Arriving in Portugal 19 years ago holding his double bass, his pockets full of dreams, he stayed. Marc Ramirez, double bassist and first soloist at the Gulbenkian Orchestra, is in love with music, travelling, Portugal and the good things in life.
Travelling’s said to be good for many things – celebrating, forgetting, gathering thoughts – and Marc Ramirez’s case is another which confirms the rule.
Aged 17, this New Yorker lacked direction. Thanks to his parents’ plans, he was about to start a career in the armed forces, but deep down he knew that wasn’t for him. He paused, bought a bus ticket and went away to find himself. It was during one of the many eight-hour days on the road that he met an amateur musician and told him about his life and search. His epiphany happened somewhere between New York and San Francisco: “music was my path and way of expressing myself.”
Of course, the decision didn’t come out of the blue. Marc was far from being musically illiterate, playing double bass, tuba and piano. He simply hadn’t gone in the music direction because his parents feared this lifestyle wouldn’t pay the bills.
Portugal since 1996
When he left the Manhattan School of Music and started work as a freelancer, Marc never imagined his path would take him across the Atlantic. That is, until the day he got a call from Luís Pereira Leal, Musical Services Director at the Portuguese Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, inviting him to an audition. The Foundation’s Orchestra were looking for a double bassist and Marc’s audition meant that right there in the middle of New York, the invitation to move to Lisbon for a year, fell onto his lap.
“What I’m about to say doesn’t show me in a good light, but as a New Yorker, I thought my city was the centre of the world. I had to learn more about Portugal, as my knowledge was from history books.” His formal introduction to Lisbon happened one September morning and was accompanied by a few mishaps and lucky coincidences. “When I arrived at Portela airport, there was no one to meet me. I didn’t speak Portuguese, not many people spoke English and getting a taxi big enough for all my luggage, including my huge double bass, was impossible. I’d already missed the morning rehearsal, the afternoon one was about to go the same way and I was ready to burst into tears, when a man with an open-topped truck, full of potatoes, offered to take me to the Gulbenkian. I arrived in the interval of the afternoon rehearsal and the first person I met and who showed me around my new home was the orchestra’s flautist – who was later to become my wife.”
That day was 19 years ago and when asked if moving to Portugal was the right decision, he answers jokingly that “if you ask me that while I’m in the queue at the Driving Licence Authority, I’ll probably say no.” But speaking more seriously, Marc declares that every day he realises he’s happy to be here and not anywhere else. “Here, I’m half way to anywhere in the world, the air is clean and the quality of life excellent. And then there’s the Gulbenkian, which is an oasis. The conditions are fantastic and I have the pleasure of playing with some of the best names in music, such as Anouar Brahem and Joana Carneiro.”
As well as being first soloist and head of section at the Gulbenkian Orchestra (see box), Marc mentors various educational projects at the Foundation, such as Gulbenkian internships, and teaches at the Piaget University Institute, in Almada, and the Higher National Academy of Orchestra. And this makes him equally happy or happier than playing. “My journey has been marked by a series of people who taught me and offered such great opportunities that one of the things that move me is being able to give back what I’ve received. Working with young musicians is one of the most gratifying experiences of my career.”
It’s obvious that Marc Ramirez does everything from the heart. He plays from the heart, teaches from the heart, and travels from the heart, even for professional reasons.
The tours of the Gulbenkian Orchestra take him to the world’s greatest concert halls in the company of some of the best musicians and maestros in the world. His mentoring work means that he goes back to his parents’ homeland, the Philippines, quite often, where he works with young musicians. His personal tastes take him to corners of the globe where a Portuguese presence is still noticeable, either in the architecture such as in Malacca, Malaysia, or in the culture, as in the case of Japan. Missing home also takes him back to the USA to visit family. But for all the trips he’s been on, he’s yet to find anywhere more special than Kathmandu in Nepal. Its merits lay not so much in the extraordinary beauty of the city, set in the midst of the imposing Himalayas, but rather in its people. “Nepal’s spirituality which people boast about is not so much in the place itself but rather in the people. I don’t feel like a tourist or a foreigner there, no one treats like that. I feel part of the community, in the city’s streets or in any of the temples.”
Marc, self-confessed glutton, easily connects travelling with table moments. Years later he still hasn’t forgotten the bland cheese and ham sandwich with one slice of onion eaten in a café in Omaha, Nebraska, during the bus trip he did to figure out his vocation. Similarly, he can’t disconnect China from its rich gastronomy. And speaking of connections … what do New York, Berlin, Rio de Janeiro, Bali and Kathmandu all have in common? They’re very probably the most musical places in the world, according to the expert.
por Maria Ana Ventura foto Kenton Thatcher
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