THE EXOTIC ESPAÑA

THE EXOTIC ESPAÑA 

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.   

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

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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 www.Iambacchus.com 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.  

https://maltawarehouse.com/shop/drinks/red-wine/marsovin-caravaggio-d-o-k-local-cabernet-sauvignon-wine-75cl-/5352206072325

 

  

 

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 belvini.de and be among those who have touched the summit. 

https://www.belvini.de/bodega-colome-autentico-malbec-salta-2015.htmlColomé Malbec.jpg

Wagner’s Holy Grail à la Française

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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 actually helped to inspire their work, Richard Wagner being one of them.

And as Debussy modeled himself on Wagner and 2018 is the Centennial of his death, and France is the theme of this issue, and one can hardly think of France without thinking of wine, I think its honorable to pay tribute to the one French wine that Wagner loved so much he ordered 100 bottles to be sent to his home in Bayreuth.

And here is where there is a convenient connection: Wagner drank his Saint Péray, a brilliant sparkling or still white wine, while he composed Parsifal, that Holy Grail of operas, a work that for many inspired Debussy’s own Pelléas et Mélisande.  

Debussy wrote of Parsifal as:  “one of the most beautiful monuments ever raised to music,’ and that it is “incomparable and bewildering, splendid and strong.” (Lockspeiser: Debussy, His Life and Mind pp.96)

Et Voila!  We find our French wine via a German composer who inspired French music.  That gives new meaning to the phrase: à la Française, albeit with a Teutonic twist.

It is understandable why the wine of Saint-Péray conquered the artistic, noble and glitterati society of Europe, though after the French Revolution it adopted a religiously neutral name: for a time Saint-Péray was known simply as “Péray white wine.”  Lamartine, Daudet, Maupassant, and Baudelaire all mention the wine in their work. Even Pope Pius VII himself sang the wine’s praises.

The still white has a robust and thick, buttery taste of almond and honey and creamy fruits such as a peach and apricot.  It and the sparkling variety are made from the Marsenne and Roussanne grapes, which grow in a cooler, more humid climates suitable for making Burgundian style deep whites and sparkling wine.  The grapes are pressed. The alcoholic fermentation takes place in vat and oak barrels at cold temperatures.  The best producers such as Yves Cuilleron and Alain Voge are known for special limited wines, but the Charpoutier may be the best and most affordable and accessible.  Paired with the star chef Anne Sophie Pic, the Charpoutier family has provided an excellent and affordable example of the Marsenne Saint-Péray.

http://www.pic-chapoutier.com/saint-peray-white-wine

And for the best of the best, try Alain Voge, Le Fleur du Crussol, a top Parker Point winner and well regarded as the finest example of the wine from the region.

https://www.alain-voge.com/fr/saint-peray/fleur-de-crussol

Innovation and inspiration were at play when in 1829, Louis-Alexandre Faure, a wine maker in the appellation, inspired by the methods used in Champagne, produced the first “sparkling” Saint-Péray wine. The wine would receive official recognition in the 20th century: on 8th December 1936, Saint-Péray became one of the only 9 wines to receive AOC status. Unfortunately, today the sparkling kind has lost its glamour and is hardly distributed outside of France, though the still wine remains a favorite of collectors and connoisseurs (and composers and conductors..)…  Both Debussy and Wagner have lost none of their appeal.  Wagner was indeed lucky to have his Holy Grail of wine in his time.  You need not wait for inspiration.  Your muse à la Française is waiting.

Williams, Wine and Bernstein.

Williams, Wine and Bernstein.

by John Axelrod ©2017

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Most conductors have performed a variety of film music as it is now part of the orchestral repertoire

, both for its popularity with audiences and the improved quality of orchestration and material.  Film music is now programmed along with symphonies and oratorios, and there are now film music orchestras touring the world to full halls.  I might add that yours truly recently conducted Star Wars in Concert in what was declared one of the most sold concerts in the history of the Concertgebouw!  Admittedly, I never imagined I would walk again down those famous stairs dressed as Darth Vader, but I did, and I had the time of my life.

