James Scorer (james.scorer [at] manchester.ac.uk)
On a recent trip to Bogotá I was fortunate enough to get a ticket for the Concierto Binacional Colombia-Venezuela, a joint concert performed by members of the Orquesta Filarmónica de Bogotá and of La Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar, the Venezuelan youth orchestra. Conducted by the famous Gustavo Dudamel, the performance was designed to deploy culture in a gesture of bi-national partisanship. In recent years relations between the two countries, often pragmatic at best, have been strained by disputes over the border activities of paramilitary and guerrilla groups, and over smuggling (Idler, 2015).
Holding such an event in the Colombian capital, former temporary home to the transnational liberator Simón Bolívar, now the figurehead of Venezuela and himself celebrated in musical form by Dudamel, seemed like an appropriate choice. Nevertheless, the Teatro Mayor Julio Mario Santo Domingo, a cultural centre built in the far north of the city, was a far cry from the downtown Quinta de Bolívar, let alone the impoverished neighbourhoods of the south-western stretches of the city. Built as a joint venture between the state and the vastly wealthy Santo Domingo family, the Teatro Mayor cannot help but serve as a reminder of the vast wealth divide evident in the city.
Before the concert began we were regaled with a welcoming speech given by the director of the Orquesta Filarmónica de Bogotá, a long, wandering introduction that eventually resulted in a cry from the gods that echoed around the hall’s excellent acoustics: ‘¡música!’ The call split the audience between those who tut-tutted with a frown and those who stifled chortles or began to applaud the forthright expression of their own inner thoughts.
The orchestra opened and ended with Beethoven, the choice of the Choral Fantasy as the concluding piece, itself a musical fusion of different orchestral elements and a piece that sings of harmonious unification, a symbolic inclusion for a concert of cooperation. Dudamel’s own piece, however, the soundtrack he was commissioned to write for the film Libertador, a biopic of Bolívar, captured the spirit of the concert most eloquently with its romantic lyricism and sabre-rattling.
And yet the most dramatic moment of the night was when, mid-performance, the lights went out. Plunged into darkness, one couldn’t help but wonder whether this was a failure in state infrastructure, the beginnings of an incursion, or a blown fuse. Some suggested that it had been the spirit of Bolívar’s former general-turned-foe, Francisco de Paula Santander, returning from the grave to cast a shadow over the music that saluted his nemesis.
Others, however, speculated that it had been a reminder to one of concert’s sponsors, Gustavo Petro, the Mayor of Bogotá, of his immense unpopularity. Petro, former leader of the left-wing guerrilla movement M-19, has rankled some of the wealthier residents of Bogotá, not just because of his revolutionary past, but also because of his approach to reducing urban inequality, including, for example, his project to build social housing in some of the most affluent parts of Chapinero (Raskin, 2015).
Two nations united, then, but a city divided. The orchestra played on valiantly in the gloom.
Idler, Annette. (2015) ‘A Humanitarian and Diplomatic Crisis is Unfolding on the Colombia-Venezuela Border’ Online: https://theconversation.com/a-humanitarian-and-diplomatic-crisis-is-unfolding-on-the-colombia-venezuela-border-46994 [15 September 2015]
Raskin, Julia. (2015) ‘The Way Out is Through: Class Conflict in Bogota’. PopFront. Online: http://popfront.us/2015/01/the-way-out-is-through-class-conflict-in-bogota/ [accessed 31 August 2015].