Sunday, September 30, 2018

The Music of Leo Brouwer, part 1

Leo Brouwer (1939 - )
The Cuban composer Leo Brouwer is one of the most significant composers for the classical guitar. He became widely known, among guitarists at least, in the early 1970s and I picked up the scores to several of his pieces not too long after they were published. He started composing in his teens and studied with Vincent Persichetti and Stefan Wolpe in the US and later with Karlheinz Stockhausen in Germany. While in Europe he became familiar with the music of Hans Werner Henze, Luigi Nono and Iannis Xenakis. He also studied the performance practice of early music with harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt. Some of this is in the Wikipedia article, other information is from my personal knowledge.

Brouwer is a complex figure. On the one hand he is anything but an aesthetic ideologue. His music draws from the structures and ideas of modernism and the avant-garde, but also from Cuban and African folk music. He has created purely electronic music and at the same time done very lush settings of traditional lullabies. He has written film music, such as the soundtrack to the movie Like Water for Chocolate, and also beautiful and instructive technical studies for guitar. He has made a career as a solo performer (one outstanding example is his brilliant recording of Scarlatti sonatas in his own transcriptions) sadly cut short by an injury to his right hand index finger, and as a composer. He has written several concertos for guitar and orchestra that have had numerous and continuing performances. For a while he was the music director of the symphony orchestra of Córdoba, Spain. A recent edition of his music describes him as
Composer, guitarist, conductor, researcher, teacher and cultural promoter, Leo Brouwer is a central personality in Cuban musical life ... His guitar output is an example of cultural mixing, fusing elements borrowed from Cuban traditional and nationalist music, from Afro-Cubanism and from the music of the European avant-garde in an individual style in which the sensual and the structural, the archaic and the scholarly, achieve a fascinating balance.
On the other hand, he is a member of the Communist Party of Cuba, one of their subsidized artists, and for many years was head of their institute for film music in which role he composed music for what were essentially propaganda films.

I have met Leo Brouwer on several occasions. The first was a master class and concert in Montreal at McGill University in the late 1970s that I helped to arrange. I think I played his Elogio de la Danza for him on that occasion. A few years later I met him again in Toronto where he gave another master class and I think I might have played Memorias por El Cimmarón for him then. Then I met him again in Quebec City in the 90s at a guitar festival when he was kind enough to compliment me on my recording of his El Decameron Negro. I gave a talk on his Concerto No. 3, Elegiaco on that occasion.

I think we can discern three stages in his compositional output and they can be represented, somewhat accurately, by his three main publishers. His early music, from the late 1950s to 1980, was published partly by Schott and partly by Max Eschig. The earliest of these pieces include arrangements of popular Cuban airs and pieces related to dance rhythms such as the Danza Caracteristica of 1957. Let's have a listen. The guitarist is John Williams.

Another lovely piece from this period is his setting of Canción de cuna by Emilio Genet. The guitarist is Leo Brouwer and the clip is given the title Drume negrita, the name of the original tune (the music is published under the title Canción de cuna however). There are lots of ornaments in this performance that you won't find in the published music!

The influence of European modernism, Bartók in particular, starts to be heard in his Tres Apuntes (Three Sketches) from 1959. All of his music is now published by Schott. The guitarist is Cristina Azuma:

But the real breakthrough came with Elogio de la Danza in two brief movements of 1964. Here is the cover of the score I purchased in Spain in 1974 (it was published in 1972):

Getting a bit beat up by this point. But I treasure it because it contains a couple of pencil marks Leo made on the score when I played it for him, emphasizing that a rasgueado needs to be more accented. I recorded this piece for the CBC in 1975, but I don't have a copy any more so let's listen to this performance by Pepe Romero. He doesn't get the dynamics quite right, but everything else is great.

I'm just re-learning Elogio after not playing it for decades and I am so impressed by how brilliantly it transfers the harmonic and rhythmic idiom of Stravinsky to the guitar and adds all the rich timbral resources the guitar is capable of. Brouwer has remarked the the piece is a tribute to the "ballets russes" of Stravinsky.

In 1968 he wrote another modernist masterpiece, Canticum, also in two movements. This sounds less like Bartók or Stravinsky and more like Stockhausen or Ligeti. Some innovations are the more extensive use of timbre as a structural device and the scordatura of the 6th string to E flat for the second movement. The guitarist is Artyom Dervoed:

And finally, for this post at least, the piece that to me is the best of Brouwer's avant-garde pieces, La Espiral Eterna of 1971. Here he uses a number of guitaristic devices, such as arpeggios with pull-offs, hammer-ons, sliding on the string winding and Bartók pizzicati along with some aleatory elements to create a masterpiece of 20th century music. The effect in places is that of tape loops. Luckily we have Leo's own recording:

I am going to continue with a couple more posts on Leo Brouwer.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Victor Borge

I suddenly had the terrifying realization that I may have never put a Victor Borge clip up on the blog! Since I just ran across one I have never seen before, I can rectify this immediately:

I have never heard him do singing impressions before. Just think, you could be watching Victor Borge clips instead of, well, Senate Judiciary Committee Hearings.

Sometimes he even plays the piano...

Friday Miscellanea

Back home and it's time for the Friday Miscellanea. Let's start with a nod to fellow blogger WenatcheeTheHatchet, who has, lately at least, been a bit more prolific than myself. Recent posts have dealt with Charles Ives, in some detail, and new guitar music by German Dzhaparidze.

