Diocesan News

A Chamber Orchestra’s Music Is Unifying Cultures in a Changing Brooklyn Neighborhood

Soprano Evangeline Ng, who has performed all over the world, presented arias from Verdi. (Photos: Courtesy of Brooklyn Chamber Orchestra)

BENSONHURST — Music is a universal language, so when leaders of the Brooklyn Chamber Orchestra sought to bring two different cultures together in Bensonhurst, they used music as the vehicle.

And when you combine it with the Diocese of Brooklyn, known as the Diocese of Immigrants, the message of universality is delivered full force.

That was the thought behind “East Meets West,” a free concert presented at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Bensonhurst on April 21 featuring the work of Italian and Chinese composers. 

The concert was designed, organizers said, to build the bridge between the two disparate communities in the neighborhood.

The highlights included Taiwanese soprano Evangeline Ng singing arias by Giuseppe Verdi and as well as Chinese folk songs. Chinese flutist Eva Li-Ding and Italian American musician Victoria Carchietta, who plays the piccolo, treated the audience of 300 people to selections from Antonio Vivaldi and Chinese composers.

Bensonhurst was known as an Italian American enclave for decades starting in the mid-20th century when large numbers of Italians migrated there. But over the past 25 years, as Italians moved out and Chinese moved in, the neighborhood’s demographics changed.

According to the 2020 U.S. Census, Asians make up more than 50% of the neighborhood’s residents, while Italians comprise 11%.

The “East Meets West” concert was the brainchild of the chamber orchestra’s leaders, Artistic Director Philip Nuzzo and General Manager Melody English, and Joseph Bova, a parishioner of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, who is also a member of the chamber orchestra’s board of directors.

State Sen. Iwen Chu represents a district that includes Bensonhurst, a community that is predominantly Asian American but also still has many Italian American residents.

State Sen. Iwen Chu, a Democrat representing Bensonhurst, and the organization Homecrest Community Services, which has been a neighborhood staple for 27 years, provided funding for the concert.

“It was very heartwarming. It felt like a community event,” English said. “That was the purpose. We had seen the Asian community moving into this primarily Italian area and it was important to us to start normalizing that crossover.”

Chu relished the idea of bringing the two communities together in a musical setting. “We wanted it to be a cultural exchange so we can learn to appreciate each other’s culture more. And music is an international language. There’s no language barrier,” she said.

Nuzzo, who is also the organist at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, carefully planned the program so that Italian and Chinese music would get equal billing.

“I said, ‘How long do we want this concert to be, about 70 minutes?’ Then you know it’s going to be 35 minutes of Italian music and 35 minutes of Chinese music,” said Nuzzo, who formed the Brooklyn Chamber Orchestra in 2002.

Philip Nuzzo, conductor and artistic director of the Brooklyn Chamber Orchestra, said cross-cultural exchanges build strong communities. “When everybody realizes we’re all in the same boat, we will better get along,” he added.

His reason for wanting to present the concert was simple. “I like the idea of bringing people together and using music to do it. And having the concert in a church was perfect. The church brings people together,” he explained.

Bova, who has been a parishioner of Our Lady of Guadalupe for most of his life, said community harmony will get stronger when Italians and Asians start to see how much they have in common.

“The communities are very much the same. They start off a little leery because they don’t know each other. But then life goes on and you become neighborly and you find that you have the same set of values. You get up, you go to work. You raise your family,” Bova explained.

“It’s the same company of humanity, just different divisions,” he added.

Wai-Lee Chan, executive director of Homecrest Community Services, agreed. “They are both immigrant communities. And they are both family oriented,” she said.

The concert at Our Lady of Guadalupe may have planted a seed. The chamber orchestra is hoping to perform concerts in other parts of the borough to bring different communities together with music as the bridge.