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Pierre Aristil

Music of the new American heart

By Dan Moffett, Palm Beach Post Editorial Writer
Friday, September 20, 2002

Pierre Aristil knew from the outset that he was in for a night of wonderful torture.

His chorale and ensemble was the final act Tuesday at the Harriet Himmel Gilman Theater. Two hours of piano playing -- Mozart, Chopin, Gershwin and jazz -- would fill the old church at CityPlace in West Palm Beach before his singers and musicians took the stage.

The wait was excruciating. Any conductor would have tormented himself with all the things that might go wrong -- the sour notes, the missed cues, the medley of catastrophe that lays in wait. But for Mr. Aristil, the stakes were never higher. This was the biggest of big nights.

"We have played in Pahokee and in church," he said, "but for us, this was really our debut."

Christian missionaries gave Mr. Aristil the gift of music in his native Haiti, and he brought it to the United States when he immigrated to New York in 1980. He studied at Rockland Community College, then moved to Florida in 1990 and earned a bachelor's degree in music at Florida Atlantic University.

About four years ago, Mr. Aristil got the idea to start a nonprofit school to teach music to his Haitian community. He founded Gold Coast Music Programs Inc., and it has grown to occupy two storefronts on Congress Avenue in West Palm Beach. Mr. Aristil, 50, works mornings as a U.S. Postal Service clerk and by late afternoon is maestro to more than 80 players and singers. He has broadened his reach beyond his own people.

"We have some white people who come for lessons, too," he says through a smile. "If parents can't pay, we still let them come. We try to find them instruments. We've always believed that, somewhere along the line, God will provide."

But no one does more for musicians than other musicians, and that was how and why Mr. Aristil's students ended up at The Harriet. The third Tuesday of each month is Music for the Mind night, the brainchild of Kathi Kretzer, who owns Kretzer Piano on North Military Trail in West Palm Beach. Ms. Kretzer has organized an ambitious series of benefit concerts. CityPlace waives a $5,000 fee to rent the theater, and professional singers and players donate performances. The proceeds from the $10 ticket sales go to help young musicians such as those from the Stuart School of Music, Wellington High School or the Palm Beach County Middle School of the Arts. Between shows, Ms. Kretzer scours South Florida for donors of used instruments.

This week, she gave the stage to Mr. Aristil's 22-piece orchestra and 20-member choir. She also gave his school two pianos. What God decides not to provide, benevolent musicians will.

"This night means a lot to us, you know," Mr. Aristil said.

"What you're doing is just wonderful," Irwin Solomon told him. Mr. Solomon is the staff pianist of Ballet Florida and a regular at The Breakers, the Ritz-Carlton and Mar-a-Lago. He played Tuesday to help the Haitians.

Dressed in black tie and tails, Mr. Aristil swung his baton smartly as the Gold Coast performers claimed their long-awaited moment. One of the violinists was barely 10; one of the singers was almost 60. An audience of 300 hung on each note.

A brush with catastrophe came early during the first number, the Gold and Silver Waltz, when a young violinist's sheet music fell off its stand. But a helpful gentleman seated in the front row quickly fetched it and placed it back where it belonged.

Mr. Aristil chose a patriotic medley for his finale: My Country 'Tis of Thee; America, the Beautiful; and God Bless America.

The Haitians sang of the pilgrims' pride, the purple mountain majesties and the amber waves of grain. They sang of the sweet land of liberty they now call home.

Their voices rose beyond the walls of the old church to the Starbucks tables next door and carried across the courtyard to CityPlace diners.

The maestro whipped the baton to his side after the final note, beckoned his players to rise, then turned to the audience and bowed deeply.

A standing ovation swelled as the lights came on.

"I hope the next performance we do better for you," Mr. Aristil said as the applause at last died.

Surely, they will play better. But a finer performance? A bigger night? This one will be hard to top.

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