The Tour that Will Forever Change My Life #LaJovenEnTexas

On June 23, fourteen Houston Symphony musicians traveled thousands of miles to Colombia to begin our orchestra’s first ever educational partnership with one of Latin America’s finest youth ensembles, the Colombian Youth Philharmonic (Filarmónica Joven de Colombia). Our musicians have been in the small town of Paipa, Colombia working with this next generation of professional orchestral musicians on sectionals, coaching and musical mentorship. Carlos Andrés Botero, a conductor who has appeared with the Houston Symphony as Co-Host of our “Musically Speaking with Andrés” series at Rice University, joined the Philharmonic in his home country to further prepare them for the second and final part of this educational partnership, which will take place right here in Houston next month. Here he shares his reflections and excitement about the week our musicians spent with these talented young musicians.

Carlos Andrés Botero leading the Colombian Youth Philharmonic in rehearsal.

Carlos Andrés Botero leading the Colombian Youth Philharmonic in rehearsal.

The Filarmónica Joven de Colombia (Colombian Youth Philharmonic) is a very special orchestra, and one very close to my heart. It represents my dream of giving the best young musicians in my home country all the amazing opportunities that I never had growing up. It is the first time in the history of Colombia that we have the talent and the resources necessary to perform a piece like The Rite of Spring, which Houston audiences can see for themselves on July 12 at Day of Music. In many ways, the fact that we gathered for two weeks is the culmination of several decades of patient and constant effort of many musicians that have studied overseas and returned to build the Newer Generation of musicians in Colombia. This week represents my desire and commitment to be part of that wave of artists that dreams of changing the world one note at a time.

What makes this #LaJovenEnTexas tour so important is the preparation leading up to it. What’s even more special is that a group of musicians traveled thousands of miles to share their experience with our young musicians. The expertise that the Houston Symphony musicians brought to Colombia was vital in making our week of preparation swift, efficient and deep with meaning and artistry. Every single one of us has worked round the clock to nurture and reshape all the Colombian Youth Philharmonic’s talent into a powerful and dynamic orchestra that sparks the natural talented enthusiasm of the young men and women.

The experience initially took us to the Bogotá airport, immediately followed by a four-hour road trip to the historic town of Paipa, 124 miles northeast of Colombia’s capital. The independence of Colombia was forged around this area almost 200 years ago, also by brave people in their twenties who dreamt of a different nation and a place of leadership in the world. I always find it quite fitting that the Colombian Youth Philharmonic’s residencies are here, at the edge of a 50-acre artificial lake at the top of the Andes. The beauty and historic importance of the surroundings make this an inspiring location.

Houston Symphony Associate Concertmaster Eric Halen working with violinists of the Colombian Youth Philharmonic.

Houston Symphony Associate Concertmaster Eric Halen working with violinists of the Colombian Youth Philharmonic.

I led the 112-strong ensemble with the assistance of another conductor for two days prior to the arrival of the Houston Symphony musicians. Knowing that very few of the young musicians had played this music before, the strategy was to build a basic knowledge of the work via sectionals where the Symphony faculty could build each section of the orchestra in a personalized way. For the first three days, we were able to strike a balanced proportion of individual lessons, master classes, workshops by instrument and by instrument families, guided listening sessions, history and theory analysis, and Full Orchestra Rehearsals. Some of us have even found time each day to coach chamber ensembles in preparation for our concerts in Houston including the highly anticipated side-by-side performance and residency in Houston. It has been a busy week that went by too fast, but it was without a doubt a rewarding week with exceptional results; everything we wanted and more.

From a very rocky first rehearsal, we now have an orchestra that can play the hardest piece of music of the twentieth century. And even more, they can play it with confidence while following the nuances required making high quality music. On Saturday, June 27, just a few days after the experience began, I had my last rehearsals with them before maestro Andrés took the podium for the last days before the official start of the Tour. On top of Stravinsky’s brilliant score, we also prepared eight other pieces by different composers, all demanding substantial differences in our playing efforts and precise technique. They proved their commitment and focus by seamlessly switching from one to the other with accuracy in a matter of minutes!

Andrés and the orchestra acknowledging the audience's applause after their first performance in Medellín, Colombia.

