Bridging Cultures Onstage

David Gonzalez of the New York Times has written this great piece about Lehman College’s Center for the Performing Arts and the role it has played in bringing Caribbean performers to New York City. I worked at Lehman College for ten years and am so pleased that the Center’s work is being acknowledged.

WHEN Eva Bornstein became executive director of the Lehman Center for the Performing Arts in 2005, its headliners had included Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic, Marcel Marceau and Victor Borge. But as their appeal dwindled in a changing Bronx neighborhood, so did audiences. To bolster the theater’s fortunes, Ms. Bornstein, a Polish émigré, set out to explore the area — as she had done in Toronto, Pennsylvania and New Jersey when she ran theaters there.

“I looked at how people live, how they shopped,” she said. “I went into stores and listened to what they had on the radio. There was salsa music coming out of cars, on the street. I said, ‘Holy cow, what did I get myself into?’ I mean, other than José Feliciano, I knew nothing about Latino music.”

Ms. Bornstein took a break and went to Puerto Rico, where she had a stroke of luck. A little bored and curious, she crashed a fancy reception where a “fantastic” big band was playing. She chatted up one of the musicians.

“I told him I had just taken this job in the Bronx,” she recalled. “He said: ‘You better take my e-mail. You’ll need it in the Bronx.’ ”

“Really?” she replied. “Tell me about yourselves.”

“We’re El Gran Combo,” he answered.

This is along the lines of visiting Memphis and bumping into Elvis. El Gran Combo is Puerto Rico’s best-known and perhaps longest-lived band — a band that now sells out regularly at the Lehman Center.

In her six years at its helm, Ms. Bornstein, 60, has turned the center — now celebrating its 30th season — into a must-go destination for audiences and performers alike, with a surprising mix of classical orchestras, folkloric dance troupes, R&B divas and Caribbean crooners. She has proven especially adept at attracting some of the biggest names in salsa: Rubén Blades and Gilberto Santa Rosa, who might have been welcomed at Madison Square Garden, instead kicked off their 2011 United States tour on Saturday at the arts center, at Lehman College, in the West Bronx.

Andrew S. Grossman, senior executive vice president at Columbia Artists Management, called what Ms. Bornstein had accomplished at Lehman — providing a comfortable home for both classical and popular music — “a miracle.”

“She is a wizard,” he said. “She has a gift for engaging the community. She has a great sense of balance and a great sense for programming.”

Ms. Bornstein, who has a daunting knowledge of music and culture, smiled as she retold the Gran Combo story, her voice and expressions going from coy to flirty. It was easy to see traces of the actor she had planned on becoming while growing up in Krakow under Communist rule. “As a child, you need an escape, because everything was so gray,” she said. “Gray buses. Gray buildings. Gray everything. But when you went to the theater, you saw a different world. There was this beauty.”

Actors, she said, could address political issues and everyday fears in a way others could not. It was a language she wished to learn, so she studied drama. At 17, she was told it would be good for her career to join the Communist Party. Instead, she exiled herself to Paris, where she had a part in a film. Within a year, she was in London, where she met Marina Fistoulari-Mahler, a granddaughter of the composer Gustav Mahler.

“I was left like a cat on her doorstep,” Ms. Bornstein said. “She took me in and sent me to school. She had these salons on the weekend with musicians and artists. She surrounded herself with artists. I wanted to be like her.”

And so, in her career as impresario, Ms. Bornstein has, too. Even the experience of being in exile, she said, informs her work in the Bronx, where many residents share the experience of facing tough times far from home.

“When I see my audience, I can identify with them,” she said. “I have compassion for them. No matter what my Latino audience is going through in their lives, when the music starts, the world stops.”

Ms. Bornstein’s transformation of the Lehman Center has won her many fans. Mr. Feliciano — one of the few Latino artists she knew about as a child in Poland — said performing there was a homecoming of sorts, since he used to sing as a child at the long-gone Teatro Puerto Rico in Mott Haven.

“What she does is unite all the cultures,” he said in a telephone interview from Rome, where he was performing. “She is one of the very few non-Latin people who has taken the Latin community under her wing.”

He added, “Es una Polaca con sentimiento.” A Polish woman with feeling.

Just as she has crossed cultures, Ms. Bornstein tries to lead her audiences beyond their comfort zones. At a salsa concert, she will promote future classical music and dance events. She is also trying to nurture young music fans by offering $10 tickets for children under 12 to many shows (tickets often cost $35).

“I tell my Latino audience, ‘If you’re raising your kids here, they need to know “The Nutcracker,” they need to know “Swan Lake,” ’ ” she said. “Ten dollars? You can afford that. Even if the kid doesn’t like it. Tough. That’s your job as a parent.”

Ms. Bornstein has made it part of her own job to nudge colleagues about the importance of Latino music and culture. It still surprises her, she said, when she goes to industry conventions and meets people who have no idea about stars like Mr. Blades and Mr. Santa Rosa.

“America is turning to a Latino majority, and presenters at major concert halls don’t know who these superstars of Latino culture are,” she marveled. “How can they not be aware of these people?”

Which is not to say she is forgetting about the classics. Ms. Bornstein is eagerly looking forward to presenting the Venice Baroque Orchestra, a personal favorite, on April 17.

“They’re totally weird,” she said. “It’s so la-di-da. Venice. Period instruments. I love them. O.K., so I lied before! I sneaked that one in for me. It’s an indulgence.”

For the original report go to

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