The gestation of a symphony orchestra for Puerto Rico

The gestation of a symphony orchestra for Puerto Rico»] by Elías López Sobá

Long before the present Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra was organized under a legislative mandate dated June 20, 1957, there were numerous calls and efforts in favor of the creation of just such an instrumental ensemble that arose from our private cultural institutions, as well as from our most outstanding artists and intellectuals. These initiatives always received the support of the island press.

Of particular importance in this process were the efforts of Augusto Rodríguez and his Philharmonic Orchestra between 1932 and 1934, as well as those of the Honorable Judge Ignacio Carballeira, President of the Society for Musical Development, created around 1933, for what would become the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra, under the shared direction of the most renowned Puerto Rican maestros at the time: Manuel Tizol Márquez, Luis F. Miranda, Jesús Figueroa, Arístides Chavier, Arturo Pasarell, Domingo Cruz (Cocolía ), Juan Mellado and Augusto Rodríguez.

The extension of the orchestral cast of this ensemble will surely surprise those who follow closely our present-day Symphony Orchestra. Eighty (80) capable Puerto Rican musicians were willing and able to play at the level of a Symphony Orchestra. It included first violins – 16; second violins – 14; violas – 6; cellos – 6; double basses – 6; flutes – 4; piccolo – 1; oboes – 2; clarinets – 4; saxophone – 1; bassoons – 2; trumpets – 4; horns – 4; trombones – 4; tubas – 2; timpani – 2; percussion – 2.

According to the critics of the moment and despite the favorable reception from the public, Carballeira’s project failed to arouse within the capital’s society a sustained interest that could translate into economic support. Nor did their enormous efforts receive any subsidy from the state. The same fate befell the dedicated work of Augusto Rodríguez.

“It is very noticeable,” Elisa Tavárez told us from the pages of El Mundo (May 13, 1940), “the lack of symphony orchestras… We must do everything possible to organize a complete orchestra worthy of the musical sophistication of our Island.” A distinguished pianist and teacher in her own right, who had performed with the Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Jesús Figueroa interpreting Chopin’s Concerto in E minor with memorable success on President Roosevelt’s visit in 1934, was very knowledgeable of the outreach work required within the framework of the Island: the institutionalization of a structure of the complexity of a symphonic ensemble. “This orchestra,” she tells us, “must be founded on the basis, and in such a way, that it is available to everyone, whether in public or private concerts:

Elisa Tavárez spoke not only as an artist committed to the musical development of her people, but also as the outgoing president of Pro Arte Musical de Puerto Rico. She was therefore confident that her call would fall on propitious and fertile ground.

Barely a month earlier, an editorial in El Mundo (April 4, 1940), asked the “Head of Government” for the approval of a bill presented by Senator Pedro Juan Serrallés and already approved by both Legislative Chambers, authorizing a $25,000 allocation to match a possible $75,000 grant from the Federal Works Projects Administration (WPA).

This fund of $100,000, was intended to stimulate musical education and offer a job opportunity to professional musicians on the Island. “With this fund,” says the editorialist, “it will be possible to organize a symphony orchestra, five district bands, and about twenty municipal bands. And later, picking up, without a doubt, the enthusiasm and expectations generated by the bill in cultural circles, the editorial added: “We have reports that with these funds, in addition… the purpose is to collect Puerto Rican musical folklore and collect the music of our 19th century composers.”

Faced with the veto of then Governor William D. Leahy, Pro Arte Musical de Puerto Rico, already under the presidency of Waldemar F. Lee, endorsed the mission of organizing a symphony orchestra even when it could not dispose of any part as a private entity of the grant offered by the WPA.

With the dynamism and courage that characterized it during that period, the Society announced a performance on July 15 of that same year: “Tonight the Philharmonic Orchestra makes its debut in Puerto Rico and before our associates, organized under the auspices of Pro Arte Musical de Puerto Rico and under the direction of Mr. Ramón Ruiz.”

“This orchestra comes to fill one of our primary artistic needs and culminates the years long efforts of Pro ArteMusical to the formation of an orchestra worthy of our artistic capacity, with economic compensation for the musicians based on discipline, seriousness and permanence.”

