Dr. Ross Walter, VCU Music’s associate professor of trombone, euphonium and tuba, has been taking VCU brass players to perform in Cartagena, Colombia for six years. This year he traveled with his largest group yet, Commonwealth Brass, which consists of eleven VCU student and alumni brass players. This annual trip not only provides an invaluable performing and cultural experience for the VCU musicians, but it also brings something very special to the community of Cartagena.
“You always hear people say that music is a universal language, but you don’t really understand it until you experience it first hand, “said VCU trumpet player, Hamed Barbarji. “I didn’t know any Spanish so I had to learn to teach and explain things through music.”
“The overall performing experience was great because not only are you getting more practice as a performer, but you are doing different things than you would do in the States,” Barbarji said. “You have to put yourself out of your comfort zone to make the audience happy and entertained.”
Evelia Gonzalez Porto, president of Fundación Tocando Puertas: para abrir futuros, invites Walter and his students to perform and teach in Colombia every year. The title of Porto’s foundation translates to “Knocking on Doors to Open Futures” and is dedicated to bettering the lives of children through music and education.
Over the years, Porto has brought many Colombian musicians and students to the United States for their education. It was through one of those students that Walter met Porto, and they have collaborated ever since.
Walter and Commonwealth Brass toured Cartagena from May 17-24, performing for a variety of audiences. They found a particularly interactive audience while performing at a local community center on the island of Bocachica. When Commonwealth Brass invited people to come conduct the ensemble, audience members young and old jumped at the chance.
The audience especially loved the song “Colombia Tierra Querida (Colombia Beloved Land).” As the ensemble played, the whole crowd began to clap and sing the lyrics to the song of their land. Each year Dr. Walter’s brass group learns this popular Colombian tune to perform in Cartagena, and it never fails to delight. The foundation considers this song to be its anthem.
The VCU musicians performed their largest concert in the beautiful Teatro Adolfo Mejía on May 22, where they wowed a near capacity audience. The Festival Internacional de Brass: dialogo entre dos culturas occurs annually, serving as the “grand finale” of the trip to Cartagena. The VCU musicians are featured as guest artists, and they collaborate with faculty and students from Colombian schools, culminating in one final performance of “Colombia Tierra Querida.” The students find that performing in the stunning Colombian theater for such an incredibly receptive audience is a rewarding and memorable experience.
“For some of us that theater is the most gorgeous place we’re ever going to play in our lives. To get that kind of experience is extremely beneficial,” said VCU alumni Jonathan Forbes.
Each year the VCU students also get the opportunity to teach and perform at Colombian schools. This year Commonwealth Brass visited and performed at two Cartagenan universities, the University Institution Bellas Artes y Ciencias de Bolívar and Corporación Universitaria Autónoma de Nariño.
They also performed at Comfenalco, a private school for children in Cartagena, and taught master classes to the young musicians there. The VCU students worked with the children one-on-one and in small groups to help improve their musicianship and technical abilities.
Walter and his brass players bring instruments to the schools of Cartagena and donate them through Fundación Tocando Puertas. This year, Walter and the Commonwealth Brass presented four trombones, a clarinet and an alto saxophone to the foundation. Over the past six years the program has donated a total of 40 instruments.
Walter finds that this trip enhances the music department as a whole. The rehearsal process alone greatly improves the musicianship and abilities of the brass students. Additionally, the performance experience is truly unique. The Colombian culture’s deep love and appreciation for music makes it extremely rewarding to perform there. The students who go on this trip return to VCU as more mature musicians and performers, and they enrich the VCU music ensembles through their experience.
“The students have to prepare for professional level performances, and when they perform in Colombia people really appreciate them. That is a very special thing,” said Walter. “Their brass ensembles might perform for a small audience here on campus, but when when they go there they perform for a big theater full of people who enthusiastically receive their music.”
Next year Walter hopes to travel with a new young group of VCU brass players and have alumni of the program come and join them on the final concert.