Saturday, May 28, 2016

About the food

The food has been great. Even the food on the plane, Iberia, was pretty decent for airline food. I've had really great paella (and forgot to take a picture of the dish) in this restaurant:

And I did at least take a picture of the setting with a little appetiser:

And today I went to a tapas bar and had a great lunch. These places, while they serve lots of little tapas dishes, serve lots of other things too. I ordered stewed oxtail with rice and a glass of Rioja. First they brought me a little tapa, included at no extra charge:

Those are two little sausages, hot, a little roast potato and three tiny breadsticks. Here is the wine, holding down the menu.

I forgot to take a picture of the oxtail when it was served, but here is the aftermath:

The basic difference between a regular restaurant, which is just open during mealtimes, and tapas bars, which seem to be open all the time, is that the latter are more casual. Just grab a chair or stand at the bar. The regular restaurants are more dignified. The food is great at both kinds and neither are expensive.

Can't think of what would be the ideal musical envoi, but this, by composer and madrileño Moreno Torroba should do. This is Torija from Castles of Spain played by Edoardo Catemario:

Moses und Aron

Tonight I will be attending the second performance of a new production by Romeo Castelluci of the opera by Arnold Schoenberg--perhaps history's least likely opera composer. This production is a collaboration with the Paris Opera and I'm really looking forward to it. I don't think I have ever attended either a production at this level, not being much of an opera-goer, nor one of the new era of European opera productions that seem to be just a tad more radical than they used to be. Here, for example, is a photo from a rehearsal this week with a naked woman and a live bull:

There seems to be a bit of a controversy and, since this is the 21st century, it is in objection, not to the naked woman, but to the exploitation of the bull. Sigh...

Yesterday, on my way to the Palacio Real I passed by the Teatro Real where the performance will take place. Here is the front, with a statue of Isabel II:

Clck to enlarge
And here is the back (or is it the other way around?):

This is the side that faces the Palacio Real, so perhaps it is the front. In between is the Plaza de Oriente, which features a large bronze statue of Felipe IV on horseback (which I didn't get a photo of) and the Visigothic kings of Spain who ruled before the Muslim invasion in the 8th century, which I did:

There are ten on each side of the square.

But back to Moses und Aron. You notice that I am giving the title in the original German. You might also notice that I am, following Schoenberg, spelling "Aron" with one "a" instead of two. Schoenberg, when it came to certain things, like the number 13, was intensely superstitious. If you spell it "Moses und Aaron" you have a title thirteen letters long, which he wished to avoid. So he dropped one of the letters "a". Now, you see in the poster on the Teatro Real that they put back the letter "a". But there is no problem because in the Spanish, "Moisés y Aaron" there are only twelve letters, so no need to drop an "a". Whew!

A commentator sent me this interesting and positive review of the Paris production which really whets my appetite. But let's get some background on the opera. Here is the Wikipedia article. The first problem is that Schoenberg only completed two of the three planned acts. Zoltán Kocsis completed the third act in 2010, but I don't know which version they will be using. Most performances are just of the two acts Schoenberg completed. Incidentally, he left it unfinished in 1932 and lived until 1951, so it was not death that intervened. The opera came out of Schoenberg's confrontation with his Jewish identity, forced on him by the growing levels of anti-Semitism in Germany in the 1920s. This had a heavy impact on him even though he had converted to Protestantism in 1898. Steve Reich has been connecting with his Jewish descent in a number of his recent works such as Tehillim.

Even without the third act the opera seems to have just about everything: burning bush, worship of the golden calf, sacrifice of four naked virgins, pillars of fire and cloud, betrayal and so on.

I read recently a book titled 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilisation Collapsed and noticed one very interesting thing. Of all the various peoples and cultures of the first millennium BC, about 3000 years ago, the Hittites, ancient Egyptians, the Sea Peoples, the Mycenaean Greeks, the Canaanites, the Cypriots, the Minoans, the Philistines, the Assyrians and the Israelites, of all these ancient cultures, one and only one has survived, prospered and flourished even unto the present day: the Israelites.

Let's have a listen. This is a 1984 performance conducted by Georg Solti with the Chicago Symphony and Chorus. If you go to YouTube, the whole cast are credited.