As the Music Director of Hollywood Vienna from 2009-2011, I became immersed in the world of film music and its composers.  It allowed me to have a larger perspective and appreciation for the fine craft that is film music, starting with what I call the 3rd school of Viennese composition; that is, Steiner, Korngold and Rosza.  Austro-Hungarian and Germanic roots and references to Strauss, Zemlinsky and Wagner created the Hollywood Sound.  It is no small wonder then that John Williams, arguably the greatest film composer in history, found his source material in this 3rd Viennese school.   Comparing Korngold’s Kings Row with the main theme of Star Wars is the sonic equivalent of seeing identical twins.

As Star Wars continues its 40 year legacy with yet another released film, the Last Jedi, one cannot ignore the indelible impact this music has made. The music of Star Wars has been performed by amateurs to professionals around the world.  Star Wars has probably done more to inspire film music to be programmed than any other piece of music.

With such an overwhelming influence, the need to pair a wine with Star Wars is inevitable.  Just what would one drink while watching the movie or blasting the soundtrack from stereophonic speakers?

It is a pity one cannot try some of the many wines actually referred to in Star Wars.  Wine in Star Wars?  Yes.   And who would you expect to be the wino of the world of Star Wars’s characters?  Han Solo, naturally, and his sidekick, Chewbacca.  Han famously says, ““Ah, bless you, Chewie. Bless you for not drinking it all.”

Corellia is the capital planet of the five planet Corellian system and a member of the core worlds of the galaxy. It is home to Han Solo, as well as Wedge Antilles, one of the best X-Wing Fighter pilots in the galaxy, and, of course, Corellian wine.  The geography of Corellia is that of a temperate climate with rolling hills, spotted by snowcapped mountain ranges and thick forests, with a plethora of farming communities.

If we take this geography and apply it to our world, we can see what type of wine Corellian vintners would probably produce. Imagine the wines of Southern France or California from the inky dark Malbecsin the Cahors region to the the rolling temperate hills of the Rhone valley, where Grenache and Syrah red blends reign supreme to the California sun drenched Zinfandel.  As we go north into the mountainous regions of Corellia, the foothills would probably have bright wines in the vein of Burgundian Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Corellia is also known for deep amber hued brandy that would probably be similar to Armagnac.

Are there other wines worth mentioning found in this galaxy far, far away?  Alderaanian is a wine that comes from the “Shining Star” planet Alderaan, home to the infant Princess Leia.  It was apparently the most expensive and the favorite of the Dark Lords Count Dooku as well as Senator Palpatine.

The geography of this once royal planet was known throughout the galaxy, dominated by mountain ranges that were intertwined with large oceans and wild grasslands. Applying this geography to our own world, the wines would probably be very similar to the wine regions of the Alps. White wines would mimic those of Trentino Alto Adige such as the steely fragrant Terlaner and the off dry leechee tinge of Gewürtztraminer and even the Riselings of the Rheinhessen region in Germany.

Closer to home, we might consider wines that parallel those found from these interstellar sources.  On Terra Firma (Earth), many film directors and composers themselves have invested in their own oenophile passions.  The wine world knows well the successful wines produced by Francis Ford Coppola, the Godfather of The Godfather.  Coppola’s Wineries have received many awards and continue to set a high standard for quality wine production in California.  His Director’s Cut Cinema Premiere Reserve Red pays homage to the history of filmmaking and is among the best of his wines and deserves a place in any collector’s cantina. Firm and full, velvety in texture, and with just the right amount of tannin to elevate the opulent fruit character, fragrant notes of blackberries, juicy pomegranate, black pepper, and cloves are followed by long-lived flavors of cherries, cassis, star anise, and toasted woods—all of which crescendo like the end of a film score on the finish.  One could imagine Coppola’s wines similar to the deep reds of the planet Corellia.  Morricone and Rota made the music unforgettable, but it is Coppola who defines the legacy and compliments his vision of film via his wines.

Alan Silvestri is an award winning film composer who has invested in wines.  The Silvestri family has embarked on a new California venture as the founders of Silvestri Vineyards.  The Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are made in limited production.   Alderaan might be a fair example of the terrain best fitted to produce this Chardonnay.  The Silvestri wines show that lovingly cultivated fruit has a music all its own. “There’s something about the elemental side of winemaking that appeals to me,” Silvestri says. “Both music making and wine making involve the blending of art and science. Just as each note brings it own voice to the melody, each vine brings it’s own unique personality to the wine.”  While John Williams may dominate the cosmic world, Alan Silvestri has made his own contributions to furturism, perhaps most notably with the soundtrack of Back to the Future.  