Andrés and the orchestra acknowledging the audience’s applause after their first performance in Medellín, Colombia.

Taking all this talent, first shaped by many years of study in their schools, and building it into an ensemble that can stand now on its own feet will be one of my favorite moments of my life, I’m sure! To see their faces light up when even the most obscure passages start making sense thanks to the subtle changes of timbre in the woodwinds during rehearsal is so remarkable. I only wish everyone in our audience could have witnessed that process from the very beginning. It would surely make you love their effort and dedication as much as I do. Nevertheless, by attending the concerts you will witness an unforgettable concert by players who truly enjoy making music together.

And now now off to a series of concerts in Medellin, Bogota, Dallas and Houston!

Learn more about the Colombian Youth Philharmonic’s visit to Houston, which will include performances of The Rite of Spring and Carmina Burana. Get daily updates, photos and videos of our musicians’ journey in Colombia by visiting our Web site and following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

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The Sound of Colombia’s Future

Me at Puente de Boyacá.

Me at Puente de Boyacá.

On June 23, I boarded a direct flight to Bogotá, Colombia, a place I’ve never had the opportunity to visit before. I’m fortunate that my job took me to a country I’ve always wanted to visit. I knew going in that Colombians were great people, so I never once doubted that this would be a good experience.

The next day, I was taken to Paipa, Boyacá, just northeast of Bogotá. That’s when the magic began. Little did I know that Boyacá had so much history, let alone mind-blowing scenery. As a Spanish speaker, I was able to enjoy many conversations with the locals: from Bogotá to Paipa, my driver, like the good Colombian he is, gave me a proper tour, giving me some context into each town we passed, and in between his fun commentaries we talked a little bit about everything…including fútbol! We were on the Bogotá-Tunja highway (110 km east of Bogotá) when he told me that he wanted to show me Puente de Boyacá, the place where Spanish and Colombian forces fought during the famous Battle of Boyacá. Led by Simón Bolívar, the Colombian soldiers fought in what became the decisive battle for the liberation of New Granada (now Colombia). I couldn’t resist: I had to take a selfie with Puente de Boyacá in the background!

Houston Symphony Principal Bass Robin Kesselman working with the musicians of the Colombian Youth Philharmonic.

Houston Symphony Principal Bass Robin Kesselman working with the musicians of the Colombian Youth Philharmonic.

We got back on the road, and a few hours later, I was at my final destination: Estelar Paipa Hotel & Centro de Convenciones, a place where nature is the way of life! With 102 acres of forests and hills and the incredible Lake Sochagota, I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed with joy. I immediately got to work, greeting our incredible musicians who had traveled thousands of miles the night before to be in Paipa for Day 1 of our residency with the Colombian Youth Philharmonic. Then, without even checking into my room, I got together with the Colombian Youth Philharmonic staff to discuss our plan of attack for the next few days. I immediately hit it off with my counterpart at the Colombian Youth Philharmonic, Juan Andrés Rojas Castillo. Right away, we started discussing ways in which we could help each other to tell the story of the partnership between the musicians of the Colombian Youth Philharmonic and those of the Houston Symphony.

What happened after Day 1 is something I can’t quite describe with words. The bond created between our musicians and the Colombian Youth Philharmonic musicians was evident right away, despite the language barrier. The ten- to twelve-hour days didn’t feel like work. The young musicians were learning and absorbing everything their mentors were teaching them, and their mentors were doing everything in their power to make the experience worthwhile—from learning a bit of Spanish to practicing longer hours with their students.

Colombian Youth Philharmonic musicians hard at work in rehearsal.

Colombian Youth Philharmonic musicians hard at work in rehearsal.

I was fortunate enough to meet most of the young musicians and had very fun and deep conversations with them—everything from discussing their goals and career aspirations to simply sharing a few laughs. I can’t quite describe how rewarding this experience has been. These musicians in their twenties are more dedicated than I ever was at that age. The structure and intensity of the residency allowed for some real quality time with their mentors and great one-on-one coaching. But despite the long hours and intensity, what was even more powerful for me to see were the friendships we all created in this place. A lot of our musicians scheduled time with their students for extracurricular activities, like running and coffee breaks. These friendships were developing at a fast pace despite the language barrier and intensity of the practice schedule. It must be true what they say about music being a universal language!

