Becoming Cuenca

Cuenca’s Affordable High-Quality Classical Music

Jun 1, 2024

Approximately 60 percent of classical music audiences believe listening to classical music increases happiness. For expats in Cuenca, it has to be nearly 100 percent.

“I listen to classical music at home. My tastes are eclectic. I also listen to 60s and 70s folk, Willie Nelson, Leonard Cohen, world beat and Andean music depending on my mood of the day,” my retired friend Niki told me. “My son accuses me of wanting my music like wallpaper – there, but unnoticed.”

“We always listen to music at home, and we subscribe to Apple Music because we can select certain pieces we like, a rotation of our favorites, or the channels they provide. We prefer classical and jazz as daily listening because these are a calming and restful “background” to the city noises we often hear from the street,” my retired friend Marshall told me.

Marshall and his wife, Nadine, moved to Cuenca about two weeks after Joanna and me in 2020.

“We also follow several classical music artists and groups on YouTube,” Marshall told me. “So, we would say that classical music is a very important part of our cultural experience here, even at home!”

According to the Gitnux Marketdata Report 2024, classical music listeners attend concerts an average of five to six times per year. For expats in Cuenca, it is a lot more than that.

“I attend most weeks, probably three out of four, or more. I love the mix of venues too. The theaters and churches are fairly small and that makes the performances intimate,” Niki told me. “We are so close to the orchestra. Often, when I don’t attend it’s because there is a different musical event I want to be part of.”

“We follow the schedules of many of the live music performance groups in Cuenca, including that of the symphony, and try to attend as many of the concerts as we can, usually about three a month for their season, so about 30 free concerts a year,” Marshall said.

In 2020, 17 percent of U.S. adults reported that classical music was their favorite type of music. But that is different in Cuenca.

“At first, I was amazed at the number of my North American peers but realized that most of us grew up familiar with the music,” Niki told me. I’m not sure Ecuadorians hear it in their schools and homes while growing up.”

Marie Charlotte Götting, Statista’s research expert for topics related to audio media, reported that at the end of 2018, 41 percent of classical music listeners worldwide were 55 years old and older. My friends in Cuenca see it differently here.

“The audience is mixed. Yes, as in the rest of the world, it skews older. Younger audiences work all day, have young kids, and often are combining entertainment and community,” Niki told me. “That said, the auditorium is filled with those same folk when there is a Latin American singer, a youth concert, or a patriotic theme.”

“Much of the makeup of the attendees of the concerts depends on the nature of the music, but with the strictly classical repertoire, we see a good mix of all ages and cultures, especially parents and children,” Marshall told me. “It’s wonderful to see the young people being exposed to the music, as well as a “sedate” classical music performance environment.”

Marshall added that many of the classical works performed have remained relevant for hundreds of years.

“It’s great to see the young people learning to listen intently and intelligently to these classical sounds, as well as be exposed to the sounds of the individual instruments,” said Marshall. “Music education was such a large part of growing up for us both, and that appears to be important in Cuenca today as well.”

That makes sense as joint research in 2020 by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, streaming service Deezer, and British Phonographic Industry showed classical music is becoming more popular among young people.

The study revealed of those streaming classical music in the last year, a third were 18 to 25 years old. Classical music streams by listeners under 35 rose by 17 percent.

“We show our music online, giving us worldwide exposure” Maestro Augusto Carrión of the Cuenca Symphony Orchestra told me. “We have fans in Argentina, Australia, Austria, China, Japan, Russia, Mexico, and Spain.”

Maybe that is why the symphony orchestra has grown since its founding in November 1972. Since that time, the symphony has grown. It is currently at 50 members, with the youngest ones being between 20 and 30 years old.

“When I started with the orchestra in 1985, José Castellví Queralt was the maestro. The Spaniard was the symphony’s first maestro, and it was really small, Pablo Arízaga told me.

Pablo plays the flute and piccolo, and he is the most senior member of the half-century old symphony.

“We were so small that we had one flute, one oboe, and one small tuba. Sometimes we were playing two instruments for a performance,” Pablo told me with a laugh.

One of its newer members is cellist Yackson Sánchez. The cellist was a member of the prestigious Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela – the country’s youth orchestra.

Yackson became a cellist for the Venezuela Symphony Orchestra when he was 24 years old and played with them for 14 years.

One morning, I spotted the dedicated cellist biking to rehearsal and got a chance to talk to him.

“The cello is heavy,” Yackson told me. “The cello is only about seven pounds, but when you add the weight of the case and other accessories, it is somewhere between 20 and 30 pounds that are on my back.”

Christian Torres plays the double bass. Besides playing with the symphony orchestra, Christian plays a lot of jazz, including for local groups.

Jim Gala, the American founder of Ecuador’s first jazz club, Jazz Society Café Restaurant, approached Christian 12 years ago to fill out his new jazz band.

“He was looking for a double bass player. Everyone told him I was the only one in the city,” Christian told me. “I am still playing with Jim and Su Terry. I have been with her since the beginning.”

Su is an internationally acclaimed saxophonist and clarinetist from Wilton, Connecticut. Christian and Su make up part of Cuenca’s jazz group Jazz De Barro.

