Journey inside Filarmed, Latin Grammy-winning orchestra

Professional musicians, a new director and the dream of achieving a unique sound are the goals of the Medellín Philharmonic Orchestra.

The Medellín Philharmonic (Filarmed) –one of the four professional orchestras in the country– has eighteen violins. In the family of bowed string instruments, the violin is the smallest. Compared to its relatives – the viola, the cello, the double bass – it has a sharp, knife-edged, brilliant register. It is usually made of spruce and maple woods. His is the image of classical music, including the Filarmed: it appears on posters, tickets, parades, advertising pieces.

In the orchestra, the commission for the violin solos –in which the musician shows his virtuosity– corresponds to the concertmaster Gonzalo Ospina. His trajectory is connected with that of Filarmed from its origins. After passing through the Bogotá Philharmonic and the Antioquia Chamber Group, he is responsible for the acoustic carpentry in each concert: he leaves the orchestra on point.

He does so in the minutes before the director enters the scene: he asks the oboist to mark the The to adjust the woodwinds and then the strings.

Due to his role as concertmaster, he acts as a bridge between the performers –66– and the artistic and executive directors. If the director is not satisfied with the work of a regular musician, Ospina intermedia, smoothes rough edges. If the musicians have a complaint or request, he takes the message. Music is the fruit of concerting various rhythms, tools, efforts. Also wills and energies.

On Tuesday of the third week of February, sitting on a small platform, Gustavo –a black shirt with a high neck and long sleeves, dotted with musical notes– leads the rehearsals prior to the arrival of the Israeli pianist David Greilsammer, the new artistic director of the orchestra ( see Interview).

He gestures, moves the baton, turns the pages of the score, talks with Manuel López, second concertmaster. prepare Youth Orchestra Guide, Op. 34, the next day’s repertoire piece. Music is a wave that exceeds the square meters of the coliseum of the old Palermo school, converted in 2021 into the habitat of the Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Ballet.

A pout from Gonzalo stops everything, something detected: a loose chord, the hesitation in a flute. An hour later he will say: “Errors are valuable, making mistakes is also beautiful (…). Music is the only art in which things are truly spontaneous. Music exists when it sounds, we don’t get second chances”.

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Like that of a football team, the conductor, who Greilsammer will now take over, leads individual efforts towards a collective goal. He has a global perspective: while on the lecterns of the rest are the parts –broken parts of the winds, the strings, the metals–, in the director’s section lies the score, the complete map of the works.

He is not obliged to play all the instruments, but he must be a good pianist: due to the breadth of his register, the piano is a kind of metaphor for the orchestra. With his right hand clinging to the baton, the director marks the tempo, the exact rhythm of the music. With the left he gives directions, the entrance of the soloists or the rows.

In forty years, the Filarmed has had three directors and many guests. The doctor Alberto Correa Cadavid was the first. The orchestra was born in the garage of his house –Barrio La Palma– on April 16, 1983 at three in the afternoon. He was replaced in 2013 by Chilean Francisco Rettig. Since 2017 –when the period of the austral ended–, the directors of the orchestra wanted to know and experience other ways of orchestral conducting.

From the list of guests at that time came a list of candidates to wield the baton: Robin O’Neill, Christian Vásquez and David Greilsammer. Based on the ratings of various groups of evaluators, Greilsammer was chosen. Based in Switzerland, the musician has the double objective of giving the orchestra a defined identity and learning Spanish in less than a year.

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For the ancient Greeks, Apollo and Euterpe – youths in the flower of flesh – are the custodians of music. He was an exquisite master of the lyre, meanwhile the painters represented the muse crowned with a floral diadem and with a double piccolo in her hands.

Catholics confer on Saint Cecilia the dignity of being the patron saint of musicians. Unlike the Greek stories, in that of Saint Cecilia there is no trace of peculiar skill in playing an instrument or in singing. Orchestral music is a kind of manufacture: it is the aesthetic effect of pressing keys, plucking strings, striking warm surfaces.

Musicians in professional orchestras are the elite of performers. Most have university degrees and extensive teaching experience.

In the Filarmed staff there are 13 women, 53 men. The string section is the largest part: the aforementioned eighteen violins (ten first and eight seconds), seven violas, seven cellos, five double basses. The reason for the number is simple: they don’t sound as loud.

The list goes on: three flutes, three oboes, three clarinets, three bassoons, five horns, three trumpets, three trombones, one tuba, four percussionists, and one harp.

The majority of Filarmed members are of Colombian origin. There are five Venezuelans, two Bulgarians, one Spanish and one Israeli. His salary range is between three and a half and seven million pesos.

So Plato and Beethoven hit the target when talking about the spiritual nature of music –the adjectives ethereal and sublime are almost forced–, it requires an economic structure to exist. A concert –with administrative expenses– can cost fifty-five million pesos. The figure for the annual operation of the Philharmonic amounts to eight billion pesos. The money comes from the pockets of the public sector, private companies, management and donors.

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Before the rehearsal on Tuesday, February 15 – the date of Greilsammer’s presentation to the press – and after a brief intervention by the Israeli from the screen of a huge Smart TV, fourteen musicians dressed in black enter the Filarmed room. In a blink of an eye the environment changes: they sound the William Tell Overture and a snippet of Carmina Burana.

After the brief concert, María Catalina Prieto – flutist with a postgraduate degree in cultural business management – ​​speaks with the guests and translates the questions addressed to the musician into English. From May 24, 2021 she is the executive director. Until then she was the second on board of Ana Cristina Abad.

Hyper-realistic paintings of musical instruments hang on the walls of María Catalina’s office. On the cabinet behind her seat are books and a few records. She wears a gold ring on her right ring finger and a dark one on her left.

In his first days in the city he lived from Monday to Friday in hotels to return to Bogotá, his hometown, on weekends. When it became vacant at the beginning of 2021, the management position competed with fourteen candidates to replace Abad. The process took four months of interviews, project writing, tests. Once the meeting, the board of directors chose it, two goals were proposed, at this point already achieved: to successfully complete the search for its own headquarters – the orchestra rehearsed in Aranjuez, the Metropolitano, the Boston ITM, the Oviedo Shopping Center – and to appoint a principal conductor.

The life of musicians is a demanding life: a special mettle is needed to spend time and energy to dominate the labyrinths of the staff. As in almost all professions, the bed is small for the number of people. When the call is opened to fill a place in this orchestra, the path of the applicants is long, full of mystery.

First, they must submit a video in which they are seen and heard executing two contrasting movements – one fast, the other slow. The semifinalists raffle the order of the presentation before a jury that does not see their faces: they play behind a curtain. Cell phones are taken away and women are not allowed to wear heels.

The survivors must – now in view of the judges – demonstrate virtuosity and the ability to join their music with that of the Philharmonic. In the different stages many are eliminated. Again, the simile of football is useful: of the hundreds of applicants, few reach the professional stages.

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And the public? Devoid of it, art would be the tree that falls in the middle of the forest without anyone seeing or hearing it. With its educational campaigns with which it goes to neighborhoods or plays for children on Sundays, and its recitals in clinics during the days of confinement due to covid-19, Filarmed has cultivated a close, faithful audience. A symphonic concert is one of the few mystical experiences in force in the world of pop capitalism.

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Journey inside Filarmed, Latin Grammy-winning orchestra