What’s in a Team?

Eureka Ensemble
Feb 21, 2018 · 14 min read

— by Kristo Kondakci, Artistic Director

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In September 2017, I organized a core team retreat to discuss the strategy for the year build the relationships between members. To prepare, I gave an assignment for everyone to create “personal bios”. These bios would contain their stories, successes/failures, and what about the Eureka mission speaks to them.

Here is the main guideline each member followed: “This is the story of you — your background and history, your successes and failures, your dreams and aspirations, and special memories along the way.”

The Result:

Read below the resulting personal bios from the original core team members, in order:

  1. Alan Toda Ambaras (Executive Director & Cellist)
  2. Lee Ann Song (Development Chair)
  3. Reina Murooka (Social Chair & Violinist)
  4. Kristo Kondakci (Artistic Director & Conductor)

Alan Toda-Ambaras

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As an exercise, I find writing to be very uncomfortable. Voicing my ideas, ruminating out loud on philosophical subjects around close friends . . . such means of expression come naturally. But the prospect of leaving something for posterity — whether it be a bio, an essay, or a speech — makes the act of even beginning to write a difficult one.

None of this is to say I believe myself to be a bad writer — there are some pieces out there that I’m actually proud of. But my reluctance to put pen to paper (so to speak) stems from an ever-present fear of my thoughts coming across as arbitrary, irrelevant, or rife with contradiction. That same fear accounts for why, as an art history major (a.k.a. “concentrator”) studying modernist painting at Harvard, my concerns over interpretive methodology led to late submissions of over half my papers; why professor and pianist Robert Levin’s compelling but self-reflexive discourse on tonal music practice precipitated my first existential crisis as an artist (how could music be inherently or intrinsically meaningful?!); and why, after finishing my performance degree at NEC, I ultimately couldn’t bring myself to pursue a traditional path as a soloist or chamber musician, given what struck me as the smallness of the classical music world, alongside the magnitude of the systemic problems racking our society.

In spite of how it might sound, I’m not nihilistic about the value of art or music, and I’m incredibly grateful for all the opportunities I’ve had — and continue to have — to cultivate my artistry. Being a prize-winner in the Rostropovich Competition, attending festivals in Europe, meeting amazing teachers and musical peers (classical and otherwise), and concertizing have grounded me as a cellist; my frustrating, humbling, but also wonderful experiences at Harvard (which included a trip to Peru fully funded by the art history department!) have enabled me to think critically about the world (or at the very least, more so than before); and working with Project LENS, Kristo, and other great colleagues have expanded my notions about what musical innovation can do.

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But the passion with which I now throw myself into my work wouldn’t be possible without my family’s love and struggle with mental illness, both of which continue to teach me what it means to care for people in ways simultaneously real and abstract. My engagement with politics also keeps a certain fire burning in my belly, one that bears directly on my interest in Eureka’s mission. And I’d be remiss not to mention how my job as an educational ‘trip leader’ for Japanese high school students visiting Boston has reinforced my appreciation for the value of cross-cultural dialogue and a strong humanities education (something sorely lacking in Japan).

As a result of these and other experiences, I’m now convinced that there needs to be a more fundamental transformation in how the classical music community imagines its role in modern society and in relation to other non-traditionally ‘classical’ communities and genres. This is not an original sentiment, of course; people ranging from Yo-Yo Ma to Jose Antonio Abreu to Neil DeGrasse Tyson have all been advocating for such a paradigm shift in their own way, through concepts like citizen artistry, social action, and “STEAM” (Science-Technology-Engineering-ARTS-Mathematics).

But I have faith that Eureka can — and will — play a key role in ushering in that new paradigm. Through the various exciting, interdisciplinary programs Eureka has in store, I hope not only to make a difference in the lives of underserved people, but to broaden my horizons and learn some important lessons about how to better myself as a musician, a community advocate, and overall human being.

To the Eureka team: thanks for reading this embarrassingly free-form bio, and I can’t wait to work with you this season and beyond!

Lee Ann Song

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I’m Lee Ann, a 23-year-old from Toledo, Ohio, dreaming of creating a holistic health and education program centered around the creative arts and food sustainability/healthy-eating. I’m hoping to learn the skills that will help me lead my own non-profit organization someday. Currently, I work as a research assistant at Boston Children’s Hospital. It has been an eye-opening learning experience, but also a frustrating look at how corporate, bureaucratic, and pretentiously hierarchical the field of medicine is. Daily operations are riddled with conflicting priorities; people are overstressed, insecure, and dissatisfied with the status quo, but feel powerless to change it. Sadly, this work environment is not unique to the field of medicine, and I think our dehumanized, corporate mentality makes us forget that when we look out for each other, we are all better off. It is a combination of my immediate work environment and our polarized social and political climate that makes my mission to teach mindfulness and compassion feel so urgent. I do not want to stay stuck in an environment that makes me feel unhappy and unfulfilled.

