A Blind Orchestra's Beethoven

Apr 4, 2017

Many times an orchestra stays together because a conductor is waving his or her baton and keeping everybody together. But what happens when the orchestra can’t see the conductor… or anything at all?
Learn more about the Korean Hearts of Vision Chamber Orchestra.


When I walked into the rehearsal with the Korean Hearts of Vision Chamber Orchestra, there was a man sitting where the conductor usually is, and he’s holding what appears to be a blank piece of paper and he’s shouting out instructions to the ensemble.

[Audio of the Korean Hearts of Vision music director giving a rhythmic example to the musicians]

That leader is Sangjae Lee, who also plays clarinet with the Hearts of Vision. And that piece of white paper he’s holding isn’t blank at all. It’s filled with the music of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, but printed in Braille. Lee is guiding the Hearts of Vision Chamber Orchestra an ensemble with many visually impaired performers. He’s leading rehearsal for a concert this Wednesday night at the Fairchild Theater in East Lansing.
These Korean musicians are visiting as part of the 2017 Cello Plus Chamber Music Festival. Something organized by Artist-Faculty member of the MSU College of Music, Suren Bagratuni.

"I went to Korean with Nobilis Trio [which Suren plays cello in, along with violinist Ruggero Allifranchini and pianist Stephen Prutsman] once to play a concerts and they approach us! 'Would you like to play with this orchestra?' and I'd never heard about that orchestra. I said sure, it's interesting, let's try it." explains Bagratuni. "And when I heard them and the first rehearsal, I was absolutely amazed, because I've never seen anything like that. Since then, we became very nice friends and collaborators, and since then we've played Carnegie Hall. Now it's going to be our third collaboration with the orchestra and I hope we will meet them in the future, also. Yeah."

"It's surprisingly easy to rehearsal with an orchestra like this because they are listening!" continues Bagratuni. "They are not watching the conductor. The accompaniment it usually flawless. I have to tell you the truth. It's our problem! I, for instance, I feel embarrassed using a score during the performance. Of course, it's good I have the concerto by memory, but still I feel secure having my score in front of me. But these people just memorize it!
"In terms of soloists, they prepare incredibly well because they just get all the recordings available and try to get all possible disasters and so they are prepared, you know? Actually, with this orchestra, there are only one or two places we have to rehearse."

When it comes time to communicate with these visually impaired musicians of the Korean Hearts of Vision, language isn’t that big of a problem, since music director clarinetist Sangjae Lee graduated from a famed conservatory in Baltimore, as Prof. Bagratuni explains.

"It's always easy to communicate through music." - MSU Professor Suren Bagratuni

"Yeah, he graduated [from] Peabody [Conservatory] and we communicate to him and of course my wonderful assistants from MSU College of Music who are from Korea. They help also, very much. And it's always easy to communicate thru music."

The visually impaired musicians of the Korean Hearts of Vision Chamber Orchestra perform Thursday night at the Fairchild Theater on campus at MSU in East Lansing. It’s part of the Cello Plus Chamber Music Festival organized by MSU College of Music Professor Suren Bagratuni. More information is available online at music.msu.edu