Friday, May 27, 2016

A little walk to the Palacio Real

Yesterday I took it easy as I’m still trying to get over jet lag. I don’t know why, but it always seems worse going to Europe than coming back. I was here years ago doing a concert tour with a flute player and we were taking turns driving. Each of us, at different times, usually, would be overcome with drowsiness and switch off driving. We were in Switzerland, just about to enter Italy when Robert, the flute-player, said “I’m getting really sleepy, we should switch over.” There wasn’t immediately a place to pull off and moments later we entered a tunnel in the mountain. I think it was the Durenmatt, which, on the other side of the mountain, comes out in Italy. Alas, this tunnel is about 20 kilometres long, with no pull-offs until you are through. That was a bit of a struggle to stay awake! On the other side, the climate was completely different: suddenly it was the Mediterranean with blue skies where in Switzerland it was a bit cloudy and rainy. That was a lovely tour, by the way, much of it spent playing in northern Italy: Verona, Ferrara, Siena, San Gimignano, Lucca and most of all, Firenza (Florence).

So yesterday, I rather vedged out (do people still say that?) and just took it easy. Today I am planning to do some walking and try and run down the shop of Jose Ramirez, where I bought my first concert guitar way back in 1974. That was the first reason for coming to Spain back then: to pick up a guitar that I had ordered months before. It is on the Calle de la Paz, which is supposedly just off the Puerta del Sol, though in that part of town the streets are so jammed together it is hard to tell from my map. The music shop Union Musical Española is nearby as well, who published a great deal of Spanish music for guitar.

Yes, I succeeded in finding the Ramirez shop. At first I thought I was going nuts because I didn't recognise anything about the neighbourhood. But, it turns out, when I bought my guitar they were in a different location, on Concepcion Jeronimo and now they are on Calle de la Paz. In any case, here is a photo of the shop:

Click to enlarge
Other places on my list include the Royal Palace which, with 2800 rooms, should take some time! I would also like to do a couple of excursions out of town to Toledo, the first big conquest of the Reconquista, and El Escorial. The latter is a place unique to Spain. It was built by Phillip II during the heyday of Spain’s empire in the 16th century and its construction absorbed a good deal of Spain’s economy for a couple of decades. It is a dark, but impressive, monument to the Counter-Reformation and has, among other features, 42 chapels and 16 courtyards. It began as a mausoleum to Philip’s father, Carlos I and to commemorate the Battle of San Quentin in 1557. Ultimately the project came to include a basilica, a monastery, a seminary and a library. Philip’s instructions to the architect, Juan Bautista de Toledo, required that he should aim for “simplicity in the construction, severity in the whole, nobility without arrogance, majesty without ostentation.” After a few revolutions and the wholesale re-imagining of the whole social fabric it is hard for us to even entertain the concept of “nobility without arrogance” but for me that makes a place like El Escorial even more interesting.

I think that Felipe VI, the current King of Spain, is the last Bourbon monarch to still sit on a throne. Yes, Spain is now a constitutional monarchy, but its king, along with Elizabeth II, the Queen of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and a few other places, is almost the last of the era of monarchy. So today, I did a little walking tour and visited the Palacio Real, built in the 18th century. The king doesn't actually live there these days, but in a smaller palace nearby. The Palacio Real supposedly has 2800 rooms, but the tour only includes a few. Here are some photos.

Part of the eastern facade

The rest of the eastern facade
The courtyard/parade ground looking toward the adjacent cathedral
The grand staircase
and the ceiling of the staircase
After this, you were not allowed to take photos of the rooms. They mostly have ceilings like that, painted by folks like Tiepolo. One room has walls finished in silk with silver thread, another is done completely in the finest porcelain, walls and ceiling. There are 16th century Flemish tapestries all over the place. One room has on display a quartet of instruments by Stradivarius, supposedly the only one in existence. Oh, and if sixty people drop by and you need a table for sixty, they have at least one dining room where that would not be a problem.

What we forget is that during the 16th and much of the 17th century, the King of Spain was the most powerful leader in the world.

For our envoi a good choice would be something by Tomás Luis de Victoria, who enjoyed the patronage of Felipe II and was for 17 years chaplain to the dowager empress at the monastery for the nobility in Madrid, the Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales.  This is his Salve regina:

Friday Miscellanea

Is this a vision of hell? Keith Blanchard writes in the Wall Street Journal: "The Future of Digital Music...Maybe: One man’s vision of what life will be like when literally every moment of your life gets its own soundtrack." See, my problem is that if all music is, is a soundtrack to your life, then all music is nothing but a soundtrack. And I've always thought that soundtrack music, while it has a valuable place, is really not very important music. But now I see that it is all a satire:
Just the right music will pop up everywhere. You’ll hear a triumphal march after you nail that job interview, a tender love song when you’re apologizing. I imagine it’ll be like living in a musical, where any emotionally charged situation, like old lovers meeting on the street, will start the music flowing, and everyone will drop what they’re doing and start singing and dancing and splashing through puddles. And then, annoyed by all this audible cheerfulness, a pack of emo kids will swarm out of a back alley in a sea of black, accompanied by a dark storm of songs about their pain...
I hope...

