Dialogue with an Adventist musician from Argentina
Born and raised in an Argentinian family of Adventist leaders, world-class oboe performer Edino Biaggi started his career as a musician at the age of nine with a concert tour around Argentina. This is nothing extraordinary for his family, since Biaggi’s grand-uncle is the legendary Argentinean tango composer, pianist, and bandleader Rodolfo “Wizard Hands” Biaggi (1906-1969).
Using the talents God gave him and taking advantage of resources in his family, Biaggi studied music theory and woodwind performance from a very early age. Good training and hard work opened the doors of several South American orchestras, and he was offered the principal oboe chair at two prestigious youth orchestras in the late 90s. He declined both offers because of Sabbath conflicts.
But doors opened at Roosevelt University in Chicago, where Biaggi obtained a scholarship and completed his bachelor’s degree in oboe performance. While at the university, he was trained by Alex Klein, Grammy award-winner and former principal oboe with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Biaggi is the recipient of several music awards, and has been featured as a soloist in the United States and Europe, with his performances broadcast on several radio and TV stations (including 3ABN). He finished his master’s degree in oboe performance at Queens College, New York, in 2008, and completed his artist diploma certificate last year. Biaggi currently teaches in two colleges of the City University of New York.
Not everybody has such an important musician in the family as your great-uncle. Was he an Adventist?
No. As a composer and performer, he had a lifelong passion for music. For three decades, beginning in the 40s, he was well known and admired for his role as a tango player, pianist, and composer. He had a very unique style that many upcoming musicians try to imitate even today.
Was he the only musician in your family?
My father was a very good baritone. He played the piano and wanted to be a conductor. But his parents did not support him, because for them, music was no more than a hobby. My grandfather was an Adventist, and he believed that good Adventists cannot be musicians and musicians cannot be good Adventists. That kind of philosophy may turn out to be true, as it almost did in my experience.
My mother, who taught me how to draw my first musical notes and encouraged me in music, was quite influential in my musical interests. Many times as a child I wanted to quit music and would evade practice, but my mother was patient and persisted. She encouraged me, motivated, and guided me through those difficult days.
When did you first experience a conflict between your faith and the professional world of music?
In the late 90s, the conductor of the Mercosur Youth Symphony Orchestra, one of South America’s most important youth orchestras, personally called and offered me the principal oboe chair. What an honor! And how exciting! But when I shared with the conductor my belief about the Sabbath, he had to take back his invitation.
I am sorry to hear that. For a young man with your talent, though, I am sure you had other opportunities. In other words, we believe where a door closes, God opens a window. Was that the case?
After that episode, I auditioned for the principal oboe chair at the Academic Orchestra of the Colon Theatre, the best youth orchestra in Argentina, and I won that position. Since I knew Sabbath would be an issue, I called the conductor, hoping we could work something out. I was very excited about this opportunity, because the orchestra was about to leave for a tour in Europe. With a prayer in my heart, I explained my religious beliefs to him, and right away, he told me there was nothing he could do. He fired me during that very same phone call.
Were you tempted to leave the faith right at that moment?
God did open a window. I migrated to Chicago, on a full-tuition scholarship, to study oboe performance at Roosevelt University. The scholarship covered my tuition. But to care for my housing, food, books, and other expenses, I played at different venues and events, such as weddings, funerals, and receptions. I also played for the local Catholic and Lutheran churches in exchange for some compensation. But still, like many students, I always had a very low balance in my bank account. I also played in Adventist churches almost every Sabbath, but with no compensation, since as Adventists we should not work on Sabbath.
Did you ever ask Adventist churches for compensation?
No. I believe it is my duty as a member to offer my talents to the Lord and the church. However, as a student short on funds, monetary help as a student aid — and not as payment for my playing — would have been very much appreciated. I was invited to play almost every Sabbath by different Adventist churches. Some of these churches were an hour away from my room, and to get around was quite expensive, so I had to restrict myself to playing in churches nearby.
It looks as though we, as a church, did not support enough.…
Our church does appreciate music, but the level of music in most churches is not very high. When we find especially talented people, we need to encourage them, and if need be support them to reach higher levels of music. Our church does not always seem ready to help those members who aspire to be professional musicians to get to the top.
But we still want the best music when we do evangelistic campaigns, right?
That’s right. Effective preaching and good music go together, especially in evangelistic campaigns. We have many eloquent preachers, but we do not have many world-class musicians. Yet music prepares the hearts that will later receive the Word of God, and it would be good for the church as a whole, both in local ministry and in evangelism, to have an intentional program to train, foster, and support good musicians.
Back to your days in Chicago. Is there any one thing in particular that you remember about your struggle to study and to maintain yourself financially?