However, despite the greatness of Star Wars, the Godfather and Back to the Future, my vote for best soundtrack goes to that of my teacher, particularly as we embark on the Centennial of Leonard Bernstein.

By any measure, On the Waterfront is among the all-time great motion pictures. This Marlon Brando starring story about a boxer involved in organized crime among dock workers won eight 1954 Academy Awards®, including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay. It is No. 8 on the American Film Institute’s top-100 list. And it contains the only original film score composed by Leonard Bernstein, also nominated for best score.

Leonard Bernstein’s music for On the Waterfront was integral to the film’s creative and commercial success, capturing the energy of the locale, the passion of young lovers, the danger of the moment, and the ultimate victory of one man over a corrupt system. It was, in no small terms, a knockout.

My wine to go with the music?  The Boxer, by the award winning Australian producer: Mollydooker.  Already a favorite among collectors, myself included, for the Velvet Glove and Carnival of Love, the Boxer delivers on every level.

This powerful Shiraz has much personality with notes of spiced plums, blackberry jam and cherry all at the fore and finishes with chocolate covered coffee beans, licorice and vanilla. Full bodied at 15% integrated alcohol, yet elegant with restrained tannins, resulting in a packed punch without any swelling. Like a boxer, its density is relentless and its intense taste will not stop.   The movie is mostly known for Brando’s famous line: “I coulda been a contender.”  Bernstein’s music makes its case for 2018.  And the Boxer is the winner in this oenological battle, and could even be a contender as the favorite of that scoundrel Han Solo.  Now, I wonder if Mollydooker can ship to Corellia?

Purchase via Captain Cork in Germany or direct via the winery:

http://www.captaincork.com/the-boxer-bitte-nicht-lachen

https://www.mollydookerwines.com.au/OurWines.aspx

Operetta and Perfume

Operetta and Perfume

by John Axelrod©201702-Shop-villaparents

There are so many operettas in the repertoire that it is hard to define the genre.  Some people adore the popular songs and stars of operetta, others dismiss operetta as petite opera, as compared to grand.  Some people see Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann and Bernstein’s Candide as operettas, despite their grandeur.  Others define Kalman and  Lehar as being misunderstood and undervalued for the quality of their compositions.   Just as Korngold, Rosza and Steiner gave birth to the Hollywood sound, one can also argue that Johann Strauss II and Gilbert & Sullivan helped originate musical theater.  Comparing the financial profits of both cinema and broadway as compared to opera, it may be that the critics of operetta are simply jealous of its profit and popularity and enduring legacy.

What is singular about operetta is not simply the simple melodies or charming orchestrations and sitcom stories set to song, but is the ease in which it can be experienced.  This is music not intended to cause a headache, but to tickle and titillate the senses.  It brings to mind the differences between wines.  Some are mass produced and cheap and available in grocery stores, but there are also those like some deeper expensive wines with heavy tannins that can cause quite a headache.  There are some Bordeaux wines that smell more of minerals than of fruit, just as there are wines in boxes that have so much added sugar that the headache feels like an energy drink.  Since operetta can be a light and lovely pleasure, so too there are wines that do not aspire to anything more than to provide the perfume that the fruit itself can create in the bottle.  There are some wines that provide a bouquet and taste that actually can win awards.  It is a unique idea, a formula that eliminates one aspect of classic wine making:  Fermentation in the oak barrel.  Yet Villa Parens does just that.

Since 1967, Villa Parens is synonymous with the enjoyment of elegant drinking without the headache.  Here is the motto: “You are responsible for choosing; we are responsible for impressing you.”  As their own literature says: “The Puiatti Family, with their Maison Villa Parens, continues a long tradition of conquests, leaderships and innovations. As pioneers of a Purist Philosophy based on essentiality and purity, they decreed the Puiatti Method electing it an authentic and synonymous way of elegance and simplicity. Because of its novelty and uniqueness, this is an epoch-making change in the universe of the aesthetics of the wine world, which expresses and enhances history, territory, taste and contemporary pleasure in an inimitable supreme balance.”

