Antoni Gaudi, Arnold Schoenberg, Barcelona, Benet Casablancas, Domenech i Montaner, Frank Gehry, Girona, La Pedrera, Liceu, Montserrat, Morton Subotnick, Moses und Aron, Palau de la Musica, Park Guell, Rafael Moneo, Richard Meier, Sagrada Familia, San Sebastián
Dreams often get tucked away – but hopefully not forgotten.
From a youthful spark of excitement their inspiration often takes years to become reality. And after visiting Barcelona, I know that dreams in my family now have a new home in a Catalan city we intend to visit as often as possible.
It was a love at first sight that began long ago. My wife Jan had been inspired forty years earlier when she first saw photographs of the architecture of Antoni Gaudi. As you know from following my blog, we have had the wonderful opportunity to travel often, though that is not uncommon in the performing arts world. Nonetheless, Barcelona had never come into view.
Fortunately we have a lot of frequent flier miles accumulated with various airlines. One account was set to expire by the end of November and as Jan turned 60 in August, it was time to celebrate. She’d plotted and dreamed and figured and hoped that Barcelona would, finally, become a reality after her love at first sight glimpse forty years ago.
As I have often said, we find balance through chance. I consider traveling the best way to earn an advanced degree. Before going to the airport, we study the city and metro map. Read a few, maybe a lot, of guide books (for this trip Robert Hughes was quite helpful for his broad overview of Catalan culture). Study the language. Study the cuisine, which is a no brainer for Barcelona. Read (or re-read) a novel related to the city or the country (which for me was For Whom The Bell Tolls – when I turn to Old Hollywood later this month it will be very clear why I chose Hemingway’s masterpiece about the Spanish Civil War, but I’m getting ahead of myself).
All this homework allows us to have an idea of what, when and where we want to see things, creating enough knowledge to help us respond to the reality of a city, its scale, metro, weather, and surprises. The planning helps us improvise our schedule day to day. Just fix a few points like attending a concert in advance from home.
But in planning extensively to visit Barcelona, we neglected an obvious fact. A fact that would make Barcelona very close to home and good friends here in Los Angeles. I enjoy discovering how easy it is to misplace the obvious. My post of July 16 is a good exposition of this guiding principal as it relates to artistic programming. It’s not as easy as it sounds, either! And finding the obvious applies to traveling as well.
We stayed in an apartment hotel near the Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece, still a work in progress to this day. From our windows we could see the tallest spires of the church. In addition, we had a kitchen. And if you know my blog you know that cooking in Barcelona would have to be on the to do list. And yes I will have a cooking post devoted to the markets and cuisine of Catalonia and the Basque Country in San Sebastián. Don’t worry, get hungry, and stay connected!
After all it was autumn and of course mushroom season!
On a clear October Saturday afternoon we decided to visit the Hospital Santa Creu i Sant Pau of Lluis Domenech i Montaner, a contemporary of Gaudi. The grounds were impressively restored and opened to the public only in February of this year. Begun in 1901, it was state of the art at the time and in use until 2009. A contemporary musical counterpart? I’d suggest Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand. Because this hospital soars….
Barcelona needed a new general hospital so now this UNESCO World Heritage site bookends Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia as an architectural destination, only about a ten minute walk from the Sagrada. From the Hospital campus you can link up easily to Gaudi’s Park Guell via bus or cheap taxi to gorge your Modernista palate.
A word of practical advice. Barcelona is heavily touristed and the sites of Gaudi in particular, even on a Monday morning, can rival a Disney them park attraction. You can avoid this with a little organization.
Treat the sites like you are going to a concert and order your tickets online a few days ahead (cautionary advice: the sites are often not clear and if the tickets are sold out for a few days that is why you might not reach any information). By doing this planning, your ticket will gain you access at a specified time. Highly recommended so your energy goes into your experience and not into your frustration. And plan to go at the time of opening or the last hour before closing and you’ll overcome crowd rage.
As we stood in line to have our tickets torn for admission to the Hospital campus, Jan and I notice the name tag on the young Catalan woman taking our tickets.
Nuria. I looked at Jan. Nuria? Jan looked at me. Nuria!!!
We’d always felt there was something exotic about that first name, Nuria. But little did we realize that her parents Arnold and Gertrud Schoenberg would give their daughter a Catalan name! Talk about missing the obvious!
I was aware that Schoenberg had stayed in Barcelona and that his daughter Nuria was born here in the early 1930s. Never dawned on either of us to even ask about this to our Los Angeles friends in Schoenberg’s family. Nuria has made us dinner in Los Angeles, met us in Venice, Italy at her home and, to this day, we swear we had the best pesto of our life with her on the Giudecca after touring her late husband’s archive. Which was for Jan’s 40th birthday, so having Nuria recapitulate for Jan’s 60th in Barcelona was delightful.
