By Stephen Vargha
Cellist Yackson Sanchez feels fortunate to be in Cuenca. The Venezuelan is thrilled to be in an art-loving city but is appreciative of starting his life over in a country that is void of turmoil and massive shortages.
“I am happy here. I want to stay here. Everything is calm,” Sanchez stated. That calmness means no longer driving 500 miles each way to Colombia and back to purchase his food. He did this long journey every two months for two years before leaving Venezuela.
“One day it is no spaghetti. Another day it would be no meat. On one trip to get food, all I could get were some beans and yucca,” Sanchez said. He added that waiting in line for two hours at the food stores in Venezuela was not the straw that broke the camel’s back. It was when food prices became way too high for his pocketbook. In 2018, the annual inflation rate in Venezuela reached a mind-blowing 929,790 percent. To put Venezuela’s inflation rate into perspective, Germany’s hyperinflation rate in 1923, during the days of the Weimer Republic, was a mere 322 percent.
Sanchez half-jokingly exclaimed, “I almost became a vegetarian due to no meats available and the high prices!” He lost a lot of weight in his last two years in Venezuela. The weight loss and his hardships made him look for work outside of his homeland.
The journey to Ecuador began almost three years ago. In March 2018 Sanchez traveled to Ambato, a city of 330,000 people, 200 miles north of Cuenca. He went there for a possible teaching job that fell through.
That misfortune quickly changed for the better due to Sanchez’s call to a music teacher and friend who called the maestro of the Cuenca Symphony, Michael Meisner, who offered him a position.
“I was surprised about the call as it is really hard to get into the orchestra,” Sanchez said. “For foreigners, it is especially hard, and I am not just talking about Venezuelans.” The symphony has over fifty members. They used to have an American trumpeter and a Venezuelan pianist. Now, Sanchez is the only non-Ecuadorian in Cuenca’s symphony.
It is why Sanchez said, “I am very lucky.”
It was more than just luck as the long journey to Cuenca, Ecuador was full of milestones. That musical trek began when Sanchez was seven years old.
“Mother was worried I was not doing anything after school, so I took up piano,” Sanchez said.
He started taking music classes with people who were 25 to 30 years old. Sanchez says that his teacher made fun of his age so a meeting with his mother and the administration was arranged. It was at that meeting that teacher explained his position, and recommended the young boy go to the local orchestra’s music school. It is a place where children as young as three years of age learn to play an instrument.
The mother thought that was an excellent idea. “I wanted to play the violin at this school, but there were no openings,” Sanchez said. They offered a cello instead as there was spot for that instrument in the school. Instruments are given to the students so there are no undue hardships on their families.
“I fell in love with the sound of the cello. It is fantastic,” Sanchez said. His love of the large string instrument had him playing in the children’s orchestra just four weeks after he started. Sanchez still remembers what he played on that November 1991 day: Marcha Pompa y Circunstancia N. 1 E. Elgar. Many know it as the “Graduation March.”
Two years later, Sanchez was promoted to the youth orchestra, and in 1999, at the age of 19, he became a member of the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela – the country’s youth orchestra. It was Sanchez’s first international exposure as they played in every country in South America as well as the United States.
The worldly experience helped him to become a cellist for the Venezuela Symphony Orchestra when he was 24 years old. Sanchez played for the country’s orchestra for 14 years until those runs to Colombia were just too much for him.
The cellist is quite at home in Cuenca. His home is just three blocks from the symphony’s offices and theater, but he bikes every day to Teatro Pumapungo. “The cello is heavy,” Sanchez explains. The cello is only about seven pounds, but when you add the weight of the case and other accessories, it is somewhere between 20 and 30 pounds on his back. “Sometimes I walk home.”
Sanchez kept his cello skills sharp by practicing every day at home during the Covid-19 Quédate en Casa, when he couldn’t rehearse with other symphony members. Since then, he has posted videos online of his playing, including one with the symphony’s pianist Tina Zoé.
Cuenca’s symphony has an ambitious schedule of concerts, but that does not faze Sanchez. “With my training, I try not to get tired. While preparing for my performance at (New York’s) Carnegie Hall while in the national youth orchestra, we would practice 8 to 2 and 4 to 8,” said Sanchez. “This practice schedule here is not as difficult.”
For the rest of February, the Cuenca Symphony Orchestra has the following concerts planned: Saturday, February 13, 8pm: “Noche de Boleros” with Sandra Segundo and Diego Zamora. It will be at the Digital Concert Hall of the Cuenca Symphony Orchestra on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/user/sinfonicacuenca).
Friday, February 19, 7pm: Public concert at Casa de la Cultura Theater, Calle Luis Cordero.
Friday, February 26, 7pm: Public concert at Pumapungo Theater, Calle Larga y Huayna-Capac.
The schedule for March’s performances has not been set.
Being one of six cellists, Sanchez will certainly be in some of these upcoming concerts. Updates concerning Sanchez and his fellow musicians’ performances can be found on the symphony’s Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/sinfonicacuenca
Photos by Stephen Vargha