At one time, my financial resources were very low. A friend and I decided to do something novel. We went to train stations in Chicago’s upscale neighborhoods and played for commuters. We started around 4:30 or 5:00 in the morning and played for about five hours every day. One summer, I did that almost every day, and after lunch I worked in a fertilizer factory. That summer, I saved enough money to cover my expenses for one year.
What did your music teachers say about you playing in train stations to make a living?
My oboe teacher in Chicago had been an Adventist while trying to make his way in the music world. He went through some struggles with the Sabbath and with his faith, and finally he gave up Adventism. Because of that, he could understand my struggles very well and always supported me. He encouraged me, even though he had changed his mind about Sabbath-keeping. He never imposed his point of view on me, and he supported my view that Sabbath should be honored.
I heard that your teacher won the 2002 Grammy award for best instrumental soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Did he tell you if that would have been possible as an Adventist?
He shared his life experience as an Adventist and musician with me. He told me what once a very famous conductor told him: you are either in the right religion and in the wrong profession, or in the right profession and in the wrong religion. My Adventist grandfather used to tell me more or less the same.
Is it truly that hard to work in the music industry as an Adventist?
In our current world, it is already very hard to succeed as classical musicians. If we add the Adventist component to the equation of becoming a classical musician, the path becomes twice as hard.
Tell us about your family. What do they say about such spiritual struggles?
Several members of my family are pastors and hold important positions. My grandfather worked for the South American Adventist Publishing House as an accountant for many years. When I went through spiritual hardships, I talked to my family and other pastors. They were very understanding and supportive. They told me that if I remained faithful, God would reward me.
Since you did your part, do you think God did His?
I think God has rewarded me with teaching positions here in New York City University. I got this job right out of school. God has also blessed me with an interesting music business that I developed: a double-reed production and distribution company.
How do you feel about having trained all your life to perform oboe and not being able to do it in orchestral settings?
I always wanted to be a performer, and that is what my heart wants. When I see how some of my friends have become principal chairs in famous orchestras, I know I could have done just as well as them. Nevertheless, because of my religious beliefs, I could never get that far in the orchestral world. That really hurts as a performer.
Do you still hope you will find an orchestra that allows you to keep the Sabbath?
Yes, but I do not see how it will happen. For instance, last year I auditioned for the English horn chair at the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Not everybody can audition for such a position; only those who have been personally invited can. As in every other audition, I gave my best, and as in every other audition, an inner voice kept telling me, “What are you going to do if you win this audition?”
I imagine that when you pray to God, you talk to Him about your struggles with music and faith.…
Yes, and it is not easy. I close my eyes, and I hope God will help me understand why I am in this struggle between music and faith for so long. I very much trust that God is going to give what is best for me. I know it is a matter of faith. So, honestly, sometimes I feel better about it, and sometimes I don’t feel that good. One thing I am sure: I would never compromise my faith.
What do you say to God?
Sometimes I ask him why He would give me this talent if I may never be able to develop it to its full extent. For me, it is like God is giving you a first-class luxury car, and at the same time demanding from you that you keep it in the garage all the time, without driving. I feel like God has helped me have such a powerful car, but still wants me to ride a bicycle everywhere I go. So I pray, and I hope He will show me the way.
What do you imagine yourself doing in heaven?
With some musician friends, I sometimes make a joke: I studied so much music on earth that in heaven I will just have to refine a few details. Jokes aside, I hope I can do something connected to my profession here. In any case, I guess that won’t matter anymore. It is true, however, that my piece of heaven on earth is when I play music. There is this brilliant quote by the music composer and critic Virgil Thomson: “I’ve never known a musician who regretted being one. Whatever deceptions life may have in store for you, music itself is not going to let you down.” Music is like a safe haven for me. Relationships in this world are made and destroyed. But music, like God, is a refuge. I only wish I could find a way to make them both compatible in my life.
What counsel would you give to young people with similar struggles in the pursuit of their career goals — maybe in music, teaching, medicine, law, or any other field?
I believe I’m still a work in progress. I ask God to show me the way to go, every day. I am very thankful to Him, because I can make a living from doing what I love: music. I know very well that many people just cannot do what they love. They need to choose to either follow their dreams or get a “real” job. I believe with God’s help we can achieve things we never imagined we could. The key is to put everything in God’s hands, and ask Him to give what is best for us, not only in our careers, but in every aspect of our lives. I believe that God needs good men and women in all fields and careers, and He really wants us to go far and succeed in life. For that, we should always put God first, and never compromise our faith.
Rubén Sanchez Sabaté is a Fulbright graduate student in religious studies and journalism at New York University. He is from Spain, where he completed two degrees at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona; he subsequently studied at Tübingen University in Germany. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.