“Ramón Ruiz offers the Orchestra the benefit of solid studies in conducting,” the program notes continue… “and the experience gained in the United States conducting various orchestras in recent years”.

An examination of the existing documentation tends to show that the initiative of Pro Arte Musical of Puerto Rico under the presidency of Waldemar F. Lee, creating the San Juan Philharmonic Orchestra in 1940, obeyed a lucid and objective evaluation of the multiple shaping factors, in that moment, of the musical fans in the capital’s society as well as in the main cities of the Island.

Among these elements, the impressive development of the group in its eight short years of life stood out. With nearly 3,000 active members, Pro Arte Musical pointed out a path for the Island and reaffirmed objectives for its cultural management related to the affirmation of Puerto Rican values.

Following his example, similar societies arose in Ponce and Mayagüez, establishing the possibilities of coordinating activities with the advantages of concerted contracting for more than one venue. The same purpose led the institution to establish similar agreements with Pro Arte de Santo Domingo and Pro Arte Musical de La Habana. “The day does not seem to be far off”, Waldemar Lee pointed out with justifiable optimism in his annual report of 1938, “in which an artistic chain unites the Antilles in a profitable bond to be traversed by the most eminent figures of the musical world”.

Later, in the same document, Lee tells us that the Society is prepared “in every way to carry out work of true value for our community. He has already finished his probationary period. Much remains to be done, but what remains is to work to strengthen our position on the bases already definitively established”. And almost immediately the President’s report confirms our initial success: “We must take the initiative for the organization of a Symphony Orchestra on a permanent basis and this must be one of our main tasks during the year 1939.”

Another factor inescapably present in Pro Arte Musical’s deliberations around this project was the considerable number of musicians residing in San Juan, with a vocation for symphonic work but deprived of a stable source of income for the exercise of their profession.

A glance at the cast of the orchestra organized by the Honorable Judge Ignacio Carballeira, and active from October 1932 to November 1934, gives us an idea of the musicians involved despite the evident number of amateur professionals: 1st Violins: Arturo Andreu, Jr.,
Adolfo Messorana, Ramón Balseiro, Jaime Padró, Juan Madera, Luis Saldaña, Rufo Obén, Luis M. Morales, Dr. Guillermo Acosta, Francisco Vicentí, Juan Comas, Arturo Leervold, Nidia Iglesias, Ricardo Morlá, A. López Prado.
2nd violins: Ignacio Carballeira, Luisa Rodríguez, Juan Rivera Santiago, José Hernández Borch, R. Jaime Santana, Alejandro Gutiérrez, Juan J. Negrón, Ángel Sánchez, Arturo Torres Braschi, José Rivera, Manuel Huertas, Lorenzo Gelabert, Luis Morales, Ana María Valdés.
Violas: Carlos Gadea Picó, Jorge L. Acevedo, José Márquez, William Allende, Ramón Juliá, Alfonso Ardín.
Cellos: Librado Net, Eduardo Franklin, Ramón Morlá, Francisco Canales, Manuel González, Rafael Figueroa.
Double basses: Ramón Rivera, Florencio Messorana, Juan Janer, Vicente Espada, Miguel A. Perocier, Anastasia Andino.
Flutes: Felipe Neri, Rafael Montañez, Felipe Monclova, Abraham Santiago, Aquiles Montañez (piccolo).
Oboes: Pedro Viñolo, Juan Colón.
Clarinets: Domingo Ramos, Rafael Duchesne, Vicente Colón, José María Henríquez.
Saxophone: Francisco J. Duclerc.
Bassoons: Ángel Arizmendi, José Torres.
Horns: Cecilio Hernández, Julio Rivera, Graciliano Rivera, Julio Negrón Aguayo.
Trumpets: Carmelo Díaz, Juan Torres, Roberto Mendoza, Ramón Hernández.
Trombones: Rafael Petitón, Rafael Alers, Víctor M. Quirón, Ramón Rodríguez.
Tubas: Federico Pagani, Vicente Concepcion.
Eardrum: Guillermo Pomares, Jr.
Percussion: Guillermo Rodríguez, Guillermo Pomares, father.
Librarian: Gabriel Quiará.