* * *

Oh, Kanye, Kanye, Kanye. I don't think I have ever known a musician whose every public utterance makes me want to never, never, never hear a single note of his music: "Kanye West leaves Ellen DeGeneres speechless: 'I'm sorry for the realness' " Me too, Kanye! But I don't think "realness" is the right word. Perhaps, unbelievable moronic narcissistic personality disorder?
"Don't tell me about being likeable. We've got a hundred years here. We're one race, the human race, one civilization. We're a blip in the existence of the universe, and we're constantly trying to pull each other down. Not doing things to help each other. That's my point. It's like I'm shaking talking about it. I know it's daytime TV, but I feel that I can make a difference while I'm here. I feel that I can make things better through my skill set. I'm an artist, and I feel that I can make things better through my skill set. I'm a artist. Five years old, art school. PhD, Art Institute of Chicago."
* * *

And now, for the comic relief portion of our miscellanea today, the poster for that elusive work by Nigel Tufnel (guitarist for Spinal Tap):

* * *

New research by our friends in science suggests that practice is the way to get to Carnegie Hall. The book is titled Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool (Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 336 pp., $28.
Much of Peak is devoted to how deliberate practice works, and why more is better. Ericsson’s most famous research involved studying the schedules of violin students at an elite German school. The best—those the instructors said were destined for stardom—spent much more time in solo practice than those likely to become music teachers. Reconstructing their schedules since youth, Ericsson calculated that the best had spent on average 7,410 hours in deliberate practice by age 18, compared with 3,420 for the music education students. This solo practice allowed them to create mental models of their craft. They knew what a piece would sound like before they played it, and that familiarity allowed them to focus on details and nuance.
Now I know what my problem was: I didn't start practicing the classical guitar until I was 21! Be sure to read the comments at the link, because as is often the case, they provide the necessary correctives to the article itself.

* * *

I'm not quite sure of the source of these numbers, but supposedly this is what some of the musical acts performing at the Woodstock rock festival were paid:
Canned Heat – $6,500 The Who – $6,250 (also reported at $11,200 but Variety claimed that number was inaccurate) Richie Havens – $6,000 Arlo Guthrie – $5,000 Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – $5,000 Mountain – $2,000 Tim Hardin – $2,000 Joe Cocker – $1,375 Sweetwater – $1,250 John B. Sebastian – $1,000 Melanie – $750 Santana – $750 Sha Na Na – $700
Those are astonishingly small numbers, aren't they. Santana, $750? And look at what pop musicians make these days: Beyoncé over $50 million a year.

* * *

I've always liked trompe-l'oeil, partly because, after a decade living in Montréal, I almost know how to pronounce it. But this is a trompe-l'oeil to end all such: French street artist JR will cover I .M. Pei's glass pyramid at the Louvre with giant photos of the surrounding buildings to make it disappear. The Wall Street Journal has the story here.

* * *

Very short miscellanea this week as, well, I haven't had much chance to gather exciting items. Tomorrow I am going to the opera here in Madrid, a joint production with the Paris Opera of Schoenberg's Moses und Aron. So let's have an excerpt for our envoi today. This is the first part of a German production from 2009.

Wow, what an interesting production. Talk about making the audience part of the action. And how the heck do you put the whole audience on a movable platform?

Thursday, May 26, 2016

An Excursion to the Prado

I'm still rather jet-lagged: you know the feeling, it always feels like 3 am, but you can't get to sleep? So yesterday I just took the path of least resistance and went to the Prado which is just across the street. Mind you, that street is the Paseo del Prado which is a very grand boulevard indeed:

Click to enlarge
Why do Spanish-speaking countries seem to do more spectacular avenues than English-speaking ones? This is just the treed strip in front of the Prado. Then there are four lanes of traffic, another big strip of park, and another four lanes. It reminds me of the Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City, but the Paseo del Prado is much wider, I think. Here is an engraving from the 18th century:

I forgot to bring my drone with me, so I wasn't able to take any aerial shots, but here is one of the Museo del Prado from Wikipedia:

Click to enlarge

Yes, it's a YUGE museum. It seems to contain the majority of works ever done by Spanish painters, plus a wide selection of ones by Italian, Dutch and German painters. There is a line-up to get tickets, but not too crazy long:

