Philadelphia Orchestra trumpeter looks to help Afghan teen musician

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David Bilger, principal trumpeter of the Philadelphia Orchestra, at his home. David critiques and teaches Ahmadbaset Azizi, 17, who lives in Kabul, Afghanistan.

For Philadelphia Orchestra principal trumpeter David Bilger, the chance to help arrived as a friend request. AhmadBaset Azizi approached Bilger on Facebook about a year and a half ago with an intriguing overture:

Could he study with Bilger - via video, online, from Afghanistan?

Bilger agreed. It turns out that the 17-year-old Kabul musician has been making contacts all over the world, and now his drive and winsome way are paying off. Azizi will spend his last year of high school in northwest Michigan, at the well-regarded Interlochen Arts Academy, starting this fall - if money can be found.

"He sent me a Facebook message that was actually hilarious," Bilger said. "He introduced himself and said he was the best trumpet player in Afghanistan - because there are only two."

In fact, the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, where Azizi is a student, no longer even has a trumpet teacher. The school is considered something of a miraculous oasis for aspiring musicians, amid the chaos of poverty and terrorist groups hostile to Western culture and music.

Azizi said he has witnessed bombings and killings from an early age.

"Believe me, every day the old mothers and fathers cry for the loss of their kids," he said via e-mail. "A while ago I was thinking that they would just kill old people, and young people they would not kill, because they are still children. But no, I was wrong."

Interlochen - for which Azizi (known as Baset) auditioned via video - has offered him a substantial scholarship, but he cannot afford the rest of the expense, and so Bilger is working with others to cover the gap. A GoFundMe campaign has raised more than $18,000 toward a $30,000 goal - including a hefty boost from Philadelphia Orchestra music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

"Dave Bilger's thoughtful and committed way of explaining Baset's story immediately resonated with me, and I did not hesitate for a second to make a contribution," said Nézet-Séguin, who chipped in $5,000. "The determination of this young man, his obvious love for his instrument and for the music, this is clearly stronger than all the incredible challenges he's had to overcome in order to fulfill his dream. This is very inspiring for me, and for all of us who believe in the power of music."

The typical young classical musician juggles long hours of practicing with the social pulls of being a teenager, or frets over an audition that may draw a hundred other hopefuls.

Azizi's concerns are more basic. Many in Afghanistan don't like Western music, he said: "They say it is haram, or forbidden."

After he took up the trumpet five years ago, "life became harder for me, because in Afghanistan people don't like to play or listen to music. They make jokes if they know a person is a musician - one group may say, 'If I know this is a musician I will cut off their head.' I can say life for a musician here is such a hard thing."

"Being able to play music outside the school is still somewhat dangerous," said Robin Korevaar, a Dallas clarinetist who met Azizi in 2014 while teaching at the school in Afghanistan, and who has also taken up his cause.

The Afghan school's founder and director, Ahmad Naser Sarmast, has been targeted by the Taliban. He was attending a high school play in Kabul in 2014 when a teenage suicide bomber set off a blast a few feet away. One man was killed. Sarmast survived, but his hearing was severely damaged.

Sarmast called Azizi talented, hardworking, and driven, with a bright future ahead of him.

"For any young musician, the chance to study at Interlochen Academy would be life-changing," Sarmast said. "But for a young musician from Afghanistan - a country in which music was banned just two decades ago - it is an unimaginable honor and will hopefully open the door to even more opportunities not just for Baset, but for the many other talented and hardworking music students here in Afghanistan."

Bilger and Azizi swap video lessons at least monthly, sometimes several times each month. The teacher said his student's "current level is competitive with the best high school players in the U.S.

"What his potential is, that's really hard to say until he gets some real one-on-one in a room with a teacher weekly. What I found fascinating is that he's gotten to the level he is with not a lot of personal one-on-one training."

Bilger, who gives the lessons through Artistworks.com, persuaded the online video-exchange service to waive its fees for Azizi, and said at least part of his involvement stems from his own personal loss.

"I suppose my quick response in my mind is, 'He asked.' But really, I have been trying to live an extra-meaningful life since the sudden death of my oldest son almost two years ago," Bilger said. "Richard was 21."

After his son's death, Bilger said, "I find myself doing for people, providing free lessons from time to time for students who can't pay, volunteering to help those who need it, and, I suppose, helping some kid 6,700 miles away who deserves a break in life. I know Baset will make the most of whatever help he gets."

Azizi - one of three children of a father who works at the Afghanistan Ministry of Defense and a stay-at-home mother - has never been to the United States. He was not among the students from the school whose 2013 tour included concerts at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center.

What does he expect when he gets to Interlochen in the fall?

"I do not have much guidance for practice in Afghanistan," Azizi said, "because there are not many professional players with good trumpet sounds or styles to imitate, by Western standards. In America, I will have better access to mentors and more time to practice" - and, he adds, more time to practice without the "constant, literal threat of death in the air."

He hopes to continue studying music at the college level somewhere in the West. And then he aims to help others whose route may have been arduous, like his.

"My goal is to be well-educated and to be the best trumpet player, so that I can be useful in the community," Azizi said. "It doesn't matter where I was born or where I got my education, but my goal is to serve anywhere with any people, regardless of nationality, race, or color. I will help the people who are like myself, who need help to study."

To contribute to the campaign, see www.gofundme.com, and search for "Baset."

pdobrin@phillynews.com

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