Oblivious to the 9th

I have just emerged from the performance of Beethoven’s 9th by the OBC, the Barcelona Symphony and Catalonia National Orchestra, which programmed this week’s event to include a bold staging design in the hands of a company with a strange name, one I’d heard in glowing reports from other shows: the Agrupación Señor Serrano.

They probably are great at doing other things, but I found this 9th horrendous, to put it frankly. The orchestra fulfilled its role. The choir (the splendid Orfeó Català) was magnificent. Perhaps some of the soloists could have been better. But it is impossible to view a production of this kind as anything but a whole, and there was no way to make sense of that whole.

You know I don’t like to speak ill of what I haven’t liked, so in such cases I usually keep my mouth shut and let it go (yes, well, there are also times when I don’t respond because I haven’t got time, so don’t go thinking that if I haven’t written about a concert or a CD you’ve given me that it must be because I don’t like it!). In this case, though, I think voicing some thoughts is warranted.

The principal idea, which the project had already announced in writing, was not bad: read this very “European” work as a reflection on Europe. The idea of a garden as a metaphor for the common European project, collectively watered and tended (1st movement); the struggles and clouds that darken it (2nd movement); the nostalgia and consideration of the many things we’ve botched (3rd movement); and a road full of hope towards the future, one built on affection, caring, and hugs (4th movement). Fantastic up to this point.

But hang on: in this all you actually see is plenty of goodwill. The reality, minute by minute, bar after bar, is that there was no relation with the music’s unravelling. No dramatic crescendo (precisely in this work!), no relation between what we hear and what we see (an old and common problem in many operatic staging ideas too). Spectacular—in its absurdity— was the entrance of the theme of the fourth movement, following the recitative: an entrance that went completely unnoticed, lacking even a brushstroke in the staging direction. But this was the tip of the iceberg. In neither the entrance of the “Turkish” variation or the a cappella variation was there any attempt at all to capitalise on these moments by having them coincide with something. Huh?! As if there, in the music, nothing significant happens!

Then there’s the ideological drift. Europe is going bad because we have “let the weeds grow” and haven’t known how to put up the right “fences”. But exactly this, mind (and take note: as if weeds growing in a garden can be avoided by fencing; little do I know about gardening but I think I grasp this much)! Yep, boldly essentialist and ethnicist, straight up. So, there it is, something that can even be seen as a revealing metaphor of the kind of Europe that some really desire: a fenced-off garden, managed from above, and in which we are the plants at the mercy of our lords and masters.

And not one nod to the internal problems, to the hierarchies between states, to what happened in Greece, to the inability to manage Mediterranean conflicts. Not one wink! A few well-known faces (Merkel, Lagarde, y other local figures), all in a directionless succession in which you could find Napoleon, Hitler, Casals, Freud, or Delacroix’s La liberté guidant le peuple. One brief flash, indeed, of Putin, and in another a keyboard with Cyrillic letters. ¿What’s this about? Are we to blame Europe’s problems, then, on the Russians? Well I never would have guessed!

And so, the biggest booing I have ever heard at Barcelona’s L’Auditori. I imagine that what may have most upset many spectators will have been all the explicit phallic images and the salaciousness of the couple scenes in the final minutes. This struck me as nothing more than gratuitous. But for one reason or another, I know this entire spectacle, in all its parts, just did not make sense. I prefer not to know how much public money was spent on it.

The difficulty is that, given its fatuity, the only sensible response was to boo it, which is what many of us did (though clearly wanting to distinguish the music from the staging, because the former was worthy in all ways), and this booing lumps you in with those who would have joined in the catcalls out of distaste for anything that doesn’t conform to the “usual”. But honestly, this is NOT the reason here. And it makes me doubly uneasy because the one time money is invested in something different, programming such a horror show instead of something truly valid and sound makes it more difficult next time the chance arises to be daring.

What a great shame! Truly. And a magnificent reminder that we have to be very, very dexterous when we try something different. People who know me also know how open I am to innovation, and in recent times I actively engage in this as a creative artist. But not anything goes, because there are many different ways to get across ideas within music, especially when words and staging can be used. Yet so often it is banality that rules, and this makes life so much more difficult for those of us who have things to say that do not fit in traditional channels.