Impressive words, indeed.  But what about the wine?  The impression is the bouquet.  Without the fermentation process in oak barrels, the wine does not develop tannins.  Instead, Villa Parens, for all their varietals, from chardonnay, to sauvignon blanc, to pinot nero, the taste is subtle, the alcohol content no more than 12.5% and the fruit is fresh without lingering on the tongue.  What is the incentive then?  The smell is intoxicating.  It is not only the fruit, but the secret formulas of aromatics added that help to create an immediate impact.  In the same way a perfume can be the source of seduction, so too can the smell of the wine be the inspiration to drink.  That may be the inverse of most classic wines, that may have a corked or tannic bouquet but the essence is in the taste.  Villa Parens has pioneered the way to create the essence of the wine through its smell.

That is also true of operetta.  Whereas opera requires more complicated subjects, and more than often deals with death and betrayal, the lightness of operetta, with its happy endings, its exotic characters of nobility or peasantry and its imaginary lands allow for its own immediacy.

The next time you happen to be at a performance of Johann Strauss II’s Eine Nacht in Venedig, for me one of the great operettas, enjoy a coup du blanc de blanc of Villa Parens.  Take a deep breath in, smell the bountiful beauty, sip the sparkle, and then sit back and let your senses be seduced by story and song.

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Pinocchio and Pulcinella: A Punch Worth Preserving by John Axelrod @2017

Composers are like parents.  They create something from nothing, giving all the love the music needs, and laughing and playing with their child, the composition.  A composer must always remain a child at heart to source the imagination.  Jung once wrote that children have all the answers and we spend the rest of our lives figuring out the questions.  Composers do just that.  Is it any wonder then that puppetry, marionettes and fables have inspired many a composer?

There are many solo works, like Schumann’s Kinderszenen or Debussy’s Golliwoggs Cakewalk, as well opera, from Humperdink’s Hansel and Gretel to Rossini’s Cenerentola to Valtinoni’s Pinocchio to Jonathan Dove’s newer The Adventures of Pinocchio to Tchaikovsky’s fabled ballets that all take childhood fantasy to full fruition.  Ravel and Zemlinsky are among many other composers who musically portrayed fairy tales.  Leopold Mozart made use of toy instruments and Mozart created a singing bird out of a human puppet.

But perhaps when sourcing the theme of puppetry and marionettes in orchestral music, one must appreciate Stravinsky as our puppet master.  While Petrouchka may in fact be about a puppet, Pulcinella is the masterpiece that encapsulates the child in us all. This 1919 ballet finds its roots in the commedia dell’arte character Pulcinella or Punchinello, a mischievous archetype: playful, combative, fickle, undisciplined, troublesome, but unforgettable and charming: The essence of childhood itself.

The music of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, based on Pergolesi, other composers and Russian folk tunes that all remind us of the Renaissance, has within its neoclassical simplicity that innocence of childhood play.  The many solo instruments of the work function like the strings of a puppet, each one pulling the work in one direction or another.  The flute sings, the clarinet laughs, the oboe cries, the fagot trots, the trombone slides, the solo contrabass grunts, the solo violin speaks, and so on.   The narrative of each movement recalls the comic book storyline of puppet theater.  The result is a lightness and humor that brings comfort to the soul and never fails to bring a smile to the face.   Stravinsky described his musical goal as a “look for truth in a disequilibrium of instruments, which is the opposite of the thing done in what is known as chamber music, whose whole basis is an agreed balance between the various instruments.” Indeed, those strings on a puppet seems to work in an unbalanced way, but when pulled in the right direction, it becomes lifelike in its disharmony.

Would you believe there are wines named Pinocchio and Marionette that parallel this Stravinsky like quest for disequilibrium?  Wines, like music, are usually valued by their structure and relationship of the grapes to each other.  The idea of a wine out of balance is a recipe for bad headache.  And yet, in keeping with the Italian commedia, a Siciilian wine from Dievole, naturally called Pinocchio, has achieved what Stravinsky himself wanted: to find the truth in disequilibrium.  This is a wine of quality, albeit of a different tune. As the winemaker describes: “A glass half empty is half full. That’s true. But half a lie – can it ever be half the truth? There are those who live by what they know to be a lie, and those who live by what they believe, falsely, to be the truth. Only with Pinocchio’s wine glass will you be able to honor every truth by use.”

Big words, indeed.  And no strings to hold it down.  That is the truth.

