One of the most remarkable performances I caught during Bogotá’s recent Mozart festival came from the Filarmónica Joven de Colombia, a youth orchestra barely five years old. Its superb string playing was a match for any of the European ensembles I heard during the week, and considerably stronger than either of the Colombian orchestras I saw, with a fine sense of Mozartian style. When one thinks of Latin Amercian youth orchestras, the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela inevitably springs to mind. Although they’ve now shed the ‘”youth” tag, the SBSO –  under the charismatic Gustavo Dudamel – has been the standard-bearer for the Latin American classical music renaissance. But with El Sistema (Venezuela’s acclaimed music education programme) being used like a political football, the focus of growth in classical music has now shifted to Colombia, so I was keen to find out first-hand how classical music there was being developed.

Filarmónica Joven de Colombia © Mariangela Quiroga
Filarmónica Joven de Colombia
© Mariangela Quiroga

The FJC is a social project led by Fundación Bolívar Davivienda, in partnership with the Youth Orchestra of the Americas, in its interest to promote culture and support the construction of artistic life in Colombia. Helena Barreto Reyes, the orchestra’s Executive Director, told me how the orchestra convenes three times a year to work on various projects. These residencies involve workshops on chamber music as well as orchestral concerts. Annual auditions are held via students uploading videos onto the internet, meaning that players across the entire country can be reached. “The geography of Colombia means that travel can take an enormous amount of time for what is, in effect, a short distance,” she explained. A professional jury drawn from orchestral musicians across the globe, including players from the London Symphony Orchestra, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Mahler Chamber Orchestra – a truly international panel – then judges these auditions.

Three lists are duly compiled: those musicians selected, a reserve list, and those not selected. But the “not selected” list gives an important overview of the state of music education in Colombia and leads to dialogue with universities. Most of the orchestra’s musicians are undergrads, currently drawn from 22 universities across the country.

Their standard of playing is exceptionally strong. The string playing in the concert of Mozart favourites I heard at the Teatro Cólon was simply superb; heavy accenting and a lack of vibrato were clear nods to the authentic movement, although the playing had plenty of weight and punch. Assistant Conductor Carlos Andres Botero explained how versatile the players are, easily accommodating a late(ish) change of soloist in Mozart’s K314 who favoured vibrato. He also told me how flautist Gabriel Ahumada had brought his own cadenza to the second movement, which involved a quartet of string principals, and remarked how quickly the FJC players had picked it up. The orchestra clearly has fun too. All the players wear brightly coloured sneakers... even Artistic Co-ordinator Carlos Buitrago was sporting a pair!

Filarmónica Joven de Colombia © Mariangela Quiroga
Filarmónica Joven de Colombia
© Mariangela Quiroga

80% of the FJC’s musicians come via ‘Batuta’ (literally meaning ‘baton’). The Fundación Nacional Batuta was created in 1991 on the initiative of the National Government in partnership with private enterprise. It was modelled on El Sistema, with the assistance of José Antonio Abreu. But Barreto is adamant that Batuta is categorically not the same as the Venezuelan system. “With Batuta, music is seen as a strong tool for social development and healing. It involves the families just as much as the players… these families help to provide the new audiences for classical music. With El Sistema, the priority is on playing and performing; with Batuta it’s about a more holistic approach.”

Botero told me that Batuta is seen as more about the journey towards performances than performance itself, living up to its slogan “Transforming lives through music”. Around 40,000 youngsters take part in Batuta across 72 locations in Colombia, with 12 centres in Bogota. It involves lots of singing, plus learning to play along the lines of Orff’s orchestra, but featuring Colombian percussion instruments! From the children taking part in the programme, 2000 are then led onto symphonic/instrumental studies.

There are understandable political reasons for distancing Batuta from El Sistema. In the past few years, musicians such as Carlos Izcaray, Music Director Designate of the Alabama Symphony, and the pianist Gabriela Montero have spoken out against the Venezuelan government. Izcaray has told of his own suffering at the hands of the violent regime there, while Montero has condemned the politicization of El Sistema.

Filarmónica Joven de Colombia and Adrián Chamorro © Mariangela Quiroga
Filarmónica Joven de Colombia and Adrián Chamorro
© Mariangela Quiroga

The FJC is not alone among Colombian youth orchestras. The Orquesta Filarmónica Juvenil de Bogotá is even younger, being founded in 2013 as part of a public partnership that included the creation of four new groups associated with the Orquesta Filarmónica de Bogotá. The youth orchestra, under the excellent training of conductor Carlos Villa, displayed a good deal of panache in the concert I heard at the Teatro Jorge Eliécer Gaitán. 

Although the Filarmónica Joven de Colombia was only founded in 2010, Barreto’s ambitions know no bounds. For its first international tour in 2012, to Brazil, it was led by fellow Colombian Andrés Orozco-Estrada, now its Artistic Adviser. Orozco-Estrada has described the work of the orchestra as having “a human dimension, to cultivate and continue working on the values ​​of the players”. He is very much seen as an ambassador for Colombia and is one of the rising stars on the conductor circuit.

The orchestra’s 2013 tour took the orchestra to Miami, playing acclaimed concerts at the New World Center under Alejandro Posada.

This summer, the FJC returns to the United States, to Dallas, then on to Orozco-Estrada’s home base of Houston, where its ten day residency includes a very special concert which sees the orchestra play alongside the Houston Symphony in a performance of Orff’s Carmina Burana. It also tackles Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite. The enthusiasm Barreto and Botero exude about their orchestra is palpable. It’s clear that there is a huge collective will, between state and private foundations, to make this sort of project prosper. The future of classical music in Colombia is bright under such inspirational leadership.

Further reading: Batuta http://www.fundacionbatuta.org