* * *

We have talked about the music software Auto-Tune before and now there is an article on its brief history: How Auto-Tune Revolutionized the Sound of Popular Music. Auto-Tune, for those not in the know, is music software developed for use in recording. I haven't used it myself, but what it does is take the feed from a microphone, typically recording a singer, and filter it so all the frequencies that pass are in tune, hence the name. It is kind of a Procrustean bed for pitch. It was developed to "fix" the notes when a singer sang out of tune. Here is the slightly more fervent description of how it came on the scene from the article:
It happened exactly 36 seconds into the song—a glimpse of the shape of pop to come, a feel of the fabric of the future we now inhabit. The phrase “I can’t break through” turned crystalline, like the singer suddenly disappeared behind frosted glass. That sparkly special effect reappeared in the next verse, but this time a robotic warble wobbled, “So sa-a-a-ad that you’re leaving.”
The song, of course, was Cher’s “Believe,” a worldwide smash on its October 1998 release. And what we were really “leaving” was the 20th century.
And here is the song so you can hear for yourself:

That "crystalline" effect is when a note not quite on pitch is shoehorned into being on pitch by the software. The first time you hear it, it sounds robotic--people just don't sing like that. Here is how the inventors thought about what they were doing:
The expressed goal of Antares at that time was to fix discrepancies of pitch in order to make songs more effectively expressive. “When voices or instruments are out of tune, the emotional qualities of the performance are lost,” the original patent asserted sweepingly—seemingly oblivious of great swathes of musical history, from jazz and blues to rock, reggae, and rap, where “wrong” has become a new right, where transgressions of tone and timbre and pitch have expressed the cloudy complexity of emotion in abrasively new ways. As sound studies scholar Owen Marshall has observed, for the manufacturers of Auto-Tune, bad singing interfered with the clear transmission of feeling. The device was designed to bring voices up to code, as it were—to communicate fluently within a supposedly universal Esperanto of emotion.
If you know a bit more about music history you would realize that pushing the pitch one way or another for expressive purposes is as old as singing itself. I remember doing a song by John Dowland with an early music specialist where he flattened and sharped certain notes according to expressive needs suggested by the lyrics themselves: "My music, hellish jarring sounds, to banish friendly sleep."
The crucial shift with Auto-Tune came when artists started to use it as a real-time process, rather than as a fix-it-it-in-the-mix application after the event. Singing or rapping in the booth, listening to their own Auto-Tuned voice through headphones, they learned how to push the effect. Some engineers will record the vocal so that there is a “raw” version to be fixed up later, but—increasingly in rap—there is no uncooked original to work from. The true voice, the definitive performance, is Auto-Tuned right from the start.
The article has a lot of information and mentions as an example of the more comprehensive uses of Auto-Tune a song by Kanye West that I have talked about before. In "Lost in the World" a whole chorus of voices is processed through Auto-Tune:

* * *

In Commentary magazine Terry Teachout muses about the fate of opera in the US: The Fat Lady Is Singing.
Is American opera as a whole in a terminal condition? Or are the collapse of the New York City Opera and the Met’s ongoing struggle to survive purely local matters of no relevance elsewhere? Heidi Waleson addresses these questions in Mad Scenes and Exit Arias: The Death of the New York City Opera and the Future of Opera in America.2 Waleson draws on her experience as the opera critic of the Wall Street Journal to speculate on the prospects for an art form that has never quite managed to set down firm roots in American culture.
The financial challenges for opera production are formidable:
The Met had particular difficulty managing the reduced circumstances of the 21st century when it came to opera. Its 3,800-seat theater has an 80-foot-deep stage with a proscenium opening that measures 54 feet on each side. (Bayreuth, by contrast, seats 1,925, La Scala 2,030, and the Vienna State Opera 2,200.) As a result, it is all but impossible to mount low-to-medium-budget shows in the Metropolitan Opera House, even as the company finds it is no longer able to fill its increasingly empty house. Two decades ago, the Met earned 90 percent of its potential box-office revenue. That figure plummeted to 66 percent by 2015, forcing Gelb to raise ticket prices to an average of $158.50 per head. On Broadway, the average price of a ticket that season was $103.86.
Teachout concludes that, in the absence of European-style state subsidies, opera may not be able to survive in America.

* * *

The question of the moral worth, or even moral status of music, is one that is often critiqued by the hipper musicologists and Alex Ross. Has classical music been permanently compromised by the fact that the Nazis were fond of it? He seems to think so. But the sense that perhaps the sublime beauty and transcendence of the music of someone like Bach does have a positive moral effect still prevails in some quarters. The New York Times reports that Yo-Yo Ma Wants Bach to Save the World.
His trip to Leipzig was part of a sprawling project related to the album: Over the next two years, he will visit 36 cities — winking at the fact that each of the six suites has six sections — on six continents. (His next stop is Washington, on Nov. 29.)
In each city, he will pair a performance of the full cycle — nearly two and a half hours of labyrinthine music, played with barely a pause — with what he’s calling a “day of action” that brings Bach into the community, as in his trip to Neustadt. It’s a small and glancing, but also deeply felt, attempt to suggest that this music, with its objectivity and empathy, its breathless energy and delicate grace, could, if heard closely by enough people, change the world.
The cycle mentioned is the set of six suites for solo cello by J. S. Bach, almost unknown to audiences until the Spanish cellist Pablo Casals recorded them in the 1930s. My thinking on this is that the process of learning to play music, particularly classical music, because of the focus, concentration and discipline required, is a very valuable pastime, leading to the development of moral character. Hopefully some of this is transferred to the listener in performance, but I am less sure of that!

* * *

Eyellusion, the hologram entertainment company behind tours for Frank Zappa and Ronnie James Dio, is working with Gould's rights holder Primary Wave Music Publishing on a Glenn Gould Hologram Tour with dates expected to be announced in late 2019. 
"Glenn Gould would have loved this new technology that will bring his very best performances to venues across Canada and around the world," said Faye Perkins in a statement on behalf of the Glenn Gould estate. "Glenn's live performances were always an event and we are thrilled for fans old and new to be able to experience what it was like to see him on stage."
What the article fails to mention is that Gould gave up all public performances quite early in his career. How ever did they manage to talk his estate into allowing this?!?!?! Here is an interview in which he states why: "I detest audiences!"

* * *

I think that this calls for an envoi of Glenn Gould playing in his natural environment, the recording studio. Here he is in a performance from a television studio with a Beethoven sonata. He gives an introduction, the piece begins at the 5:37 mark:

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Wrapping Up Montreal

My trip to Montreal this year was a lot different from my trip to Madrid (and Valencia and Bologna) last summer. It was a lot shorter and I only saw one concert. There were likely others on, but the major orchestras were not playing at all in the eleven days I was there. Instead I spent time simply relaxing, enjoying the food and visiting with old friends. Montreal is a city for lovers of food, wine and culture. I mentioned Schwartz's Hebrew Delicatessen before and it remains one of my favorite places to eat. St. Viateur Bagel is another one. Both of these are not high-falutin places, but where people in general go. The Greek restaurant Jardin de Panos is another popular place where the food is quite good, not expensive and where you can bring your own wine. That is one way Montreal foodies keep costs low.

