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What Ricky Martin has done for pop music, Sergio Buslje has done for D.C.’s classical music scene: challenged it, revitalized it, and infused it with a Latin flavor.
As the founder of the Pan American Symphony Orchestra (PASO), the Argentinian-born Buslje brings the works of Latin America’s hottest composers to D.C.-area audiences. And he keeps the price of admission comfortably below the cost of a souvenir Ricky T-shirt.
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“I was 6 when I first heard Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, and I asked my mom if I could study piano,” says Buslje, who is 34. “Then I discovered that the piano wasn’t enough; it was too solitary. I liked the orchestra as an instrument. I wanted to be a conductor.”
Speaking no English, Buslje moved to the U.S. in 1986 to study conducting at California’s Hartnell College, later coming to D.C. to conduct at American University. Buslje founded PASO in the basement of a Catholic church in Chinatown in 1991, and it has been the ensemble-in-residence at Trinity College since 1993.
“Here in D.C., you can hear Beethoven seven times in a month. There’s nothing wrong with Beethoven, but audiences and musicians can get tired of the same stuff. Because we play mostly Latin American and Spanish music from the turn of the century through the 1990s, we get a lot more people interested in that kind of repertoire.”
Once PASO started swinging, Buslje formed the full-time Pan American Jazz Orchestra (PAJO), dedicated to the works of Duke Ellington. Since its inception in 1994, PAJO has played everywhere from parks in Falls Church to the Kennedy Center, the Organization of American States, and the Mexican Cultural Institute.
Despite next summer’s turn as principal guest conductor for the National Symphony Orchestra of Honduras, Buslje remains bent on making PASO a household name in D.C. “We started in 1991 with a budget of $1,000 for the season. It has since grown to $60,000. But as we say in Spanish, Pagar el derecho de piso. Pay the floor that you stand on. You still have to prove yourself.” —Amanda Fazzone
PASO and PAJO perform the “Holiday Eclectic” program Saturday, Dec. 4, at 8 p.m. at Notre Dame Chapel, Trinity College. Admission is $12. For more information, call (202) 884-9008 or www.panamsymphony.org.