And would have been obvious if I’d thought about it just a little before leaving home!
So I sent her an email from her hometown, which unfortunately bounced back. Her nephew Randy is on our board and a long time friend. Sure enough I heard from them both in no time. Did I know there was a Carrer d’Schoenberg (in fact Nuria didn’t either until I sent her an email with a picture)?
I love new characters. Randy suggested why not look up the composer, Benet Casablancas, who spearheaded the move to have the street renamed and a plaque of history placed on the house.
And Randy helpfully included the email address. Casablancas, as it turns out, has received performances from our good friend and advisory board member Oliver Knussen and the London Sinfonietta, traveled to Madrid to hear the world premiere of Charles Wuorinen’s Brokeback Mountain and studied with the late Elliott Carter. And went to Vienna, much like I had. It really is a small world. Thank God we didn’t try to plan any of this!
Casablancas is writing an opera for the famed Liceu Opera House on La Rambla. We are already in good communication and I am rather sure something wonderful will come of this chance meeting in Barcelona for our audiences here in Los Angeles. He is composer in residence with the excellent Barcelona Symphony Orchestra and even had a performance that we were able to attend, which was exciting to hear. Like Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral here in Los Angeles, the Barcelona hall was designed by Rafael Moneo.
Barcelona’s creativity seems to traumatize Madrid, if the news reports of the recent and ongoing secessionist referendum ring true. After being in Catalonia’s capitol, I’m struck upon returning to Los Angeles that California and Catalonia have a lot in common. The creativity of both regions is undeniable. Both regions are often mocked by the imperial establishments of Madrid in Spain or the cultural, political and educational establishments of New York City, Boston and Washington, D.C.. Both Spain and the United States would not have a credible national response were Catalonia and California, respectively, to act upon their deserved independent streaks and leave the national fold. But no matter these political realities, both places remain a state of mind that support creative people and inspiring visions.
And both cities knew how to capitalize on hosting the Olympics. Barcelona was the heel of Franco’s fascist boot and the Olympic building initiatives put that horrible period in the rear view mirror once and for all. Los Angeles has turned several corners since our Olympiad in 1984 and, given the relative youth of most cultural organizations (my ensemble is the same age as Los Angeles Opera), the achievements are argument-ending as to international cultural significance. Got a Disney Hall in your town?
And, no surprise, architecture has played a big role in the advancement of both cities. Not to mention key architects.
It is easy to see work of Richard Meier (Getty Center here and MACBA there), Rafael Moneo (The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels here and the Auditori de Barcelona there) and Frank Gehry (Disney Hall here and the huge Barcelona Fish or, more north and to the point, the landmark Guggenheim in Bilbao in the Basque Country) connecting the two cities.
And the Catalans love music. Outside of Barcelona and easily accessible by train, you can find the home of Parisfal and his son Lohengrin at the Monastery of Monserrat. Better known to Wagnerians as Montsalvat, if you are entranced by the revelation projected by Lohengrin’s “In fernem Land“.
The first European performance of Parsifal outside of Bayreuth took place at the Liceu Theatre in Barcelona, with the performance beginning at 10:25 PM on New Year’s Eve 1913 when the contract legally expired in Germany. Talk about marketing. They didn’t want to miss a beat, though it appears that the opera was less than thoroughly rehearsed, but when was the last time you heard of a Wagner opera performance going until 5 AM on New Year’s Eve???
Lluis Domenech i Montaner placed four composers on the facade of his other UNESCO World Heritage Site building in Barcelona, the Palau de Musica, which has the only UNESCO designation for a concert hall. Palestrina, Bach and Beethoven on the front side, and then found room for Wagner around the corner.
And tucked around the corner, you’ll find Wagner in his beret.
Don’t worry, a few itinerant Valkryies are ready to leap onto the stage for dramatic effect as the stage is a fever dream of Modernist design. Need a Magic Garden?
Not only do the Catalans love music, they also inspire it in others. And Wagner, there is no avoiding his controversial personality, has earned his musical rebuke from two Jewish composers close to our hearts who wrote great music in or inspired by Catalonia.
When Southwest opened Herbert Zipper Concert Hall at the Colburn School on Grand Avenue in Los Angeles, we commissioned Morton Subotnick. Mort gave us a tremendous piece inspired by the nearby Catalan city of Girona, a center of Jewish thought and the mystical Kabbalah. Entitled Echoes from the Silent Call of Girona, the work for string quartet and computer sounds is ominous and powerful, its apocalyptic final movement a cultural premonition of September 11, 2001. All hell does break loose as Mort asks his quartet to fight through an Armageddon of computer sounds. The most orchestral sounding string quartet ever written, the piece packs a big wallop.
And as Jan’s inspiration for Antoni Gaudi contributed to motivating our Barcelona trip, Mort had lodged the idea of visiting Girona in 1998. Going there was always in the back of our minds. Asian friends tell me you travel to your karma, and past life fantasy is always a possibility! So we finally accomplished seeing Girona in 2014. Good things come in time.
