At From the Top, we say that “Music is Powerful Stuff.” In some ways, our experience in Colombia last week was powerful in ways we could never have expected. Our first international show, From the Top Colombia, a collaboration between From the Top, Batuta (Colombia’s national youth music program) and the Filarmónica Joven de Colombia (Colombia’s national youth orchestra), was one of the most inspiring and rewarding shows on which we’ve ever had the pleasure of working. Our trip lasted from Sunday, May 27 through Thursday, May 31st. Please click below to read more about our amazing experience.
For many years From the Top has enjoyed a wonderful relationship with conductor Matthew Hazelwood. We first featured Matthew leading his excellent Interlochen Arts Academy Orchestra in a performance from Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite” on a taping in January 2007. Matthew then led them in a performance on our PBS television series, From the Top at Carnegie Hall. Shortly thereafter Matthew was hired as the Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the Filarmónica Joven de Colombia (FJC), the national youth orchestra of Colombia, and he and Music Producer Tom Vignieri began discussing the possibility of taping a show there. We kept hearing from Matthew, or “Mateo” as he was called in Colombia, about the amazing progress this young ensemble was making. It soon became apparent that From the Top would be the ideal showcase for the young musicians of Colombia participating in Batuta, the national youth music program.
To do something special, like taping your first show outside the United States, requires a lot of work, and to make From the Top Colombia happen meant extensive planning sessions with our production team and the team in Colombia, including: From the Top‘s Executive Producers Jerry Slavet and Jennifer Hurley-Wales, Tour Producer David Balsom, Radio Producers Tom Voegeli and Tim Banker, Music Producer Tom Vignieri, Mateo Hazelwood, President of Batuta Juan Antonio Cuellar, Executive Director of FJC Helena Barreto, the Colombian Consulate in Boston, and the Colombian Embassy in Washington, DC, just to name a few.
Many months of planning went into making our trip an action-packed week that we will never forget.
Meeting the Orchestra
We arrived in Bogota late Sunday night after almost 12-hours of traveling that began
with a flight out of Boston at noon and ended with checking in to the hotel at 11:00pm.
On Monday we sat in on a rehearsal where Mateo had the orchestra playing in the round; something he liked to do so they could all see and hear each other. The music making by these young musicians was nothing less than astonishing.Later that day, producers Tom Voegeli and Tim Banker spent time with several orchestra members who would be interviewed during the show. Dinner followed, and everything was humming along as planned.
Challenges in Our Path
We woke up on Tuesday morning to the very distressing news that Mateo had suffered a heart attack overnight. However, we were encouraged to hear that he was resting comfortably at a nearby hospital and they were making plans to move him to Bogota.
Helena and Juan Antonio gathered the orchestra for rehearsal and to break the news about the beloved Maestro. Helena said that this was a teaching moment about how life is unpredictable and that it often throws challenges in our paths. FJC assistant conductor Luis Guillermo Vicaria would take over conducting duties, and as the saying goes, “the show would go on.” Juan Antonio then said that the collaboration with From the Top was Mateo’s inspiration to share “with his countrymen the achievements of you, the future of Colombia. It is your responsibility to fulfill his dreams.” The silence in the room was profound.
Luis Guillermo then took to the conductor’s podium and led the FJC through a reading of Strauss’ “Death and Transfiguration” that was to be part of the show. It was as powerful and moving a musical experience as one could imagine as the kids played beautifully in tribute to Mateo. Rehearsals that day finished with a vigorous reading of Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme by Paganini with host Christopher O’Riley at the piano.
Meanwhile, we were receiving periodic reports of Mateo’s condition; he was stable enough to be moved to Bogota, and his ambulance passed the From the Top team on our way back to Bogota to meet Allegro, Batuta’s premier Orff ensemble (a youth choir with small mallet instruments) that also would be featured on the program.
From the Top taping days are always long ones, but Wednesday was particularly challenging. In addition to the language barrier, we had a full orchestra on the show, AND an additional 40 member ensemble with Allegro. But as always, our production team led by Elizabeth DeVore with Technical Director Berred Ouelette and sound engineers John Servies and David Forbes worked seamlessly with the local crew and load-in went on without a hitch.
Just before dress rehearsal, Juan Antonio reported that Mateo was coming out of intensive care soon. Things were looking very positive.
The performance itself was one of the most compelling we’ve ever experienced. Teatro Mayor Julio Mario Santo Domingo was filled to capacity, with many in the Spanish-speaking audience following the spoken sections of the show via translation on assisted listening devices.
For the young musicians we showcased on the broadcast, this was an event of immense importance. This was Colombia’s opportunity to shine on an international stage and to be part of the most influential national radio program in the US presenting young musicians. And these kids made the most of it.
Christopher O’Riley, who gave an outstanding performance of the final variations of the Rachmaninoff with FJC told the orchestra that their performance of the final moments of Strauss’ “Death and Transfiguration” had moved him to tears. They replied, “We were all thinking of Mateo.”
Bittersweet Homecoming: A Friend Lost & Remembered
We all headed to the airport very early the next morning knowing that we had been part of something very special, and yes, powerful. We were part of a culture-changing event for music in Colombia. Audiences across the US and beyond will hear the amazing the energy, discipline, and passion of the Filarmónica Joven de Colombia as well as the impact music is having on young people in Colombia through Batuta’s neighborhood-based, national music project.
But, the long travel day on Thursday gave way to shocking developments on Friday. Helena had written an email around midnight to say that Mateo passed away less than 24 hours after our concert in Bogota. On Thursday, he had been surrounded by his friends and family when he was presented with the From the Top medal given to all performers on the show.
Jerry Slavet summed up our feelings when he wrote to our colleagues in Bogota that “All of us at From the Top are forever grateful for Mateo’s introduction to Batuta and FJC, and even more importantly for his help in making sure that the concert/recording was filled with exquisite music. We will miss our dear friend but our sadness is lessened by the extraordinary accomplishments that he has left behind, making this world a better place through music.”
The From the Top episode recorded in Bogota is dedicated to the memory of Maestro Matthew Hazelwood, and will premiere the week of September 24, 2012.