by John Axelrod ©2018

Before we can fully examine the theme of world music and its influence on classical music today, from Indonesian Gamelan to Afro Cuban Jazz, we must remember that for centuries in Europe, the main source of musical romantic exoticism was from one place, so close, but yet so far:  Spain.  

Why Spain?  The 500 year Moorish Caliphate in Al-Andalus gave Spain a distinct non-European otherness. And Sevilla, the capital of this Andalusian region, and where I am the Artistic and Musical Director, is UNESCO’s 1st city of music.   It is said there are over 250 operas set in Seville.   Just ask anyone to name the most popular operas, and at minimum any 4 of them named are set in Seville.  Don Giovanni.  Marriage of Figaro.  Carmen.  And of course, the Barber of Seville, are among the many.  And Flamenco, that indigenous  form of Gypsy music, which has its roots traced back to the Moors, fostered a “Spanish sound,” and has received UNESCO’s intangible heritage status.  This city was forged into a mercantile and naval empire during the Counter Reformation and varnished with Baroque gold and iconic images of angels and Heaven, even if obscuring the darkness of the Inquisition in the process.  Sevilla, like Venice to the East, was powerful, imperial and rich and opened gateways to New Worlds.   Sevilla supplied the Grandee and Gypsy characters that inspired French writers from Beaumarchais to Mérimée’s Carmen, creating an almost national identity of Spain through its exotic influence.  Small wonder the majority of classical operas are set amongst these exotic alleys and gardens.   

Even after the Spanish empire crumbled, for another 200 years, Sevilla continued to be the locale for stage and scene more than other more exotic foreign land.   Sevilla was both European and not.  It was familiar, yet seductively separate. It was this outsider element, this “otherness,” that maintained a grip on both European and Russian imagination.  Composers not from Spain, from Mozart to Verdi to Glinka to Rimsky Korsakov, from Debussy to Beethoven to Donizetti and of course from Rossini to Ravel, all found their musical voice in the dream of Spain.  Because of something alluring:  Spain was not only exotic in its perfumes and habaneras, it was also a source of escape.  Romantically, Spain, and Sevilla in particular, became itself a leitmotif, a subject of being separate, that all composers would try to portray, with the dance being the most useful compositional tool for perfecting the composer’s craft.  It also proved profitable. The exotic España sold well with the public.   It made world music popular before there was even a term for it.  

One need only hear España from Chabrier, inspired in part by his time sitting in a Sevilla Cafe in 1883, to understand how the orchestral showpiece is imbued with an authenticity of transcribed rhythms and sounds, yet refined à la Française to satisfy the public taste. It would make sense then to feature a French wine, since the French were so taken with the Spanish soul.  Given the appeal of Spain, perhaps a Spanish wine, and exotic one, can best represent the real Spain, rather than the ideal as manifest in the music of these French composers.

Baron de Ley Tempranillo is a Rioja wine, a diamond in the rough, growing at over 800 meters in the Sierra de la Hez (Rioja Baja) in which must be one of the highest estates in the Rioja appellation. This “mountain” Tempranillo -as it is often called- is tremendously balsamic, with huge fruit and an airy and lively depth. The crisp acidity really makes a difference from other Tempranillos in Rioja, making it an outsider.

However, despite the plethora of such award winning Spanish wines, from Rioja and that other star appellation, Ribera del Duero, there is one region of Spain at an equally high altitude, with a wine that is considered for many the exotic among the traditional grapes.  In Jumilla, Juan Gil has produced several wines that are available at retail and online and very affordable, but which capture this “otherness” in that it rejects the ubiquitous Tempranillo for a 100% Monastrell wine. The Monastrell wine in the region of Murcia was considered for decades as mediocre and best used for combined wines (also called Mourvèdre in France and used in Chateauneuf du Pape), until vines were replanted in Jumilla after a phylloxera plague.  Since then, producers like Juan Gil discovered grapes of gold. Juan Gil and his family winery have 120 acres of vineyards located at an altitude of more than 700 m above sea level with sandy, chalky soils. Given the high altitude which at night tempers the hot climate, diurnal temperature variations can be greater than 25 C.  This cool climate then retains the fruit and allows the grapes to fully ripe.   My first taste of the Juan Gil 18 months Blue label was a shock to the system.  I love all deep Spanish reds for their spice, but this was an exotic surprise. Full of fruit yet also body, high alcohol content, long on the palate yes, but sweet on the tip, and dry enough to support all Spanish food, yet subtle in its diverse and exotic influences, like Andalusia itself. Tannins be damned, Juan Gil makes a terrific wine. The Monastrell is named after the Catalonian name for Monastery, as the grape was grown by monks.  Had Chabrier during his Spanish rite of passage enjoyed a Juan Gil, his España might have been divinely inspired.  At least , today, you can taste a sip of high altitude Heaven from exotic España while enjoying the music.   


Bacchanalia: Caravaggio, Chiaroscuro und Cabernet by John Axelrod ©2018


Bacchus is that antiquated, artistically depicted, dastardly deity of debauchery.  You’ve got to love the guy.  So did artists and composers.