The Quebec government liquor stores, the Société des alcools du Québec, does not have a monopoly on liquor sales as you can also purchase wine, beer and so on in grocery and corner stores, but they are where you go for the widest selection and the best wines. The staff were very knowledgeable and helpful even though I spoke in English. (I used to be pretty fluent in French, but not using if for twenty years means that now it is pretty bad.)

My last couple of days I headed out to Chinatown for dim sum on Sunday morning, a traditional Montreal activity. I didn't get any pictures of the food, unfortunately, but a friend snapped this one of me trying to explain something or other:

My last day I had won ton soup in a Chinese restaurant for lunch as I really miss good Chinese food as there is none to be had where I live in Mexico. Then, in the evening I did visit a palace of cuisine, Moishes Steakhouse, an old-fashioned and long-standing place to dine well. It is just a couple of doors from Schwartz's, but rather a different experience. Where in Schwartz's you are going to be sharing a long table with eight or ten other people, or be at the counter, at Moishes the surroundings are a bit more elegant. It was early in the evening, as time went on most of these tables were occupied:

And here is what a serving looks like:

Click to enlarge

They bring you water, of course, and while you are waiting for your order they bring, from left to right and back to front, cole slaw (really good cole slaw), a little bowl of butter, a bowl of bread and a bowl of pickles. I ordered a half bottle of Brunello de Montalchino as well. Here is what the main course looked like:

That is their aged ribeye steak and some french fries. That was probably the best steak I have ever had in my life. I'll bet you are wondering why there is no apostrophe in "Moishes." This is a casualty of the 70s language wars on Quebec. When the Parti Québécois won election in 1976 they put in regulations controlling the appearance of English in signs in Quebec. As the possessive apostrophe is English and not used in French, any establishment who used it had to get rid of the apostrophe. The mystery is why Schwartz's was allowed to retain its apostrophe?

So there you have it. My next trip will be in the first week in December to Toronto for two recording sessions of two pieces of mine with violin. So that will be quite a different experience entirely.

For an envoi, let's listen to a previous piece I wrote. This is "Nuits de Juin," a setting of a poem by Victor Hugo for voice with guitar. The singer is Cherie Hughes and Roberto Limón is playing the guitar part.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Uber, Diversity and Taxes

I have used Uber more in Montreal than I have anywhere before. This is partly because I am not close to a Metro stop and where I am staying I don't know the bus routes. The incredible convenience of the service makes up for the cost, at least in the short term. In highly-developed first world societies like Canada, "diversity" is a goal that is constantly promoted. Based on my Uber experience, I think Canada can relax: mission accomplished! I have had only two native Quebec drivers so far; the others have included drivers from Cameroon, Russia (a marine engineer from Moscow), Lebanon, the Congo and Kyrgyzstan!

If we look at an Uber receipt, we notice another feature of Canadian life: the ubiquity of taxes:

The actual cost of the trip was $8.89 or about $6.82 US. I'm not sure what the "booking fee" is, but the remainder, $2.79 or about $2.16 US, or almost 32%, was taxes. This does not include, of course, the hidden taxes: a hefty tax on gasoline, taxes on the purchase of the automobile and so on. I once saw an analysis of the hidden taxes in the cost of a bottle of wine in British Columbia. I kid you not, the actual cost of the wine was about two dollars with eight dollars in tax! Canadians, through lifelong propagandizing, sincerely believe that these taxes are all to the good and ensure a safe and healthy environment. Certainly true for the hoards of workers employed by the government. An article I read this week in Canada's National Post stated that in seven Canadian provinces the highest income tax rate was over 50%. And these rates kick in at a fairly low level, around $140,000 CAN or a bit over $108,000 US. I think this is called being a "junior partner" in your own life. No wonder that for many Canadians, when they make any significant life decision the first thing they ask is what the tax consequences will be.

Let's end on a happier note! I made it back to Schwartz's yesterday for lunch. I guess there is always going to be a line-up. After a fifteen minute wait I sat at the counter and had my usual, a smoked meat sandwich and a diet coke. You can ask for more or less fat on the meat so I asked for more. The waiter teased me saying "I guess the diet coke balances out the fat?" My personal view is that it is the sugar that kills you, the fat is ok.

Now that's a sandwich! Yes, structurally there are issues, which is why there is a knife and fork on the side. You can't actually see the bottom slice of bread, to pick up the sandwich you just have to feel around for it. But wow, best sandwich I have ever had. They prepare all their own meat. "Smoked meat" is beef brisket pickled and smoked according to a secret recipe. Then it is kept in hot water until needed. The meat for every sandwich is sliced when the order comes in.

The other Jewish palace of food in Montreal is probably Moishes Steakhouse which is right next to Schwartz's on St. Laurent. According to Wikipedia both Moishes and Schwartz's are influenced by Romanian cuisine--Moishes was founded in 1938 by Moishe Lighter, a Romanian Jewish immigrant. I have never eaten there, but I have a reservation for tomorrow night!

Now I'm really stumped for an envoi. I know, how about some Romanian Jewish music?

Saturday, September 22, 2018

McGill Symphony Orchestra

It was a treat to attend this concert, the first of the season, by the McGill Symphony Orchestra at Pollack Hall at the Schulich School of Music. The new name for the music school is the result of a very large donation from the Schulich family that enabled the music school to build an impressive new building some eight or ten stories high. Previously they had to rent space in nearby office buildings for such things as the music library! Pollack Hall is in the old music building, very familiar to me as I attended as a student and worked as a lecturer there for a total of eight years. I have played dozens of concerts at Pollack Hall. Here is a photo of the orchestra onstage:

Click to enlarge
Just moments after I took that photo there was a PA announcement that all photos, videos and audio recordings were prohibited in the hall! Pollack Hall is an excellent mid-size concert hall, nothing fancy, but well-designed and with good acoustics.

Here is the program from last night. I don't have my scanner with me, so I just had to take a photo of the program. Not sure why there is the weird distortion, but it is readable:

Click to enlarge
There was one glaring misprint. Can you see what it is? The Symphony No. 4 in E minor, op. 98 is not by Robert Schumann whose Symphony No. 4 is in D minor and op. 120. No, this symphony is by Johannes Brahms and those are his dates, not Schumann's. Ironically, the last time I heard this orchestra, they were doing the Symphony No. 7 by Shostakovich, whose name did appear, but they had Stravinsky's dates by mistake. Guys? A little proof-reading maybe? These are word-processing mistakes, of course, created by simply pasting new information into an existing document.

