The Beatles’ “All You Need is Love.” Gabriel García Marquez’s “Cien Años de Soledad.” The Orquesta Filarmónica de Bogotá. What do they have in common? They came into existence exactly 50 years ago.
The latter of these experienced a major celebration on Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017, at the Teatro Mayor Julio Mario Santo Domingo in a program that featured the world premiere of Blas Emilio Atehortúa’s “Obertura Triunfal Op. 255” coupled with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The program, conducted by guest conductor Henrik Schaefer featured some of Colombia’s most noted operatic soloists as well as the Coro Filarmónico Juvenil and Sociedad Coral Santa Cecilia.
The program got off to a rather ceremonious start with introductions to commemorate the event and rather stirring renditions of the Colombian and Bogotá anthems, sung with tremendous energy and fervor from the two choruses. Halfway through the national anthem, Schaefer turned to the audience and invited them to join in, leading to a rather cathartic experience that seemed rather difficult to top.
And yet, that is exactly what happened.
Atehortúa’s piece was rather short but vibrant in its sense of propulsion. In some ways it felt like a massive crescendo of sound, the different sections joining one after another until a massive orchestral wave blew into the auditorium. What was particularly brilliant about this interpretation was that you could pick out the detail in each section of the orchestra, and yet feel them as parts of a large collective. It was a hint of what was to come in the big portion of the concert.
So the Ninth Symphony, the incredible masterwork (my personal favorite next to Mahler’s second) that leaves you with a sense of elation that no other piece of music is able to generate, with the possible exception of the finale to Beethoven’s “Fidelio.” So vast is the journey we are asked to embark on that the conductor who hits on the right interpretative verve must be thoroughly admired.
Schaefer’s interpretation of the first movement was on knife’s edge. The opening climaxes from the orchestra built up rather rapidly from nothing, exploding and seemingly speeding up all the same. At times one felt that the chaos could get out of hand and yet Schaefer reeled everyone in. From there he just built up the tension with a rather steady tempo, but again the playing he got from the orchestra was polished, every single note crystal clear throughout the ensemble. Whether the most distant of bass sounds or the rather present staccato phrasing of the violins in the development, every piece fit perfectly in place.
The same could be said for the second movement, where the tempo was also rather hurried, yet maintaining a sense of control. It was a fun game that the maestro was playing with the listener.
Speaking of fast tempi, the third movement was defined by it, the sense of propulsion in this blissful segment of the symphony given ebullience instead of relaxation. The result was not quite as meditative a movement and it wasn’t easy to get lost in the slower passages, not to mention that the builds to the climactic proclamations between the strings and brass weren’t as climactic. Yet there was never a dull moment, the transitions clean and vivid for the listener, the sense of connection of the overall structure of the movement tighter and more refined.
The transitions weren’t quite as strong in the early goings of the fourth movements, the abruptness between the recalls of previous movements with the recitative lines of the cello section perhaps too imposing. But once Schaefer and company got going on the famous “Ode to Joy,” the rest of the movement was nothing but magic. He had the celli and bass sections playing down to subtle whispers that immediately drew in the listener. From there the build was incredible, each new addition just adding a bit more until the great orchestra proclamation of the melody euphoric.
A Colombian Quartet
Then came the famous “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!” Famed Colombian bass-baritone Valeriano Lanchas, who has had some international success in recent years and is primed for his role debut of “Falstaff” at the Teatro Mayor later this month, delivered the lines with brightness and swooping legato. He was gentle with “Sondern laßt uns angenehmere,” and then had a fun interplay with the chorus as he kicked off utterances of “Freude.” His bright voice suited the ensuing stanza of “Freude, schooner Götterfunken” quite well.
The other soloists, all Colombians, included soprano Julieth Lozano, tenor César Gutiérrez, and mezzo Andrea Orjuela Niño. They didn’t get off to the finest of starts in the opening quartet, the four voices seemingly going in different directions and forcing the maestro to turn toward them repeatedly to get them to align. But once they managed to get together, their voices matched one another quite well, no singer overpowering the other. They were even better in their final appearance at the end of the movement, the voices jumping off one another quite well in one of Beethoven’s most complex vocal counterpoint. Lozano hit her high B quite beautifully to cap off a truly intimate ensemble.
Gutiérrez turned up his strength in the famous “Froh” passage dispatching every note with solid diction and vocal flexibility, rising up to the climactic B over an imposing orchestral and choral presence. From there the fugal rush was an energetic frenzy that was only topped by the climactic return of the main theme in all its orchestral and choral beauty.
Speaking of the two choruses, they were formidable and arguably the stars of the night, with all due respect to the orchestra itself. And the “Seid umschlungen, Millionen” passage is one major reason why. From one dynamic extreme to another, the sound was unified and pitch-perfect, every word clear to the listener, the sense of otherworldly bliss palpable. The ensuing variation, which combines the two main themes of the movement seemed like a major high point of the entire movement, and yet the chorus found another gear at the tail-end of the symphony singing their hearts out with pure joy and exuberance to close out the piece in a blaze of applause. The euphoria from the audience was so great that they repeatedly demanded an encore. The question that immediately ran through my mind was, “How do you top that? What encore could do that?” Schaefer gave us the answer after much insistence from the audience – repeat the finale. The performance was just as frenzied and exciting as before, leaving the audience in rapture.
This was surely the best way to celebrate an ensemble, that on the balance of this evening, is not only of tremendous quality but should continue to have major success in years to come.