This is a Nero d’avola with 13% alcohol that has a lightness that contradicts the dark skinned grape.  It is an intense deep ruby red with blue hints that nevertheless tastes like the mediterranean sun. The nose is deceiving. At first it smells tannic, but then reveals a delicious bouquet that will make your own nose grow long to smell the truth of ripe red fruit such as blackberry, strawberry and red currant as well as aromas such as toasted bread and sage. The palate has less mineral than expected, and is soft and young, like a good fairy tale.  The best quality of Pinocchio is its affordability.  It scores high on most ratings lists suggesting a big price and yet, for less than 10€, you can enjoy this happy wine that is full of spirit: a juicy, bright and truly amusing Sicilian red.

When compared with other red wines with names of comical nature, such as the Marionette, an award winning Spanish Shiraz-Monastrell blend, Pinocchio is perhaps the best value that retains its appeal, particularly because the nero d’avola grape harmonizes so unexpectedly in this particular wine.  Like Pulcinella, Pinocchio unexpectedly comes to life and, despite its contradictions, forms a coherent and homogenous whole.  Like Pulcinella, it is a punch worth preserving.  pinocchio-igt

Programming the Perfect Pair: Rossini and Tignanello by John Axelrod ©2017

When the seasons change and the summer sun stops simmering, when the autumn brings a welcome shade, when the harvest moon is shining and the grapes beg to be picked, so do the seasons start anew, with symphonies, songs and soloists competing to be heard.

There is a parallel between the “spielplan” of an orchestra or opera house and the variety of wines a vintner may select. Just as it is necessary to understand the compositions and characteristics of different composers and how repertoire should be performed on a program for the benefit of both audiences and musicians, so too should the characteristics offered by different grapes and how they are expressed in wine be understood to fully appreciate wine.

Bach, Beethoven and Brahms may all be German, but their music and their styles are quite different, based on their location and epoch.  The Baroque inevitably led to the Classical which evolved into the Romantic, and yet each composer who followed borrowed elements of their predecessors to balance the demand for tradition and innovation.   Understanding how each composer, in his time and place, inevitably influenced the result of the next composer, even as each voice was authentic and original, is critical to understanding which composers have withstood the test of time to become part of the canon of classical music.  Of course, there are always new composers to discover from the past, drawn from the same schools or movements defined by the greats, and there are new works by their contemporaries and from those living today, that compliment the concert program.  If Beethoven is expected, what can be proposed to offer context or contrast?  If Brahms is the attraction, who can be the player to bring a persuasive performance?  If Bach is the purpose, where and on what instrument is Bach heard best?  These kinds of questions are essential to ask when programming a season.  Usually the public wants the warhorses, those masterpieces that withstand the test of time and demand to be heard and rediscovered every year.  They are the “meat and potato” diet of the orchestra, and yet sometimes the tried and true can also be made anew.  The music is alive, organic and needs to be heard not just for how people expect it to be played, but how it can surprise us again and again.

With wine it is the same.  Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan and Corvina are all red grapes, but as wines their personalities are quite different. Even when grown in different appellations and areas and vinified using different techniques, a varietal wine will demonstrate different aspects, which are inherent in the grape’s personality. The Carignan, a Spanish/French grape grown throughout the Mediterranean and most typically found in the wines of the Languedoc in Southern France, carries the high alcohol fruit and flavor similar to the Primitivo of Southern Italy.  The Corvina is the foundation of the Amarone wine, the king of the Veneto, filled with intense sugar and wild berry flavors. Cabernet Sauvignon, the emperor of Bordeaux, is marked by plum, currants and firm tannins. Understanding what a grape should be and where it is grown are fundamental, and knowing what a grape can achieve at its greatest is the essence of fine-wine appreciation.

In Europe, wine is known primarily by geographic location, and composers are also defined by their nationality.  Cultural identity is often connected to the names of the composers.  What would German musical Bildung be without its 3 B’s?  Wine has a similar identification process based on the name of the varietal grape.  For example, in Europe, the grapes are matched to soil and climate and are identified with the location: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, for instance, are the major grapes of Burgundy. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petite Verdot are the red grapes of Bordeaux.

European orchestras often reflect composers with regional names, and very often soloists will be selected based on their country of origin.  Ravel will be a French music night, with a French conductor.  Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov will be the basis of a Russian program with Russian soloists.  As an American, I have even been categorized and therefore have been invited to conduct more Bernstein and Gershwin than other composers.