Omelette with fresh eggs, anyone?

Omelette with fresh eggs, anyone?

Now let’s talk about our fourteen musicians and their experiences. First, I think all of us can agree that the cool temperatures and amazing scenery were incredible bonuses. I’d occasionally find some of our musicians staring into the horizon, at the trees or horses while sipping on a cup of espresso—because if you’re in Colombia, coffee is the way of life! The food was incredible to say the least. In fact, our harpist Paula Page thinks the food came from our backyard. Check out the photos! But the scenery, horses, and lake aside…for me personally, I feel grateful and thankful to have gotten to know these musicians that I admire and respect so much. We also had some good laughs whenever we had free time during meals or breaks.

I will miss waking up every morning to the sounds of violins and flutes; these talented musicians were practicing day in and day out. Walking the halls during the day and seeing them lug around their instruments from room to room was fun to watch. I thank the students and the staff for their hospitality, the great conversations and for allowing me to intrude during sectionals and rehearsals to capture the experience and share it with everyone in Houston and beyond. Check out my photos at!

Thank you, Colombian Youth Philharmonic and Houston Symphony, for giving me one of the best experiences of my life.

Me and our amazing Houston Symphony musicians!

Me and our amazing Houston Symphony musicians!

Learn more about the Colombia Youth Philharmonic’s upcoming residency in Houston here!

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Robert Franz & East Meets West

Robert Franz, Houston Symphony Associate Conductor

Robert Franz, Houston Symphony Associate Conductor

Tonight, Houston Symphony Associate Conductor Robert Franz will lead our orchestra in a fascinating East Meets West program at Miller Outdoor Theatre. Recently, I got to ask Maestro Franz a few questions about his inspiration for this unique and interesting concert.

Calvin Dotsey: For our third ExxonMobil Summer Symphony Nights concert this year, you have come up with an especially interesting program that explores connections between Western and Asian musical traditions. What inspired you to create this program?

Robert Franz: The program started with the idea of Debussy’s symphonic masterpiece, La Mer. Each piece has in common a connection with nature and an exploration between Western Symphonic Music and Eastern folk music and sounds. The “story” of this concert is really one of multiple civilizations inspiring each other. Two works on the program are by Chinese composers, and the work by Griffes and Debussy are great examples of Impressionistic Music. Much like its painting counterpart, this music revels in the exploration of timbres.

CD: The first piece on this program is Dance of the Yao People by Liu and Mao, a piece that may not be familiar to our regular classical audience. Could you tell us a little about this piece?

RF: This work is a folk song that comes from the southwest portion of China. The work itself may not be well known, but the sound is quintessentially Chinese.

CD: Next on the program is a well-known orchestral favorite, Smetana’s Vltava (a.k.a. The Moldau). What inspired you to include this piece on this program?

RF: This piece was included for two reasons. First of all, like the Debussy, this piece was inspired by nature. You can practically hear the river bubbling along. Also, the work is created to programmatically describe the sights and sounds you might hear on your voyage down this noble river.

CD: The next piece is also less often programmed: Griffes’ The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan. What can you tell us about this piece and why you chose to include it?

RF: This work is very programmatic. Like The Moldau, this work takes you on a journey down a sacred river in China, ending up at Xanadu, the summer home of Kubla Kahn. This work is extraordinarily atmospheric. It is perfect for an outdoor venue like the one we are in this evening.

Changlu Wu, pipa

Changlu Wu, pipa

CD: We also have a special guest soloist for this concert, pipa player Changlu Wu. The pipa is not an instrument usually found in the orchestra. How would you describe the pipa to someone who has never seen or heard one before?

RF: The pipa looks like a “Chinese lute.” It typically has four strings, and has a wonderfully evocative sound. Changlu Wu is an incredible musician, and the moment I heard her play I wanted to do a concerto with her.

CD: Changlu Wu will perform another piece not often programmed on our Miller concerts: Qilian Rhapsody for Pipa and Orchestra by Han. What is a Qilian Rhapsody? How is it like a Rhapsody in Blue or one on a theme by Paganini?

RF: Qilian is a mountain range in China, and this piece uses folk music from that area of the country. A rhapsody typically is a work that organically moves from one section to another. This work does that with great ease and finesse.

