By Stephen Vargha
That is how Maestro Augusto Carrión Rodas described his first year with the Cuenca Symphony Orchestra. The maestro was installed as the leader on February 18, 2021. Since that time, he has been busy transforming the group of musicians into his vision.
“The first year has been working as a team. It is very important to me that we are one,” the maestro said.
Marshall Devall thinks the maestro accomplished his goal. Devall and his wife, Nadine, moved to Cuenca two years ago and have been huge fans of the symphony orchestra. They love what the new maestro has accomplished with his team of musicians. “He is responsible for leading the symphony into the polished and professional sound they are producing, through a variety of means,” Devall said.
“The orchestra sounds larger and more cohesive. Individual soloists are exceptional. Even with masks on, they seem more animated and enthusiastic with larger crowds. Instrument sections are very tight,” Devall added.
Cuenca’s maestro has had some worldly experience, which has helped take the symphony to the next level. In 1990, he worked in the Symphony Orchestra of the State of Mexico OSEM. During his tenure, that symphony toured China, Europe, and the United States. On top of that, Carrión Rodas was the creator and founder of the String Quartet of the City Hall of Toluca and the Philharmonic Orchestra of Toluca.
That worldly experience has led the maestro to have ambitious plans for the upcoming 50th anniversary of the symphony, created by Supreme Decree No. 1260 and published in the Official Register of November 10, 1972.
“In the next six months, I want to bring opera to the outdoors,” the maestro said. “It has never been done in Cuenca and I think the huge courtyard at Pumapungo is perfect for it.”
Right now, the maestro is looking at an opera by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He is leaning towards “Don Giovanni,” an opera in two acts. It is based on the legends of Don Juan, a fictional libertine and seducer, written by the 17th century Spanish Baroque dramatist, poet, and Roman Catholic monk, Tirso de Molina.
Music for children is part of the maestro’s plans as well as music from important musicians. “I want to have concerts with music from contemporary classical composers,” the maestro said.
He wants professional ballet to be performed again at Teatro Pumapungo. The goal is to bring back dancers from the National Ballet of Ecuador, which is based in Quito.
For American expats, the maestro wants to do a special concert in July. “I want to have a concert with music from American composers such as Aaron Copeland and Leonard Bernstein,” he said. Of course, since it will be July, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture would be part of the program.
Making the Cuenca Symphony Orchestra world renowned is the maestro’s goal. He wants guest conductors from around the world, including from France and Spain. On March 17, Korean director Jongwhi Vakh led the symphony. Currently, Vakh is the Music Director of the Symphony Orchestra of the City of Asunción (Paraguay).
He says that virtual concerts on Facebook and YouTube have given the group of musicians a big worldwide presence, especially during the Covid pandemic, when there were no public performances.
“Social media has helped us to get a bigger audience. People from other countries are watching us,” Carrión Rodas said. “We are also building a new public audience in our city as people have been curious and want to know more about our music.”
The maestro adds that it helps that Cuenca has five universities and a high percentage of the population is highly educated.
Having a passion for classical music is an important part of the maestro’s duties. A conductor does not just step up to the podium and instruct without any dialogue, discussion, or interpretation. Passion needs to be personified and passed along to the musicians.
Devall has noticed. “The Maestro appears to be coaxing huge dynamic variations, which make the music so much more exciting. There have been pieces which I know well that sound like a major symphonic orchestra,” Devall said.
This passion includes having favorites. The maestro says that among his favorites are the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Igor Stravinsky, Mozart, Joseph Haydn, and Hungarian Béla Bartók.
“Symphony No. 5 by Gustav Mahler is my favorite piece of music,” said the maestro. “The music’s movements have all the sensibilities inside a composer. His compassion shows in his music.”
The fourth movement may be Mahler’s most famous composition and is the most frequently performed of his works. Often just known by its tempo marking Adagietto, the movement is the maestro’s favorite portion. “Only string instruments are used for this movement,” said the maestro. “It is a sublime piece of music.”
To help have a bigger presence in Cuenca, the maestro wants to build a young people’s orchestra. “It would be a Class B orchestra, where the young musicians would study and practice with our musicians,” the maestro said. The orchestra would be modeled after similar groups in Quito and Guayaquil.
Concerts are free to the public, which is quite amazing these days. To put that into perspective, the average price of tickets for a Philadelphia Orchestra concert is $196 per ticket. The most you can expect to pay is $473.
Being free is like the cherry on top of the dessert for Devall and his wife, especially with the quality of music being performed: “These recent performances make us want to attend each week in eager anticipation of what they will do next!”
Upcoming performance: Thursday, March 24, 8 p.m., Teatro Casa de la Cultura, Calle Luis Cordero. Grieg, Mozart, Haydn, and Brahms. Maestro Augusto Carrión Rodas, Bryan Condoy, Invited Clarinet Soloist. To watch performances online, click here. For more information about the orchestra and future performances, click here.
Photos by Stephen Vargha