Lifting Spirits with Music
College of Music alumna bridges socio-economic divides in India through music.
Jenny Heemstra believes that beauty, joy and music can exist despite mind-crushing misery. She’s seen that from the singing and dancing and smiles she’s witnessed in some of the largest slums in India.
Since 2014, the honors graduate in music performance from the MSU College of Music (BMUS ’00) has been performing classical music in an iconic city in India, often in settings of immeasurable poverty. Her performances are part of a concert series and trust she organized with artists, city leaders and non-government organizations shortly after she and her husband moved to Kolkata. Now in its second season, Kolkata Classics represents a movement to empower women, inspire underprivileged youth, and build cross-cultural bridges through western classical music and fundraising. See concert video below.
“Kolkata Classics is dedicated to the principle that music is uplifting and enriching to the soul,” says Heemstra, a classical pianist, educator and activist. “Music warms the heart. It expands the mind. It takes people out of their misery, gives them hope for a better future, and shows them that beauty and good do exist.”
In the very first year of the series, Heemstra organized 42 concerts that reached more than 50,000 adults and children. Eight artists, including Heemstra, performed in settings that ranged from the Kolkata slums to the red light district to ornate amphitheaters in the central city. This season, she added a health fair component to select concerts, enlisting medical volunteers to provide free vaccines, health checks and screenings, and outreach services to women and children.
“I admire Jennifer’s passion and determination in setting this concert program up,” says Shirsha Guha, chief operating officer of Saint James School of Medicine and a supporter of the Kolkata Classics and Hathor Health Series. “While she could have enjoyed a comfortable hassle free social life in the city, she chooses to work with city officials and NGOs and other organizations to bring these concerts to life on a regular basis with no personal gain. That’s real dedication to her craft and is very inspiring.”
Heemstra moved to Kolkata when her husband, Cory Wilcox, got a job there. She had been living in Rome, teaching English, music and choir, organizing concerts, and applying the talents she honed through her bachelor’s degree from MSU and her master’s from the Cleveland Institute of Music.
Arriving in Kolkata, Heemstra was moved by the city’s rich culture of Eastern art, music, theatre and literature, and was drawn to the idea of building a new audience for Western music. She was also struck by the immense socio-economic divides of a city of nearly 15 million people—with 1.5 million living in the slums and about 10,000 working in the city’s red light district.
Within a few weeks, Heemstra thought of combining a concert series with a humanitarian cause. She attended performances, checked out venues and networked with artistic, city and community leaders.
“Word got out. People invited friends and told their friends,” Heemstra says. “At first, we had a group of 10 people who were interested in promoting high quality Western music. Today, we have groups of more than a dozen key donors and partner NGOs like Apne Aap, New Light, Calcutta Rescues, Sparsh, Mother Teresa's Sisters of Charity, as well as an equal number of artists who come here to perform.”
Founder of Apne Aap Women Worldwide Ruchira Gupta attested to the Kolkata Classic’s powerful ability to deliver services to women and children in marginalized districts, as well as to build awareness.
“Jennifer found a unique way to help women and children from red light areas by holding a health fair for them at their concert venue,” says Gupta. “The women and girls will get free medical checkups and a packet of health products. The concert will do good and make music at the same time.”
VIDEO Courtesy Jenny Heemstra. Rachmaninoff Sonata mvt 2&3. January 2016, Jennifer Heemstra, piano and Carrie Pierce, cello, Kala Mandir, Ludhiana India
Driven to service
Heemstra began building the community organization by contacting artists in her professional network and inviting them to perform in Kolkata. Many agreed to participate in Kolkata Classics, intrigued by the idea of using Western classical music to bridge cultures and provide enriching experiences for groups who would otherwise not have access to classical performances. Artists donated their time and talents for two weeks. In turn, foundation sponsors agreed to cover travel costs and other logistical expenses.
