Alberto Ginastera, Beatriz Elena Martinez, Bogota, Colombia, El Candelario Restaurant, Ensamble CG, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Gustavo Dudamel, La Candelaria, LA International New Music Festival, Latin America, Martin Perlich, Ricardo Rozental, Rodolfo Acosta, Simon Bolivar, Southwest Chamber Music, Tambuco Percussion Ensemble, Usaquen, Vanessa Villages
My last post contained a vibrant dose of Colombian energy, demonstrated by the opening citywide parade in Bogotá announcing the XV Iberoamerican Festival. As I’m beginning to process the impact visiting Colombia is exerting on my imagination (which kicked into high gear yesterday as we finally saw Ciro Guerra’s extraordinary Academy Award nominated film Embrace the Serpent) I’m reminded of one of the first conversations we had in Bogotá.
“Let me try to explain the situation of identity in Colombia for you,” said our new friend composer Rodolfo Acosta, the protagonist of contemporary music in Bogotá.
“Imagine a young person born in Panama circa 1802. That person’s country is Nueva Granada, the name given by the Spanish conquistador Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada to Colombia (one of the few intellectuals of the Conquest, he was a possible model for Cervantes’ Don Quixote), which was the third most important territory in the New World for Madrid, after the empires of Mexico and Peru. By the time of Simon Bolivar’s liberation in the 1820s, that person is now in a country called Gran Colombia, which Bolivar envisioned as a bulwark against the United States of America, which was, at that time, still only a concept. Bolivar’s dream was to unite Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela into the largest country the world would ever know. But by the end of his life, his dream of Gran Colombia collapsed for various reasons of intrigue and infighting. So, our imaginary citizen is now living in Colombia, albeit in Panama. Comes the early 20th century, and the U.S. corporations basically negotiate Panama into its own country away from Colombia because of the construction of the canal. True, Panama is in a tropical zone that was always part of Nueva Granada, Gran Colombia, or Colombia, take your pick, but it had so much inaccessible swamp between us and what became the canal zone that we’d neglected it anyway.”
Roldofo paused to let this all sink in slowly. “So you see, there are challenges to creating a national identity that one can’t just wish away. 32 civil wars since Bolivar and 50 years of war with the FARC haven’t made things easy.”
Ricardo Gallardo of Mexico City had told us that Rodolfo Acosta was the protagonist of new music in Colombia, and a main figure in all of Latin America. As we were having a good cup of Colombian coffee in La Candelaria, the part of Bogotá where the Spanish settled the city in the 16th century, Jan, Rodolfo and I were serenaded by the spectacular accompaniment of the loudest thunderstorm we’d ever experienced.
Thunder, of all types, punctuates life in Bogotá.
And every Bogotano carries an umbrella. All the time, everyday. After all, Bogotá is the third highest capital city on Planet Earth (after La Paz in Bolivia, Quito in Ecuador, so there’s a trend in the Andes). They therefore live in a city of ever changing weather, which also became addicting to us as visitors in just a few days. Because that climatic volatility gives Bogota the most beautiful cloudscapes of any major city we’ve ever visited.
I’m having absolutely a case of cloud withdrawal!
Inspired by talking with Rodolfo, we made arrangements for dinner the next night with him, and we’d be joined by the brilliant soprano Beatriz Elena Martinez. If there is an angel of Latin American new music, she’s it. More later, as I’m getting a little ahead of myself.
Because the next day, we were meeting Ricardo Rozental for lunch. Think of him as Latin America’s Martin Perlich, a man who, like Perlich, easily understands that being a critic is a useless pursuit in the 21st century, but, as Ricardo Gallardo described him, would be perhaps the best person for us to meet as the key observer of everything in South America, our Nestor. He’d also had a restaurant in Toronto, Canada, for a decade, so we’d have restaurant life in common, and had run a Bogotá record store back in the day, and was now teaching and writing important festival program notes in Bogota (a much more formal endeavor in Bogotá). A real mensch.
Rodolfo had met us for a quick introductory coffee and given us a brief tour of Plaza Bolivar with endless tips for seeing La Candelaria (one was the Santa Clara Convent, the photo that opens this post). We’d be going to Usaquen for dinner with him, and Ricardo Rozental would meet us there on Sunday as well (good travel tips on the way).
But Ricardo had the responsibility of taking us for our first meal in Bogotá. And he managed this essential introduction with fantastic aplomb.
So if you go to Bogotá, please, please, find El Candelario. It answered the feel of a South American insiders place just by walking through the very crowded front door. Not luxury by any means, but a place packed to the rafters with a busy lunch crowd with solid food and an atmosphere that could only be in Bogotá. A great place for salsa dancing in the evening, too. Wow!
Over trout and wienerschnitzel (stop rubbing your eyes, it was fantastic) Ricardo, Jan and I got started on introductions. Of course the introductions of Ricardo Gallardo in Mexico City paved the way to immediate trust between us (he’s old fashioned and gets on the telephone for conversation). We ranged from the upcoming FARC treaty, to Obama in Cuba, to the well earned mistrust of most of Latin American to the United States, to music, new music, Colombian identity, old colonial music, the fiasco of Tower Records in Bogotá, Gabriel García Márquez, Donald Trump, the role of the Spanish and Catholic Church, food, more food, and great restaurant recommendations. In general we established that we shared curiosity about life.