The Jews were officially evicted from Spain in 1492 (more on this later) and in Girona, as in Barcelona, the Jewish community would vanish (and don’t get carried away at jamon iberico: the emphasis on pork products had a double edged purpose – obviously your Jewish and Muslim neighbors weren’t shopping for this, so going undercover, so to speak, was made impossible). Mort had been inspired by his visit to Girona. I remember being quite puzzled when he told me the title – not any more.
All this brings me back to Schoenberg and Act 2 of Moses und Aron. My next post will deal with that story but as an introduction I must say I have my recent trip to Barcelona to thank from the bottom of my heart for teaching me an essential biographical lesson. Jan and I both left Los Angeles without even the slightest stirrings about Schoenberg’s important time in Barcelona.
Europe often defaults to a tired cultural inertia. It mythologizes from certain key periods, and has industrialized those myths into tourism. Be they Gothic or Baroque to Romanticism or Art Noveau to the Belle Époque to a long forgotten affordable Paris in the 1920s, these tourist myths are often out of proportion, excluding the larger context of extractive colonialism which, with African and Asian slavery, was the economic engine of Europe’s cultural wealth. If you take a look at any headlines of any newspaper today, the developing world remains in frightening turmoil. Those fault lines trace back to Madrid, Paris and London.
Because if you take an obvious moment to consider it, the European cultural mythologies end in the 1930s and don’t resurface, even today in the 21st century. I’m offering this as a description and not an indictment. Because with World War II comes the immolation of the continent and then the Cold War. And now the colonial borders of the past are often being violently challenged and redrawn and the Cold War is warming up a little in Putin’s worldview.
In Spain the dark shadow of Franco’s fascist dictatorship lasts until 1975. And Barcelona was clearly on the wrong side of the Spanish Civil War as far as Madrid was concerned (cue Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls). There is no love lost with Madrid and the rest of Spain.
But what I learned, and felt in my legs as we climbed up the steep hill to find Schoenberg’s Barcelona home, is that Act 2 of Moses und Aron becomes a last will and testament for Schoenberg with Europe. The manuscript gets packed into his trunk never to be finished once he is safe in Los Angeles. I can still feel the impact of that realization. A realization, tragically, of the obvious. I can’t hear the music the same way ever again.
Because Moses und Aron is, for me, the argument ender about Schoenberg’s importance, his emotional impact, genius, and inspiring bravery. The triumph of artistically moral decisions at every level of his vocabulary. He never betrayed his own revolution. He was not concerned with fashion. And Schoenberg is the composer who does not remain silent about Hitler and the Holocaust. By comparison, Stravinsky and Bartok dodge the subject completely.
And going into exile had to be a daily but eventually accepted fact for the man composing a story inspired from Exodus into an opera he would never finish and never hear. World War I ruptured the composition of Die Jakobsleiter and World War II would rupture Moses und Aron. From forced but wise European exile Schoenberg would plant new influence and inspiration in the hearts and minds of musicians in Los Angeles, from John Cage and Lou Harrison at UCLA to many, many others.
If you are reading this, you’re part of that – Jan and I were taught by his advocates. It was one of the sparks of attraction when we first met at Tanglewood in 1979. We spoke the same language about what music should inspire.
The above photo illustrates what I mean (our friend Nuria is the little girl to the right of her father holding flowers). Jan was inspired to a career in chamber music and commissioning new work by Eugene Lehner, the violist of the landmark Kolisch Quartet. The viola solo opening Bartok’s String Quartet No. 6 was written for him, and there he is, behind the cellist in this photo, playing for Schoenberg’s birthday here in Los Angeles, all safe from Hitler. And we’ve done the same for Schoenberg’s children in our life at the same house (I can’t make this up – Nuria was born on Brahms’ birthday, Lawrence on Mozart’s birthday and great granddaughter Dora on Haydn’s birthday). Finally, our Los Angeles International New Music Festival enjoys support from Schoenberg’s grandson Randy, who is a long serving Board member, bringing our Barcelona stories close to home upon returning to California.
And the unresolved compositions Die Jakobsleiter and Moses und Aron, ruptured because of World War I and World War II, have a powerful and equally uncompromising architectural counterpart in Barcelona. Predating Schoenberg’s residence, the kindred spirit Antoni Gaudi lived in Schoenberg’s neighborhood, leaving his sacred vision also unfinished at his death, the Sagrada Familia Cathedral. Barcelona is a good place for great minds.
My next blog post is under construction so check back soon. I’ll be taking you on an interesting walk visiting the homes of Schoenberg and Gaudi in Park Guell, with intoxicating views of Barcelona and the Mediterranean Sea.
I love a good story, and Barcelona is one of the best.
Best, best, best,