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The Orfeo Duo Vita notes
Daily News NY


Seated next to a baby grand in a Morningside Heights apartment that seems to breathe music from every corner, Vita Wallace divulges a bit of history.
"It's a legend in our family that [George] Gershwin wrote 'Porky and Bess' at our relatives' summer house in Westport, Conn.," says the 30-year-old violinist, who is one-half of the Orfeo Duo.
The relatives are her great-uncle and aunt, Abraham and Rochelle Garbat, who invited newly arrived Russian Jewish musicians to play in their apartment during the 1920s.
Today, Vita and her brother Ishmael Wallace, 34, a pianist/composer and the other half of the Orfeo Duo, carry on their family tradition of bringing musicians and their neighbors together.
Partnering with churches, libraries and civic associations, they promote a series of workshops and performances throughout their neighborhood, which the soft-spoken Ishmael modestly describes as "anywhere we can get to by foot."
Vita quickly adds, "One of the nice things about that is that it avoids the really common phenomenon of delineating your neighborhood by race. By defining our neighborhood by where we can walk to -and we are strong walkers- we can include a lot of different cultures and a lot of wonderful music the wouldn't be on our program otherwise."
Ishmael and Vita started playing music at age 8 and 4 respectively, both on the piano; Vita began playing violin at 6.
Vita & Ishmael

This year, they plan not only to continue leading composition workshops. but also to experiment with new performance venues and styles, incorporating gospel and Latin influences into their work. With the assistance of a grant they received from the D'Addario Foundation, they recently produced a program along with El Taller Latino Americano, a neighborhood Latino cultural center. It included El Taller's founder, guitarist Bernado Palombo, performing Latin music by neighborhood composers.
One of the more unusual programs the Wallaces have planned for this year is a collaboration with Elizabeth Adams: in a community garden on their block, they will perform music written for instruments made from things one would find in a garden - like gourds and bits of trees.
Adams, 27, has worked on five different organic farms over the years, and her love of gardening inspired her to compose music for performances in the neighborhood patch of green.
The idea of the concerts, Adams says, is "to introduce the gardners to each other, and to the musicians."
They started the Orfeo Duo (The name was inspired by the film "Black Orpheus") in 1984, when Ishmael was 13 and Vita was 9, and they have been performing together ever since.
They studied music at Mannes College of Music, on W. 85th St.;Vita received a diploma in performance and Ishmael received a master's degree in performance and composition.
It marks the residences of such notables of the past as Gershwin, Bela Bartok and Billy Strayhorn, as well as present-day composers such as the Wallaces' neighbor around the corner, Mark Ettinger, and Elizabeth Adams, whose music they will be performing March 19 at the Nicholas Roerich Museum.
"We are going to use invented instruments," she adds, "some of which will be made out of vegetables, and others which will be made out of found objects such as tin cans. Some of the music will be fully composed and rehearsed beforehand, while others pieces will be improvisational, where people can just walk in and perform with us."
Adams, who studied music at Columbia University and lives on the Wallaces' street, says that the siblings' work makes a tangible impact on the people of Morningside Heights.
Today. between their work the Orfeo Duo and other ensembles, as well as Ishmael's teaching private students, they are able to practice their craft full time.
In 2003, the siblings started their neighborhood music program, called What a Neighborhood!, not only to introduce their music and that of other composers to the people of the neighborhood, but to tell the story of the neighborhood itself. "We started out by celebrating our community through the work of living, local composers," Ishmael says. "Later on, in the last few years, we have expanded what we do slightly. We're celebrating the human richness of our neighbors, even the ones who aren't composers. We've been adding oral history, inviting neighbors to tell their stories to our audience."
Vita goes into an adjacent room in the cheerful apartment apartment they share and comes back with a map indicating the residences of over 100 composers in the area from 94th St. to 145th St. and from the Hudson River to Lenox Ave. She and Ishmael display it at all of their performances. The map bristles with red pennants on pins indicating where each composer lives.
That same performance will feature parts of a new cantata that Ishmael is composing based on interviews he conducted of some of the neighborhood's homeless.
He explains:" I thought, why not celebrate the neighborhood, especially the neighborhood's most vulnerable, through our neighbors' own words?"
In addition to performing. the Orfeo Duo has been conducting composition workshops and improvisational jam sessions for neighborhood children. Last summer, they conducted a workshop for five composers whose ages ranged from 6 to 13. The children wrote pieces for piano and violin that Ishmael and Vita later performed.
"It was such a joy!" Ishmael exclaims. "The music was really. really fresh."
Vita agrees. "What was wonderful about it was that everyone in the audience was inspired by it. They had the feeling that if these kids could write beautiful music, 'I could do it too!"
"Whenever I walk on the street with them, somebody always says hello to them," she says. "There are many musicians and composers in the neighborhood, but the Orfeo Duo are the only ones who are making connections between the musicians, composers, and the neighborhood as a whole. They are so generous with their time and their talents."
Through What a Neighborhood!, the Wallaces have discovered that bringing out the joy of music in others is the most meaningful part of their work as musicians.
"Composers can get lonely," Ishmael notes, "and we sometimes ask ourselves, 'Is our music making the world a better place?' ... What we realized, above all is the good, creative work comes about, not in a vacuum, not in the desert, but in the context of a community."

The Orfeo Duo
615 West 113 Street #46
New York NY 10025
Phone: 212-222-2101


Copyright The OrfeoDuo 2009