STORY: Jane Fuentes PHOTO: Provided
Janet Harris’ musical tastes have always been a tad more sophisticated than mainstream America’s. In 1986, while her classmates were walking like Egyptians and singing along with Whitney Houston, Janet was in Russia experiencing Perestroika.
“Perestroika was a political movement for reformation,” explains Harris, who was a bassoon player in a Texas high school band that traveled to the Soviet Union. “It allowed for an exchange of arts and dance groups between the United States and Russia. For two weeks, our band traveled all around the Soviet Union performing our music.”
While Harris was in her musical element, socially she was a bit of an outcast. “I got made fun of a lot because I played the bassoon,” she says. “The kids discovered they could buy vodka at the hotel kiosk, and they were all getting wasted in their rooms. I wasn’t invited, but I was glad. I took advantage of the chaperones’ jet lag and set off to explore the Moscow Conservatory.”
Awed by the beauty and history of the world-famous institution, Harris says she tried to get an application to attend there. “The Moscow Conservatory is the second oldest in Russia after the conservatory in St. Petersburg. Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Beethoven, all the famous Russian composers and musicians trained there. I did not want to go back to Texas and I tried to convince everyone on that trip that I needed to stay.”
Harris cannot remember a time when music was not a major part of her life. “I remember as a baby sitting on my mother’s lap playing the recorder,” she says. “And I was playing the piano as soon as I was able to sit up.”
Her father played bassoon and her mother played brass instruments. Jane started playing the bassoon in the school band in sixth grade. “My father knew if I played bassoon I could get a scholarship to college,” she explains. Indeed, the bassoon was her ticket to college, and to countries and venues all over the world.
Like her parents, Harris considers herself a musician and an educator. “I wanted to do educational projects as well as high-level musical performance projects,” she says.
To reach that goal, Harris started the Lakeside Chamber Players, a nonprofit chamber ensemble based in Mount Dora. That led to another unforgettable dose of culture when Cuban immigrant and web designer Mercedes Soca arranged for an invitation for Harris to perform at the 27th Havana International Contemporary Festival in December.
The entire ensemble wasn’t able to attend, but Harris was accompanied by the Luke Pfeil Woodwind Trio.
Harris says she was overwhelmed by the devotion and passion the Cuban people have for music. “They play at such a high level,” she says, “even though they are lacking in materials, especially the woodwind players. Their keypads get moldy due to the humidity, and when reeds break, they just super-glue them back together. They don’t have access to the Internet to download music, and they don’t have the tools to repair their instruments.”
The Lakeside Chamber Players have been invited to return to Santiago for Cuba’s 400th Musical Anniversary, a yearlong celebration. Harris is hoping to attend in November.
“This time I would like to be able to take an orchestra and fans of the Lakeside Chamber Players,” she says.
Several concerts have been planned to raise funds for the trip.