Alan M. Toda-Ambaras ’13 is a lifelong cellist whose passion lies at the intersection of classical music and social justice. The recipient of the Prize for Most Promising Contestant at the 2005 Rostropovich International Cello Competition in Paris, Toda-Ambaras has worked with many of the world’s leading classical ensembles and performers. Most recently, he co-founded the Eureka Ensemble, a Boston-based group dedicated to using classical music to connect with underprivileged and marginalized communities locally.
The Harvard Crimson: You attended Harvard as an undergraduate. What was your academic background during those years?
Alan M. Toda-Ambaras: I was enrolled in the joint degree program between Harvard and the New England Conservatory. I did my bachelor’s through that program in History of Art and Architecture (HAA) and I got my master’s in cello performance.
THC: Do you feel that this background prepared you well for the type of projects that you’ve taken on with the Eureka Ensemble?
AMT: To a great extent, yes. We have to be very comfortable integrating different aspects of our lives. It works in a pretty interdisciplinary way with how our music works, and relates to the same issues in other areas of our lives, and how we can apply our artistic knowledge and background to societal wrongs. Being in the program helped me to start thinking about those larger questions.
THC: How did the Eureka Ensemble come about?
AMT: The Eureka Ensemble is a loosely defined association of musicians in the Boston area—mostly young professionals—very heavily drawing from the New England Conservatory. The mission of the group is focused on helping underserved communities in the Greater Boston area through interactive and otherwise performative events. When we talk about underserved communities, we’re not just talking about economically underserved—also physically handicapped audiences and folks who, for one reason or another, just didn’t have much exposure to classical music.
The group started when my colleague and co-founder Christo Kondakçi and I got together. He has a lot of experience doing outreach work in underserved communities through his position at the Boston Landmarks Orchestra and the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, for which he is a conductor. I overlapped with him at the New England Conservatory, at a time when I was doing entrepreneurial work in the music world as well through a group called Project Lens. Project Lens is comprised, coincidentally, of two other Harvard-NEC joint concentrators.
That would take a whole other conversation to get into that group’s history, but essentially Christo and I were both thinking about a few ways to both engage audiences and do something that was impactful and could make a difference, and give new meaning to our art form in the modern age given all the problems that we have in society today. That’s how we got started. That’s kind of our mission.
THC: Could you speak to how the group aims to achieve these goals of community engagement and social awareness?
AMT: A big part of it, from my perspective and I’m pretty sure Christo’s as well, is that we place a great deal of emphasis on community partnerships and organizational partnerships. So for this most recent Chelsea program that was put together, we reached out to the Chelsea Collaborative, to a group dedicated to reaching out to the local immigrant community and doing social justice work there. We also partnered with the local synagogue that was trying to transition from being a religious institution towards being more of a civic institution, since they have an immigration museum dedicated to exploring the history of the Jewish community in Chelsea.
We kind of tied those two organizations together and came up with a program that could be for the local community, immigrant and otherwise, but paying special attention to the immigrants and refugees of Chelsea and the pretty huge population of people who ended up there. That’s an essential part of what we do—creating these partnerships with organizations that are also dedicated to advocacy work or advancement for marginalized people or a cause. We do that in the context of great music-making and bringing young professionals into this world.
THC: Do you ever find that there’s tension between the music-making goals of the ensemble and those social goals? If so, how do you navigate it?
AMT: I think that part of the reason why Christo and I started this group was because there was tension. I mean, there are many angles from which you can look at it. But basically, in the classical music world in particular (I can’t speak for other genres, although I do think it is also prevalent in at least one other genre of music) there is a tendency to be a little closed-off and not always in touch with the daily lives of those who can’t afford to go to concerts or who weren’t brought up in a culture in which classical music was important. I might add here that Christo and I or anyone throughout the team don’t promote classical music as above all other art forms—it’s just our medium.
But, because we are classical musicians and we do have a certain awareness of that scene, so to speak, it’s nice to open it up and give professional musicians or aspiring professional musicians an opportunity to connect the music work with those developing causes. I think that’s both the tension, the challenge, and the promise.
THC: So what are some of your goals for the ensemble for the future?
AMT: Long-term, I think it would be great if what we’re doing as this fledgling organization can become more of a model for musicians everywhere. We’re not reinventing the wheel here and there are a lot of pre-existing groups that have also started performing and developing causes or doing innovative, entrepreneurial things. But it would be nice if we could contribute to this movement in a way that would accelerate the emergence of that model of music and social action combined.
So that’s the long-term goal, but both short-term and long-term it would be nice to see us kind of getting a foothold in all of the communities in and around Boston, underprivileged and otherwise, and simultaneously giving professional musicians a chance to advance their careers and do things that are meaningful to them because in a way (my colleague Christo loves saying this, and I agree with him) young musicians are kind of an underserved community of their own. That’s our thinking at the moment.