Jennifer Stumm © Rodrigo Rosenthal
Jennifer Stumm © Rodrigo Rosenthal

Discussing Diversity with Jennifer Stumm

  • Jennifer Stumm

    American violist Jennifer Stumm is unwilling to acquiesce to a situation where so many young people are given no opportunity to develop their talents because of their background. So she founded Ilumina in 2015. What began as a musical talent development project on a farm in the mountains of São Paulo has evolved in just a few years into a renowned chamber music festival and an important springboard for young talent. Ilumina strives to enable highly talented young musicians from South America to study at the top-level conservatories, and to this end has them work with a supportive range of international soloists. Together with their mentors, the youngsters perform concerts at the Ilumina Festival and on worldwide tours.

You are the founder and director of Ilumina, which is described on your website as "a modern model for 21st-century creativity and efficient artist-led advancement of diverse talent." Can you give us an overview of this project and your role within Ilumina?

Ilumina is a social equity project and international collective of artists based in São Paulo, Brazil. As a traveling musician, I was amazed by extraordinary young talents coming from culturally and economically diverse backgrounds I met in Latin America. I wasn’t, however, seeing these musicians on the stages where I performed or the conservatories where I taught, and I started asking why. Ilumina started first as an annual music festival, which is now well-established in São Paulo, with the idea of building bridges of opportunity for amazing young talent, and forming a community of like-minded artists. We still make the festival every year on an incredible sustainable coffee farm which is our spiritual home and our social and artistic laboratory, but Ilumina activities now go on all year, with tours, educational residencies, digital projects and cross-industry collaborations. We exist on a principle we call "Equal Music" – that talent does not choose where it is born, that all populations of people deserve to access live performances of quality, and that a shared social mission and cultural exchange will make unforgettable musical moments on stage.

Ilumina was founded in 2015. What has been your most rewarding experience in those past seven years, and where do you see the biggest challenges moving forward?

Almost 100 young talents from the Ilumina project have gone on to study at the very best conservatories in the world – something that simply wasn’t happening before. They’re winning competitions, performing at the top of the field, and also reinvesting deeply in their communities. Through Ilumina digital projects, tens of thousands of young Latin American musicians now have had access to on how to acquire quality information and to further their studies. Talent is not the issue. Access is. I’m so unbelievably proud of the work the Ilumina community of artists has achieved to make the world of music more fair, more creative, and more full of joy.

Did the pandemic present a major set-back to your efforts, or has it opened the doors to new ways of engaging with the community?

The pandemic gave birth to a large digital initiative as part of our "Equal Music" project. A majority of music students in the Southern Hemisphere learn music in large orchestra projects and lack access to private instruction even in the best of times. Since most performing artists were also without concerts, I had the idea of making an online system to match young musicians who lacked lessons with artists and teachers who had free time and generous hearts. It was like online dating! In the end, almost 1000 musicians participated from all around the world.

Your work focusses on agricultural regions and the peripheries of cities where live performance is often rare or non-existent. How do you initially approach these communities and create that first spark of interest and passion for classical music – an art form that might be alien for many?

Yes, many Ilumina performances are for people who have often never before attended live performances. (That’s changing now that they attend our concerts every year!) Our farming audiences are especially passionate about giving their children the opportunity to experience live music and arts education. We’ve never experienced that the music we make has been alien to anybody, and our programming is always radical and covers a wide spectrum of music. We bring performances to communities with a spirit of connection, openness and a belief that they deserve experiences of the highest quality, as a basic human right, whether that’s in a sawmill on our farm or in large concert halls. An audience without pre-conceptions is actually one of the most precious things an artist can experience, and, often, we find that it is "difficult" contemporary works that resonate most with Ilumina audiences! These experiences have revolutionized the way I look at the power of community, and the music I make. People want to connect. This year we launched a project called :ECO: which brings chamber music performances to farming communities around Brazil and also works to give famers a voice in educating young people about sustainability, climate change, and where their food comes from!

Ilumina is based in São Paulo. Do you see the need for similar initiatives in Europe as well? What would have to be done differently?

Ilumina means "it shines a light" in Portuguese. I gave a talk recently at NASA in Houston for a bunch of scientists about why talent is the single greatest undeveloped resource on earth – even in this era of automation and innovation. Every industry, sport, and art form would be radically more powerful if we developed talent with equity. Whatever the best ideas that exist now, better ones are in the minds of people who are not getting the chance to be heard! So, yes, we need to illuminate everywhere. What is wonderful is that talent and ambition exist on a spectacular scale everywhere! They just lack funding and opportunity. We don’t need to put water in the river but just to remove the rocks that stop it from flowing. That means more objective scholarships for young artists and universities with deep sensitivity to the challenges many people have in accessing a top-level education. It means having performing arts institutions take seriously their responsibility to provide access both to audiences and to whom and how they program. It means all of us asking questions like "What can I do, with my talents and privilege, to bring the best the world has to offer to light?"

What can the audience expect from your concert at Lucerne Festival on 11 August?

The concert at Lucerne is called "The Nature of Light" and is going to be something very special, weaving together music from the 17th century to the 21st. I use movement, lighting, and stage design often in my work and rely on the individual gifts of the musicians in our community, which are many! I’m especially happy that Mark Padmore will join us for Britten’s Les Iluminations, something I’ve wanted to do for years. We want our audiences to be astounded first by the creative energy and quality of what we make together. When they find out more about the stories of the musicians on stage, they will be even more amazed.