The conductor, Alexis Hauser is an old-school Austrian maestro and a good one. He looks just a tiny bit like Nosferatu at times, but full of energy and he directs the orchestra assertively and precisely. At the beginning of the concert he gave the downbeat to the overture the instant he turned to the orchestra after bowing--a nice shocking effect. In the second half, he was on the verge of giving the downbeat when some talking erupted from the 4th row--he instantly whirled around and fixed the offender with a steely glare. This happened a couple of times before the offenders settled down enough to begin. I like this guy!

The orchestra played well--very well considering it was the first concert of the season and there had to be quite a few new members. You are only accepted by audition, just like in a professional orchestra. Indeed, there are probably several members who will be in professional orchestras in a year or two. The soloist in the Chopin concerto was Ilya Poletaev, born in Moscow, grew up partly in Israel and moved to Canada at fourteen. He has several degrees, culminating with a doctorate from Yale. He is Associate Professor of Piano at McGill and had many fans in the audience. Excellent player (why is it that every really fine pianist I have heard recently is originally from Russia?). He did an encore by Chopin, but I am not able to identify it for you, sorry! Poletaev is a sensitive, adroit, inwardly looking musician who has loads of technique. I'm just not a fan of the Chopin concertos!

The opening overture by Dvořák was well done, with lots of fire. I'm not a big fan of his orchestral music either--prior to the New World Symphony it is rather more sound and fury than anything else. The second half was devoted to the Symphony No. 4 by Brahms and they really showed their abilities here. Very fine playing apart from some balance problems and a little defective tuning. But easily the equal of any regional orchestra in Canada (and better than most). Here is the miracle: I'm not normally a fan of Brahms either, apart from the ballades and the Haydn Variations, but I thoroughly enjoyed this performance. It was warm, energetic, powerful--all those things that I suppose most people appreciate in Brahms where I usually hear great stretches of turgid dullness. So, congratulations to the orchestra and conductor.

Allow me just to muse for a bit. It is obvious to me that musical institutions vary widely in their quality and one wonders why. From the outside, to an untrained observer, all established musical institutions give the same impression of competence and quality. But the reality is quite different. If I had a couple of years I would love to criss-cross Canada doing an evaluation of the various schools of music from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia to the University of Victoria in Victoria, British Columbia. That's over 5,000 miles of music schools! I know a bit about a handful of these schools, ones I have taught at, but about most I am blissfully ignorant. What I have noticed is that different schools have a different geneology--genetic code if you will. How and by whom they were founded can have lasting effects. Certain administrators can be a blessing or a curse. What seems to happen is that a careerist administrator, i.e. someone interested just in their own career and not in musical values as such, attains a position of power and proceeds to hire faculty based on their career needs. This is not uncommon as career-oriented opportunists seek out positions of power. They hire their friends, other careerists, and create a shell of a music institution. It may look good, be well-credentialed and so on. But at the end of the day the solid musical quality just isn't there. There are horrible institutions, the leading ones in major Canadian cities, that are bad places to go for a music education. But this is not obvious from the outside! For whatever reason, McGill has escaped this fate. It is large enough that one or two unfortunate administrators will only have a minimal and temporary effect. There seems to be a critical mass of serious musicians in every area at McGill that constantly work for quality and against fashionable frippery. The quality of the McGill Symphony is a valid indicator of the quality of the school.

I write about McGill because I have known the school, from the inside and the outside, for over forty years.

I already have put up a clip of Alexis Hauser conducting the McGill Symphony, so let's have a listen to the Symphony No. 4 by Brahms. This is Bernard Haitink conducting the Chamber Orchestra of Europe:

Friday, September 21, 2018

Food in Montreal

I was just reading some posts from my vacation in Madrid last summer. I did a lot of posts and saw a lot of concerts. This trip to Montreal has a quite different feel. I am doing many fewer posts and there are several reasons for that. This trip is much more of a personal one and there is less to share. I'm only going to see one concert, tonight, which I will report on tomorrow. My visits with old friends are not of general interest. That leaves food, and I can share some of those experiences!

Last night I went with an old friend and ex-student to a popular Greek restaurant called "Jardin de Panos." One of the reasons for its popularity is likely that you can bring your own wine. This is a common practice in Montreal, a city of wine aficionados. I brought a cava, a bubbly wine from Spain, which was a rosé. I forgot to write down the name, sorry, but it had a very plain pink label with, I think, a large letter "P" on it. In any case, it was quite nice and a good accompaniment to the Greek salad, fried calamari and moussaka. The dining room was packed and noisy with conversation. As in Europe, diners in Montreal do not want background music and there was none. One aspect of Montreal is the intense conviviality with which Montrealers socialise!

One of the attractions for me here is the great variety of wines available that I can't find in Mexico. Here are three that I picked up and will likely take back home with me.

From left to right is a négotiant's Bourgogne which the fellow in the wine store said was very good, an outstanding California Pinot Noir which he said was intense and chocolatety and a bubbly Vouvray from the Loire valley. He recommended the Chanson Pinot over a number of ones with more impressive labels. In Bordeaux, the more specific the label, the, likely, higher quality of wine. Simple "Bordeaux" is generic wine from anywhere. "Bordeaux Supérieur" is a bit better. Wine from a particular appellation such as "Médoc" is better still and the next level up is a particular village, such as Paulliac, within the Médoc area. Wine from a chateau within a village is better yet and at the top are the "premier cru" or"first growth" from the 1855 classification that included such grand wines as Château Margaux.

But the situation in Bourgogne is different. They have the same kinds of classifications as in Bordeaux, but alongside that are a number of wine merchants or négotiants that buy grapes from various growers and produce their own wines. Years ago I went to a tasting by Chanson and they had some excellent wines. The moral is, while Bordeaux labels can be really confusing, but informative, Bourgogne labels are equally confusing but can be much less informative!

Back to food. Also yesterday I had the worst meal I have had here. I walked over to Schwartz's, home of the best smoked meat, for lunch, but there was a long lineup so I doubled back to some Portuguese restaurants that I had passed on the way. I have never eaten in a Portuguese restaurant so I thought it might be interesting. Alas, it seems I chose the wrong one. On the waiter's recommendation I tried the bacalao. Nope. It was a slab of preserved cod smothered in onions. Salty, fibrous and basically tasteless, but with a variety of unpredictable bones. I gave up after a few bites. I'm sure you will tell me I should give Portuguese cuisine another chance and I'm sure you are right, so I will.