“I am working with the national government to expand the symphony to 76 members,” Maestro Carrión told me a year ago.

The maestro has been leading the symphony for over three years. He told me he is taking on music projects that were pending to make the symphony grow and “put itself where it deserves.”

And he says the technical levels of the musicians have greatly improved due to the more challenging and complex music they play.

It has not gone unnoticed by Pablo.

“The music has changed. We were very limited in what we could play due to our size,” Pablo told me. “We now have guest musicians and directors. It makes us better.”

“Music has transcended the time of Cuenca. The idea of music today is different than when it started 50 years ago,” the maestro told me. “It is very important for the orchestra that the music has changed through the time.”

“This orchestra has a varied repertoire. It provides a good mix of the Western European familiar with works by Latin American composers, and some newer pieces stirred in. They bring in soloists and singers that enrich the offerings,” Niki told me.

“We often give emphasis to particular composers, works, or soloists in whom we are interested,” Marshall added.

Money is the biggest obstacle as the symphony is part of the national government that is struggling to meet its financial obligations. Maestro Carrión reports to the Minister of the Ministry of Culture and Heritage of Ecuador. It is responsible for cultural policy in Ecuador.

It is not an understatement to say the symphony is cash strapped. They rely on donations to print programs and to buy bouquets for guest performers.

Nonetheless, Pablo told me the symphony is getting stronger with the older musicians playing alongside the younger ones.

“Without the older musicians, the symphony would be like a horse race,” Pablo told me. “The young musicians would be going very fast, too fast.”

“The experience of the older musicians can be shared with the younger musicians,” Maestro Carrión added. “Our youngest musician is 20 years old and is going to a local university, majoring in music.”

“The overall precision and cohesion of the orchestra has tremendously improved over the last few years, and we know this is because they have a rigorous rehearsal schedule,” Marshall told me. “Having sung with many classical vocal groups and accompanied by orchestras through the years, I well know how much work it takes to ‘get it together’ well enough to provide enjoyable entertainment for the public.”

“Our musicians are permanent public employees,” Maestro Carrión told me. “There is more stability than a typical international orchestra.”

Maestro Carrión gave me a huge smile when I compared the Cuenca Symphony to the Boston Pops Orchestra. It was formed in 1881 as an offshoot of the Boston Symphony to present “lighter music,” including current hits and show tunes.

“The Boston Pops inspired my music,” Maestro Carrión told me. “We only have one orchestra, but we can make music for all. We want our musicians to think about music beyond classical.”

“The evolution of the symphony is fantastic. We have great changes right now with the music and its musicians. We are always growing,” Pablo added.

Writers and poets have long flourished in arts-oriented Cuenca. People like Honorato Vázquez Ochoa (1855-1933), Alfonso Moreno Mora (1890-1940), Carlos Joaquín Córdova Malo (1914-2011), Alberto Ordoñez Ortíz (1942-2022), to Paola Cando Bermeo (1995- ) and Issa Aguilar Jara (1988- ) have made Cuenca a bastion of the arts.

To this day, the arts and handcrafts dominate life and livelihoods in Cuenca. That is why Cuenca artist Boris Ordoñez opened his top-end gallery, OFF Arte Contemporáneo, in 2022. Boris has brought in the best of Ecuador.

“I want to educate the community. Foreigners need to know what Ecuador arts is about,” Boris told me. “I want them to know who these artists are and to understand their art.”

All of this is why the country’s third-largest city is considered the “Arts Capital of Ecuador” and a “Rising Arts Capital in Latin America.”

It helps to have five universities in the city and several museums. And of course, a very good symphony, too.

“It’s very important for Cuenca that we are the Arts Capital of Ecuador,” Maestro Carrión told me. “Cuencanos say the orchestra is now more diversified with its music. They are very happy about this.”

Pablo added he thinks the culture of Cuenca is rich, making the symphony better. It has become and will remain a bedrock in the community.

The symphony performances happen year-round, except for August. Most performances are free to the public.

It is quite the bargain as the average ticket price to a symphony performance in the United States is between $150 and $250. There are no reserved seats for the Cuenca Symphony Orchestra; it is first come-first served.

“The price (free) and frequency make the concerts very inviting,” Niki told me. “I often meet friends before for coffee and a social time and then walk together to the theater.”

The concerts are free to the public, is all the more reason to be supportive of the cause,” Marshall added. “The health of performing arts is a very important indicator of the overall health of the community at large.”

Cuenca’s symphony is definitely a big part of many expats’ healthy lives.

And a very enjoyable part of that.

“The symphony orchestra and cultural richness of the city was a major draw for moving to Cuenca,” said Niki.

A lot more information on life in Cuenca can be found in my book, “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life.” Some say it is the most thorough book out there concerning moving to and living in this beautiful city.

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I consider myself a trusted source with my “strong evidence,” but you definitely need more than me for your big resettlement.

Salud, mi amigo.


Una Nueva Vida – A New Life

- by Stephen Vargha

There are over 80 professional-quality photos shot by me to give you a clear ‘picture’ about life in this historic mountain city.