 Of course, there are more important figures of antiquity and the bible who have been depicted in art and music.  But Bacchus has, well, a special flavor.  Maybe it is because he is simply more fun.  A good wine has been known to inspire many a good toast.  Yes, even my own blog about wine and music is after a quote from Beethoven, himself declaring: declaring: “I am the Bacchus who presses out this glorious wine for mankind and makes them spiritually drunken.”

Danse Baccanale from Saint-Saëns might be the “go-to choice” when it comes to music and the visual arts.  It is connected to Bacchus and this concert piece is famous for its exoticism, castenets, minor modes and fanfares.  But I would also suggest that the rarely heard Cortège de Bacchus from Delibes’ ballet Sylvia deserves your attention, like some wines outside the mainstream that deserve to be known.  This work encompasses all of the grandeur that French ballet offers, but also intoxicates with a pulse in 6/8 that never lets go. 

Bacchus from Caravaggio, that masterpiece of chiaroscuro, the contrast of light and darkness, is our inspiration. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio made the technique a dominant stylistic element, darkening shadows and transfixing subjects in bright shafts of light.

“Bacchus”  painted in 1597-98, was painted during a rather peaceful and relaxing time in his life, in contrast to his other “Sick Bacchus,” painted during a convalescence after illness. The painting is a portrait of a young man in the image of the Greek God. Bacchus is half-dressed in white robes in a belted black belt, the end of which he holds in his right hand. With his left hand he holds a glass full of wine, as if offering the viewer to participate in the feast. On the table in front of the deity is a bowl with fruit and a pot-bellied bottle of wine, that interestingly has been alleged to contain a reflected portrait of the painter himself.

Bacchus is healthy, muscular, even voluptuous, with cheeks flushed, dark eyebrows, his face puffy and somewhat effeminate, like a Japanese Geisha at the bath, and in his eyes there is nothing but half-drunk longing.   The fruit on the table, most notably the pomegranate, is a symbol of original sin and innocence lost.  This is desire incarnate, teasing the viewer to partake of this “Elisir d’Amore.”

Music has its contrasts between light and dark, major and minor, dynamics and instrumentation.  The idea of Bacchus in music must naturally include the oboe and flute, those twin seducers, and the percussion and brass with their majestic marches and sparkling bells and whistles.  The strings add rhythmic pulse, scintillating glissandi and melodic vibrations.  The orchestra manifests the orgiastic state of the bacchanal.

Saint-Saëns does a good job in capturing this pagan ritual, inviting the listener to dance.  The Delibes is instead the introduction to the feast, the welcoming of the God.  This is about Bacchus, not the dance, as Caravaggio may have intended:  delectable, delightful, devilish and delicious. 

Those words obviously suggest a wine.  Wine also requires the sunlight and darkness to produce ample effect on the growing of the grapes.  There are two wines related to our Caravaggio:  The Forchini Proprieter’s Reserve Zinfandel is an award winning wine for the connoisseur, as a Caravaggio is for a collector of Old Masters of the Renaissance.  This wine has a deep purple color, with aromas and flavors of chocolate orange peels, roasted pistachio nougat, spumoni, and latte and light molasses with a satiny, tangy, fruity medium body and a sleek, complex, medium-long spiced apricot orange, combined with apple, hint of anise, cedar, and honeyed peppercorns, finished with well-integrated, chewy tannins and light oak.  This voluminous description befits the Bacchus we know and love.   But it is a wine difficult to find, and much harder to buy in Europe. 

Instead, try the very affordable and just as drinkable Marsovin Caravaggio Cabernet Sauvingon, with the Bacchus on its label.  Marsovin hails from Malta, that Mediterranean isle more famous for its crusader past than for artistic exiles.  Yet, that’s where our hero came after being punished for his violent temper. 

Marsovin has been the pioneer in wine making in Malta during the course of its history.  Today, Marsovin is recognized by many wine enthusiasts on the island as Malta’s most distinguished premium red wine. Its Caravaggio Cabernet Sauvignon is a generous, rounded red wine with intense ripe forest fruit aromas of blackcurrants, blackberries and some discrete chocolate mint undertones.  It tastes as the Caravaggio looks.  Decadent.   However, on the palate, it is well structured with ample supple, velvety tannins; lightness in the  nose and a very enjoyable long, lingering finish.  The dialogue between the intense and the sublime, between the light and dark corresponds precisely to the chiaroscuro of Caravaggio and the contrasting colors found in the music of Saint-Saëns and Delibes.  Pop the cork, put on the Cortége, and be prepared for the deity to arrive.  That will give you reason to believe that Beethoven was right to be spiritually drunk, all in the name of music and art.