I hit a Five Guys for a hamburger the other day but it didn't seem quite as good as others I have had. The fries were great, though.

Sunday I am going to go to Chinatown for dim sum, one of my favorite Asian dining experiences.

Now what would be a suitable envoi? Obviously, since I have been talking about wine from Bourgogne, we need to hear something from the Burgundian school of composers. This is the chanson "Amours Mercy" by Gilles Binchois:

Friday Miscellanea

Tonight I am attending a concert of the McGill Symphony Orchestra that I will report on tomorrow. This is to be distinguished from the McGill Baroque Orchestra, directed by Hank Knox, another old acquaintance from my student days, the McGill Contemporary Music Ensemble, the various McGll choral ensembles (such as the Capella Antica, the Concert Choir, the Jazz Choir, the University Chorus and the Schulich Singers), the McGill Wind Orchestra, and the various jazz ensembles, all of whom will be giving concerts after I leave.

I was also looking forward to hearing the Orchestre Métropolitaine and the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, but neither are giving any concerts while I am here. I inevitably contrast the music scene here with that of Madrid, where I was last summer. Despite my being there in May, hardly the peak of the concert season, I was able to see a wide range of concerts by different orchestras as well as two operas. The offerings here, outside McGill who alone put on some three hundred concerts every year, are far sparser. Of course, Montreal is about half the population of Madrid: metropolitan population of 1.7 million with just over 4 million in the urban area. Madrid is 3.3 million in the city with 6.5 million in the urban area. Madrid also benefits from being on the European continent which means that it sees a lot of touring musicians and ensembles. I saw orchestras from Frankfurt and St. Petersburg as well as Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov. I will see if I can pick up some brochures advertising upcoming concerts at the event tonight.

* * *

Just for fun, let's have a look at what is available at the Auditorio Nacional de Música in Madrid this week:
  • Thursday night, Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Schubert and Mahler
  • Tonight, the Spanish National Orchestra and Chorus conducted by David Afkham, Haydn, The Creation (would love to see that!)
  • Next week the Santa Cecilia Classical Orchestra conducted by Paolo Bortolameolli, Tchaikovsky and Sibelius (the Violin Concerto, love to see that as well)
  • Afkham and the National Orchestra again with Shostakovich, 2nd Cello Concerto and Stravinsky, Rite of Spring (really would like to see that)
and so on, I'm leaving out minor events and this is just in one facility.

* * *

Here is an odd item from the Violin Channel: two principal players from the New York Philharmonic were just fired for "unspecified misconduct."
The two musicians have been identified as Principal Oboist Liang Wang – and Associate Principal Trumpeter, Matthew Muckey.
Both musicians had served as members of the ensemble since 2006.
It is understood the two musicians had been under an internal investigation for the past 5 months.
“Following the investigation, the Philharmonic advised the musicians that their employment was terminated,” the orchestra has said in a statement.
“Mr Wang is extremely disappointed in the Philharmonic’s decision and emphatically denies that he engaged in any misconduct,” Liang Wang’s lawyer has said.
“Mr Muckey has not engaged in any misconduct, and there is no legitimate basis by the New York Philharmonic to terminate him,” a lawyer for Matthew Muckey has said.
No details of the allegations against the two men have been released.
More information plus a very long comment thread over at Slipped Disc.

* * *

And on a completely different note, there is a new Complete Complete Edition of Bach coming out from DGG:

Deutsche Grammophon and Decca are about to release ‘the biggest ever box set for a single composer’ on October 26. 
The complete works of JSB are housed on 222 CDs. The box contains 280 hours of music and weighs 13.5 kilos 
J.S. Bach – The New Complete Edition is the result of two years of curation, developed with the co-operation of 32 record labels and a team of scholars at the Leipzig Bach Archive.
It will cost over $500. Here is the trailer:

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This might seem a bit off-topic, but it seems preferable to yet more stories about players being dismissed for unspecified offences: The Most Unread Book Ever Acclaimed.
The description of her dress does not end there. More sports are named. It’s hard not to feel that something has gone wrong; the record is skipping; whoever was manning the controls has stepped out for a cigarette—or a very potent joint. Why must the pattern contain every conceivable sport? Would not three, or four, or a dozen, have been enough? In a similar vein, one might ask why there needs to exist ten thousand types of birds or 350,000 species of beetles. But these are modern questions—not the sort of thing that interests God, or Nature—and Miss MacIntosh, My Darling is a modernist novel decidedly unconcerned with modern questions.
This sounds very much like the book Marcel Proust might have written if he had listened to a very great deal of Philip Glass...

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For some reason, both the Montreal orchestras are very under-represented on YouTube. It must be a general policy as there are almost no professional videos of complete works. Instead we find little promotional clips advertising the new season or a recording. This, the first movement of the Symphony No. 6 by Bruckner, is about the most substantial clip I could find of the Orchestre Métropolitaine, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the orchestra's principal conductor and the new conductor of the New York Met.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Out and About in Montreal

Sorry for the lackadaisical posting. I have been here a few days and this is the first post. Hey, I'm on vacation! Traveling from Mexico to Montreal is quite easy--it is only five hours flying time from Mexico City. For today let me just do a few scattered remarks.

One of my first stops was Schwartz's Hebrew Delicatessen that I mentioned the other day. It is now owned by Celine Dion, but nothing has changed. The decor still dates back to the 1950s, the waiters are still both friendly and brusque and the food is exactly as it has always been. The first time I was there, some friends took me and I recall sitting down and looking around curiously. "What kind of food do they have here?" There was a menu on a paper placemat and another on the wall, but before I could read them a waiter came up and said, "We got smoked meat. You gotta sandwich, you gotta small plate, you gotta large plate. We got fries and a pickle." Yep, that's pretty much it, but they also have rib steak and a couple of other garnishes. Smoked meat is a Montreal original and, roughly speaking, it is what New York pastrami would be if it went to heaven. And here is what a smoked meat sandwich looks like:

The other great Montreal original is the bagel. There are two basic recipes for the bagel, the New York one and the Montreal one. The Montreal bagel has a bit of honey in it and is always baked in a wood-fired brick oven. Through a real stroke of luck I am staying right next to a St. Viateur Bagel cafe where they bake bagels onsite. Open from 6 am. This morning I picked up a half dozen, still warm as they were just out of the oven. They are always fresh as they bake all day long.

