Thursday, April 28, 2016

My Vacation Plans

You might be looking at that heading and going, "who cares?" But since most of my life has been intertwined with music, so are my vacation plans.

When I was a young musician, after a few years of playing electric bass and six-string in several bands and some time as a solo folk artist, I encountered classical music and completely reinvented myself. I guess it was a bit like what someone like Bruce Jenner has done with his gender identity. I stopped being a blues and folk-oriented guitarist and became a classical guitarist. I don't think my comparison is much of an exaggeration as changing from one sort of musician to an entirely different sort of musician is a considerable transformation.

The first problem I ran into was that there were no real teachers available--in the sense of masters of the instrument. Where I was living, Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada, the only classical guitarists were at the amateur level. I went to three of them, but in each case, after six months, I had absorbed all they had to offer and moved on. This would not have been the case with the piano, of course, but at that time the only places in the world where the classical guitar was a truly established instrument was in Europe, especially Spain and England and perhaps a few places in Latin America. The last teacher that I went to lived in Vancouver and he was on a whole other level. He was Dutch and had spent a couple of years studying in Spain before moving to Canada. He actually knew the repertoire and was a very good player as well. After six months commuting for lessons with him, he said, "you should study with my teacher in Spain." I looked at him with astonishment: "I can do that?" "Sure, just go knock on his door." Apparently his teacher, the maestro José Tomás, did not have a phone and didn't answer letters. This was in 1973, long before email, of course.

So I started saving money and early in 1974 I flew to Spain, Madrid, where I bought a new guitar from the shop of José Ramirez and took the train to Alicante, on the Mediterranean coast, where José Tomás lived and taught. This is a close-up of what the label of that guitar looked like:

By sheer luck this was absolutely the best place for me to have gone. The situation in the early 70s was that the leading guitarists in the world were Andrés Segovia, who lived in Spain and the English guitarist Julian Bream. We could also list Narciso Yepes. Segovia was the only one who had taught enough and been around enough to have students of stature. His leading students were Alirio Diaz from Venezuela, Michael Lorimer from the US, John Williams from England, Oscar Ghiglia from Italy and José Tomás from Spain. Of these, he chose Tomás to be his assistant in his master classes in Santiago de Compostela, offered every fall--the most prestigious master classes in the world for classical guitarists.

As the Wikipedia article I linked to says, José Tomás was:
Considered a major influence on the evolution of classical guitar technique in the second half of the 20th century, he trained many guitarists from all over the world.
When I was there, there were quite a few guitarists from Japan and the US and a scattering of ones from Canada, France, Belgium, Ireland, England, Finland, the Philippines, Mexico, Peru and other countries. It was a remarkable community of some of the most talented young guitarists in the world. When I went to Spain I was pretty much a hack guitarist but after nearly a year studying with Tomás (and practicing six hours a day) I returned to Canada and enrolled at McGill University, the foremost music school in Canada, where I was the outstanding performance major in guitar.

Before going to Spain, I had never been out of Canada--indeed, I had never been east of Saskatchewan! Spain made a huge impact on me, not just musically, but culturally. There was the expected cultural shock in going there, but there was another cultural shock on returning to Canada. I discovered that I was not the same person who left. I was never quite able to fit back into my niche in Canada as my perspective had been fundamentally broadened.

I only did a few things other than practice guitar when I lived in Spain: one of them was to read Russian novels. I think I read all of them with the exception of the second volume of the Brothers Karamazov. I also went to lunch a lot with a fellow guitarist from Finland. The only other thing I did was to visit Madrid twice. When I was there, I spent a lot of time in the Prado and especially in the room with the late Goya paintings like this one:

Click to enlarge
The Prado also had the famous painting by Hieronymus Bosch that I had known previously as the cover to a Deep Purple album:

In the Prado I was able to see the original:

Click to enlarge
It is fair to say that my year in Spain (eight months, but who's counting?) was a year in which a number of things happened: I learned what a strict discipline was through practicing guitar six hours a day, I experienced the fabric of life in another culture, I encountered highly disciplined and creative musicians from all over the world, and I came face to face with some of the great examples of the art of Western civilisation.

The Prado, where I always returned, contains not only nearly all of Goya, but large numbers of paintings of Velázquez, El Greco, Titian, Peter Paul Rubens and even Albrecht Dürer:

And if that is not enough, near the Prado is the Reina Sofia museum devoted to 20th and 21st century art and whose centrepiece is possibly the most famous painting of the 20th century, Guernica by Picasso:

I have wanted to return to Spain for many, many years, but while I have been to England, France, Germany and Italy a few times, I have never set foot in Spain since 1974. So next month I am going to spend a couple of weeks in Madrid revisiting the Prado and seeing many of the other sights that I wasn't even aware of before like the other museums, the Royal Palace, the parks and gardens, churches, monasteries and so on. Tapas! I am also going to take a day trip to Toledo where El Greco lived. I will take in some concerts as well.

This time I am taking a camera and will have some photos to share when I get back. When I was studying in Spain I didn't even have a camera, though I do have a couple of photos as souvenirs of that time. I will put them up in another post.

Let's have some music. This is José Tomás playing Zambra grenadine by Albéniz:


David said...

Bryan, it sounds like your plans will make for a fantastic and well-deserved holiday. Will you have time for Granada and the Al hambra or the charms of Barcelona? If you get to Barcelona, I recommend a visit to the 13th century cathedral in the old town and especially the view from the walkways on the top of the roof (accessible by elevator).

Readers of The Music Salon will miss you.

Vaya con Dios

Jeph said...

Thanks for sharing that story, it sounds like a great vacation! If you can get to Barcelona, I hear the Gaudi cathedral is really something.

Bryan Townsend said...

I'm really looking forward! But, apart from Toledo and, probably, the Escorial, I don't think I will venture outside Madrid. There is just so much to see there. But I won't be missing from the Music Salon: al contrario! I will have my laptop with me and likely put up a post every day. I will also be composing every day as my laptop has my music software on it.

Marc Puckett said...

I used to travel a bit-- not often for anything as significant as your stay at the feet of José Tomás certainly-- but the older I get the more sense Althouse's bugbear about unnecessary to-ing & fro-ing in the name of sightseeing &c makes. Madrid could provide yet another eight months' worth of musical and artistic benefits &c, easy; two weeks! I'm sure it'll seem like two days.

Bryan Townsend said...

I used to travel pretty regularly to attend master classes and later to give concerts. But now that I am largely retired from performing, I don't travel much at all. I mostly don't miss it because so much of traveling is very tiresome: all that standing in line to have people interrogate you and poke around in your belongings, waiting for flights, trying to find a decent meal in an unfamiliar environment and so on loses its appeal as you grow older. But the idea of returning to a place like Madrid that, in retrospect, had a big effect on me in my youth, makes a lot of sense. But still, what I like to do is go somewhere worthwhile and just stay there for long enough to absorb something of it. Doing a tour, as in a different city every day or two, has very little appeal to me.

Christine Lacroix said...

Good for you, Bryan! There is something about getting out of our natural habitat and into a new environment that is so refreshing for the soul! An artist friend recently spent a week in Madrid and was ecstatic. Hope you have a wonderful time. Glad you'll stay on line. We would have missed you. Your website is a much needed breath of fresh air compared to what's going on in the news these days!

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Christine! Yes, I think Madrid is an incredible nexus for art and history and architecture and so much less expensive than its European peers: Paris, London, Rome and Berlin.