Feminismo, música clásica, orquestas juveniles y Despacito

En mi reciente gira en Chile, entre clases, seminarios y un concierto muy especial, la periodista Lorena Ruiz me invitó al programa Ciudad Mosaico de Radio Valentín Letelier, la radio de la Universidad de Valparaíso. La peculiaridad de esta entrevista es que el programa estaba dedicado a problemas de inclusión social, y en él nunca antes habían tenido como invitado a un músico. Estoy muy feliz de haber podido compartir con los oyentes tantas ideas no estrictamente musicales (¿acaso las ideas “estrictamente musicales” existen?) y mis posiciones al respecto al rol de la música clásica en la sociedad de hoy. Feminismo, diversidad social y jerarquías dentro y fuera de la música, Jorge Peña Hen y los sistemas de orquestas juveniles, y, por todas partes, mucha política. Pero también Star Wars y las princesitas Disney, recuerdos de infancia, Despacito y la música latina, desvaríos diversos sobre comida italiana, chilena y de otros lugares, y unas cuantas cosas más. Lástima que el podcast haya desaparecido pronto de internet. En cualquier caso, esa entrevista ha sido un bello episodio de un viaje inolvidable, y que no será el último en aquellas increíbles tierras. ¡Hasta muy pronto, Chile!


I am often told that in today’s musical world everybody seeks perfection. Students, teachers, juries, producers, critics, and concert players; all would be apparently obsessed with perfection. This is not my perception at all. Many students certainly are preoccupied with it, often encouraged by their teachers. And this is sometimes (not always) the concern of members of juries. But my understanding is that many teachers, juries, and musicians are highly attracted to other very different dimensions of music. This, in any case, is not my point here. Nor is it the actual definition of what we call “perfection” that interests me. My focus is: why should we even need perfection?

Perfection is boring, in any aspect of life. It is practical, if we are referring to machines. But in people it is tiresome, and even suspicious. No, I quite definitely do not like perfection. But let’s go further. Perfection is fake. Always. It does not exist. We humans are not perfect. What we call perfection is just the closest possible approximation to an idea. That idea possibly is perfect. But the perfection of the most perfect of our products is not real, never will be. Making perfection the goal of our activity is an escape, a flight from reality. It is an attempt to surrender to something superior, something imagined, a chimera. In a certain sense, it is a religious yearning, a leap of faith. And its pursuance is the best possible way to end up frustrated and uncomfortable with our bodies, our daily life, and our immediate surroundings. If our goal is to remind ourselves that another more perfect world exists, and that it is not part of this life we live, then obsession for perfection is a splendid tool. But if we can think of our life in a radically different way, the quest for perfection is our worst enemy.

40 questions

In December 2017 I answered the Musikeon version of the so-called Proust Questionnaire. It was a nice way to talk about very different things, from tigers and archeology to Borges and Star Wars. Here are the questions and my answers.