I love Eureka’s mission to use music as a platform for social action and community engagement and I love the passion and earnestness of the team. Each project speaks to me in a different way, as someone who believes strongly in food education, justice, social equality, and reminding people of our shared humanity. Recently, I have also become involved in some curriculum design work for Camp Hokulea, an immersive summer experience for Asian and Asian-American children. The programming centers around health, imagination, and teamwork, providing a whole-child educational experience through active and interactive programs and culturally responsive teaching that fosters courage and discovery. It’s exactly the kind of support and education I wish I had gotten as a child. Instead I grew up with a very fixed mindset about learning and wrapped up a lot of my self-worth in external achievements.

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I graduated from Harvard College in 2015 as a premed, Neuroscience concentrator with a secondary in Global Health and Health Policy. I played cello in the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra and participated in the chamber music program during all four years of college. I have also played classical piano for 20 years. After college, I spent a life-changing year in South America on a Michael Rockefeller fellowship. I hiked in the Patagonia region of Argentina and Chile, sat for an ayahuasca ceremony in the Sacred Valley of Peru, taught music to students with Down’s syndrome in Lima, summited Machu Picchu, and celebrated Carnaval in Brazil. These experiences made me braver and more open to new experiences. I began learning musical improvisation on the piano and it has taught me to improvise in other aspects of my life, helping me let go of my inhibitions so that I could start learning the things I’ve always wanted to learn and living the way I’ve always wanted to live. Through contemporary dance, hip-hop, and salsa classes, a form of martial arts called Wing Tsun, crossfit, Bikram yoga, learning to code online, practicing Spanish, and cooking, I found my love for learning again and this emptiness/loneliness I’ve felt most of my life has been replaced with a fullness I’d never experienced before. The principles I’m learning from jazz and musical improvisation continue to change the way I approach learning, allowing me to be more curious, explore and fail more willingly, go easier on myself, recognize patterns, and approach a problem/practice a skill from many different angles.

I think that if we can empower people with the skills and resources to nourish their bodies with nutritious, responsibly-grown food, and to nourish their mind/spirit/soul through the creative arts, then we can all lead rich and fulfilling lives — and in doing so, inspire more compassion, environmental awareness, and human connection. I am excited to work with Eureka to help teach children healthy eating habits, raise awareness and support for immigrant communities in Chelsea, and share the stories of women who have overcome pain and abuse.

Reina Murooka

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Hey guys! My name is Reina Murooka, and I’m a second-year Masters of Music candidate at the New England Conservatory, where I study violin performance under Donald Weilerstein and Nick Kitchen. I’m originally from Japan, but I grew up sort of all over the place! Shortly after I was born, my family moved from Saitama, Japan, which is located near Tokyo, and relocated to Hong Kong. If you’re wondering what this might’ve looked like in 90s fashion (look at this photo^).

I spent a good nine years there, assimilating into the hybrid British-Cantonese culture (if anyone needs dim sum recommendations let me know!), and then my dad’s job moved us to Shanghai for two years, where I switched from British schooling to the American system. (If you ever wonder why I have a strange sounding accent sometimes, my entire family speaks with a weird Japanese-American-British slant that becomes more apparent the more… inebriated we are) We then again relocated back to Japan, where I spent four years back in my home culture. In 2009, we moved to the States and settled near San Francisco. My parents moved back to Tokyo as of last year.

San Francisco is where I fell I love with music! I met many people who influenced me to pursue music there during the weekends, where I was at the SFCM Prep and the San Francisco Youth Orchestra. Since then, I’ve completed my undergraduate degree at the Bard College Conservatory, where I graduated with a BM in Violin and a BA in German Studies. I also spent a semester abroad in Berlin, where I studied German linguistics at Humboldt University and violin at the Musikhochschule Hanns Eisler. This experience helped me complete my graduation thesis, or senior project at Bard, which was a translation and analysis of a series of works by Yoko Tawada, a Japanese-German author. I’m always up to talk about translation, linguistics, and anything language related!

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Traveling is also one of my greatest passions! Since I grew up moving so much, traveling has become a very natural part of my life and I make it a mission to go out of the country every year if I can! J This summer, I spent a week in Vietnam after making the decision with a friend on a complete whim. I’ve never had so much good food for so cheap! Bard was also very gracious with its orchestra, which allowed the entire conservatory to travel and tour all over China, Eastern Europe, Russia, and Cuba. I really believe in experiencing new communities and traditions because it can really influence how all of us relate to each other.

So why Eureka? If anything, the grounding force of a community of people who are doing good things for others is enough of a reason for me to support a cause, but it is very rare for an organization to prioritize outreach and community support. We are also all friends here! J I’ve spent many of my most cherished memories with friends and others that I deeply love creating music for various causes, and Eureka strives for that!

I really like animals. If you can’t find me but you see a dog or cat nearby, I will probably be there. I own two cats with my boyfriend and my parents own a mini golden retriever, while I’ve adopted a teddy bear hamster named Mr. Bearberry (named after the time that I, for some reason, mispronounced “Burberry”). Other than that, I’m always up for a good laugh, silly conversations, and an amazing cup of coffee.

