By Jan Worth-Nelson
William Harvey stands in front of 1910 Montclair St. in Flint, a house he hasn’t laid eyes on since 1987, and says, “Oh my god, that’s the house. That was where I got my first violin.”
It came through the mail and, he recalls with the specific gravity of that life-changing moment, he was three years and ten months old. His mother, Susan Raccoli, had to sign for it, and he remembers running around the house in crazy kid joy while she unwrapped it.
It’s been a long road from that childhood in Flint’s College Cultural neighborhood. When he was four, his father, former Flint Journal arts and music critic Jay Harvey, got a new job in Indianapolis, and William and his family left Flint behind.
But what started in that leafy block just north of Court Street led eventually to Juilliard and then a lifetime as an international professional violinist, conductor and composer. He has worked and performed in a host of countries, the most substantial terms in Afghanistan and Argentina.
The last day of his visit in Flint, after pancakes at Westside Diner, he’s trying to concentrate on practicing for his upcoming concert in Wisconsin, but we’re both agitated and distracted with the grim news of the attack in Orlando.
Harvey knows the battle between civilization and extremism is not a minor sport. For him, music is a powerful and critical counterargument to brutality.
Music was not a passive social experiment in Afghanistan, a country grappling with and enmired in extremism, Harvey says. While he was headquartered in the relatively cosmopolitan capital, Kabul, and was never personally attacked by right-wing Islamists, his boss Ahmad Naser Sarmast, founder of the Afghan National Institute of Music, was severely injured in a 2014 suicide attack, the Taliban afterwards accusing him of corrupting the youth of Afghanistan.
Cruelly, Sarmast lost hearing in both ears, with partial hearing restored only after Australian doctors later removed eleven pieces of shrapnel from the back of his head. And still he continues his work.
“No one who truly listens to music can deny the dignity and worth of every human being,” Harvey said.
“The logic behind that is that if we respond to something that communicates without words, we have to consider that someone else will respond to it as well. I view music as a radical affirmation of the humanity we all share.”
Harvey, now 33, was in Flint as part of a tour taking him through all 50 states, Michigan being his 23rd. It is a self-designed project of Cultures in Harmony, a nonprofit organization he founded in 2005. It is devoted to promoting cultural understanding through music.
Ironically, after six years overseas, Harvey returned to the U.S. in 2015 with a pressing interest in the culture of his own country. He said in each of the many countries he has visited, his hosts could clearly – and often proudly — articulate their own cultural values, but he realized that for him as an American, the picture was far less clear and challenging to describe.
So he launched his nationwide adventure, hoping that the country will share it with him. He decided to spend a week each in all 50 states in 2016. Violin and iPhone as his crucial tools, he has been performing American music and asking the question, “What is American culture?”
He started his 50-state journey in January in Kentucky and hopes to hit the last state, Iowa, in December.
While his scheduled Michigan appearance was a workshop at Okemos High School, he couldn’t resist making an extra jaunt to the hometown he had not seen for decades.
In Flint, he checked out the Flint Farmers’ Market, recording a band playing in the parking lot, and sampled the pancakes at Steady Eddy’s and Westside Diner, where he sat at a booth under a poster of Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando and James Dean.
He performed an impromptu concert in my Flint home for about a dozen College Cultural neighborhood residents and posed the question he has been exploring around the country. Results of this visit, and the others, can be found as he processes them state by state, on his blog at culturesinharmony.org.
“I’m a musician,” Harvey says in describing his project. “My bias is to start with the arts to find out what makes people tick.
“But culture embraces everything from what we eat to how we speak, worship, play and view the world.”
For four years, Harvey taught violin at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music where he founded the Afghan Youth Orchestra. From there he traveled to Argentina, where for a year and a half he was concertmaster of the Orquesta Sinfónica de la Universidad Nacional de San Juan.
The Afghan years were particularly powerful. He applied for that faculty position as he considered the impact of 9/11. He took on the work in the hope, he says, that nothing like 9/11 would ever happen again. Under his tenure, among other hallmark events, the Afghan Youth Orchestra (AYO) performed eight times for the former Afghan president, Hamid Karzai.
Then he brought the AYO on a tour of the USA that he also coordinated and for which he raised the funding. On that tour, he conducted the AYO in his own arrangements at sold-out concerts at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center. Read about it here in a 2013 New York Times piece: AYO Tour
At culturesinharmony.org, he has been posting videos and blogs of his findings so far, from the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama to an English country dancing group in Massachusetts.
After catching up on his laundry and managing to put in an hour of practice in an upstairs guest room on Maxine Street, on Sunday Harvey drove to Muskegon where he boarded the ferry to Wisconsin, where he will perform a concert on Friday.
For more information on Cultures in Harmony, Harvey’s U.S. tour, or to make a donation, go to culturesinharmony.org.
In 2010, Cultures in Harmony was named a Best Practice in International Cultural Engagement (along with the Kennedy Center & Library of Congress) by the US Center for Citizen Diplomacy. According to its website, “CiH workshops in Pakistan, Qatar, Egypt, the Philippines, Tunisia, Zimbabwe, and Mexico have benefited thousands of young musicians.”
EVM Editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.