They are smaller and more irregularly shaped than the New York bagels. St. Viateur Bagel, named after the location of the original bakery, now has four locations plus three cafes where you can get fresh bagels but also coffee and sandwiches--as long as they come on a bagel.

I also visited a famous Greek restaurant, but as I am going back with a friend in a couple of days, I will comment then.

It is interesting to visit a place that was very important to me. This is where I did most of my formal, i.e. degree-related, study. After a couple of years at the University of Victoria and a year in private study in Spain, I decided to continue at McGill University where I did a Bachelor's degree in performance followed by a Diplôme de Concert, like a master's degree in performance. Many years later I came back and did all the seminars for a doctorate in musicology. Tomorrow I am having coffee with a musicology professor (and old friend) so I will have more to say then. But after looking at the booklet for the coming year, it looks as if McGill Music is bigger and better than ever!

Montreal has some remarkable things other than music and food. For example, the Anglican Cathedral on St. Catherine's Street quite close to McGill is sitting on top of a massive underground shopping complex. I wasn't there when it happened, but what they seem to have done is dig out three stories underneath the cathedral, which was supported on pillars during the process, and then simply built a shopping center underneath. Then they put the ground back so it looked the same except for two escalator entrances, one on each side:

Here is what you see when you go inside:

Dozens of stores all together and on top is the cathedral. All of this part of Montreal is a big underground mall connected to the McGill Metro station. If you have ever been to Montreal in February you will know exactly why they put so much underground!

I'm off to Schwartz's for lunch, but I will post again tomorrow. On Thursday and Friday the McGill Symphony are doing concerts so I will try to catch at least one and report back.

As an envoi, here is the McGill Symphony conducted by Alexis Hauser in a performance filmed two years ago. The piece is the Symphony No. 9 by Mahler.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Friday Miscellanea--Special Travel Edition

I will be in Montreal for several days which I think will result in more posts than I have managed lately! For years I tried to put up at least one post a day, but recently that has fallen to just a few a week. This past week all I managed was the Friday Miscellanea. Hey, you get what you pay for! I have just had too many other demands on my time and I worry about repeating myself. I started this blog in June of 2011 and back then I had a lot to say. But lately I have a bit less to offer. Some of my energies go into composition, but most go into my non-musical work.

So I am off to Mexico City this morning to catch a flight to Montreal. I haven't been back for quite a while and I have some friends I will be catching up with. I will be paying a visit to my old alma mater, McGill University, where there are some impressive new buildings for the School of Music courtesy of a large private donation. I am looking forward to seeing how things are with the School of Music these days. Is it still the largest in Canada? Do they still have three orchestras? Do they still put on over three hundred concerts a year in various venues? What is happening in the Composition Department? Theory? Musicology?

I hope to attend some concerts in the new concert hall where the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal perform and see as many other concerts as I can. Montreal has several universities and at least two others have significant music departments. I am going to drop by Archambault Musique, a giant music store, and browse their scores.

On the non-musical agenda will be visits to the Mecca of smoked meat, Schwartz's Hebrew Delicatessen, now known as "Chez Schwartz's Charcuterie Hebraique de Montréal" due to French language requirements. Yes, there are certainly more chi-chi establishments, but Schwartz's has a unique appeal.

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Blogger Jessica Duchen wrote a nice review of this years Last Night of the Proms concert. The site won't allow selective quotation so you will just have to go there to read the whole piece.

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Here is some news from my other alma mater, the University of Victoria. Three professors there have just been awarded 2018 fellows of the Royal Society of Canada. I actually know two of the three! The musical one is tenor Benjamin Butterfield, head of voice at the school of music who I knew when I taught there. His brother, Chris Butterfield, is a composer I worked with many years ago. Also honoured is philosophy professor Eike-Henner Kluge with whom I took an introduction to philosophy course way back when I was an undergraduate. It was his first year at the university. That course is what gave me a life-long love for and fascination with philosophy.

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There are lots of other fascinating items in the news today, but I just don't have time to hunt them down for you as I've literally got to "get packing!" But here is one final one, an item about Leonard Bernstein by Alex Ross in the New Yorker:
How posterity will judge this volcano of a man remains to be seen. His career offers a lesson in the perils of hero worship: the future of classical music cannot consist in waiting for another telegenic superstar. The fact that major works still emerged from Bernstein’s later years—“Mass,” “Songfest,” “A Quiet Place”—is a tribute to his residual creative fire. Harmon, in his book, describes hearing a “timid knock” on his door in the middle of the night. Bernstein wanted to try out a newly composed passage from “A Quiet Place.” When Harmon asked a couple of skeptical questions, Bernstein answered them patiently and persuasively. For Harmon, that hour of musical exchange, shy and serious, justified the chaos that surrounded it. Even so, he fled after four years.
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And I have to leave you with that. Here is the Montreal Symphony with Petruschka by Stravinsky conducted by Charles Dutoit. I would have put up a performance by the current conductor, Kent Nagano, but I couldn't find a suitable one on YouTube:

Friday, September 7, 2018

Friday Miscellanea

Wednesday, September 5 was the birthday of John Cage (1912 - 1992) who was one of the most influential composers and theorists in North America in the second half of the 20th century. Most notorious for his piece for piano, 4'33, which involves playing no notes, he also wrote several books on music (and Zen and mushrooms), invented the "prepared" piano and just generally shook up the musical world. Here are four of his brief pieces from Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano:

One of the most interesting consequences of writing this sort of thing is that it drives the theorists nuts because how in heck can you analyze those harmonies!