During our lunch, one of the restaurants Ricardo recommended was in Usaquen, about 30 minutes without traffic from La Candelaria. And after lunch, we were meeting Rodolfo Acosta again for coffee and dinner, which was also going to be in Usaquen.
Rodolfo joined us for a coffee close to our hotel at the Teatro Colón coffee shop around 6 PM. Before taking a taxi to Usaquen, we would open up a discussion about just how new music came to be a force in all of Latin America. Everything I was hearing was tremendous music with deep sophistication. Where was this coming from, I wondered? If all of you reading my blog are up to speed with the CLAEM era in Buenos Aires spearheaded by Alberto Ginastera, then you’re ahead of me.
But I don’t think so, as we struggle with a vicious, often invisible, system of cultural paternalism in the U.S. and Europe. I’ve spent 40 years caring about new music, aware more than most of the cultural scene in Latin America through projects and friendships with Mexico, but learning about CLAEM was a news bulletin for me. Because off the top of his head Rodolfo knows his history of Colombia and Latin America. And Ginastera’s CLAEM is formative.
President Obama just observed that the United States needs to understand its often negative role in Latin America, as he remarked about the civil wars in Argentina. His visit to Cuba was important news while we were in Colombia (and, yes, they are watching the political barium enema of hate from Donald Trump with serious concern). Which brings me to CLAEM in the 1960s, before hell breaks loose in Buenos Aires and Ginastera decamps for Europe.
On the one hand, I need to share about my Bogotá meetings, and on the other, I’m going to keep a lot of my research proprietary, for this planning period, for my own Los Angeles International New Music Festival ideas! The best way for me to manage this situation is to discuss the new music history of Latin America.
CLAEM was part of the Di Tella Institute, which was in business between 1961-1971. Ginastera, like Chávez in Mexico, was intent on advancing new music in Latin America. To achieve this, he had the vision to invite quite a list of guests to Buenos Aires, which at the time magnetized the entire continent. I was made aware of the impact of Ginastera long ago by in an interview I had with an Argentinian newspaper for our Chávez CDs with Tambuco. But I had no idea what he’d really accomplished.
So here’s a small partial list for you of his guests: Olivier Messiaen, Aaron Copland, Roger Sessions, Luigi Dalapiccola, Bruno Maderna, Iannis Xenakis, Earle Brown, Luigi Nono, and author Umberto Eco. If you know new music from the U.S. and Europe, you get the picture. The impact of these encounters resulted in a sophisticated new music world developing in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru, Puerto Rico, Uruguay. There are multiple careers in the lists of composers I’ve encountered, just to keep it easy to comprehend. We are humbled by the sheer magnitude of new music produced by South America.
Now, time for a Pop Quiz!
Question: What country has the third largest Spanish speaking population on Planet Earth? Answer: the United States of America.
Needless to say, you’ve not heard much from any of the countries I listed above from American musical organizations, conductors, or performers, something our Los Angeles International New Music Festival began to address this summer, with help and guidance from our friends in Tambuco from Mexico City. Don’t get me, or my Latin American friends, started on Gustavo Dudamel (sorry to burst any bubbles at the Music Center complex), whose advocacy is at best distant to the creative community in South America that I’ve discovered here. Let’s just say we had a lot to talk about at dinner!
But let me put what I’ve observed in Colombia (and also in Mexico) another way. During the upcoming 2016-17 season the Los Angeles Philharmonic will have a major focus on composers from Iceland, spearheaded by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Why? Because Salonen supports the Scandinavian creative community combined with the experience and ability to do what he wants. How close to the local community is Iceland to Los Angeles compared to its under served Spanish speaking audience? It makes no difference. I can attest to the fact that the creative community of Latin America isn’t holding its breath that Dudamel, the Venezuelan Karajan, will champion their cause. He’s considered oblivious but simultaneously beholden to the questionable political environment of Caracas, and of having only a trace of advocacy to his own hemisphere. This is in stark comparison to the Nordic Salonen.
Because composers need advocates. In Bogotá, that’s no problem!
One reason I accepted the position of artistic advisor to the Hanoi New Music Ensemble in Vietnam is that I was confident in the convergence of creative composers, venue infrastructure, willing performers and enthusiastic audience. And what we found in Colombia mirrors that Southeast Asian experience. Because, my God, do they have a lot of good players in Bogotá, as Rodolfo’s Ensamble CG demonstrates on a tremendous CD I received with music from Colombia, Venezuela, Cuba and Brazil. There are brilliant soloists galore.
One is perhaps the main advocate in South America for new music, the luminous soprano Beatriz Elena Martinez. Her datebook is full traversing the continent with new pieces written for her from every corner of South America. A lustrous voice trained by our old friend in London, Dame Jane Manning, we had a lot in common. Perfect pitch in Spanish is a good thing, and what a voice!
We’ve rarely met a performer so passionate about supporting her composers. Beatriz is quite a find, and we’re just getting started.
So from a late afternoon coffee with Rodolfo Acosta in La Candelaria to lunch the next day with Ricardo Rozental at El Candelario to dinner in Usaquen with Rodolfo and Beatriz, Jan and I were becoming full fledged Bogotanos in less than 48 hours. The next day we toured the Museum of Gold (a blog on its way) and saw the parade for the XV Iberoamercan Festival (that was my last post).
Sunday morning would find us back in Usaquen for its Sunday market, lunch and grand cru espresso with Ricardo and his wife, Vanessa Villages. The espresso would end all arguments about Bogota being a great city. Keep checking back for more updates from my trip to the Andes!
Best, best, best,