It took perhaps 20 minutes to get through. I fell into conversation with a Polish fellow who works in London, which passed the time nicely. Once inside, I discovered that no, you can't take photos, even without flash! A bit disappointing. I guess I wasn't expecting that because the last museum I was in, the Museo Soumaya in Mexico City, taking photos was perfectly acceptable. Anyway, I got this shot before they told me not to. This is a 17th century table top made from semi-precious stones:

I have one just like it at home... 8^)

Instead of a handout, they have the names of the painters in their collection engraved in the wall beside the entrance. These are some of the Italians:

After a couple of hours wandering somewhat randomly, I played out and started back. On the way I grabbed some lunch. Let me remind you (and myself), never eat in a restaurant located so as to appeal to the tourist trade. Always find one on a side street. This after paying twice as much for a meal half as good as the one I had yesterday at Terramundi.

And this is the somewhat unprepossessing facade of my hotel (which is really very nice inside):

If I were rich I would be staying at the Ritz, which is next door to the Prado:

So that was my day. Except in the evening I went out to see if Terramundi was open for dinner to discover, that no, it just does lunch. All the restaurants on the street seem the same. The only places open were a couple of bars, which do offer food. Spain is different this way. The big meal is lunch and that is when the restaurants are open. Everything else is a snack and you go to a bar. They offer all sorts of very nice sandwiches and other things. I had a beer, slices of boiled ham with paprika, some very nice bread and a dish of olives.

It seems easy to meet people: just down from me at the bar was a fellow who started a conversation. He was Spanish, but spoke perfect English with a British accent because he went to school there. We had a fascinating discussion about politics and economics and seemed to have fairly similar views. The same with the Polish fellow I talked to earlier. I almost feel at home here!

So that's all for now. Today I hope to actually get some composing done! And here is some music to end with. This is the Ritual Fire Dance from Manuel de Falla's El Amor Brujo, Daniel Barenboim at the stick with the Chicago Boys:

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Jet Lagged...

Going to Europe I always experience jet lag. It is seven hours later here than in central Mexico. So I get on a plane in Mexico City at 1 pm and arrive in Madrid at 7 am the next day after a ten hour flight. But for me, it is midnight. And here I am, wide-awake, after about three short sleeps of a few hours each and it is 3:30 in the morning and still four hours until breakfast in the hotel. This is not a very big hotel, but very modern. It is in Calle Lope de Vega named after the great 16th and 17th writer who was the prolific author of 3000 poems, 500 plays and numerous other works. After Cervantes, he is the most highly-regarded Spanish writer. Every room is named after one of his works. Breakfast is pretty good, a nice buffet of cold cuts, fruit, yoghurt, pastries, breads and so on. There is a coffee machine that automatically dispenses cappuchino, cafe con leche, espresso, cortado, and so on. While not as good as when made manually by a good barista with good, freshly-ground beans, it is quite acceptable.

Just one block away is a good restaurant called Terramundi specialising in Galician cuisine where I had lunch. This is that part of Spain in the extreme northwest, just north of Portugal. Seafood is quite important. Terramundi is an excellent, very European type of restaurant. The maître d'hotel was a characteristic European restauranteur with helpful suggestions. The place was packed with enthusiastic diners. This was around 3:30 pm. One thing about Spain that I recall from before is that restaurants have very precise dining hours. Lunch is between 1 and 4 or so and that is when you go. I had a seafood brochet to start that consisted of two large prawns, a kind of small lobster, two crayfish (I think!) and a squid, all grilled in their shells (not the squid). Really excellent!! This was followed by what I would call pig's knuckle accompanied by a boiled potato and some chorizo. Also excellent. I forget what it was called, but also a Galician specialty. I ended with a cafe con leche. It was in Spain that I learned what coffee is all about. It took me many years, but I finally realised that if I bought a good espresso machine I could have great coffee, at home, every day. I was prepared for Spain to be expensive but this restaurant was actually quite cheap. The meal, two courses, plus a glass of Rioja and coffee, came to 14 euros. I often spend more than that for a high quality lunch in Mexico.

It is hard to put your finger on the exact details, but Europe always has a different feel from North America. They seem to have different car models, for example. I saw a Mercedes sedan yesterday that had subtly different lines and more ornate brake lights from what you usually see. Spain is much more prosperous than Mexico: cleaner streets, better designed buildings, better dressed and educated people and so on. Mind you, over time this may change as the economic growth of Mexico recently has been much greater than in Spain. But Mexico still has a long way to go. Madrid seems to be soccer mad. They are building a huge new training centre for Atlético, one of the two soccer (futbol) teams that rule here, the other being Real Madrid. The papers are full of futbol news and both my driver and the diners at an adjacent table talked incessantly about their teams. Mind you, I think there is a big match coming up.