CD: Last on the program is a staple of the repertoire, Debussy’s La Mer. What makes this piece a good fit for this program?

RF: Debussy wrote this piece during a period in late nineteenth century Paris when all things Asian were in vogue. This suited Debussy perfectly as he was attracted to the use of the pentatonic scale and a style of composing that focuses on the timbres of the various instruments. This piece is evocative of the movement of the waves and the power of the ocean. Debussy was inspired by the Atlantic Ocean, and I’m sure there will be moments when you will feel like you are sitting at the ocean with him!

This East Meets West concert is part of our FREE ExxonMobil Summer Symphony Nights series at Miller Outdoor Theatre. Don’t miss it tonight, June 26 at 8:30 pm! Learn more here.

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Colombian Youth Philharmonic Dual Residency Begins


Houston Symphony Principal Cello Brinton Smith with musicians of the Filarmónica Joven de Colombia (Colombian Youth Philharmonic) in 2014. This summer, he and other Houston Symphony musicians will return to Colombia to work with these talented young musicians.

The Houston Symphony is proud to impact communities at home and abroad. Through a deep partnership with the Filarmónica Joven de Colombia (Colombian Youth Philharmonic)—a pre-professional training orchestra from Music Director Andrés Orozco-Estrada’s home country—the Houston Symphony, in partnership with the University of Houston (UH) Moores School of Music, will host the entire Colombian Youth Philharmonic in Houston, and musicians of the Houston Symphony will travel to Paipa and Medellín, Colombia to work with these aspiring and gifted  musicians.

During their 10-day visit to Houston, the young musicians will stay on campus at UH, and they will rehearse and perform side-by-side with Houston Symphony musicians for two performances of Orff’s Carmina Burana on July 17 and 18. The Colombian Youth Philharmonic will also perform Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring as part of the third annual FREE Day of Music on the afternoon of July 12. On July 13, its musicians will perform a free chamber music concert at the UH Moores Opera House. In addition, musicians of the Colombian Youth Philharmonic will enrich our community by performing for Spanish-speaking seniors at Ripley House Community Center and working with music students in Fort Bend County.

The town of Paipa, Colombia, where Houston Symphony musicians will mentor and coach the musicians of the Colombian Youth Philharmonic.

The town of Paipa, Colombia, where Houston Symphony musicians will mentor and coach the musicians of the Colombian Youth Philharmonic.

In advance of the Colombian Youth Philharmonic’s visit to Houston, 14 Houston Symphony musicians have traveled to Colombia to provide coaching and professional development. Such a partnership offers the young Colombian Youth Philharmonic musicians access to a professional orchestral environment and personal attention from our musicians. Additionally, it extends the Houston Symphony’s educational mission internationally, while building bridges to the Colombian community in Houston.

With the partnership, Andrés seeks to help the Colombian Youth Philharmonic’s young musicians realize their full musical potential, grow the appreciation for classical music in his home country and expand the Houston Symphony’s educational reach internationally. “I’m very proud and inspired,” said Andrés, “by the Houston Symphony’s commitment to the development and training of young musicians. It underscores the importance of music in the developmental years of our youth.”

“Giving young musicians the opportunity to share the stage with our talented musicians is a hallmark of the Houston Symphony’s commitment to transformational education programs,” said Mark Hanson, Executive Director and CEO of the Houston Symphony. “With the dual residency, we have the unique opportunity to foster a mutually beneficial relationship between our organizations and countries that will also engage and inspire diverse audiences throughout Greater Houston through the power of classical music.”

The culminating event of the residency is a pair of concerts on an extended stage at Jones Hall during which the Colombian Youth Philharmonic will play side-by-side with the Houston Symphony, Houston Symphony Chorus and Houston Children’s Chorus in performances of Orff’s epic Carmina Burana. The Day of Music and Carmina Burana concerts will all be conducted by Andrés, who is also an artistic adviser for the Colombian Youth Philharmonic.

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Hitting High Notes with Houston Symphony Chorus Member Kat White, alto

From Mozart’s Requiem and Verdi’s Requiem, to our Mahler 3 season finale, the Houston Symphony Chorus has played an integral role in many of our 2014-15 Season concerts. This coming Sunday, May 31, the Chorus will shine on its own—they will be featured without the orchestra, and will perform works by Handel, J. S. Bach, Brahms, and others. The concert is FREE and open to all. Learn more about the concert here.

