and beautiful. And it's for people who have class."

A few years ago, when Virginia had a night off, she accompanied her daughter on one of Community MusicWorks' free trips to hear the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra. She still has the program tucked into her nightstand drawer. It's signed by conductor Benjamin Zander.

Music lessons are just one part of Community MusicWorks' mission "to create a cohesive urban community through music education and performance that transforms the lives of children, families, and musicians." With its $175,000 budget, funded through grants and private donations, the organization offers free trips to performances by the Boston Philharmonic and Ocean State Chamber orchestras. These give students and their families a glimpse of a possible future in music. Workshops with guest musicians demystify the profession. Performance parties and potluck dinners, retreats and day trips encourage the children to forge enduring relationships with their teachers and their peers.

In 1998, Ruth earned a position as violist in the Boston Philharmonic. He told Zander about his program and asked for a donation of tickets. It was an easy sell to a guy who believes so fervently in the power of music that he once asked the head of the Coca-Cola Co. to include a free Beethoven CD in every 12-pack of soda.

The Boston Philharmonic sends a bus to Providence to transport the students and their families to performances. Zander makes a point of introducing himself to each of the students. Once, the youngsters left before he could sign their programs. He raced outside and boarded the bus as it was about to leave. The children applauded.

While the trips outside the neighborhood are an essential component of the music program, its heart pulses in Providence's most impoverished neighborhoods -- the West End, South Side, Elmwood, and Olneyville.

Together, these neighborhoods are home to more than 56,000 of the city's low-income residents, many of whom arrived from other countries seeking a better future for themselves and their children. Most work in service jobs or are employed in jewelry factories or in health care. Nearly half of the children in the neighborhoods live in poverty. There are youth gangs and drug feuds.

Twenty-five percent of inmates who leave the Rhode Island correctional system return to the West End and South Side, according to the Family Life Center in Providence, an organization that works with former offenders.

Ken Goode, program director of the West End Community Center, likens Community MusicWorks to the home team. Everyone knows the players; everyone likes the players.

"It's been a breath of fresh air for us," says Goode. "It's like when a college team wins the championship. They've become so well known that it's only made us better."

Studies have shown that students who participate in the arts outperform their peers academically. That difference is more pronounced when the children are from low-income backgrounds, according to a 1999 federal report, Champions of Change: The Impact of the Arts on Learning.

Goode has spent his career around children who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. He knows what a child needs. Community MusicWorks provides long-term relationships with caring adults and encourages children to make difficult choices.

From the time school lets out in the afternoon until the hour when parents pick up their children, the West End Community Center teems with activity. Some 150 children mill around the small building, playing hoops in the gym, doing homework or arts and crafts, or working on computers.

When Ruth came to the center six years ago and said he wanted to teach the children violin and cello, Goode had his doubts. Ruth himself was nervous about how he'd be received by the youngsters. But a few days later, he and fellow Brown graduate Minna Choi assembled a quartet, scrawled out a sign-up sheet, and squeezed into the center's computer room with about 15 students. The quartet dove into a Mozart quartet in G major. When the movement was over, the children jumped to their feet and scrambled over to the table where the sign-up sheet was.

"We thought that was great," says Ruth. "What we didn't know at the time is that the kids at the West End Community Center will sign up for anything. As long as it's new, it doesn't matter what it is."

Ruth appears to have a unique handshake for every child in his program, each greeting more complicated than the last. With Vanessa, he lightly taps his fists against hers. The greeting with student Albert Martinez, on the other hand, involves thumbs, fingers, twirling gestures, and perhaps an elbow or two. On the last Saturday in May, Ruth's hands are busy. Nearly all of the students in the program and their families have shown up for the final performance party of the year.

Ruth, Choi, Jesse Holstein, and Sara Stalnaker take the stage, and the Providence String Quartet opens the show with Mozart's Quartet in G Major, K. 156. Then the students take turns on the stage. From that point on, through everything from "Hot Cross Buns" to a Kuchler concertino, parents, siblings, and other relatives sit quietly, faces tilted toward the stage. This is a sign of progress. Until recently, younger brothers and sisters would race through the hall so loudly that no one could hear the instrumentalists onstage. Having to teach families and students how to listen to classical music was something Ruth and the others didn't anticipate.

This night, Odris Rosario holds her 4-year-old daughter on her lap and keeps 7-year-old Jeffrey within grabbing distance. She watches as each of the three oldest of her five children takes the stage. Elvis, 10, has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. When he settles down with his cello and plays two folk songs, his mother is in awe.

"The minute I saw him play the cello, it's like, 'This is not happening,' " she says. "It's a miracle!"

Community MusicWorks doesn't have any hard figures by which to measure its success. But it can point to small victories. Marconi Hernandez, 16, for instance, was invited back for a second time to New Hampshire's Apple Hill Summer Chamber Music School, where he played Vivaldi with a string quartet.

And there's Vanessa. Every day after school, she enters the dark foyer of her apartment building and shouts, "Vecino!" through a closed door. As she climbs the stairs to her own apartment, a gruff voice shouts back, "Vecinito!" "Neighbor" to "little neighbor." In her own apartment, with her mother at work, Vanessa turns the music up loud enough to drown out the street noise, fixes a snack, cleans the apartment, and does her homework. When the studying gets to be too much, she picks up the violin.

"I practice every time I have to de-stress from schoolwork," Vanessa says.

That's a kind of victory, too.

"The vision from the beginning has been all about those relationships between professional musicians and kids in the city," Ruth says. "It's manifested itself in Vanessa and Marconi. If someone was looking in from the outside, they'd say, `There are bridges that have been crossed and boundaries that have been broken, but it's really just about relationships.' "

At one point or another, most of the youngsters in the program complain that they're bored and want to quit lessons. Ruth used to take it personally. Now he recognizes those moments as inevitable. He treats them as challenges and persuades most students to stick it out. When the kids get over the hump, they often emerge more committed.

Vanessa Centeno still occasionally ponders giving up the violin. But then she thinks of her mother and how much it means to her. And she thinks of Sebastian Ruth and how much it means to him. That's why, despite her growing workload at school, she auditioned again for the youth orchestra.

And for a child in a neighborhood where opportunities are hard to come by, Vanessa is reluctant to squander her talent. "I say to myself, `I have the fingers, and I'm good at it, so why quit?' "

Sharron Kahn Luttrell is a freelance writer living in Mendon.

Vanessa Centeno is an accomplished violinist, thanks to the efforts of Sebastian Ruth and his Community MusicWorks' colleagues in Providence. Vanessa Centeno is an accomplished violinist, thanks to the efforts of Sebastian Ruth and his Community MusicWorks' colleagues in Providence. (Photo / Stew Milne)
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