By Chesney Hearst, Senior Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Since 201l, American cellist Eric Alterman has lived and worked in Rio de Janeiro as a member of the Orquestra Sinfônica Brasileira, a traditional symphony orchestra based in Rio de Janeiro that is well known for touring and for encouraging new talents.
Alterman, a classically trained musician with bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Brandeis University and Boston University, respectively, packed up and moved to Rio de Janeiro to join the orchestra after finding an opening online and passing a standard audition for entry into the Orquestra Sinfônica Brasileira (OSB), his first job working with a professional orchestra.
Alterman recently spoke with The Rio Times about his experiences with the OSB and living and working in the city as a foreign musician. “I’ve been fortunate to have a very stable employment situation, with a fixed salary and an employer who has handled many of the bureaucratic issues,” Alterman told The Rio Times. “These are great challenges for the foreigner who wishes to up and move to Rio, in music or any other field.”
“It is not an easy or affordable city to live in, and even my situation has had its challenges,” Alterman continued. “But it is a very inspiring city, between the musical heritage, vibrant culture and natural beauty. That being said, Rio has a small arts scene for a city of its size, much smaller than São Paulo. That means there are opportunities to be created, but they require drive and creativity. ”
Alterman’s drive to become a musician was fueled early in life by his parents’ affinity for classical music, his childhood immersion in the arts scene in New York, and a piano in the home, which Alterman said he would “bang on” and was eager to learn to play, beginning piano lessons at age five.
“At some point, around eleven, I became interested in a second instrument and chose the cello, ” said Alterman. “After several years, I was leading the cello section at my high school’s string orchestra and found a real affinity for it. […] The last couple of years of high school and first few of college are when I really fell in love with practicing the cello, which is necessary when you must spend several hours a day in a room with it, alone,” Alterman later added.
Working and performing with an orchestra, however, is a much different experience than practicing alone. “In a group as large as an orchestra, it can be daunting to feel personally connected to the music and personally responsible for the performance,” Alterman explained. “Yet I truly do most of the time, and I continue to experience powerfully concentrated, moving, and motivating performances with the OSB. Much of this comes down to my colleagues, who exude a fantastic amount of energy on stage, and inspire me to do the same.”
The Orquestra Sinfônica Brasileira was founded in 1940 by Maestro José Siqueira and grew to become the first Brazilian orchestra to tour the country and aboard. They also are widely recognized for their diverse repertoire.
“Brazil has such a rich musical heritage, within classical music but especially in other genres, that our orchestra has a lot of opportunities to present a uniquely Brazilian repertoire,” said Alterman. “My first concert with the OSB, in October 2011, completely captures this dichotomy.”
“We began with the Brazilian national anthem,” Alterman continued. “The first half of the program featured Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, an extremely well known work from 19th century Germany that is played all over the world, and music from the film Psycho, by the American Bernard Herrmann. […] For the second half, we performed a Brazilian composition with guitarist Yamandu Costa and mandolinist Hamilton de Holanda that fused Brazilian genres like chorinho with classical orchestration.”
When asked about notable differences between an orchestra in Rio de Janeiro compared to others around the world, Alterman stated that the similarities were more striking due to the globalization of classical music. Alterman said the biggest adjustment for him was learning Portuguese. “I spent a few months always feeling slightly confused in rehearsals, even though I understood the music. Language is important when a conductor has to coordinate eighty musicians.”
Speaking about his general experience living and working as a classical musician in the city and what drives him to continue, Alterman at one point stated that he was often met with curiosity. “When I am walking on the street or taking the bus with my cello, I am constantly being asked about the instrument. The Botafogo sticker on my cello case might be fueling some of the conversation as well! I feel that music is a very respected endeavor here, and that can be quite motivating.”