However, the parallel ends here.  Artists should not be limited to nationality.  Wine should not be confined to only one region.  The grapes of Bordeaux are now grown in wine regions from California to Chile.   Most artists I know are not limited to their country’s repertoire, and Russians are quite capable of playing Bach just as Americans are capable of recording Brahms.  We are encouraged and inspired to know the full repertoire, not only the repertoire that may be in our DNA due to our country of birth.  While there may be a temptation for orchestras and opera houses to program that way, with the even greater temptation to follow trends of youth and gender to more easily package and promote for their public, it creates an unfair and limited approach to developing artists and educating and entertaining its audience.   Building a public through programming should be based on quality, not on nationality, age or gender.  After all, we are a globalized gender free society now.  Orchestras are as much a combination of nationalities as wines have become a melange of grapes.  Region becomes irrelevant.  Quality is the only criteria.  The ultimate test is how it sounds.  And how the wine tastes.

Here is a composer and wine unable to be categorized that just might be the unexpected example of the perfect pair:

Rossini was famous for his operas and musical virtuosity written closely in the classical style of Mozart, and was therefore nicknamed the “Italian Mozart” or Il Tedeschino, “the little German,”  Rossini was an Italian growing up in Bologna who composed in the German style and then became an unofficial food critic in France.  There is perhaps a reason, however far fetched, that Rossini had these German instincts:  The wines of Emilia-Romagna were influenced by Barbarian invaders with a protein and starch diet who desired a sparkling wine to balance the fat, hence the Lambrusco of Emilia, while Romans colonized the area with an olive oil rich diet demanding a more structured wine to balance the flavors, therefore the deep tannins of the Sangiovese grape.  During his years in Paris, being on the forefront of Grand Opera, the Cabernet Sauvignon reigned supreme.

One can listen to the Lambrusco sparkle in his early comic operas, like the Barber of Seville.   One can hear the intensity of the Sangiovese in his tragedies, like La Donna del Lago.  And the grandeur of the Cabernet in Guillaume Tell.  This was a musician without limits who gave the world quality and retired from the world to savor the success it brought.  This superman of music is perhaps best paralleled with Super Tuscan wines:  using grapes from Italy, the Sangiovese, and France, the Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, with a Nietzschean designation, to create wines few can equal.  Some prices can be astronomical, as are tickets to hear the Barber of Seville.  But once you taste even the most available of the Super Tuscans, the Antinori Tignanello, with its supple yet structured body and a taste that lingers on your tongue like Rosina’s aria “una voce poco fa,” you can simply appreciate the quality of the wine and the melody that Rossini composed.

When wine and music are free to be expressed by those who imbibe and those who make it, then wine and music will be freed from their limitations and generate a wider panorama of appreciation.  Is that not our raison d’être?

Tignanello
Super Tuscan Tignanello 2013

Manzanilla and Fino: Magic, Music and Memories ©2017 by John Axelrod

The words Manzanilla and Fino conjure up many memories.  The problem is that after drinking them it is  hard to remember them.

What is Manzanilla?  This is that magic potion one drinks every year at Sevilla’s Feria.  It can be chilled and drunk straight from the bottle, or chased with 7up, called a rebujito, to provide an easier wake up in the morning without the habitual hangover.  Manzanilla is basically the same as Fino sherry, but produced and matured around Sanlúcar de Barrameda, closer to the sea than Jerez, and the only place where it is allowed to be made.  It is also enjoyed throughout Andalusia, serving as the ideal summer drink.  It is best served chilled, and as it is produced where the Guadalquivir river joins the Atlantic, it works best with seafood, olives, garlic, even sushi!

It has a particular taste.  For some, the first sip inspires reactions such as:  “This tastes like cat piss!”  It makes me wonder how someone would know what cat piss tastes like, but it is true that it is unlike any traditional wine and very different from the Rioja or Ribera that has made Spain famous.

Manzanilla is made from the palomino grape, is biologically aged, and is entirely under a layer of flor yeast.  The specific climatic conditions of  Sanlúcar de Barrameda provide a higher humidity and cooler, more consistent temperatures than those found in inland bodegas, which contributes to a higher yield of flor. The thicker layer of flor protects the wine even more from air contact, resulting in a slightly lighter variety of Fino, containing virtually no glycerol and combining dry, saline notes with a fresh, bright zesty flavor. The bouquet of the Manzanilla typically shows more coastal aromas than a Fino, like seaspray, salt or even iodine.  It is a clear, salty sherry, reminiscent of chamomile tea, and less amber or dark than other fino sherry found on the market.

