Tonight I experienced one of the most powerful musical performances I’ve ever witnessed. Pablo Sainz Villegas- world-renowned guitarist of Spain- and the national orchestra of Colombia held every member of the audience breathlessly bound. I scarcely dared breathe for fear that I’d choke on emotion. Tears hung in eyes of the woman next to me.
The piece- the adagio second movement of Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez (1939)- is a beautiful one, and a staple of Spanish guitar repertoire. I’ve heard it dozens of times- it’s even on my locally stored Spotify playlist. But tonight’s performance had greater depth and power than any recording I can find.
The setting was certainly grand- the Teatro Colon is itself a national monument and an exemplar of 19th century Neoclassical splendor. But today itself was historic.
Ever since presidential candidate Jorge Eliecer Gaitan was assassinated down the street here in Bogota in 1948, the modern history of Colombia has been one of unending violence. Leftist guerrillas financed in large part through the drug trade still control regions of Colombia. Hundreds of thousands have been killed, tortured, or disappeared during the fighting. In 1985 guerrillas even stormed the Palacio de Justicia across from the capitol and killed half the supreme court((Whether this was prompted by Pablo Escobar to prevent constitutional approval of an extradition treaty with the US is uncertain)). The Colombian military museum’s largest exhibit is a memorial to the soldiers and civilians who’ve perished in the country’s internal fighting.
Today the government reached a momentous peace agreement with the FARC guerrillas- hopefully putting a final end to over half a century of bloodshed. As I looked over the audience I realized that all Colombians over a certain age (so nearly 100% of the symphony-attending demographic) have lived through hard, hard times. The solo guitar melody brought us to the edge of emotion- when the full string section responded I struggled to prevent a tear from falling all the way down from my seat in the fourth-floor balcony.
Finally the up-tempo third movement arrived- a fine piece of music in its own right, but most appreciated because it gave us time to recover before the intermission so we’d be able to speak with steady voices. At its end the audience applauded wildly, bringing Villegas back for an encore during which he did things I’d never even imagined anyone attempting on an acoustic guitar. Somehow he made the bottom two strings sound like a snare drum while he knocked on the body of the guitar for percussion while also still plucking melody and harmony such that I suspected he had an invisible third hand somewhere. This spectacle of blatant virtuosity prompted an even greater round of applause. The audience began clapping together in rhythm until Villegas returned for second encore, which was also excellent, but less facemeltingly impressive so as to let us go more easily.
He thanked the audience. “Today we celebrate a marvelous day,” he said. More cheering. Words on the unifying and elevating power of art through music. Solidarity with Colombia. All well said, but nothing he hadn’t already expressed more eloquently through music.