CAP-HAITIEN, HAITI — It hardly seemed the time or place for an international symphonic tour.
In recent months in Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, kidnappings, carjackings, and murders have been on the rise - increasingly targeting foreigners. A Canadian development expert was seized in May, and later released. The US Embassy cautioned Americans to stay away, and withdrew nonessential personnel. In July, Haitians were shocked when a Haitian journalist not only was kidnapped, but then was tortured and murdered.
Virtually the only foreigners entering the Caribbean nation are UN peacekeepers, now numbering more than 8,000.
Yet in August, musicians from Austria's Arpeggione Orchestra and the US Symphony of the Americas (SOA) flew from Florida to Cap- Haitien for a week-long tour that took them to venues ranging from movie theaters to a small concrete church.
Safety was a concern. But naysayers also argued that the orchestra would find it hard to move around in a country where roads are poor. Others said that Haitians wouldn't warm to classical music.
Still, the orchestra persevered. The visit "made us stronger in our souls," says Irakli Gogibedaschwili, Arpeggione's leader, calling it one of the most important experiences in his group's 15 years. "We played [in Labadee], in this little village, in this little church, like we were in Carnegie Hall ... because we felt this was a very big moment of our lives."
The trip grew out of a casual encounter. Last spring, James Brooks-Bruzzese, conductor of the SOA, sat next to Eddy Remy at a Rotary Club meeting in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He told Mr. Remy - president of Fort Lauderdale-Cap-Haitien Sister Cities - about Summerfest, when the SOA performs with a European orchestra in Florida and two Latin American countries. Remy invited the group to Haiti.
In some ways, the invitation marked a watershed for Remy, who moved to the US from Haiti as a child and grew up thinking his birth country was a place to avoid.
But five years ago, his grandmother died. A New Yorker, her wish to be buried in Haiti impelled Remy to return - and to reassess his homeland.
"This is an incredible country," he says, "and all that I'd been hearing for the 30-something years of my life that I was out of the country was not the reality."
Still, Haiti's hold on security is tenuous. Last January, it was poised to celebrate its 200th anniversary as the world's first black nation, born out of a victory over slavery and French rule.
But violence was mounting. Dozens of foreign musical groups canceled performances. A day of pride was overtaken by shootings and burning barricades.
A year later, nonetheless, the orchestra decided to take the plunge - deciding to visit Haiti's far safer northern region.
The trip was not without hitches. When the group's charter plane proved too small, members who were not musicians stayed behind a day, allowing instruments to spill over into seats and the plane's one bathroom. A trip to the 19th-century fortress La Citadelle was canceled because of the heat. Harrowing roads posed a threat to delicate instruments.
The group's participation in one concert - in conjunction with Tropicana, which plays Konpa Direk, Haitian big-band music - was canceled because of patchy phone communications, disappointing some of the estimated 2,000 people who showed up.
And some musicians were taken aback by its extreme poverty. "I understood for the first time what it means 'to not believe your eyes,' " says Hungarian violinist Toth Tamas.
Despite the obstacles, the group says the trip was a feat.
"When you think about the logistics of bringing a symphony orchestra to Cap-Haitien, they really look impossible," Remy says. "Every night I go to sleep here, I'm asking myself, how in the world are we pulling this off? But it's happening!"
For Haitians, it was equally amazing. Band leader François Levy wrote scores for the orchestra to play with a voodoo "roots" band. "People abroad think Haiti is only bad things," says Mr. Levy, who had never worked with classical musicians before, "and I think a cultural exchange is a great way to make people know exactly what Haitians have, what the country is all about."
The final performance of the Levy-Brooks-Bruzzese troupe took place in the fishing village of Labadee. When electricity comes on a few hours daily, boom boxes blast music everywhere, and villagers shimmy and shake as they go about their work. The orchestra arrived on rickety wooden outboards, drawing curious gazes.
The venue, a small church, is a concrete structure with wooden pews. The audience of about 100 grew steadily, with villagers filling the floor and even open windows.
A mother nursed her baby. A toddler asked about the musicians. Muscular 20-somethings in tank-tops and do-rags clapped vigorously. Brooks-Bruzzese later said one approached him afterward with tears in his eyes.
By the end, more than 200 people had squeezed in for their first orchestral concert. And the musicians, feeling victorious, joined in celebration later by planting trees to the beat of voodoo drums.