Fino is another matter.  It too is made from the palomino and biologically aged under a layer of flor. This cap of yeast prevents contact with the air, resulting in a yeasty, saline profile with hints of toasted nuts, grilled bread, and herbs.  Maturation of at least two years in wooden barrels is prescribed by law, but the best examples are aged between four to seven years. At four or five years of age, the wine displays bright notes of flor, while older examples show more color and complexity.

Like Manzanilla, it is produced in a Solera system, having different scales of barrels or criaderas and gradually refreshing lower (older) barrels with a part of the higher (younger) barrels. A typical Fino Solera contains between three and seven criaderas.

One of the best producers of Fino is the Emilio Hidalgo Bodega in Jerez.  In Jerez, I visited the Bodega and spoke with the owner, Fernando Hidalgo, about making Fino and the differences with Manzanilla.  Jerez and Sanlúcar have been arguing about it for centuries.   And the best place to have that discussion is over la torillitas de camarones at the famous Casa Balbino, in Sanlúcar, where many a person have come from around the world to taste these fritters and drink Manzanilla, no Fino, no Manzanilla, and so on….

Fernando gave us some of his Fino straight from the barrel.  One of them, La Panessa, is a fino with a toasted almond aroma, pungent and delicate, light to the palate, dry and whose special characteristics are result of its prolonged and particular process of élevage.  It was heavenly, with an appealing flavor.  Hard to imagine drinking anything more refreshing on that hot summer day.

And yet, the Manzanilla in Sanlúcar de Barrameda was waiting.

When we got to  Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and the Balbino, the Manzanilla of choice was the San León (sometimes refered to as San León Clasica), which is the flagship Manzanilla from Bodegas Argüeso. While the label still says it’s more than three years old, it’s actually said to have matured for around six years.  San León was chosen as the best wine of Spain in the 2009 Iberwine contest.  I would also venture to give an award the Emilio Hidalgo Fino.   It at least gives another excuse to go back to Casa Balbino and argue over a few bottles of each.

While the La Panessa is a Fino for drinking and conversation, the San León is a wine that has more to do with dancing and singing.  It is the drink of the Gypsies, of the Mediterranean along the Guadalquivir river, of the Sevillana dance and the flamenco call.  It is the drink to live and love, not the wine of work.  And given its reputation for fun at the Feria, it can also be magical in its effects.

Manuel deFalla came from Cadiz, not too far Jerez or Sanlúcar de Barrameda.  I wonder which he preferred?  Fino or Manzanilla?

Among deFalla’s many known works is El Amor Brujo, Love’s Magician.  It is a musical story of love, passion, betrayal and possession.  It involves an exorcism in the Ritual Fire Dance, a dynamic orchestral tour de force that pulsates with the rhythm of the flamenco.  Though it was originally composed as a gitaneria or gypsy piece, it evolved into an orchestral suite and ballet.   Regardless of the constellation, it is performed best with an authentic flamenco voice.

I have many memories of both deFalla and Manzanilla.  After visiting Fernando Hidalgo in  Jerez, I went with Eric Crambes, concertino of the Real Orquesta Sinfonica de Sevilla, and with soprano Ruth Rosique and guests Victoria Stapells and luthier Robert Louis Baille and his wife, to Sanlúcar de Barrameda where we enjoyed a beautiful menu musicaux with wine and food and trios from Ravel and Schubert, and Canciones Populares Españolas by deFalla, at the beautiful Hotel Alcoba.  Naturally, Manzanilla was served and the music was marvelous.

A defining deFalla musical experience for me was El Amor Brujo in Sevilla.  The ROSS  and I were joined by the ensemble of guitarist José Maria Gallardo del Rey, the voice of Esperanza Fernandez and the flamenco ballet from the Centro Andaluz de Danza.  It was a feast for the eyes and ears.  Just as is Feria itself.

It is impossible to not be intoxicated by the sights and smells of horse drawn carriages, señoras and señoritas in full flamenco dress, men in formal suits, and tapas and Manzanilla flowing all week long from the casetas (or tents) of the Feria fairgrounds.   Entering each tent is like going into someone’s home.  Suddenly the Mazanilla is poured, the jamon is served and the dancing begins.  Venice may have its Carnevale and Bellini.  But Feria and Manzanilla are equally engaging for all the senses.  And then, after it was said and done, we retreated to our homes, poured the Fino and relived the magic of those memories.

