American violinist Steven Copes is mobbed by young violin students following a masterclass in Cartagena, Colombia. (John Terauds photo)

I have an article in today’s Toronto Star about my time at the sixth annual Cartagena International Music Festival in Colombia. Unfortunately, that article doesn’t appear to be online, so I’m reproducing it here:

Great classical music is not something most sun destinations have on their tourist menu.

But this fortress town on the Caribbean Sea founded by Spanish colonists in 1533 doesn’t qualify as an ordinary sun destination.

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984, Cartagena has been working hard ever since to attract tourists with as wide a mixture of cultural attractions at it can think of.

That includes art, literature and music.

It helps a lot that strong-minded Colombian presidents and city mayors have tried over the past decade to eliminate the formerly notorious drug cartels and appease political terrorists.

A strong and visible (yet polite) police presence serves as a quiet reminder that everything is under control.

Most of the tourist bustle along the city’s narrow, colourfully winding streets comes from day trippers spilling off visiting cruise shops and from longer visits from fellow South Americans, who fill hotels and beaches in and around the walled city during the peak tourist months of January and February.

It was mostly Colombians who savoured the sixth annual Cartagena International Music Festival’s eight days of concerts, lectures, masterclasses and community outreach programs that ended on Jan. 14 with a nationally televised closing concert.

But the finest of the musicmakers were, in this writer’s opinion, Canadians – including violinist Lara St. John and the St. Lawrence String Quartet – and Americans.

California-based pianist, composer and arranger Stephen Prutsman has been the festival’s artistic mastermind for the last four years.

Cartagena and its businesspeople have given him use of a half-dozen excellent venues, ranging from intimate former Spanish colonial-era chapels to an open-air square, to the picturesque restored 1911 Heredia opera house, now known as the Teatro Adolfo Mejía.

Each day saw three paid classical concerts as well as a free, late-night, open-air event featuring more popular musical styles which, this year, included Québecois new-folk powerhouses, Le Vent du Nord.
Latin America was represented by several emerging talents, as well as members of the Sao Paulo National Orchestra of Brazil, the Scola Cantorum de Venezuela and Argentinean composer Osvaldo Golijov (a recent guest of the Toronto Symphony’s annual New Creations festival).

Between their daily gigs, the visiting musicians provided group and one-on-one instruction to 500 teenage students who won places at the festival’s school through a competition.

The concerts were so well attended that a local tourism operator complained to me that most events are sold out well before the music begins.

Even so, Prutsman said he has to work hard to make the finances work. He explained that, because there is next to no middle class amidst the segregation of rich and poor in Colombia, he simply doesn’t have the wide small-donor base that sustains performing arts organizations in North America.

Despite the challenges, Prutsman, who speaks Spanish fluently, looks forward to coming back every year. “I’ve been to Venice many times, but no place has the magnetic attraction of Cartagena,” he said.

He spends the festival dashing between events, practising for his own daily appearances on stage as a piano accompanist, emceeing the outreach tours beyond Cartagena and putting out last-minute fires.

Prutsman tries to weave themes through the programming, such as the relationship between fashion and Mozart, or Bach and jazz.

“It’s called relational thinking,” says the Californian.

He has also noticed that Cartagena audiences love the music of Ludwig van Beethoven.

“If I close with something by that guy, people will leave happy,” he says.

Geoff Nuttall, first violin of the St. Lawrence String Quartet, takes the mix a step further, making sure that one of the group’s new-music commissions can get on programs alongside the old classics.

The audiences responded with shouts of approval.

“Freaky,” is how Nuttall describes playing serious art music alongside the Caribbean Sea. That’s a good kind of freaky, because this was his quartet’s third return visit.

John Terauds

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