The Cartagena International Music Festival chose one of its free public concerts at the Plaza San Pedro to celebrate its tenth birthday on Wednesday 13th January. Such a gesture was in keeping with one of its underlying ideals; music as something for everyone and a tool for public good.

Fireworks in Cartagena © Wilfredo Amaya
Fireworks in Cartagena
© Wilfredo Amaya

The line-up had certainly drawn a full crowd: the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra was joined by harpist Emmanuel Ceysson, Rodolfo Mederos on bandoneón, young Colombian cello sensation Santiago Cañón, and Maxim Vengerov for a selection of pieces from the old world and the new, in keeping with the festival’s main theme. Of course, outdoor concerts always have their perils, and this was no different; the more relaxed atmosphere lends itself to a more relaxed audience, and here we also had drones flying overhead. However, none of this impacted on the celebratory mood of the evening.

The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra opened in fine form, with a rich interpretation of Carlos Chavez’s Sarabande for strings. We stayed in the New World for the Allegro moderato from Gnattali’s Concerto for Harp and Strings. This was a curious piece, written in the 20th century but often sounding much more classical in outlook. It was also very restful considering the tempo marking, more likely a result of the music itself than the performance. Emmanuel Ceysson brought a lovely lullaby-like quality to the movement, and was matched with graceful playing from Orpheus. Together they were well-suited to a balmy winter night!

There were shades of Vivaldi in the Harp Concerto, which made the subsequent choice of Vivaldi’s Cello Concerto in F major RV410, performed in full, more understandable than it had first appeared. Cañón was always going to be a popular choice of performer, and at the age of 20 already has a significant amount of experience behind him. His tone was well-judged, creating a nice fluty sound appropriate for Baroque repertoire. However, his passage work wasn’t always stable, and the Largo a little studious. He clearly has a great deal of talent, but is also still a work in progress.

Rodolfo Mederos © Andrés Londoño
Rodolfo Mederos
© Andrés Londoño

Barber’s Adagio for Strings appeared to have been included simply because it is standard rep. It was very much a performance by numbers; competent, but without adding anything new and often lacking in depth. Copland’s Three Latin American Sketches were more successful, particularly given its far more complex nature. The opening Estribillo had a lovely light, folky dance feel, and woodwind solos at the start of Paisaje mexicano were stunning. The final Danza de Jalisco was utterly joyous; this was by far the highlight of the night.

Orpheus were then joined by Rodolfo Mederos, ostensibly for Winter from Piazzolla’s Las cuatro estaciones porteñas. However. what we actually got was Adiós Nonino, arranged for bandoneón solo. While this was very fine it was also rather self-indulgent, particularly since he had re-arranged the programme of Monday’s concert with Cuarteto Q-uarte to include it there as well. It may well be a favourite, but in this case it was most definitely too much of a good thing.

Maxim Vengerov © Andrés Londoño
Maxim Vengerov
© Andrés Londoño

The final offering of the night was clearly intended to be the showstopper, and it very nearly was. Maxim Vengerov was, as always, on great form, bringing a lovely rich tone to Tzigane. From lugubrious opening to deft rhapsody, each mood was captured perfectly by Vengerov, with a deceptive air of ease about his performance. Unfortunately Orpheus couldn’t always keep up with the twists and turns of the piece. It was an ambitious undertaking without a conductor, perhaps too ambitious. I have yet to be fully convinced that the concept is a sustainable one across the gamut of orchestral repertoire; however, Orpheus made a valiant effort to prove otherwise. A mixed affair, but no less celebratory for it.