Since I have all this time when I am up but no-one else is, I reviewed the instructions for my camera, a Fuji Finepix S4800 that I bought last year. It is the first good camera I have ever owned and I will be taking it out today and posting some photos later on. I had to review the settings for turning off the flash as when I go to the museums, they have rules about not using flash inside.

So that's all for now. Let's have some theme music. There is a very famous guitar piece titled "Asturias" by Isaac Albéniz that would do. Asturias is a region of Spain in the northwest immediately adjacent to Galicia. I have previously posted my performance here. Or you can listen to the very fine performance by John Williams:

On My Way

I’m travelling alone this trip—when I was talking to my violinist friend she said, very emphatically, “go by yourself.” I think that she meant because I would have more fun. So here I am, sitting in terminal one at the Mexico City airport with an hour or so to kill before my flight boards and it occurs to me that, as a blogger, I am taking all my readers with me.

I’m going to spend ten days in Madrid, which is a city with a lot of appeal for me. I have lived in many different places in my life. It started by living in a different small town in northern Canada for each of the first six years of my life. Now that’ll scar you! But the multitude of places I have lived boils down to basically five regions:

Northern Alberta and British Columbia: from when I was born to when I was fourteen, due to my father’s work with the railway, we lived in several different small towns (a few hundred people and a couple of grain elevators) before settling down on a small homestead when I was seven

Vancouver Island, specifically Courtenay and Victoria, the capital of British Columbia (this was what really changed my life as, had my mother not had to move there for her work, I likely would have stayed in northern BC and never had any access to nor contact with a number of things that changed my life—those started with attending the University of Victoria, which opened a lot of doors for me)

Spain, Madrid and Alicante: what caused this, the second big dislocation of my life, was my desire to study with a real master of the classical guitar and there simply were no such in Canada in the mid-70s. The only places to go were Spain or England and I had no connection with England. My teacher in Vancouver recommended I study with his teacher in Spain, Maestro José Tomás (as I have mentioned before)

Montréal, Québec: I moved to Montréal in order to finish my first music degree and ended up doing two at McGill University. I chose McGill because I met Michael Strutt, who taught there, at the master class in Alicante. He won second prize in the competition.

And, finally, Mexico. But before then I moved back to Victoria from Montréal, where I taught for a number of years at the Victoria Conservatory and the University of Victoria, then I moved back to Montréal again where I taught at Vanier College and McGill and did all the course work for a doctorate in musicology. But before embarking on the dissertation, I dropped out and moved to Mexico. Suddenly the idea of spending another twenty years in academia just didn’t appeal!

So, looking at those five places, there are two that I have not ever returned to: northern BC and Alberta, and Spain. Perhaps I might revisit the Canadian north at some point, who knows. But I have had the strong desire to return to Spain for a long time. Having spent so much of my life living in so many different places, I find that I need to, as it were, revisit past places as a way of rooting myself, not so much in a place as in the person I was when I lived there. If that makes any sense?

Why Madrid, which I only spent a few days in on two occasions during the year I lived in Spain? Why not Alicante, where I spent most of my time? I was in Alicante solely because Tomás was there and he passed away over a decade ago. There really isn’t anything to go back there for. Madrid on the other hand impressed me greatly and I barely scratched the surface. Madrid is resonant with so much history and art. Within a short walk of my hotel (chosen for that reason) are three world-class art museums: the Prado, the Reina Sofia and the Thyssen-Bournemisza museum. Together they contain a wealth of great art from the 13th century to now.

I also understand that Madrid has seven or eight thousand restaurants so all that, plus I intend to spend every morning composing, should take up my time nicely.

I will keep you posted!


Later: it was a long flight, ten hours, with a seven hour time difference so by the time I landed in Madrid, it was seven in the morning local time, but midnight for me. Every time I go to book a flight somewhere, I look at the difference in price between tourist/economy class and any of the premium classes and think "it's just not worth it." But every time I am jammed into one of those tiny seats for a long flight and, on deplaning, see the comparative luxury of business class and I think "oh yes, totally worth it." Iberia business class looks really posh: each seat is like a little niche where you can stretch out full length. Lots of room and, one assumes, lots of service.

Anyway, enough for now. I have made it to my hotel, though, since it is eight in the morning, I can't quite check into my room so I am here in the lounge, finishing off this post. Depending on how jet-lagged I am, there will probably be a post tomorrow with my first impressions of Madrid. I can tell you one thing, the new terminal at the airport is very nice, all curvy wood strips for the ceiling.