Among the artists were Carrie Pierce, an MSU alumna with a master’s of cello performance (MM ’07) and bachelor’s of music education (BMUS ’01).
“When I was asked to come to Kolkata to play with Jennifer and the Kolkata Classics, my first thought was, ‘what a great opportunity to see a new country.’ My experience ended up being so much more than that, ” says Pierce, assistant professor of Music at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. “The opportunity to play for so many students and people who had never heard the cello, never heard a classical concert, to see the joy and excitement on children's faces, to hear how much the series is changing lives, is something I will always take with me.”
While artists performed in town squares, cultural venues, ballrooms, and auditoriums, some also played in settings with little or no infrastructure for musical performance. Many of those concerts took place in rural areas or in slums. Some took place in places like Sonagachi—one of the largest sex industry districts in Asia.
A large number of concerts were for children and occurred in schools and centralized districts. Heemstra worked to integrate children from all socio-economic classes. To ensure accessibility, she frequently arranged for sponsors and schools to provide transportation for children and families. She strove to make every performance interactive through singing, dancing, rhythm games, visual storytelling or making connections with popular culture and the Bollywood scene.
“Our audiences were listening and experiencing music that was so different and unlike anything they had ever heard before,” Heemstra says. “Once we had them hooked, it was easy to continue.”
Looking back, then ahead
As Kolkata Classics unfolds, Heemstra reflects on the support she’s received and the lessons she’s learned. She reflects, too, on how MSU provided the well-rounded education, entrepreneurial skills and cultural experiences that showed her the impact she could make.
“MSU truly prepared me as a musician and gave me the opportunity to make an informed decision on how I would shape my career,” say Heemstra, a native of Grand Rapids, Mich. “I also met so many students from abroad. I loved getting to know people from different backgrounds.”
Jonathan Reed, MSU professor of music and associate director of choral programs, recalls Heemstra’s curiosity and enthusiasm, and her willingness to take on responsibilities that ranged from being an accompanist, to playing with the MSU Wind Symphony, to touring Europe with MSU's Men's Glee Club, to teaching classes in early childhood music.
“Jenny is an extremely talented individual,” says Jonathan Reed, professor of music and associate director of choral programs. “Sometimes people with that kind of talent are so focused on themselves that they are oblivious to the world around them. Jenny was the complete opposite, open to every opportunity and experience. She was an indispensable part of the Men’s Glee Club tour to Germany, Czech Republic and Austria. Then, as now, she walks tall with her eyes scanning the horizon for opportunities to serve.”
In the upcoming year, Heemstra will move from Kolkata as her husband assumes a new post in another country. Until then, she will continue to build the Kolkata Classics trust and concert series, and create a sustainable community program for future organizers.
“I want to spend as much energy as I can with the health series, with strengthening our relationships with our venues, schools and audiences,” Heemstra says. “The bond of community here is amazing. I am determined to leave a legacy for others to build on.”
Heemstra's ultimate vision is to establish a long-term feeder system that provides opportunities for artists and students from MSU to participate in the concert series. She would also like to foster academic and musical exchanges between MSU and Kolkata.
“Jenny Heemstra’s successful focus using her art in an entrepreneurial fashion for the benefit of thousands in India shows what a difference one individual with a great idea and passion for helping others can make,” says James Forger, dean of the College of Music. “She epitomizes the powerful phrase, ‘Spartans Will.’”
Kolkata Classic embarks on its second season come fall. Among the cycle of performers are:
- Chanda VanderHart, pianist; doctoral scholarship fellow at the University for Music and Applied Arts at Vienna
- Chelsea Coyne, soprano MM and AM from The Cleveland Institute of Music
- Carrie Pierce, assistant professor of cello and chamber Music, Texas A&M Corpus Christi; MM ’07 and BMUS ’01, Michigan State University
- Susan Williams, assistant professor of voice, University of Alabama
For more information about the concert series visit facebook.com/KolkataClassics.