by Lindsey Nesmith, from The Florida Weekly, February 12, 2015.
Naples Music Club celebrates its 50th anniversary this year with a Musical Safari & Jazz Concert Saturday, Feb. 21, at North Naples United Methodist Church. The celebration culminates in a 7 p.m. performance by world-renowned Cuban pianist Ignacio “Nachito” Herrera, who is returning to Naples after his 2013 performance with ArtsNaples World Festival.
Mr. Herrera was a child prodigy who first stunned Cuban audiences when he performed Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 2 at the age of 12 with the Havana Symphony Orchestra. He went on to perform at many of the world’s finest concert halls and eventually joined the Cuban Orchestra Cubanismo as its pianist, musical director and arranger.
Today he’s best known for his high-energy performances that combine classical piano with Cuban and Latin rhythms like cha-cha and guaracha.
Club member Trey Parker, co-chair of the golden anniversary celebration, says the club invited Mr. Herrera because his style of music and his background as a musician who grew up in Communist Cuba appeals to many of the club’s students members and their parents.
“One of the key reasons we wanted to invite him is he’s a shining example of how young talent can blossom in difficult circumstances,” Mr. Parker says. “He has a very relevant story for a lot of young performers and their families.”
The club has clearly changed its focus over the last 50 years, from being a group of musicians that played private concerts to an organization that has one of the largest arts advocacy programs in the area. Naples Music Club awards more than $40,000 in scholarships each year to local students and has created an outreach initiative that reaches Collier County’s low-income students so they can reap the benefits of a music education.
“It’s an exciting time,” club president Myra Williams says. “People assume that music club members sit around and play music in their homes and you have to be a musician to be a part of it. My personal excitement is seeing the impact on children who would never have lessons without our support.”
In 2008, club member Judy Evans introduced a program to pre-schoolers at Immokalee’s Guadalupe Center that enabled each child to have violin lessons. The curriculum focused on pre-reading skills the preschoolers needed to be successful in future academic endeavors, skills such as left-to-right eye movement, coordination, focus and listening skills. In one year, Ms. Evans’ students’ kindergarten-readiness skills improved from being in the lowest 25 percent in the state to being among the top 25 percent. Collier County has since adopted the program in its schools with low-income youngsters; Osceola County (Kissimmee) recently won a grant from the state of Florida to start the program in its schools.
Skip Hardee, district coordinator for fine arts at the Collier County School District, says the local pre-schoolers benefit tremendously from the violin instruction. “Their teachers report that after a month of lessons, students are able to focus for a longer period of time,” he says. “We find it really helps students as they enter to that reading level, especially their self-confidence.”
Throughout his musical career, Mr. Herrera benefited from youth programs much like the ones Naples Music Club provides Collier County students. He continues to work with young musicians to develop their skills and talents and is deeply involved in a variety of musical organizations that serve students of Minnesota and the twin cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, where he makes his home.
“When I was a student back in the 1970s and ’80s, we always had the opportunity to share different ideas and experiences with great, well-known Cuban musicians, like Frank Fernandez,” he says. “I decided to pay them back with different, wonderful experiences to the students and let them know we can survive, depending on how much we want to commit ourselves to practice and study.”
It was important for Naples Music Club to choose a performer for its 50th anniversary who was charismatic and inspiring, so parents can have an example of how musical education benefits their children.
“The first time we brought him down, everyone just adored him,” Mr. Parker says. “We found that students in Immokalee just loved him, and their parents found his story very inspirational. He’s a very charismatic and generous musician.