We sat down with one of our Chorus members, Kat White, alto, who discussed what led her to audition for the Chorus, her most memorable performances, and what life is like when she’s not on stage singing. 

Beginnings: I grew up in Trinity, Texas, a town of about 2,500 residents, northeast of Houston. I received my BA in media studies from Pomona College in Claremont, CA, where I also studied voice. My prior choral experience is all over the map, literally, and also in terms of musical styles. During my San Francisco years, I sang with the San Francisco Lyric Chorus, a classical ensemble that focuses on rarely-performed works, and

Kat White, alto, backstage at Jones Hall

Kat White, alto (right), backstage at Jones Hall

also with friends in an a cappella quartet. We sang everything from early music to barbershop to Gnarls Barkley, but we mostly performed in BART stations; when we’d collected enough change, we’d go out for Indian food. Prior to that, I sang with the Stanford University Symphonic Chorus and the Pomona College Chorus and Glee Club, which were my first classical ensembles. Before that, I was in my high school’s show choir, the Sandpipers of Chesterton, Indiana.

With the Houston Symphony Chorus: I joined Houston Symphony Chorus in January 2012, and I also joined the University of Houston Choral Artists at that time.

Inspiration for auditioning for the Chorus: It has always been important  to me to have a place to make music. I auditioned for the Chorus six days after I moved to Houston. I didn’t yet have a car or an apartment of my own, but I had a choir, and a pretty great one at that! It’s an incredible privilege to sing with these musicians and maestros and to perform for this audience in Jones Hall.

Most fulfilling moments with the Chorus: There were a lot of fulfilling moments last

The Houston Symphony Chorus performing in Mahler's Symphony No. 8, Symphony of a Thousand, conducted by Christoph Eschenbach

The Houston Symphony Chorus performing in Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, Symphony of a Thousand, conducted by Christoph Eschenbach

spring and summer, including sharing the stage with 436 fellow musicians for the indescribably glorious waterfall of sound that is the finale of Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand. I also learned a few choice words of Klingon to perform the Star Trek double feature! It’s fulfilling to serve as section leader for the altos, supporting them during the director transition and helping them feel prepared and confident in their auditions and performances. Singing with the Houston Symphony Chorus has been such a rich experience.

Importance of music education: Once while singing in a BART station with my a cappella group, a shy young woman lingered to hear our whole set—unusual, because most people rushed past. We waved her over to chat, and she told us that she loved to sing, but her school had no music program. My heart broke for her. School music programs are the reason I have music in my life. They’re the reason I was singing in that BART station and the reason I now sing at Jones Hall. My life is richer for it. One of many reasons I am proud to be affiliated with the Houston Symphony is its commitment to music education and outreach. This orchestra is among the best in the country in terms of how much it does in public schools. I hope Symphony patrons continue to support this work, and even more than that, I hope they are doing all they can to ensure the schools in their community—and in rural and low income communities like where I grew up—have music programs.

Outside of the Chorus: I am director of communications for Houston A+ Challenge, a local nonprofit that is doing really interesting work in schools and in the community to make public education stronger. I also serve on the board of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network of Houston (YNPN), which is a great resource for people building careers in Houston’s vast field of nonprofit organizations. Outside of work, music and YNPN, I like to explore central Houston on my bike, try new bars and restaurants, swim and travel.

Life in Houston: I’ve lived here three years now, most of it in Montrose, and I love it! I especially love the diverse and thriving arts scene. Houston is home to four professional performing arts ensembles, the MFAH and the Menil, but it is also home to the Art Car Parade and the Orange Show. What don’t I love? The humidity. Look at these curls, y’all. I can’t deal.

Currently listening to: Taylor Swift. Maybe don’t print that.

Houston Symphony Chorus In Concert—FREE Performance
St. Luke’s United Methodist Church
3471 Westheimer Rd.
Houston, TX 77027
Sunday, May 31, 2015 @ 4:00 pm
Betsy Cook Weber, conductor
Houston Symphony Chorus
Houston Symphony Chorus Chamber Ensemble
Daryl Robinson, organ
Scott Holshouser, piano

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