Two nights spent listening to music in La Paz.

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The banner in the lobby shows a young man: tie pulled tight, face scrubbed clean, topped with a quiff and lit up by a Saturday-night smile. The look, Roy Orbison stripped of his sunglasses, is archaic; so, too, is the photograph, tinted by hand and probably taken half a century ago. And yet when Luis Gutiérrez walks slowly on to the stage of La Paz’s Teatro Municipal, his grey quiff now the victim of gravity and his waistline larger beneath a tidy suit, his grin gives him away.

Gutiérrez, the La Paz papers have told us, is known as ‘La Voz del Ande Boliviano’, and has been singing for his supper for decades; he turns 78 this year. Not so the musicians behind him. This is the first concert by the Orquesta de Cámara (Chamber Orchestra) La Paz, a 25-strong ensemble pulled together by a pair of local musicians with the express purpose of preserving and reviving music seen as important to the Bolivian national heritage.

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Led by well-travelled conductor Willy Pozadas, a slender man whose walrus moustache doesn’t quite disguise a tender smile, the orchestra is filled with musicians young enough to be Gutiérrez’s grandchildren, maybe his great-grandchildren. They’re uncertain at first, slow to find and follow the beat. Trying to catch their eyes, Pozadas makes the two-part gesture familiar to anyone who spent their childhood playing in youth orchestras, pointing first to his eyes and then to his chest. ‘Watch me.’

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Perched on a stool, Gutiérrez is in fine voice, the tenor of his heyday now nearer a baritone but still exactly on point with songs he must have sung thousands of times before. Although the material is billed as Bolivian folk music, it comes across more like the product of a Latino Tin Pan Alley; easy listening, we’d call it these days, with Gutiérrez a sort of Bolivian Dick Haymes. Weightless melodies such as ‘Estrellita de Amor Lily‘ and ‘Cholita Paceña‘ must seem like relics to the young musicians backing him, but the arrangements are lively – fun to play, for sure – and the group steadily grows in confidence.

When Gutiérrez takes a breather, he’s replaced at the front of the stage by Delfín Sejas, a pianist billed with a certain inevitability as ‘El Mago del Teclado’ (‘The Magician of the Keys’). He plays a couple of tunes with the orchestra; however, he really shines when he’s let loose by himself on a pair of tangoesque pieces, right hand pulling pirouettes in the upper reaches while his left issues thumping reminders of the downbeat. He allows himself a barely perceptible sharp intake of breath when he misses a note, but he doesn’t miss many. His dexterity is a marvel. He is 82 years old.

 


 

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Born in La Paz at the end of the 19th century, Flavio Machicado Viscarra moved to the US in the 1910s to study law at Harvard. While there, he discovered the classical music tradition, and fell in love with it. In 1916, still a student, he invested in an early gramophone system. Aware that few – if any – of his neighbours had access to music, he asked them round to listen to records in his home, a one-off invitation that grew into a weekly gathering. He called these evenings flaviadas.

In 1938, 22 years after he bought his first records, Machicado returned to the city in which he was born. Building himself a house in the neighbourhood of Sopocachi, he set aside a room in which he could continue to host his flaviadas, sharing his love of classical music with a city that had little background in it.

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Today, recorded music is no longer a precious substance; the opposite, in fact. Machicado has been dead for nearly 30 years. And yet the flaviadas continue each Saturday in the same room, the Sopocachi house now dedicated to promoting ‘la educación humanista y la responsabilidad social‘ through the Fundación Flavio Machicado Viscarra.

The tradition, for some, must be routine. We arrive, sign our names in a visitors’ book and climb the stairs to a large, ordered living room, one wall lined with records and another lit by four stained-glass windows (Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Mahler). At the dot of 6.30pm, the host – Eduardo Machicado Saravia, Flavio’s son – gives a short biographical sketch of a composer, tells us what we’re about to hear, and then drops the needle on to the record. And we listen, closely, to the music, the crackle of the vinyl mixing with the snap and pop of logs burning in the open fire.

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At the end of the piece, after a breath of silence, the process repeats. There is no discussion, no pretence that any of us should be interested in what anyone else present thinks of the piece or the performance. The repertoire is traditional: a Bach cantata, a little Vivaldi and Telemann, an early Beethoven quartet, Martha Argerich’s dazzling 1967 recording of Prokofiev’s third piano concerto. After two hours, the lights are undimmed; late afternoon has turned to evening. After a brief thank-you to our host, we all file off quietly into the night.

Commercially, recorded music has been cheapened by digitisation in general and the internet in particular. Nearly everything is instantly accessible, often for free (legally or otherwise), to anybody with a stable online connection. For most of us, absorbing music is now a passive act as often as it’s an active one. But by stubbornly retaining the same ideals that inspired their creation in a very different time, the flaviadas – arcane, austere, anomalous – seem to remind us that whatever music might cost, its value is incalculable. Left in its company in a room free of distractions, we are not hearing, but listening.

from Nuestra Señora de La Paz, L, Bolivia