To accentuate the picture of unemployment that stood before a musician with a symphonic vocation in San Juan in the 1930s, let us recall those 42 instrumentalists who, together with the best members of the Carballeira orchestra, Augusto Rodríguez used in 1934: Violins:
Manuel Vallecillo, Jr.; Aníbal Acevedo, Francisco López, Juan Revilla, Ángel Faure, Luis Aldrich, Javier F. Vanga, Pablo Elvira, Jr., Manuel Cruz Horta, Rafael Cobb, Aurora A. de Torres, Richard Tormos, Alejandro Caraballo, Santiago Albanese.
Violas: Alberto Franklin, Juan Duclerc.
Cellos: Ramón Arandes, Jorge Pubiano.
Double basses: Tomás Muriel, José Meléndez, Plácido Campos, Rafael Muñoz.
Flutes: Manuel A. Cadilla, Eugenio Oliver.
Oboes: Juan Vázquez, Felipe Monclova.
Clarinets: Francisco Duclerc, Rafael Muriel, Ángel Whatts.
Bassoons: Ramón Navarro.
Horns: Juan Garcia, Sixto Nieves, Jorge Lopez.
Trumpets: Ángel García, Antonio Viñolo.
Trombones: Ángel Ramos, Eusebio Valencia, Juan Duclerc.
Percussion: Silvestre Pomares, Juan Prats.
Piano: Rafael Marquez.

The presence of a considerable number of instrumentalists who, over many years, have maintained a close relationship with various facets of the musical movement on the Island, is evident in these orchestral casts, even for today’s readers. The sheet music trade, records and gramophones, the composition of advertising spots for the radio, the tuning, repair, and sale of instruments, the copying of “particellas” and the preparation of arrangements for dance bands, have been traditional avenues of work for that these musicians had to “leverage” to supplement the meager income derived from private education and performance. The luckiest led the municipal or military bands,

We also come across in these casts with surnames such as Balseiro, Duchesne, Elvira, Figueroa, Montañez, Morlá and Viñolo, among others, who represent true musical families on our Island who have kept work and hobby alive in the environment for generations. musical. Carlos Gadel, Jorge Luis Acevedo, and Eusebio Valencia, all with non-musical professions, became valued members of our present Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Juan José Castro. At half a century from the orchestras organized in the 1930s, Rafael Figueroa and Ramón Morlá still occupy their chair with distinction in the string section of our Symphony.

Faced with this extraordinary level of vocation, despite the repeated frustrations to which this central nucleus of instrumentalists was exposed due to the government’s indifference to their claims, it is not surprising that Pro Arte Musical considered the responsibility as their artistic and social duty to give permanence to a symphony orchestra.

Why Pro Arte Musical felt called to remedy a situation that had degenerated into a social evil, was answered by the editorial writer of the newspaper El Mundo in its edition of April 4, 1940:
“It is a known fact that with the advent of mechanical music – phonograph records, radio, sound cinema, electric phonographs – the majority of our musicians have lost employment opportunities, thus forcing them into forced unemployment that, in an environment with scarce economic possibilities such as ours, entails a desperate situation. To remedy even in part this unfortunate situation, neither the Insular Government nor the municipal governments have been able to promote advisable projects in such cases. Neither has the private industry been able to provide employment facilities in activities related to music, such as the printing of phonograph records, the organization of orchestras, etc. nor has it been able to provide them with a decent livelihood in other fields of economic activity.”

Faced with this picture, its crisis was accentuated by the deaf ears of Governor William F. Leahy to the call of “El Mundo” in favor of a project that offered “employment opportunities to Puerto Rican musicians within the same field of their professional skills”, Pro Arte Musical, as the only entity in the country primarily committed to musical development, could not but assert the cultural leadership that had been forged in just eight years of life, accepting the responsibility that the State evaded.

