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Passions converge for symphony founder Boudreau


American Waterways Wind Orchestra founder Robert Boudreau has a practice session Wednesday on the orchestra's barge sitting on the banks of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway.

American Waterways Wind Orchestra founder Robert Boudreau has a practice session Wednesday on the orchestra's barge sitting on the banks of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway. Photo by: Sam Gause/Dispatch Staff


Jeff Clark



Robert Boudreau is a man of many passions including music, art, architecture and life itself. These passions will converge Saturday as he opens the 2012 concert season for his American Wind Symphony Orchestra on the banks of the Tombigbee River in Columbus.  


Boudreau's vision for making the world a better place through water-based concerts has come a long way since a conversation in the late 1950s with a condiment magnate. 


"I was having a conversation with H.J. Heinz (II) in 1957," Boudreau said in his matter-of-fact style. "We were eating tomato soup -- let me tell you, Heinz may be good at making ketchup, but they make terrible soup. Anyway, I approached him about doing a symphonic performance on the banks of the Thames River. He thought it was a good idea and I started to put it together." 


The need for a vessel that would be as stunning to look at as it was functional lead Boudreau to form a friendship with someone he described as "the most important man in my life besides my father." The "man" was acclaimed Philadelphia architect, Louis Khan. 


"Louis Kahn has been very important to me," Boudreau said. "He designed my first boat and he designed this boat, the one here in Columbus. There is a film about him called 'My Architect.' I'm in it for about 17 minutes. It's a film everyone should see. Kahn built my first boat in 1960 and we took it and performed on the Thames River in England." 




More than music 


While much attention has been paid to Saturday's concert, Boudreau said there will be much more to the AWSO experience than music. 


Boudreau said he has a deep affection for the country of Cuba and its people and culture. An exhibit of Cuban art will be on display for viewing before the concert. A nominal fee will be charged for admission. 


"This is the only exhibit of its kind and its the only exhibit of real Cuban art since the embargo," he said. "I went to Kingston (Jamaica) in the early 1980s to set up a Caribbean tour. I got a call to come to Cuba. I flew there on an old B-25 we sold them in World War II. It was awful -- fuselage was leaking everywhere -- but we made it.  


"We spent a week there. I tried to get them to stamp my passport but they told me I would be arrested if someone in the U.S. saw I had been there. Today, I'm a 'professional researcher' and I can freely go back and forth to Cuba. One of the artists in the show, Cameo, painted a rendition of the boat in Havana -- what it would look like since we weren't able to take the concert there." 


The AWSO has had musicians from Latin America and South America for more than 20 years, Boudreau said. His passion for their culture has helped him form some memorable friendships and strong political opinions. 


"I went to Bogota (Columbia) about 20 years ago to see some musicians," said Boudreau. "I invited 12 young musicians from South America to come to Pittsburgh with me. We housed them and took care of them and they were educated here in America and all of them received degrees. After they came, (Cuban composer) Leo Brouwer sent me a score he had written for me -- this was in 1982. He said it was to thank me for what I had done for his brothers. We are still performing this piece and we will be performing it Saturday night. I went to Cuba in April and met Brouwer for the first time.'' 


Boudreau said his experiences with Cubans has stirred his belief that the U.S. should end its trade restrictions with the country. 


"Before the embargo, Mississippi was selling rice to Cuba. The embargo is hurting us more than it is hurting them. I want to make people aware of the embargo. We as Americans need to be able to go to Cuba -- it is a wonderful country. We started the embargo as a way to starve Cubans because we wanted to annex it like we did with Puerto Rico.  


"We need to end this so that farmers here in Mississippi can start doing business with Cuba again. When I was there in April, I didn't see a lot of police and military people walking around with guns. Have you been to (Washington) D.C. lately? It is completely patrolled by the military. This is no way for us to live." 


With musicians from all over the world, Boudreau said the AWSO is all about love and compassion. 


"We went to Ireland in 1989 and we had a meeting with Protestants and Catholics on the boat," he said with a smile. "A boat of peace -- that's what this is. There is a lot of love on this boat. I do not allow anger on this boat. It's this attitude that attracts the 'Rufuses' (Columbus resident Rufus Ward) who have been so lovely to help us come to Columbus." 




Bonds of affection 


Boudreau also has deep feelings for the people of Lowndes County and Columbus. He had his boat towed from Paducah, Ky., in order to be able to share his music with the area. 


"This is a remarkable community," Boudreau said. "And we wouldn't be here if it weren't for people like (Ward) and Agnes Zaiontz (business manager of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway Development Authority). If we had more 'Rufuses' in the world and our country could reflect the qualities of the people of this area, we would have far less problems. These people and many more have worked hard to help bring us 400 miles down the Tombigbee River." 


A native of Massachusetts, Boudreau said he would move to Columbus if he ever decides to call it quits with the AWSO. Amid rumors this would be his last tour with the AWSO, Boudreau was evasive when asked if this was his last trip down the river. 


"I ask myself, 'Why in the hell am I doing this?' Then I see my musicians and I know why," Boudreau said. "This is my 55th year doing this. I feel like I'm only 33, but age doesn't matter. I have a remarkable wife (Kathleen) and this isn't easy for her. We live on a farm with goats and chickens and tomatoes and she loves it. (Touring) is a very hard life."




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