  1. An adjective that best defines your character? Enthusiastic. This, at least, is what they say about me.
  2. What quality do you most appreciate in a person? The passion they put into what they do is what I love.
  3. What do you expect from your friends? That they should want to get across the passion they feel for what they do.
  4. You couldn’t live without…Having projects ahead that no one else has conceived in the same way.
  5. Your main fault? Unpunctuality.
  6. Your ideal of happiness? That what I do for pleasure brings joy to others and helps make their lives richer.
  7. What would be your greatest tragedy? Losing one my children.
  8. As a boy, what did you want to be? As a very small boy, nothing in particular. Later, an archeologist.
  9. And now, if you weren’t a musician, what would you like to be? An archeologist, exactly, although today my interests would have a far more anthropological focus than what I imagined when I was young. And for a while now I can also see myself as an astrophysicist: looking at the sky, dreaming about outer space, and knowing what to ask it. I could give my life over to that.
  10. Your favourite colour? I tend to like the variants of more common colours when they verge towards others: vermillion, turquoise, lime green.
  11. Your favourite animal? Felines, in general, and the tiger in particular. But I like to look at animals, not touch them: I don’t need too much physical interaction with them, as opposed to how I feel about people.
  12. Your favourite city? One in which I don’t have to live my whole life and which will keep me surprised day after day. If I have to choose from those I know, and for widely different reasons, I would say New York, Singapore, Rio de Janeiro, Paris, Cairo, and Barcelona.
  13. Your ideal landscape? Waking up in the Dolomites, preferably in a spot I have never visited.
  14. What place do you dream of visiting one day? Outer space. Literally: to see the earth from outside and without gravity.
  15. What place would you always go back to if you could? A great many. To begin with, a certain unforgettable landscape: my beloved Dolomites, of course, but also Lake Pichola in Udaipur, the summit of Pão de Açúcar, the Yellowstone Park geysers, an infinite number of spots in Iceland, Elephantine Island with the desert just behind it looking from the shores of the Nile in Aswan. Then, always, the Library of Congress. And to the arms of Silvia, my partner (it sounds a bit corny but it’s a fact).
  16. Three musicians without whom the world would be worse off? ¿Three who are alive? Frederic Rzewski, Brad Mehldau, David Ortolá.
  17. A work of music you never tire of hearing? It depends on what era and, very much so, on the performance and recording. Over recent weeks, Schumann Violin Concerto as played by Patricia Kopatchinskaja.
  18. A special song for you (and don’t say why)? “Abendstern” by Schubert.
  19. A musical instrument (not your own)? Alto Flute.
  20. A writer and a book? Jorge Luis Borges. “Ocean Sea” by Alessandro Baricco.
  21. A painter and a painting? Claude Monet. “Study after Velazquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X” by Francis Bacon.
  22. A film. “Moulin Rouge” by Baz Luhrmann.
  23. A sport. Hiking.
  24. Car, bike, or public transport? Car or public transport, depending on the place and the quality of the transport.
  25. Favourite food and drink? My mama’s home-made sweet tortellini, and fresh mango juice (and fresh fruit juices in general)…but separately, of course!
  26. Do you cook regularly? Yes.
  27. What name do you like the most? Gaia. If I’d had a daughter I’d like her to have been called this.
  28. What is the habit of others you most detest? Belittling someone, on a small or grand scale, especially when it is an expression of scorn based on difference.
  29. What defect do you most easily tolerate? Mine, firstly: unpunctuality.
  30. Your fictional hero or heroine? Yoda.
  31. Your real-life hero or heroine? People like Oscar Camps (the founder of the NGO Proactiva Open Arms) who sacrifices everything to do what he believes in. And his family, who support him.
  32. In which city do you imagine yourself living? Many. The important thing for me is with whom and doing what. If I have to choose one, then it’s New York. At least for a while.
  33. Would you have like to have lived in another era? No. I’d just like my era to better than it is.
  34. What musical event would you have liked to be present at? The December 22 concert in 1808 in the Theater an der Wien, the day Beethoven premiered his 5th and 6th Symphonies, improvised and played a version of his 4th Concerto that I believe was unthinkably different to how we imagine this work today. But I would like to be at that concert not as a Viennese person from 1808 but being what I am today, a musician and musicologist of the 21st century. To be able to compare those performances with all that we have done later with those scores, that would be quite amazing!
  35. Which musician from the past would you have liked to know? Those whose personal qualities fascinate me and at the same time leave me questioning before which I would like to have an idea of my own. Beatriz de Dia, for example, or Josquin Desprez. And also Barbara Strozzi, and no doubt Haydn, who seems to me the most sympathetic guy of all Western music. Maria Szymanowska and Louise Farrenc. Brahms, without a doubt. And then, already entering the twentieth century, Cowell and Hindemith.
  36. 24 hours with…? Many people, known to me and not. Among those I know, perhaps Krystian Zimerman. Among those I don’t, at this moment in time, Lita Cabellut.
  37. What musician of the past would you have liked to know? Many. But, above all, I would like to know people whose existence at this moment I am ignorant of. There are people whose names and music don’t even reach us. Silvia and I, for example, met Ustad Niyaz Khan in Jodhpur, India, in 2005; what we saw and experienced there, in the antithesis of the star system, is the type of experience I would like to repeat above all else.
  38. How would you like to die? With the feeling of having done everything I wanted to do. Something that undoubtedly will not occur because my projects grow with the years in both number and size.
  39. What is your current state of mind, right now? Determined and looking forward to the year that awaits me.
  40. ¿Do you have a motto or a favourite saying? “The more you know, the closer you are to magic”. The actor José Sacristán said that in one of the most beautiful scenes of a film I am infinitely fond of, “Un lugar en el mundo” (“A Place in the World”, 1992) directed by Adolfo Aristarain.