Did Waldemar Lee have any grounds for thinking that the conditions bitterly stated by Caballeira in his letter of resignation from the Presidency of his orchestra in 1934 had ceased to have a negative effect on the prevailing cultural environment in San Juan? When supporting a structure as complex as a symphony orchestra, would our society appear, as Caballera points out, “completely cold, indifferent, apathetic”, “without any musical refinement” and inclined to “the popular airs of other countries”? rather than “to fine, exquisite, sublime, spiritual and good music, which educates, ennobles, exalts and exalts the citizen?” And the musicians? Despite the gaps in their theoretical and technical training, will they still think they did not need the rehearsal, from the study and practice of the others to be interpreted? Would some continue to insist “on the audacity of participating in the concerts without having attended any of the rehearsals on time, and others?” Would “negligence, little enthusiasm and individual and collective interest in the organization” persist among a good number of them?

Apart from the impressive success of Lee and Pro Arte, the existing documentation tends to demonstrate the presence of a new element in the San Juan musical environment, surprising for Lee himself, and therefore decisive when he chose a course of action around the formation of an orchestra.

Ramón Ruiz Cestero represented, in our opinion, this new element. At the age of 30, Ruiz Cestero had to his credit not only a degree in orchestral conducting from the Juilliard School of Music, but also an invaluable experience for the purposes of Lee and Pro Arte Musical, namely, having organized and worked thoroughly with orchestras from the New York Community, similar in their heterogeneous composition, a product of the interaction between professionals and amateurs, to which the city of San Juan potentially offered.

In his training and artistic skills, the figure of Ruiz Cestero combined the communication skills of a teacher by vocation, a recognized organizational capacity, and the rare gift of coordinating wills, all essential qualities for any aspirant to direct the destinies of an orchestra. This is how he is recognized in the letter sent to him by the Washington Square Symphony Orchestra on October 4, 1939, as a result of Ruiz Cestero having accepted the offer of Pro Arte Musical:

“We wish also to express our appreciation for your vision in seeing the need for such a group as ours, and your remarkable organizing ability in developing a body, such as ours has become, from the elemental raw material with which you had to work.

We, the members of the Washington Square Symphony Orchestra, are fully cognizant of the fact that the very existence of the orchestra today is due only to one person, yourself. The concerts given during the past season and the glowing notices received from the New York newspapers are in themselves a tribute to you and the work you have done, your musicianship, ability, and talent as a conductor”.

During his short tenure with the Puerto Rico Philharmonic Orchestra, Ruiz Cestero lived up to this laudatory recognition of his “New York Village” musicians.

After the first two series of concerts were concluded in 1940 under the sponsorship of the three Pro Arte Musical de la Isla societies and the Department of Cultural Activities of the University of Puerto Rico, Ruiz threw himself fully into the programmatic and budgetary planning of the management of the orchestra with a view to providing it with a permanent base. His organizational work method was a model for his time and still holds lessons for the present. Thirty days before the attack on Pearl Harbor derailed the project, he managed private entities, with positive prospects of success, for the formation of a Board of Trustees that together with Pro Arte Musical could guide the development of the Philharmonic.

But the war presented both the Pro Arte Musical Societies and the Philharmonic with insurmountable obstacles. On the one hand, our musicians were subjected, to a large extent, to military conscription, on the other, the great artists were prevented from reaching our shores. Deprived of the appeal of international stars, Pro Arte Musical suffered from the desertion of its affiliates and sees its enrollment of 3,000 active members reduced to a group of barely 400 loyalists.

When, at the end of World War II, musical activity on the Island revived, the orchestra reappeared in 1946 linked to a new society called Amigos de la Música. Its existence proved to be very precarious because around 1950 we find Alfredo Matilla advocating for the formation of a Symphony, but this time, with imported musicians to fill the vacant seats due to lack of local talent. “The lack of local bands”, he tells us, “has neglected the development of wind, wood, and metal instruments and one can count on the fingers of one hand (and there are plenty of fingers) the musicians that can be used in this technical branch. But evil… has an easy remedy… If a baseball team can be strengthened… with other people’s means, why should music be treated differently?

After these years, it is evident from the words of ‘Matilla that during the war and the 1940s, a significant change had taken place in the social dynamics and the values that shaped and guided the environment within San Juan culture.

The historical conjunction of a private, dynamic, and responsible entity, guiding the musical development of the country, of an orchestral director with the ideal training and qualities to exercise leadership, and above all, of a significant number of instrumentalists with a vocation for symphonic work, all Puerto Ricans and motivated by a purpose that transcended the particular objectives of its components, had vanished and would not occur again.