Kristo Kondakçi

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I was born in Albania. My parents had — at the time — found the opportunity to leave for the first time in almost 50 years during the collapse of the Albanian Communist Regime in the late 80s–early 90s and fled to Greece. I was born 2 months early, and up until that point I had been quite a noisy roommate to my mom, kicking and moving all the time…Today I like to say that I am a born-conductor, having started to practice my technique in the womb (not sure if my mom would agree on that!). When I think about ‘myself’ and my ‘personal bio’, I immediately think of my family and its history. It is so central to who I am as a person and as a musician and how I interact with the world around me.

When Communism swept Albania in the 40s, my family, due to its social status, experienced severe political persecution. My grandfather, who was a performing musician, went to prison for 8 years for playing foreign music. His brother, my great-uncle, was executed for similar reasons, having transcribed western pop and jazz from radio waves he caught from France, Italy, etc. I still have his notebooks of this music today and have played from them often. The rest of the family was exiled inside the country and barred from most social services, including attending school, etc. due to their political status.

I grew up very close to my grandfather, hearing these stories, and have always thought deeply about just what it means to have and experience liberty. I am on one side frightened and shocked by what we as a species have done and continue to do to ourselves through violence and on the other side, I am motivated by how much power music has to bring people together that a government would go to such lengths to monitor and regulate it. Art symbolizes our human freedom, and music symbolizes what that freedom feels like.

My family immigrated to the US in 1997 when I was six. My parents are super-heroes to me because we came here with absolutely nothing, to the point that Virgin Atlantic Airlines gave my brother and me clothes, backpacks, pens, notebooks, etc. (all bright red with their logo of course). My mom went from selling coffee for cash under-the-table to now working as an administrative head at UMASS Boston and studying towards her Masters.

I have always loved classical music deeply. I don’t know why. Throughout my childhood, whenever there would be classical music (whether it be a commercial/film, elevator music, or recording), my mom always tells me that I would stop whatever I was doing, freeze, and listen.

At age 11, I fell in love with the piano after seeing a movie about a classical pianist so much so that my dad bought me a keyboard for Christmas and I spent all of my free time teaching myself how to play in order to be able to learn a Chopin Nocturne (the posthumous C# minor). I didn’t take formal lessons really until I was 15, but throughout the end of middle school and high school, I took advantage of every possible opportunity, playing in masses, community events, senior homes, and concerts.

At around age 13, I attended my first BSO concert — James Levine conducting Beethoven 5 and a Beethoven Piano Concerto with Daniel Barenboim. I walked out of that hall that night a completely changed human being, having realized that music was my calling, and that I needed to become a conductor. I knew I had to take piano very seriously from that point and begged my parents to find me a proper piano teacher; and they did…in a Russian woman named Tatyana Dudochkin, a serious teacher of prodigies, who took me in and whipped me into shape. I told her at my first lesson that I wanted to become a conductor, and she said, “play Bach and Mozart first, then you can conduct.” My parents asked her to treat me as her own son, and she really did. We remain close to this day. After a successful first year with her, she enrolled me into New England Conservatory’s (NEC) Prep school and everything blossomed. There, I met Ben Zander, who became my conducting hero and is my mentor to this day, and Rodney Lister who taught me composition. After that, I did my undergrad in composition and grad in conducting at NEC. I love NEC with every fiber of my being because it allowed me to fully embrace my passions and realize them openly, warmly, and skillfully.

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In 2013, I flew to Albania to deal with my grandfather’s affairs for the first time since I left as a one-year old. It was a culture shock to say the least. While there I met a conductor with the National Albanian Orchestra and we became well acquainted almost instantly. Upon returning to the U.S., I received an invitation to conduct the opening of the National Orchestra’s next season. I traveled there the following fall to conduct Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture and Mahler 1 (the first time the orchestra had played any Mahler as the music had been banned for a long time). It was one of the most special experiences of my life, given my family’s political and musical history, and one of the most successful and attended symphonic concerts of the orchestra’s history, as the entire class of the politically–persecuted in Albania as well as my family came together to attend the concert!

So…what does this all have to do with Eureka? During grad school, I began working with the Landmarks Orchestra, a professional summer orchestra in Boston, where I became deeply involved with community activism and engagement and learned first–hand the power and cultural capital that classical music has to bridge together different parts of the community in innovative ways. I found myself traveling to the orchestra’s community partners all around Boston, rather like a politician, creating relationships, working with children and adults, using music as a platform to bring people together and celebrate our community–at–large. Alas, it was in the community work with the Landmarks Orchestra that the first ideas for Eureka were born.

Eureka’s mission and projects resonate with everything I have experienced in my life so far, ie. the power of music to bring us all together, to remind us of purpose of being alive, and what an orchestra can represent in terms of how people work together. The classical music we play is already so great, so meaningful, and powerful. But, how do you bring others into that? How do you make it relevant for our community–at–large to connect to that meaning and greatness?


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