San LeonPanessa

Beethoven as Bacchus? Now that’s funny! by John Axelrod © 2017

 

Fat Bastard.jpeg

Can you possibly imagine the jolly, smiling God of wine under the stern, brooding veneer of Beethoven?  And yet, his own words have set the stage for comedy and also inspiration for my new wine and music blog:  IamBacchus.com

So said the Maestro:  “Music is the wine which inspires one to new generative processes, and I am Bacchus who presses out this glorious wine for mankind and makes them spiritually drunken.”

Somehow, a red-cheeked, rotund and gregarious Beethoven is hardly the image we have.  When it comes to Beethoven, his German Romantic soul and furrowed brow suggest more tragedy than comedy.

Indeed, Beethoven may have tragically learned to drink by family experience.  Most historians agree his father was also an abusive alcoholic.  Young Beethoven started consuming great quantities of wine after the death of his mother when he was 17 years old.  Over the next  decade, his symptoms of tinnitus began to develop, becoming severe by the age of 27.  Rumor has it he soothed his savage breast with three bottles of Franconian wine each night.  Small wonder then his manuscripts are barely legible.

He also used to regularly drink with friends at the “Zum Weissen Schwann” in Vienna. One of these was the cellist Nikolaus Zmeskall who worked at the Hungarian Chancellery. In a letter, Beethoven wrote, ”Let us meet at seven this evening at the Schwan and drink more of their disgusting red wine.” Apparently, this was a very acidic, cheap wine made from grapes grown locally on the foothills of the Kahlenberg at the eastern end of the Vienna Woods. Today, only international varieties (Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon) and hybrids such as Blauer Zweigelt, Blauburger and St. Laurent are grown there.

With all that wine going in, and notes going out, you have to wonder what impact all that alcohol may have had on the music.  We do know, thanks to research made on his hair, that it probably had an impact on his health and early demise.

The last recorded words of Ludwig van Beethoven on his death bed were “Pity, pity, too late!”, as the composer was told he was given a case of twelve bottles of good wine. He died on March 26th, 1827 from causes that have been the subject of much speculation since.

Researchers at the Pfeiffer Treatment Center at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, USA, have made conclusive proof that it was drinking wine that did it.  A detailed analysis of hair and a fragment of bone from Beethoven’s skull tested in an X-ray machine three years ago showed Beethoven died of massive lead poisoning.

The killer lead was probably not from chewing on graphite pencils, but most likely came fro lead in the cup Beethoven used to drink his wine, and possibly from the wine itself.  In Beethoven’s time lead was used widely for sweetening wine without an understanding of the damage it could cause. Russell Martin investigated this lead link in his book, Beethoven’s Hair: An Extraordinary Historical Odyssey and a Scientific Mystery Solved.  That book changed what we think about Beethoven almost as much as Beethoven’s music changed the way we think about ourselves.

Beethoven was hardly the first composer to love the noble grape, and certainly not the last.  Brahms too was a sobriquet of sorts, known for his drinking.  He also had a difficult childhood and his early teenage years in the port brothels of Hamburg probably had a similar impact on his habits later in life.

Speaking of Brahms, here is a funny story to go with our humorous Bacchus as Beethoven theme:  A wine connoisseur once invited Brahms to dinner and brought out some of his best bottles, pointing to one in particular. “This is the Brahms of my cellar,” he announced to the composer.  After taking a sip, Brahms muttered, “Better bring out your Beethoven.”

Thus, in the spirit of these two titanic tipplers and keeping with the theme, I present to you the “Beethoven” from the cellar that takes away the elitism of both classical music and wine in a swish of the glass and the pop of a cork.  No doubt the label will give you a laugh.

The Fat Bastard.   An award winning cabernet sauvignon, grown in the Languedoc -Roussillon of France, is rich and complex, spicy and deep in tannins, perfect for a goulash in a Viennese tavern, or, as Brahms might have preferred, with a cooked sausage over the stove,   And yes, you can buy this French/British specialty wine in Europe via a retailer who can order or simply go to www.fatbastardwine.com

The name was reported to have originated from an experiment when winemaker Thierry Boudinaud tasted the juice and declared:  “Now that is what you call a fat bastard.”  The label says that the British expression describes a particularly rich and full wine.  It might have also described Bacchus.  Or even Beethoven.