Connecting Cultures Through Song


David L. Dodds

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Connecting Cultures Through Song

UND's Red River Trio used international language of music to inspire others during late spring tour of Japan and China

The University of North Dakota's Red River Trio is music to our ears, and apparently to the people of China and Japan, too.

This past spring the Trio toured Asia to showcase its talents while teaching other students about the power of music.

The group comprises three students from the UND Music Department. Brazilian violinist Vinicius Sant'Ana, Venezuelan cellist Fernando Vargas and pianist Keith Teepen, a native of Cincinnati, Ohio, were united under the leadership of UND's Dr. Nariaki Sugiura.

In three weeks last May, the group visited universities across China and Japan and performed with students. The Trio also met with junior high and primary school students, many of whom were especially eager to see them. Several had never seen string instruments before.

Grand Forks Mayor Michael Brown and Grand Forks Community/Government Relations Officer Pete Haga even made the trip to Kanuma, Japan, to listen to the Trio perform. Kanuma is the sister city of Grand Forks.

The trip was a huge success.

"It was a very powerful experience for me," said Dr. Michael Wittgraf, Chair of the UND Music Department and a Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of Music. "It moved me to tears. It's powerful to watch language barriers disappear before your eyes."

Supportive friends

Dr. Gerald Gaul, an ophthalmologist at the North Dakota Eye Clinic in Grand Forks and a longtime supporter of the UND Music Department, made a large portion of the tour of Asia possible by donating $15,000 to the UND Music Department.

"Our region does a fantastic amount of international trade, and music is absolutely an international language," Gaul said. "These sort of tours are great for the University, great for the students and really great for our region."

Gaul is violist and his wife plays the violin. He studied viola at the University of Iowa and continues to perfect his talent in Minneapolis. He has worked with the Greater Grand Forks Symphony for nearly 25 years, and has an informal musical group of his own called the Buffalo Commons Chamber Music Society.

Another friend of UND Music and the city of Grand Forks, Jennifer Tarlin, is director of the American Culture Center at the University of Shanghai Science and Technology (USST). Her influence also was a tremendous help in coordinating the Trio's performances in China. Shanghai was the second stop on the Trio's visit to China, and we paid for by a collaborative grant from the U.S. State Department to support American Culture Centers in China, according to Tarlin.

"Sending musicians to Japan and China broadens UND's international relationships and builds bridges that both faculty and students will benefit from," Tarlin said.

Applications rolling in

While traveling through Asia, the Trio promoted UND and tried to recruit talented musicians to the music program.

Many students who witnessed the Trio tour have already applied to study music at UND.

"You make other people better when you bring in outstanding students," said Wittgraf.

Sugiura described the trip as a rewarding experience.

"We were able to share experiences with people across the world, bringing cultures together and inspiring students," he said.

The Trio is a group unlike any other on campus. Sharing similar tastes in music, personalities and a love of traveling and performing, the group's cohesiveness is what drives its success.

So how did UND come to acquire these three talented musicians?

All three musicians came to UND because of the high caliber of professors in the music department. For Teepen, the draw was Sugiura's piano division. For Sant'Ana, it was the quality of Dr. Alejandro Drago's String division that lured him. Dr. Drago invited Vargas to study with newly appointed Burgum Endowed chair/ Assistant Professor of Cello Dr. Simona Barbu.

The tour aimed to show students across the world that UND is capable of producing highly talented musicians. Mission accomplished.

The Red River Trio will be performing will be at the Museum of Art on Sunday, Oct. 27, at 2 p.m.

Kate Menzies University & Public Affairs Student Writer

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