Enrique Arturo Diemecke set his sights on conducting at age seven. “Why Arturo?” the young violinist asked his father about his name, who told him he was named after the acclaimed Italian conductor Toscanini. “If you named me Arturo, then that’s what I want to be,” replied the young Diemecke. “I want to be a conductor.”
That same year, he began learning the art that few master. In addition the Bogotá Philharmonic Orchestra (OFB), Diemecke also directs the Long Beach Symphony, Flint Symphony Orchestra and the Buenos Aires Philharmonic. He is a regular guest of many European and US orchestras, including the BBC Symphony. He boasts a Mahler Award for his performances of the artist’s complete symphonies, and a Latin Grammy for his recording of Carlos Chavez piano and violin concertos.
During his extensive career, Diemecke said he has seen conductors and composers who are “arrogant, insulting, condescending.” He said when their musicians make mistakes, they’ll ask their musicians, “’How can you dare play this music that way?’”
“My goodness, how much the orchestra hates that person,” Diemecke said. “So I said to myself: I’m never going to do that.”
When his musicians don’t play a piece well, he doesn’t get angry. If they make a mistake, he takes it with humor. He said he constantly asks himself, “How can you convince a group to get into your world without being arrogant?”
Blatantly void of the self-important stiffness that many world-class conductors are thought to possess, Diemecke seems apt to work closely with acoustically-rich venues that work to expand access to culture. Though symphonic shows are often perceived to be expensive and beyond the budget of many working families, part of the overriding philosophy of the OFB is to drive down prices so as to reach a broader audience.
Having joined the city’s main orchestra in 2011, Diemecke’s vision aligns with the relatively progressive one of OFB: that classical music should be shared with people of all backgrounds, ages and classes.
With support of the Mayoralty, the OFB is able to reach “the people that don’t have the access, or who think it’s too far for them, or too expensive, or feel intimidated going to a concert hall, because they think people might think they don’t dress properly, and they might be embarrassed,” Diemecke said.
In addition playing at the Teatro Mayor Julio Mario Santo Domingo, the Leon de Grieff auditorium and the Tadeo Lozano, the orchestra performs in parks, churches and often for free throughout the city.
Even if it’s not possible to do it all the time, each event is important for the community, Diemecke said. “We can all be together and enjoy the most beautiful compositions that exist.”
Its youth outreach program called ‘Day 40×40’ offers daily music education to 5,000 children in 15 local schools, carries this idea of inclusivity into public schools, where music is typically less of a priority.
OFB director, David García stresses the invaluable impact of music during this stage of life. For many students, especially those in vulnerable areas that the program targets, he said that picking up an instrument after class may prevent them from picking up a weapon or drugs. Next year, they hope to expand the program to reach 8,000 students. Even if they don’t become the next Diemecke, “Art and music is an important channel for expression,” García said.
Diemecke was born in Mexico where his German father and Spanish-French mother raised him on music. Framed by white-blonde eyelashes, his blue eyes seem to smile as he tells of growing up in the music academy his parents ran. “We had music from dawn ‘til dusk,” he said.
His father, a cellist and conductor, directed the academy, and his mother, a pianist, vice-directed. At 6 a.m., the buzz of instruments filled the home and lasted all day. At midnight came the dancers, who practiced until 3 or 4 in the morning.
At age 7, he played and toured in a string quartet with his brother and two sisters. He soon started chamber orchestra under his father’s direction. The symphony came at age 11, and he spent many years training with renowned violinist Henryk Szeryng. He studied at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. before attending graduate school at the Pierre Monteux School for Advanced Conductors.
Unlike many conductors, Diemecke also composes music. While noting the challenges of making a symphony play your own work, he said it allows him to test the psychological aspect of composition. “You are the person; you are the main character,” he said. “It’s very difficult.”
He provides the example of teaching a composer’s work to the audience. Maybe he would tell them, “This composer was weak, always sick, and the only way he could express himself was through his music,” he said. But for Diemecke, it is much more challenging to theoretically say, “okay, I am weak, and I am sick — play my music.”
“It’s like being director in actor in a film, and suddenly you have to be the actor, and you are the writer,” he said. “It can be dangerous.”
Always playing, conducting or composing, Diemecke rarely sits on the audience side of the auditorium. Still, he strives to shatter the barrier between spectator and performer—what he refers to as the “fourth wall.”
“I want to be in every single corner of the whole room,” he said.
So when Diemecke’s skilled arms take the podium, they reach for the crowd. In Bogotá, he has selected the likes of Wagner and Mahler based on his impression of the Colombian audience’s inclination for romanticism, expressionism and fantasy.
He sees Colombia as a country where people like to read, and Bogotá as a city bound to literature and the arts. Just like when reading Márquez, Fuentes or Cortázar, he said “people here like to go and use their imagination when they go to a concert.” He tries to mimic this same kind of “surrealismo mágico,” or magical surrealism, in his music that is found in the fantasy world of literature.
“[The audience] wants to express themselves through us – through the musicians,” Diemecke said. “They want to exist for a moment through the music we are performing, and through the composers they particularly love the best. And in that moment, the concert really is existing.”
At the beginning of November, the orchestra used this “surrealismo mágico” to make Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem come alive. In addition to honoring 100 years of the musician’s birth, Diemecke says the work is timely given the current state of the Government – FARC talks in Havana. “The War Requiem is a requiem to finish the wars,” the conductor said. “In Colombia, we hope that we can achieve the peace.”
He believes the piece is a very stimulating work, without needing all of the special effects of a movie. Poems are woven between numbers in the piece, recounting a story of brutality, bloodshed and suffering. “Two of its characters are realizing that wars are not needed. How could they forgive themselves, for killing each other?”
Although he conducts far and wide, he builds a strong connection with his musicians and strives to find the most suited piece for a particular group. He describes the OFB as an “orchestra with a heart.” And it has a rhythm unlike others.
Whereas many orchestras are confined to classical music, Diemecke said the Bogotá based musicians can also play popular music. Chambers are “trained to play what’s on the page,” and often falter when faced with playing a pop song with next to no music to read, he said.
But if Diemecke tells the OFB to play a cumbia, for example, the musicians know the rhythm, and can improvise. “The whole idea is to improvise, and the classical music world is exactly the opposite,” he said. “It’s a switch that many orchestras don’t have.”
This transformative ability is particularly important for OFB’s participation in and support of the annual “Rock al Parque” festival, the largest free, outdoor rock music festival in the Americas. They also headline in the Opera, Hip Hop, and Jazz “Al parque,” and the Festival Danza en la Ciudad. “I enjoy the orchestra immensely,” Diemecke says. “And the audience too. It’s a connection.”
When asked about hobbies other than music, Diemecke laughed. “This is my hobby. A hobby is the one thing you enjoy, no?” he said. “We love what we do. And sometimes we get paid for it.”