A visit to the International Institute in South St. Louis is like a trip to the United Nations. Diverse streams of people come and go throughout the building. Women dressed in beautiful multicolored robes and shawls pass by talking to one another in different dialects. An Asian woman wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt and with plastic flowers in her hair waits patiently in a chair. An African woman smiles shyly, her hair wrapped in a burgundy headdress that contrasts with her St. Louis Blues sweatshirt. In the midst of this parade of immigrants, a Latino man in a baseball cap suddenly sings, "Everybody dance now!" It is the world in microcosm in South St. Louis.
The International Institute has been a part of St. Louis since the great wave of European immigration to this country at the beginning of the last century. Today, as immigrants and refugees come to the United States from Africa, Latin America, Asia, and Central and Eastern Europe, the International Institute remains in business. At least 10,000 newcomers arrive in St. Louis from foreign lands annually. They need help in adjusting to the enormous cultural barriers. They need to learn English. They need jobs. The International Institute is where they come to begin to carve out a new life in the United States; and in so doing, this is where a new St. Louis begins.
In a large classroom, the bulletin boards communicate the necessary lessons for life in this new world. "Welcome" is written in 25 languages, including Chinese, Somali, Punjabi, Hindi, Yoruba, and Bengali. An explanation of parking meters is given on one poster. Others describe the food pyramid, the solar system, days of the week, months of the year, colors, geometric shapes, safety signs.
The International Institute also provides an occasional respite from the anxieties of the immigrant experience. Today this comes in the form of a group of musicians from the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra who are here as part of the Community Partnership Program. Assistant Principal Viola Chris Woehr enters the classroom and immediately sets to rearranging the chairs for a performance in the round. Woehr is the founder of the ensemble Arda, six musicians from the SLSO who have come together to explore a diverse musical repertoire. "Arda" is a word taken from a J.R.R. Tolkien story, explains Woehr. It means "the World, including all that is or was or will be."
The concept behind Arda fits ideally with the International Institute. Woehr has been listening to tapes of Bosnian music provided by a friend who is a recent immigrant (St. Louis has the second-largest Bosnian community in the United States) and has been arranging them for the group. Violinist Manuel Ramos, a native of Mexico, specializes in arrangements of Latino music. Violinist Becky Boyer Hall grew up in a family of folk musicians, and Appalachia bluegrass and Irish fiddle tunes are as much a part of her as Vivaldi is. Assistant Principal Cello Catherine Lehr, who is married to Ramos, once toured with Chuck Mangione and brings her own jazz inflections to the group. Add to this mix Chris Carson bowing or plucking or thumping the double bass and Thomas Stubbs playing an assortment of percussion instruments and Arda is clearly a very adaptive and evolving group. "The repertoire is always growing," says Woehr.
Five minutes before the concert the large classroom is almost full with nearly 100 in attendance. Anita Barker, Vice President and Director of Education for the Institute, rises to address the audience. She speaks slowly and distinctly for the multilingual crowd. "These musicians are from the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. Let us welcome them."
At the word "welcome" everyone applauds exuberantly. One man even stands, giving his own pre-concert ovation.
Ramos rises to introduce Vivaldi's "Autumn," and inquires if anyone speaks Spanish. At least a dozen hands rise excitedly, "Si!" Ramos then proceeds with his introduction bilingually.
After the Vivaldi, Hall, who is dressed appropriately in green, says, "My musical heritage comes from Ireland. My family played a lot of music from Ireland. My early music education was folk music. Chris (Woehr) has arranged some fiddle tunes. It's called 'Whiskey Before Breakfast.'" As the distinct Irish rhythms begin, members of the audience take up the beat with their hands.
Lehr introduces a piece that Chuck Mangione wrote for her and tells the audience a story. "To become a member of the Saint Louis Symphony," she says, "you need to audition and they decide if they like you. You need to play, but you don't need to talk." She tells of a young boy from Mexico who had won a place with the first violins. "I went up to this boy and said 'Congratulations.' He just shrugged. I asked him, 'How are you?' And he shrugged again." She tells of how that boy began to visit the International Institute and learned English. He also moved in across the street from her, and they began to practice together on a regular basis. That boy was Manuel Ramos, "and three children later…" she says with a laugh.
It's a perfect story to add to a morning of music: a story of acceptance, of progress through education, of finding a home far from your native land.
Eddie Silva is the publications manager for the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.