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Visions of violins

An ambitious plan seems to be coming together at UND to push one of its programs from one level of performance to the next. Except this plan has nothing to do with sports and everything to do with stringed musical instruments.

Alejandro Drago
Alejandro Drago

An ambitious plan seems to be coming together at UND to push one of its programs from one level of performance to the next. Except this plan has nothing to do with sports and everything to do with stringed musical instruments.

Assistant Professor Alejandro Drago, director of chamber music and strings at UND, is on the way to realizing his goal of establishing four scholarships to attract top-notch student musicians to UND to be part of a signature string quartet.

So far, two of the scholarships have sponsors and a third seems to be close. Perhaps even more surprising, unusual even, is the collaboration that's come together to support the scholarships.

When he talks about the quartet, Drago sometimes compares his plan with UND's efforts to elevate its sports programs. One day, Drago was talking with Michael Meyer, advancement officer for the UND College of Arts & Sciences, who has been helping secure scholarship money. When Drago explained his plan, Meyer replied:

"So you want to take the music program to Division I?"

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"I said, 'May I use that expression?'" Drago said. And he has been, ever since.

The history of strings instruction at UND has been a bit of a "zig-zag" over the years, Drago said, but there has been strong support for strings, as evidenced by the 101-year history of the Greater Grand Forks Symphony Orchestra and the two-year residency here of the Chiara String Quartet beginning in 2000. Drago, a violinist, plays frequently with the symphony (he'll be a soloist and concertmaster at its Jan. 30 concert in First Presbyterian Church) and is conductor of the Youth Symphony.

Drago said the way people have responded to the string quartet scholarships and other ideas he's proposed makes him believe he's at the right place at the right time.

"Apparently, Grand Forks was ready for this to happen and at some level waiting for this to happen," he said. "The community was ready to lend its support to this initiative."

Drago came to UND in 2008 from the University of Southern Mississippi, where he had worked in the music department in recruitment and program building under the mentorship of Jay Dean.

The residency of the Chiara String quartet from 2000-2002 on a Music America Rural Residency grant was a big boost for UND, the symphony and public and private strings programs and students, he said. Still, it didn't translate into the enrollment numbers UND needed for a strong strings program. What was needed, Drago decided, were scholarships to attract a core of strong musicians.

Musician and ophthalmologist Dr. Gerald Gaul was the first to step forward to fund one of the scholarships, which range from $8,000 to $15,000 for each of four years. The symphony also has agreed to sponsor a scholarship. The city of Grand Forks has tentatively agreed to support a scholarship, too.

Jenny Tarlin, executive director of the symphony, said the GGFSO scholarship was made possible through gifts from Tamar Read, a former symphony board member and retired music faculty member, and Glen and Nancy Yoshida (Glen was a symphony board member for three years and both Yoshidas are long-term symphony patrons.)

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"One of the things that has driven the symphony's interest in the project is the recognition that we must develop more professional-level strings players in Grand Forks," Tarlin said. "This project is very much a natural progression from our support for the Chiara Quartet residency beginning 10 years ago."

Phil McKenzie, president of the symphony board of directors, said its scholarship musician would play with the symphony and take on a coaching role in its youth programs.

Drago said the UND student strings quartet would be a "recruitment swat team" that could draw other strings students to UND and would lead and mentor other students and ensembles and tour around the state.

"They would showcase what the university has to offer and their success and achievement, and how the community and the university are working together," Drago said. Drago believes all the needed funding will be secured and hopes to have the quartet in place by the fall semester.

But the quartet would be just a start in UND musical outreach into rural communities of North Dakota and also to at-risk populations. For the latter, Drago points to El Sistema, a much-hailed and successful music program for poor children in Venezuela that is being copied all over the world. The program changes lives through music and has produced one of the world's biggest stars in classical music, Gustavo Dudamel, 28, leader of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Just as there's data that shows that children who play in orchestras are more successful academically, El Sistema has been shown to lower delinquency rates. It creates a sense of belonging, of discipline, for self-challenging and all the other good things that the arts can bring to the education of a child, Drago said.

Drago said he's made preliminary contacts with members of North Dakota American Indian tribes and the UND Indian Studies program. So far, the response has been "extremely positive," he said.

"This is my vision for getting things started," Drago said. "And I hope to see many more wonderful things."

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Reach Tobin at (701) 780-1134; (800) 477-6572, ext. 134; or send e-mail to ptobin@gfherald.com .

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