The New-York-born Puerto Rican, soprano singer Eva de la O — whose orchestra just performed at the Merkin Concert Hall last week — is one of six Puerto Ricans to be honored this year on Friday at the Comité Noviembre’s 17th Annual Gala benefit in New York City. Thirty-three years ago, she founded an organization called Música de Cámara which has been bringing classical music to huge venues such as New York City’s Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall, as well as to public schools in under-served communities.
“She has given many Puerto Rican artists a venue and a voice very quietly,” says Teresa Santiago, executive director of the volunteer-run Comité Noviembre, about why de la O was one of the honorees chosen.
The annual gala, which highlights Puerto Ricans who have not only committed most of their lives to their culture but also work towards its longevity, is Comité Noviembre’s only fundraiser of the year. It raises funds for scholarships, educational advancement and leadership development.
“We’ve been around for 26 years,” says Santiago. “The mission is to acknowledge to the contributions to Puerto Ricans… We want to make sure that our next generation also knows who their heroes and historical figures are and know the relationship Puerto Rico has with the U.S.”
De la O says what sparked the idea in her to found a non-profit, which eventually was to highlight at least 125 Hispanic and non-Hispanic classical musicians, was a flippant remark. She says the journalist interviewing her, from a prestigious classical radio station, assumed that the world-renowned tenor, Antonio Paoli, was Italian and not Puerto Rican, because Puerto Ricans didn’t listen to classical music.
“I got annoyed,” says de la O. “We were looked upon as strange creatures in a strange land, and that classical music didn’t jive with who we are…It bothered me tremendously so I decided to start a chamber music concert series.”
The Julliard graduate says she strives for excellence in everything she does.
“I went to El Museo del Barrio, and I rented a concert grand piano,” says de la O. “It’s been quite a journey. We’ve done concerts with established and emerging artists. We have established string quartets and ensembles.”
She became a whirlwind force to be reckoned with — educating everywhere she went that Latinos were classical musicians, too.
“Most people don’t know there were Africans performing during the time of Beethoven,” she says with her powerful voice. “I always feel like I have to keep going. If you keep going, you can correct a misunderstanding. You can fill in the gap.”
She says she wishes Música de Cámara had more money so she could do more, because the number of artists keeps coming and arts programs keep getting cut from public schools.
“Before the concert on the 20th, we did a charla with about 45 students where the contemporary composer Manuel Calzada spoke about how he transformed plena to classical music,” says de la O, who goes to schools whenever she gets the monetary support for it and offers three-week immersion programs for students.
She says music is crucial for the development of children, because not only does it help them focus in their studies, but it even helps them from getting bored and angry.
“We’re held back by a lack of money, but that doesn’t keep us back,” says de la O. “Our middle name is ‘pa’ lante!’ Don’t look behind you — not even to look back — just keep going in excellence…”