Conductor's Blog


I'd like to start this first Conductor's Blog with an environmental theme that leads to a cultural theme.  Our work with Ensemble XXI is so intertwined with our musical work in the Arctic, where year on year the environmental changes are so apparent.

This summer I needed to travel through Switzerland, Italy, France and Spain. During this time it was impossible to ignore the soaring temperatures and the obvious effects of climate change. There is no doubt that mass tourism and absurdly cheap air fares are contributing negatively to the state of our poor planet. 

Our group of five tried to travel by train on the European continent, but even the most ardent environmentalists would be beaten by the frustrating situation regarding train travel between France and Spain. We wanted to go by train from the French-Spanish border to Barcelona, but we would have been poorer by almost 600 Euros. We ended up taking a crowded, overbooked bus for a fraction of that amount.

Fortunately, it appears that this absurdity will soon be solved. However, too much has been lost over the busy summer tourist season. For a full explanation, please go to the wonderful Man in Seat 61.

It is grotesque mismanagement by the EU transport authorities that allows individual governments to subsidize the budget airlines. Unfortunately, my own country is at the forefront of this low-cost airline plague that has been let loose on our suffering planet. It is also high time that resources are poured into rail travel and coordination of the same.

I would like to tell you about two remarkable and memorable encounters that I had on this trip. The first was my travel companion on the above-mentioned bus journey between Perpignan and Barcelona. He was a very young, articulate and intelligent French Canadian from Quebec. He told me that this would be his last plane journey. I froze, imagining that he was terminally ill. 'Why is it your last plane journey?' I enquired. 'Because we can’t continue like this. Climate change is happening and people carry on with the attitude of “business as usual”. I wanted to explore the country of my roots - France and a bit more of Europe whilst I am here, but that's it. From now on I shall explore the American continent by train.' I was very moved. I am sure that Greta Thunberg would have been as touched as I was by my fellow traveller. He gave me hope.

My second encounter took place in the wonderful Casa Beethoven music shop on La Rambla in Barcelona. I first discovered this shop in 1989 and 1990 when I studied the scores of Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia and Lucia di Lammermoor with Richard Bonynge when he and Joan Sutherland were performing these operas at the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona.

My return to Barcelona was bittersweet, the city in the midst of summer, overrun with antlike proportions of humans amassed on La Rambla who had been spat out by the world's cheap airlines, groups of people laying waste to the city, many of whom, one suspected, had no idea where they were. 

The Casa Beethoven music shop is a family business, established in 1880, an elegant, peaceful musical haven, an oasis from the commotion of La Rambla, with shelves and stands groaning with sheet music for every possible instrument or voice range, conductors’ scores and books on every musical theme imaginable, as well as a diverse range of CDs and LPs. Amongst my purchases was a most timely work, We are what we listen to by Patricia Caicedo.

I was delighted to speak to the proprietor and to tell him what a relief it was to find something of the Barcelona that I remembered from my earlier visits. He sighed and said quietly, ‘Yes. Barcelona has lost its personality.’ Therein is the tragedy of our times. Mass cheap air travel that is destroying beautiful, historical cities and towns. Of course, I am not suggesting that everyone who visits anywhere should have a doctorate in the history of wherever they are. However, it is not normal to fly from out of mainland Europe to somewhere on mainland Europe for lunch and fly back again the same day for less than 50 Euros. Indeed “Barcelona has lost its personality” is also a phrase that summed up the proprietor’s own predicament - the global online warehouses, even for sheet music. He told me, ‘The young people are not buying sheet music from us anymore. They buy it on Amazon.’

When I was a child in Manhattan, beginning my music studies, I discovered in what was then the German Town (East 86th Street and some neighbouring streets, mainly between 2nd and 3rd Avenues) The Binzer Music House where I spent hours exploring the drawers of sheet music, listening to the recollections of Mrs. Binzer who had fled Germany during the war and also learning so much from the advice of her daughter, Ruth Binzer. My hours in that shop were an education in itself. One might go in to look for a specific piece of music but picking through drawers of sheet music opened up whole new horizons. Often when the Binzers decided a clear up was necessary, I was allowed to choose any sheet music I liked before it was sent off to its new home. Even after leaving New York and right through the early years of Ensemble XXI, I would order music from Binzers. It was therefore heart breaking to hear of the plight of the Casa Beethoven.

If you are reading this column, you are probably a musician. If you are, please support your local music store and buy your next score, sheet music or notepaper from them and not from an online store. Remember, buying from your local music shop, instead of online means that you are supporting, not just local enterprise but you are also contributing to your community, city or country not losing their personalities.

God Bless and keep up the music!


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