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I like to drop by Musicology Now from time to time to catch up on the latest trends, even though it is often a dispiriting exercise. They have just posted a multi-part series on "Teaching Music and Difference" which seems to involve various ways of "de-centering" the traditional focus on art music by focusing attention on things like:
The common elements are first, that there is no attention paid to any of the usual canon, no Dead White Males (or Females for that matter); instead the focus is on world musical traditions, ethnological study of context (again in non-Western music) and things like sexuality. The last post linked to begins:
Music scholars do not do well with sex.
Musicology, ethnomusicology, popular music studies, anthropology of music. . . . whatever field or discipline we claim, the truth is that as a field of study we need to do better with sex. And I mean that word in every way: sexuality in terms of sexual behavior, sexual identity, sexual orientation and gender expression, and changing definitions of sex as a biocultural marker.  As scholars, we notice and critique colleagues who ignore race, indigeneity, and/or ethnicity. We might not always get those critiques correct or present them nearly often enough, but we see those faultlines.  We attempt to speak to the inclusion of women, again not well enough or often enough, or with nearly enough force inside our own organizations and institutions, but we are at least aware. About sexuality, however, there is still a broad field of lack. Lack of knowledge, to be sure, but also a lack of engagement, interest, and effort. The ignorance looks ignorant.
Well sure, if you are studying sexuality, then you should be studying sexuality, but equally if your field of study is music, then your field of study should be music. There are interesting and complex connections between music and sexuality to be sure, but all I get from posts like that one is a somewhat condescending sanctimony:
Using sexuality to study music is an opportunity not only to make our students better thinkers, but also to demonstrate that sexual diversity has always been there, that the study of music is not separate from that diversity but woven within it, and that we as music scholars will refuse to embrace the phobias and oppressions that exist around us. It is not just good pedagogy, it is good humanity.
And I doubt that you are studying music qua music much at all. But if the goal here is to de-legitimize Western Civilization then job well done!

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Roger Mathew Grant writes about Musical Pleasures saying:
Can a melody provide us with pleasure? Plato certainly thought so, as do many today. But it’s incredibly difficult to discern just how this comes to pass. Is it something about the flow and shape of a tune that encourages you to predict its direction and follow along? Or is it that the lyrics of a certain song describe a scene that reminds you of a joyful time? Perhaps the melody is so familiar that you’ve simply come to identify with it.
Critics have proposed variations on all of these ideas as explanatory mechanisms for musical pleasure, though there remains no critical consensus. The story of their attempts and difficulties forms one vital component of Western intellectual history, and its many misdirections are revealing to trace in their own right. In early modern Europe, theorists generally adopted a view inspired by Aristotle’s Poetics: they supposed that the tones of a melody could work together with a text in order to imitate the natural world. Music, in this view, was something of a live soundtrack to a multimedia representation. It could assist in an analogic way with the depiction of the natural sentiments or features of the world captured in the language of its poetry, thereby eliciting a pleasurable response. Determining specifically how this worked was, in fact, the elusive goal set out at the opening of René Descartes’s first complete treatise, the Compendium Musicae (written in 1618). Unfortunately, Descartes never made it past a simple elaboration of musical preliminaries. He felt that, in order to make the connection to pleasure and passion, he would need a more detailed account of the movements of the soul.
Oh darn, now I have to try and find the treatise by Descartes to see why I have never heard of it before and why it is not better known.

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Jane Kallir writes about The End of Middle-Class Art:
Modernism is inseparable from the rise of the Western middle class. In 19th-century Europe, the bourgeoisie created a vast new market for art, previously a luxury enjoyed mainly by aristocrats. Cities, especially, became cultural hubs replete with museums, galleries, concert halls, theaters and publishing houses. The direct patronage that had characterized the aristocratic age was replaced by a wider distribution system that depended on intermediaries to connect artists with consumers. Critics, art historians and curators augmented the promotional efforts of commercial art dealers by legitimizing artists and educating the public. As the middle class expanded in the second half of the 20th century, advances in mass communications further broadened the audience for art.
This is certainly true in music. The early example of Chopin, who was supported by a large number of middle-class patrons including a number of students, is echoed by Stravinsky who was supported by commissions from performing groups and publishers who saw a middle-class market for his music. Neither were supported by aristocratic nobility.
Many compare the current economic scene to the 19th century’s Gilded Age, and it is therefore hardly surprising that the art world is being overwhelmed by the superrich. To the extent that it was essentially a middle-class phenomenon, one may question whether there still is an art world. The ascetic highbrows have been replaced by “thought leaders,” who kowtow to wealth and equate the “marketplace of ideas” with the financial markets. Any pretense of a firewall between art and money has been abandoned. The roles of dealer, curator, and artist have blurred, compelling artists to promote themselves. High on the food chain we see Damien Hirst collaborating with Sotheby’s and luxury mogul François Pinault; lower down, artists milk sketchy celebrity contacts on Instagram. Meanwhile, with the end of the “American Century,” nations in the Middle East and Asia are exerting more influence on the global conversation. Just as America’s Gilded Age magnates collected Italian Renaissance paintings and portraits of British aristocrats, newly minted billionaires in other parts of the world are scooping up Western masterpieces. The recently opened Louvre Abu Dhabi suggests a long-range agenda, repositioning these works in a broader context to legitimize the full panoply of world cultures. It is a safe bet that art history’s next grand narrative will not be written in the West. Things change.
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And over at the New York Times, Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim writes about the viola: "Twisting for Solos, the Violist Is a Quartet’s Odd Player Out" Have I mentioned recently my aversion to the grammatical twisting that is ever-present in NYT headlines? The New York Times Inversion I am tempted to label it. Every headline must invert the usual order of things so as to seem less, well, dull.
There’s not much to look at when a string quartet is playing. Other than the movements that draw sound from the instruments, the scene is relatively static.
But train your eyes on the violist, and sooner or later you may well witness what seems like a secret struggle. The player’s body language becomes a spiral of contradictions, like someone keeping up dinner-table conversation while scanning the room for the waiter. Chances are that in this awkward yet riveting moment, you witnessed a viola solo, a phenomenon that is rare in chamber music, often fleeting and even physically taxing.
Oddly enough, at the last string quartet concert I attended, with the Fine Arts Quartet, we noticed that the viola managed to project very well despite never contorting himself as the article indicates one must do. And viola solos are only rare in 18th century quartets--they become more and more common in 19th, 20th and 21st century ones. So, in the first two paragraphs of the article we find two very iffy statements. This is, by the way, the norm. In any area where you have professional knowledge and understanding you will find that 90% of what you read in the mass media will be incorrect. It was Michael Crichton that first pointed this out. Now extend that to all those areas in which you do not have professional training...

