The Cartagena International Music Festival celebrated its tenth anniversary in January, and is doing impressive things for one so young. It took over the old city, offering 28 concerts in 8 days with something for all kinds of audiences; stately concerts at its classically-styled Teatro Adolfo Mejía, sacred and secular concerts celebrating young talent in the beautiful chapel at the Hotel Santa Clara, free public concerts in the open air of Plaza San Pedro and more.

“Hacia Tierra Firme” was the theme for this year; I could only translate this as “Towards Terra Firma”, a crude attempt. This was the starting point for a musical reflection through history, looking back across the Atlantic towards Spain and Europe, and contrasting it with the influence of indigenous Southern American cultures. This idea of duality was also extended towards the sacred vs the profane (or perhaps more accurately, secular) and then obliquely, old and new. If this sounds dry in theory, rest assured that in practice it was entirely refreshing; I heard music one would rarely get a chance to hear in the UK and perhaps elsewhere in Europe.

The most advertised artists for the festival had all come from outside of South America; Jordi Savall, bringing with him Hesperion XXI and La Capella Reial de Catalunya, opened the festival, while the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra as resident orchestra and Maxim Vengerov, both as violinist and conductor closed it. In between you could opt to see them at the grand theatre or the free open air concerts, the latter often offering a taste of the former. In one of the panel discussions that took place over the week, president Julia Salvi expressed a core belief of the festival, that it belonged to everyone. While this sentiment if often expressed, here it was really put into practice; the Festival reached out to the whole city, and the city reached back. Every concert I went to was packed, from the intense performances of Lost Paradises and Slave Routes to the 10 year anniversary concert.

The Convention Centre in Getsemani offered a New World series of South American artists with a 20th century Latin/jazz feel. Cuarteto Q-Arte gave a sultry rendition of Piazzolla and fellow Argentine Juan Carlos Cobián, joined by bandoneonist and composer Rodolfo Mederos, while the Banda Mantiqueira provided a concert of lively big band music, somewhat punctuated by lengthy soliloquies from their leader. Though each individual was less certain of themselves as a soloist, as an ensemble their energy was infectious, particularly on their second instruments!

A commitment to access didn’t end at concerts. There was a strong education programme running through the festival, with masterclasses, scholarships and even luthier, and gaita and drum-building workshops for children. I was fortunate enough to meet with Julia Salvi, and she was passionate not just about young people having opportunities to perform music, but also understand how their instruments work. Perhaps this should not be a great surprise, as the widow of legendary harp-marker Victor Salvi, but again, it was extremely heartening to see such sentiments put into action. There was also a Young Talent concert series, providing performance opportunities for talented Colombian musicians at the start of their careers. Sadly in the whirlwind of so many concerts I missed the opportunity to hear them; however I did not miss the big extravaganza concert at the port, El mar de los desos, de Sevilla a Veracruz, celebrating the Orquesta Sinfónica Juvenil de Cartagena. This youth orchestra is formed from around 100 students of the Music for Colombia Foundation, which works with over 1800 young people across the country, using music to provide social change. Salvi had invited two of these musicians from the Nelson Mandela neighbourhood to a panel discussion earlier in the week, who had progressed through the system and were now on scholarships to become instrument teachers themselves. They spoke movingly of how the project had changed their lives, and their neighbourhood; again, it was wonderful to see sentiments often expressed put into real action. The orchestra joined forces with Colectivo Colombia and Ensemble Ida y Vuelta for this Gala Concert, but they were the stars of the show in this outdoor spectacle, again merging music from Europe, Africa and Latin America, which was live-streamed and later broadcast on NTN24. As their brass section processed onto the stage keeping in perfect time to Marzouk Mejri’s Sus, we knew we were in for a treat. This was delivered in Pedro Sarmiento’s De viajes y tornaviajes, an ambitious merging of three different soundworlds. The young Colombian composer had clearly understood his brief, and provided something that brought the three groups together in a way that was unpatronising. I enjoyed it immensely, and so did the audience, demanding a reprise of both.

Further young talent was on display at the Hotel Santa Clara, with the Coro Filarmónico Juvenil and Orquesta Filarmónica Juvenil de Cámara supported by soloists from Concerto Italiano under the baton of Rinaldo Alessandrini in a series of short afternoon concerts of sacred music pairing Vivaldi with his contemporaries working in South America. Here was an extremely polished group of youngsters, clearly making the most of the opportunity to work with a conductor and musicians of such standing. Their light Baroque tone was perfectly judged, and if a performance was less successful it could be ascribed to the repertoire rather than the performers. While admirably trying to create a bridge between the Old World and the New, unfortunately the works of Zipoli, Ceruti, and Ignacio de Jerusalem y Stella were fairly forgettable coming after some majestic Vivaldi. Occasionally the orchestra overpowered the singers, particularly with the soloists embedded within the choir; however overall the balance was good. It was also very pleasing to see the developing singers encouraged to make full use of their sound, rather than squash it in an attempt to blend, which they did quite wonderfully. This youth choir and orchestra would be the envy of any city in the UK. I also have a new hero in the form of Alessandrini; he halted the beginning of Vivaldi’s Magnificat in G minor not once but twice due to someone’s phone going off, and turned round twice during Ignacio’s Gran Misa to admonish another errant caller. Whilst still conducting perfectly.

In ten years it is clear that the Festival has achieved much. Sometimes I wondered whether it had come too far too soon, growing so rapidly that each year poses fresh challenges, leaving little time to consolidate lessons learned in previous years. Sadly, the beautifully designed programme booklet was only available in Spanish, and I cannot help but feel that to brand itself as International, the Festival needs to prepare itself further for international audiences.

The city too is still developing as a tourist destination. English or indeed other second languages are not widely spoken, so picking up some basic Spanish in advance is advisable. However, there is so much to see from just walking around; the beautifully preserved colonial architecture of the old city has led to it being designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the walls of the city provide an excellent way to view both the city and the Atlantic ocean. A little further away is the great fortress, Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, and the Convento de la Popa on the hill above the city was a spectacular concert venue with breaktaking views.  In spite of my extremely limited Spanish, I enjoyed peeling away from the group to explore in between concerts and felt entirely comfortable walking around on my own. There was a relaxed feel to everything, as expected from a city where the temperature rarely drops below 25℃. It is almost impossible be late for anything, and somehow hours fly by; this was true for meals and concerts. When the sun always shines and the nights are cooled by a sea breeze, however, it is easy to adjust. The city was a beautiful backdrop to the Festival’s musical journey; I can’t wait to see where they go next.