Touching the Summit: Malbec and Music Halls

Touching the Summit: Malbec and Music Halls

by John Axelrod ©2018

When it comes to classical music performance, there are certain criteria that come first:  Acoustics, stage size, number of seats and access.   If it sounds bad for the orchestra, it probably sounds bad for the public.  If there are not enough seats, no money will be made.  If the stage is too small, it limits the repertoire, and if no one can park or take the metro, it might as well be on the top of a mountain, since performing repertoire at the highest quality is the equivalent of climbing the highest peak.  And yet, finding an unusual venue for performance has become something of the holy grail for classical music.  Who cares about quality when it is cool to do opera in a train station, chamber music in an airport, or orchestral works in a disco?  What happened to that Mt. Everest appeal of musical perfectionism?   Can classical music really appeal to audiences when played in unusual venues? 

Come to think of it, there are wines that are grown in unusual places.  Whether they are good matters not.  What matters is the media appeal. After all, to drink a wine grown in a volcano or fermented at 3,100 meters is quite a story.  Fortunately, the wines can be good. 

Take Colomé. This estate is located in the Upper Calchaquí Valley in the province of Salta, Argentina. Their highest vineyard, aptly named Altura Máxima, lies 3,111 meters above sea level making it the highest commercial vineyard in the world.  How does it taste?  Great.  The Bodega Colomé Estate Malbec 2015 is an award winning, 92 point  refined, rich red wine, full of berries and cherries, with notes of pepper, tobacco and chocolate.  Tango might be the sensual dance of terra firma in Buenos Aires, but this wine at this altitude will quickly make you dizzy.

The best concert halls, such as the Concertgebouw or Berlin Philharmonie or Wiener Musikverein are designed to accommodate the needs of the repertoire played by orchestras.  For these halls, music comes first.  For others, music is an afterthought, while architecture is more attractive.  For the 21st century, any venue works as along as it attracts a public.  But the deeper question remains how these new venues measurably increase subscription audiences.  Evidence has shown that when people hear music in a disco or metro, they might not even enjoy it, and if they do, they might not want to hear it anywhere else, especially in those stuffy venues which require an etiquette resembling a church or funeral.  In other words, the concert hall can greatly affect the character of an orchestra and the audience experience.  The music hall gives an orchestra a location, a home, an identity few can copy.  And yet, classical music audiences are still shrinking, forcing orchestras and promoters (and labels) to seek alternative venues offering deeper connections to contemporary attitudes and lifestyles.  Do they work?  Not usually.  Are they fun?  Absolutely.  Which is the better choice?  Neither.  Both are needed to cultivate and retain the audiences of the future.  

Wine is also grown along these characteristics.  Like concert halls, most vineyards stick to a basic plan, usually in temperate climates and attitudes and regions known to the wine community.  Bordeaux, Veneto, Rioja, Bourgogne and Alsace are among the most popular winemaking regions.  

But what about places off the beaten path?  Those weird and wonderful locations that attract wine-lovers and culinary nomads? 

How about Rangiroa, a Tahitian island in the middle of the South Pacific. If you ever wondered what wine from the Garden of Eden might be, you may have found it in Tahiti.  

Or Lanzarote, the bizarre volcanic Canary Island off the coast of Africa?  If Rangiroa is paradise, then Lanzarote might be the Devil’s wine cellar.  Volcanic craters and walls made of stone protect the grapes from strong winds, making the landscape look extraterrestrial, although the volcanic soil is rich in nutrients, allowing the grapes to grow with health and vigor.

Closer to my home, the wines of Lavaux, on the vertical slopes above Vevey on Lac Leman in Switzerland, are picture postcard perfect.  While the gamay is the popular grape, there are several varietals offered from these UNESCO vineyards grown by monks over 1000 years ago.  Though I doubt the monks used the little elevators and tractors to scale the heights as they do today. 
Finally, being a Texan, I cannot help but mention that in the hill country of central Texas, there are wines among the German colonies that still populate the area.  One of the first vineyards in America was planted here by Franciscan priests around 1662. Among these is Becker Vineyards,  harvesting the viognier, rousanne and tempranillo grapes.   While Texas makes its wines, it’s a drop in the bucket as only 16 million bottles are produced compared with the 3 billion bottles from California. 
Compare that with the DG classical lounge or late night in the Zürich Tonhalle or opera in Berlin airport terminals.  While they attract great interest, they do not make a significant impact on the overall attendance of classical performances. 

A great orchestra needs a great hall, just as a great wine needs a great vine and climate.  All the bells and whistles added cannot make a public change its tune, just as the Edivo Viva wine, stored in tightly-corked amphorae in a sunken boat at the bottom of the sea, off the coast of Drače on the Pelješac Peninsula would not make me give up a Premier Cru Bordeaux.  But once in a while, a new music hall comes along like the ElbePhilharmonie is a game changer and a wine from the top of the world just might also do the trick. It did for me.  Buy your Colomé Malbec from and be among those who have touched the summit.é Malbec.jpg

Wagner’s Holy Grail à la Française


Some composers adored wine.  Ravel chose fine wines to accompany his own dandy lifestyle.  Beethoven apparently drank three bottles of Franconian wine each night.  Some composers hated wine.  Pierre Boulez was famously strictly against alcohol.  And others composers loved wine so much it might have