Iglesia de la Inmaculada Concepción de Suba © Mark Pullinger
Iglesia de la Inmaculada Concepción de Suba
© Mark Pullinger
Picture the scene: Easter Saturday afternoon in Bogotá and outside the Iglesia de la Inmaculada Concepción de Suba, the locals queued not just down the block, but down the next four streets. No, it wasn’t a religious service, which would have been entirely understandable in this staunchly Catholic country, but a concert. A free concert. A classical music concert. The police happily broke regulations to allow the crowds in and by the time we took our seats to listen to the Kölner Akademie play Mozart, the church was brimming with people of all ages, standing five abreast in the aisles right to the back. The West door was even left open so that those who couldn’t squeeze in might still hear.

And so it was that 1300 people watched the Sociedad Coral Santa Cecilia – a young Colombian choir – file into place and sing Mozart’s Sancta Maria, mater Dei, K.273. Then, closing their score folders, the choir launched into a heartfelt rendition of the Ave verum corpus. One of the Akademie’s horn players, redundant in this piece, sang along. It was an overwhelming experience and tears flowed. They flow again as I write.

The audience for the Kölner Akademie in Suba © Mark Pullinger
The audience for the Kölner Akademie in Suba
© Mark Pullinger
Colombian soprano Juanita Lascarro was greeted with tumultuous applause before she’d even sung a note of Exsultate jubilate – to her clear astonishment. She told me later that evening that she’d never before experienced such an audience response. Even through the Kölner Akademie’s terrific rendition of the “Jupiter” Symphony to close the programme, their attention was rapt, the only interruption coming between movements as conductor Michael Alexander Willens waited for a dog outside to cease its barking.

What was a top European chamber orchestra doing playing a free concert in a little church in a quiet suburb of the Colombian capital city? This wasn’t “chocolate box” Mozart performed in the gilded concert halls of Salzburg or Vienna. This was one of 17 free concerts in the “Bogotá es Mozart” festival, with performers from Europe, soloists and ensembles, joining Colombian musicians. To call the festival ambitious is the most ridiculous understatement of the year. The BBC Proms, hailed as one of the great classical music festivals in the world, hosts 80+ events this summer across eight weeks. “Bogotá es Mozart” staged 63 concerts in just four days!

Juanita Lascarro © Juanita Lascarro
Juanita Lascarro
© Juanita Lascarro

Most were performed in the main hall or the studio theatre of the Julio Mario Santo Domingo Cultural Centre, a publicly owned infrastructure in the northern part of the city, donated to Bogotá by the Santo Domingo family. Other ticketed events took place at the picturesque Teatro Cólon in the colonial Candelaria area of the city, or the nearby Teatro Jorge Eliécer Gaitan. But a whole range of other venues – libraries, community centres, small theatres – dotted around various regions hosted concerts, many of them free, to try and allow as many people as possible to hear the music. There was no compromise in the quality of performers for these free events. I heard the Simón Bolívar String Quartet, composed of principals from the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, perform two string quartets (K458 and K465) in the Villa Mayor. The crowd snaking outside was comprised mainly of youngsters, at least 75% aged 25 or under. I couldn’t help wondering what the turnout of young Londoners would be to a free concert of Mozart quartets.

Simón Bolívar String Quartet © Harald Hoffmann | DG
Simón Bolívar String Quartet
© Harald Hoffmann | DG

The Bogotá audience response has been incredible in two ways. Firstly, the Colombian public turned out in huge numbers, and not just for the free concerts. Ramiro Osorio Fonseca, General Director of the Teatro Mayor which was responsible for the organization of the festival, explained that tickets are subsidised, making them much cheaper. Halls and theatres were packed. Secondly, the response of the audiences to the music-making has been phenomenal. They listen carefully and applaud loudly. I’ve never experienced so many encores – genuine encores, nothing prepared, just a repeat of perhaps a final movement – in such a short span.

There were none of the bad habits of audiences I experience week in, week out in London: no mass ritual clearing of throats between movements, and “bravo man”, eager to show off that he knows when a piece has ended by cheering loudly before the last note has died, was conspicuous by his absence. It’s a discerning audience too. The one standing ovation I experienced – and we all stood – was for a knockout performance of the “Jupiter” by the Vienna Chamber Orchestra.

This is the second international music festival here on these lines. 2013 saw “Bogotá is Beethoven”. Enrique Muknik, producer of both the Beethoven festival and this Mozart sequel, described to me how it was built around models in Bilbao, Nantes and Tokyo, with concerts staged throughout the day. It worked. “Can you imagine, there were mothers carrying babies queuing up to hear Beethoven’s Op.132?!” Muknik’s boundless enthusiasm for the project is shared by the entire team from the Teatro Mayor as well as by those who attended last time. Los Angeles-based critic Laurence Vittes was here in 2013 and has clearly been bitten by the Bogotá bug. He returned for the Mozart festival and is due back this summer when Gustavo Dudamel and his Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra present their first Beethoven symphony cycle… not in Caracas, please note, but in Bogotá!

Teatro Mayor Julio Mario Santo Domingo © Invest in Bogota
Teatro Mayor Julio Mario Santo Domingo
© Invest in Bogota

50,000 tickets were subsidised for the Mozart festival. Osorio explained that funding for these cheap tickets comes from ticket sales (25%) and the Teatro Mayor’s budget (25%), with the remaining 50% coming from business sponsors, such as the Bank of Colombia (based not in Bogotá, but in Medellín) and insurance companies. Osorio told me how the decline of the music scene in Caracas has seen Bogotá (and Lima) shift into focus in Latin America. The economic sector is interested in promoting culture and there is clearly a collective will between public and private institutions in Colombia to grow an audience for classical music.

If this festival was staged elsewhere, the UK for instance, to meet its founding principal of bringing classical music to new audiences and to make it “accessible”, curators would put on loads of pre-performance talks to tell people about the music and what to listen out for. Not here. In Bogotá, they simply present a stack of concerts and hand out a free programme as you go in… And you know what? People come in their droves and they adore it.

Let’s see initiatives like this blossom elsewhere, not just in South America, where there is a need to engage new audiences for classical music, but in North America and Europe as well, to refresh the way classical music engages with the wider public.

It’s been an astonishing few days. I know one thing. I will never listen to the Ave verum corpus the same way again. That’s what Bogotá does to you.