A graduate of the Juilliard School of Music with high honors in orchestral conducting as well as piano, Ramón Ruiz Cestero at 30, and already established in New York, now represents a formidable resource for the Pro Arte Musical project.

This must be recognized by Waldemar Lee since Ruiz Cestero made his debut as a pianist on the Island under the auspices of Pro Arte Musical in 1938, and persuaded him to leave his position at the Brooklyn Music School and the direction of the Washington Square Symphony Orchestra, the following year to take charge of the Philharmonic in the process of being organized in San Juan.

The program presented by the young Maestro considers the level of performance of the musicians as well as the imbalance of the cast of 35 teachers that he has been able to forge: first violins – 6; second violins – 6; violas – 4; cellos – 1; double basses – 2; flutes – 2; oboes – 1; clarinets –2; bassoons – 1; tubes – 2; bugles – 2; trombones – 2; timpani.

The Auditorium of the University serves as the stage for the debut of the Philharmonic Orchestra, with the following program:

Choir…………………………………………………………………. JS Bach
Corrente…………………………………………………… ……… Corelli
Death and the Maiden………………………………………… Schubert
Overture “Zampa”………………………………………………  Herold

Symphony in G minor no. 40……………………………….Mozart


Deux Esquisses op. 24………………………………………… A. Chavier
Scherzo; Dance of the Fairies
Córdoba……………………………………………………………… Albéniz
Hungarian Dances………………………………………………  Brahms
No. 3; No. 1
Waltz in B flat……………………………………………………. Tchaikovsky

Despite the limitations of the ensemble that forced Ruiz to interpret Mozart’s Symphony without a second oboe and with only one bassoon, the press welcomed the concert with enthusiasm, and the critic Rodríguez Arresón (El Mundo, July 18, 1940), gave a heartfelt appreciation to Pro Arte Musical, the Maestro, and the musicians. The same reception is given to the ensemble in its presentations for the Pro Arte Musical de Ponce and Pro Bellas Artes de Mayagüez societies, where it is identified as the San Juan Philharmonic Orchestra. One last performance for the students of the University, on August 5, sponsored by the Department of Cultural and Social Activities, closes this first series of concerts by the Philharmonic.

With renewed vigor and with an orchestral cast expanded to 40 teachers, Ruiz Cestero organized the second series of concerts barely two months later. This begins at the Fox Delicias theater in Ponce on October 4 with the star attraction of Jesús M. Sanromá as a soloist. Once again, the program includes a work by a Puerto Rican composer, which corroborates the observation of the critic Rodríguez Arresón in the sense that one of the purposes pursued with the Philharmonic Orchestra is the presentation of the works of our composers.

Symphony in B flat, no. 102……………………………….Haydn

Triumphal March……………………………………………… Pedreira
Waltz Triste……………………………………………………   Sibelius
Two Hungarian dances………………………………………. Brahms

Concerto in A minor, op. 54
for piano and orchestra ……………………………………. Schumann

The concert is repeated on October 7 for the members of Pro Arte Musical de San Juan and the following day for the students of the University of Puerto Rico.

This time the enthusiasm of the press and the public is evident and leads JE Pedreira to write in the November 10 edition of El Mundo: “Pro Arte Musical de Puerto Rico, with few means available, and Ramón Ruiz Cestero… have created the miracle of offering Puerto Rico an orchestral ensemble made up of 40 music teachers… each one representing a true musical value… for which they deserve our most sincere recognition and encouragement… Pro Arte has been able to do… something that the Government of our country has never wanted to do – a Puerto Rican Philharmonic Orchestra.”

Barely four weeks later, the island would enter the daily horror of World War II and the desires and dreams cherished for the Philharmonic, our musicians, and our music were frustrated.

When the pulse recovers and the process emerges again 17 years later with the arrival of Casals, the panorama is different. Pro Arte Musical has practically disappeared and the vast majority of Puerto Rican musicians have placed themselves fully in popular music and in education. The handful that still can and want to develop cultured music are few.  Inexplicably Ramón Ruiz Cestero will not be among those called.