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And as a little sorbet to clear the palate after so much pondering, here is an item from Slipped Disc: When an international string quartet breaks down.
Seven months I went backstage in the interval of Wigmore Hall concert to say hello to the Artemis Quartet.
I have never known a colder green room. It was mid-February and the heating was full on, but the atmosphere was frigid.
The four players were ranged two on either side of the room. There was no conversation. They were looking at their phones, or t the walls. You did not need to be Sigmund Freud to recognise that this was a group in an advanced stage of human disarray.
As usual over at Slipped Disc, don't neglect reading the comments. No, you should not go back to visit musicians at the interval, but yes, if you have any connection with the artists, I'm sure they would welcome a visit backstage after the concert. When I was newly married to my German wife and we were attending a concert of the Montreal Symphony with guest artist Pepe Romero playing the Rodrigo Concierto de Aranjuez, I dragged her backstage after the concert even though she was sure it was a terrible idea and definitely not permitted! As I had studied with Pepe on more than one occasion and spent a month in his master class in Salzburg he recognized me immediately (he was all by himself, standing in the door of his dressing room) and greeted us enthusiastically.

I did my international debut in Wigmore Hall, a lovely venue, and being in the green room was a daunting experience as the walls are lined with autographed photos of many of the artists who performed there: Arthur Rubinstein and a host of others of his caliber. Sheesh!

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Let's listen to a little Rubinstein for our envoi today. Here is the Polonaise in A flat by Chopin:

I saw him play in Spain in 1974 and to this day I remember the amazing colors he wrested from the piano.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Scott Adams on Music

I have been watching some Scott Adams video clips lately. He puts up something every morning and they are sometimes interesting because he tends to have a different take on things. Mind you, I rarely get past the first ten or fifteen minutes because I find them content lite. Sort of interesting, but he just takes too long to make his point. This morning he started by talking about music and he read out a tweet from a Alexander J. A. Cortez who said:
Music is mental programming. Do not ever discount its power. It changes your psyche on a deep level.
Scott re-tweeted it with the added comment:
This is why I don't listen to music. Literally.
Then he goes on to talk about the phenomenon of people listening to music on headphones while they do their jobs or homework. He says he doesn't recommend it. Neither do I! But Scott has some weird ideas about music. He thinks it can be useful used "medicinally" meaning as an energizing soundtrack while you work out or something. But he also thinks it is an addiction that you "inject" into yourself, like heroin. He is deeply suspicious of music that you listen to because you "like it." Because you let in the "thoughts and emotions and lyrics of the author." Then he goes on to talk about how kids are very attached to listening on their headphones and how difficult it is to get them to do their homework without music. I haven't actually encountered that, but perhaps it is true, so let's just assume it.

Scott Adams is, I think, based on this and some earlier clips, a basically non-musical person. He doesn't seem aware of music beyond its pop manifestations, nor does he seem aware of music as an art form. I notice the same thing with Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple when he was talking about music. These folks did not, I suspect, have music lessons when they were young, so their only real exposure to music is through the mass media, hence pop music. They don't seem to be curious about music and regard it as being much on the same level as a mild tranquilizer or amphetamine. OK, in small doses, but you want to watch your intake.

I would really like to sit them down and give them a short course in music that would expand and challenge their previous experience. What would they think after listening to a classical piece that was easily accessible on first hearing, but entirely outside the model they have conceived? I'm thinking of something like the first movement of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata or the last movement of Mozart's Symphony No. 41. Obviously music, but in a different mode than what they are used to. Would they change their view? Or would they just be insensitive to it and make the same claims as they would about the pop music they are used to?

Let me be clear, I don't think that you can or should listen to music while you are trying to work. I also don't like background music as a rule. I think any piece worth hearing is worth actually listening to. But I don't think you should combine that activity with something else. For me music, good music, has a transcendent element that is the real reason we listen to it. Let's let Bach make the argument for us:


Saturday, September 1, 2018

Public Service Announcement

We live in a time when a lot of places, the US, Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan and so on, are as prosperous as they have ever been. This is because of people working hard, for the most part. That leads to people wanting to take vacations, even me, and I've resisted vacations most of my life. But this in turn leads to the problem that everywhere you want to go is overrun with tourists. Here is a handy list that illustrates what I mean.

Go to the link and go through the slides.

So if you want a nice vacation somewhere that is not over-run with tourists (and I was just reading this piece about how the Greek island of Santorini is completely overwhelmed with cruise ships these days) you have to go somewhere that is less popular. That shouldn't be too hard! Mind you, if you are fixated on seeing the Mona Lisa or the Eiffel Tower or Buckingham Palace, you will just have to put up with the mob. But if you are willing to be more creative, then the world is your oyster.

I'm off to Montreal for a little vacation in a couple of weeks, so let's put that on the list. Montreal is the fashion capital of Canada and, along with Vancouver, the food capital as well. If you want great Asian food go to Vancouver, but if you want the brilliant fusion of Jewish, French and local cuisine (with the influence of a zillion world cuisines), then Montreal is the place to go. Great cultural life as well. One caveat: go in September, it is the only decent month weather-wise.

Europe has some fantastic music festivals of which the one in Salzburg in August is perhaps the most famous. I was planning to go this year, but just couldn't make it. Perhaps next year? Great concerts by every great performer you want to hear, plus orchestras, opera--the premium music festival. There are also other spectacular ones in Berlin, Verbier (Switzerland) and London (the Proms). You should book your tickets early as they mostly sell out.

A bit further afield, I think I would really enjoy a trip to St. Petersburg or Moscow where so many of my favorite composers lived and worked. I need to do research to find the best time to go to catch some music festivals. And I think we should avoid the winter months!

Some other interesting places in Europe that might not be too overrun are Bordeaux, the Rioja and Rousillon, for example, for wine-lovers.

Canada, the US and Mexico are large countries with all sorts of beautiful places to visit and Canada in particular just can't be overrun with tourists--there's just too much territory! My favorite places in Canada are Vancouver Island and the Pacific coast generally. The further north you go on the island the more beautiful and exotic it is. It does rain a lot, though. The Rocky Mountains around Banff are simply spectacular and there are a thousand things to do, including cultural offerings at the Banff Centre.

I'm not much of an expert on the US, but just about everywhere I have been there has had a lot to offer in terms of food, scenery or culture. Mexico is a great place to visit, just stay away from border towns and Guerrero, where Acapulco is located. Mexico City is an amazing place to spend some time with a host of museums, not over-crowded, incredible restaurants and, yes, cultural events as well. It is also a lot cheaper than you would expect. It is my favorite place to spend a long weekend.

Where is your favorite non-cliched place to take a vacation?

Perhaps a suitable envoi would be "Going Up the Country" by Canned Heat: