Monday, October 29, 2012

The Spanish National Orchestra

     Recently I wrote about a great Flamenco guitar concert I attended at the Auditorio Nacional de Música, part of the Centro Nacional de Difusión Musical, and said I planned on attending more concerts at that venue. Well, it's happening. Friday night I showed up half an hour before the show to buy a ticket for a piano concert. After getting to my seat, which was actually situated behind the stage where the chorus sits, I realized I had bought a ticket to the wrong concert. The venue has two halls, a large one and a smaller one, and often concerts take place simultaneously. I had mistakenly purchased a ticket to see the Orquesta Nacional de España.

(The view from my seat)

The musicians wandered onto the stage and tuned their instruments, and then the conductor, Pablo Heras-Casado, entered. My vantage point from behind the stage and on almost the same level as the musicians turned out to be exciting, because I could see the conductor’s motions and faces clearly. He was a very entertaining conductor to watch, appearing happy when lighter movements were played, and wild when the music intensified, winding up and throwing his arms in the direction of a musical hit or a cymbal crash. 
The first piece was composed by Anton Webern and included the entire orchestra. For the next piece, about half of the orchestra left the stage and Anne Gastinel, a cellist, took center stage, dressed in a long metallic silver jacket and an orange sweater. This piece (Concert for Cello and Orchestra in C Major, Hob. VIIb: 1) by Hayden contained some familiar melodies, including one that sounded vey similar to the melody from “Uptown Girl” (The music video is priceless). If you want to compare the melodies, click on the Hayden piece and scroll to the later half of minute 11.  
There was an intermission before the final piece, originally a fifty minute quartet with piano written by Brahms but arranged for orchestra by Arnold Schönberg. I was very impressed by the entire concert, and felt like I was appreciating classical music properly for the first time. I really feel like my vantage point from the choir section had a lot to do with my attitude— I felt like I was part of the performance, and, unlike previous times I’ve attended an orchestral performance, I didn’t feel tired at all. Being able to see the conductor clearly gave me insight and foresight to the performance— he was like a guide giving me directions on where the performance was going next. 
I’m looking forward to attending two more concerts this week (a piano concert and a Flamenco concert) at the same venue, and as always, buying last minute discounted tickets only sold to “jóvenes” (people under 26 years old). For around six euros a piece it’s hard to pass up such quality performances. 


Saturday, October 27, 2012


Two weeks ago I went to Cercedilla, a small town an hour by train from Madrid. It is a popular destination for madrileños because of its proximity and good hiking trails. After three weeks in the city, I was ready for some fresh air.

The temperature was perfect and the air was clean and crisp. I met a few other English teachers and we made our way to Los Miradores de los Poetas, an outlook with great views of the Fuenfría valley below and the Guadarrama mountains in the distance. 

Once at los Miradores, I began to see verses of poetry written on the rocks. Then I saw a metal box in a rock that declared there were books inside written by the Spanish poet Luis Rosales, who wrote poems about Cercedilla, and they were for passerby to read while they sat on the rocks. I looked inside and to my surprise I found a plastic box with papers and books inside. Unfortunately, there were no books by Rosales, but it was a nice thought nonetheless. 

(The box with books)

(The painter and the painted)

After a good rest, we continued the hike. We missed a turnoff somewhere along the way, and ended up on the Carretera de la República, a fortification used by the Republicans (the good guys) in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). 

Then we arrived at the Roman road, dating back to the 1st century. It descends from the mountains down into a valley. It eventually brought us back to where we had begun the hike. 

The missed turnoff was fortunate, because we were able to see much more than we had planned to see. The hike was around 10 miles, with great views, good exercise, and most importantly, fresh air. It's a great day trip from Madrid, especially if you need a break from cigarette smoke and exhaust. 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Cañizares — Flamenco Guitar Concert

     So there I was, sitting in my favorite café, at a different table than usual, when I glanced at the wall and saw a large poster advertising concerts at the Centro Nacional de Difusión Musical. I browsed the events to see if there were any I might be interested in attending. Then I saw the concert series titled "Andalucía Flamenca." Then I saw "Cañizares, guitarra flamenco." Then I saw the show was in an hour and a half. Then I went to the concert.
     An hour before the show, the box office opens up to sell "last minute" tickets to people under 26 years old. Lucky me. I bought a ticket for 6 euro and sat down to watch "Guitarra Solo Dúo Flamenco." The featured guitarist was Juan Manuel Cañizares, accompanied by Juan Carlos Gómez on second guitar. Cañizares, called the poet of the guitar, is a world-renouned guitarist from Spain. He represents ( I'm translating now from the concert agenda), the image of the contemporary flamenco artist, open and flexible, cultured and attentive to multiple influences of the best music in five continents— though above all, and as has been manifested many times, he is considered a flamenco guitarist. Cañizares has toured with flamenco legend Paco de Lucía, and is the only flamenco guitarist to have been invited by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra to interpret the Concierto de Aranjuez in a gala celebrated at the Teatro Real de Madrid, under the direction of Simon Rattle. He was also awarded the Premio Nacional de la Música in 2008 and has composed different works for the National Ballet of Spain. That is all to say, he is good at what he does.

(Juan Manuel Cañizares)

   The show itself was amazing. Cañizares played the first few songs my himself, after which Gómez, the second guitarist, joined him on stage. They were unbelievably tight, playing arpeggios, fast lines, and chords in perfect time with each other. Here's a link to a video that will give you an idea of what they did (except there were no drums at the show I attended), and here is a link to some videos on his website that give you an idea of the different types of songs that were played.
     They played everything from guajiras to tangos, ballads to rumbas. The show was varied in tempo and feel, and lasted for nearly an hour and a half. It was an inspiring and very, very humbling experience. These guys grew up with guitars in their hands and have not put them down. The things they can do require decades of dedication. This is not something a guitarist watches and thinks, "I could do that." They are on a level that makes one feel like going home to practice and also like going home to throw away one's guitar. Fortunately, I do not aspire to become a professional flamenco guitarist, so seeing the performance was not as crushing as it was uplifting to me.
     The concert series runs through May, with a show every month by different notable flamenco artists. I hope to go to most of them, and aside from that, the venue has many other types of concerts that I plan to attend in the coming months. It's nice to think about how a glance to your left at a café can have a lasting impact.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


     Two weeks ago I took a day trip to Cádiz from Sevilla. Cádiz is a peninsula, bordered on three sides by the Atlantic. It proudly claims to be the oldest city in Europe, having been founded around 1100BC by the Phoenicians. Since then, the city has been occupied by the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Visigoths, the Moors, and finally the Spanish in 711. The city's ports have been the sight of departure of many voyages to America, including Columbus'. The city's Golden Age was in the eighteenth century, when Cádiz practically had a monopoly on overseas trade. It was also the site of the first Spanish constitution, written in 1812.

(The entrance to the old part of the city, with statues of Hercules. Legend says that Hercules separated Europe from Africa and thus formed the straits of Gibraltar).

     I arrived in Cádiz on an overcast morning, eager to smell the saltwater air. The old part of the city, the only part worth visiting for historical reasons, is small and very walkable. 

I made my way to the Cathedral, which was begun in 1772 and completed in 1838 (relatively recent by Europe's standards). It's a beautiful cathedral, with a golden dome and high barrel-vaulted ceilings. It began to rain while I was walking there, so I decided to go in and sit down for a while Mass was held. 

     Next I went to one of the city's two castles, Castillo de San Sebastian, constructed in the 18th century. To get to it one walks down a long jetty, passing fishermen with 15ft long poles and no reels. It was interesting to think that I was looking for the first time from the other side of the Atlantic, in the direction of the United States. 

I continued my walk around the city, finding a couple of small parks with different types of trees, including some very, very old cypress trees. 

The rest of the day was spent walking around the city and admiring the ocean. It is a city full of history, which is important to experience, but for being surrounded by the ocean it felt a little stagnant. Maybe it was because I was alone, or because it was cloudy and raining, or because it is removed from the rest of the country with only one way out. Nevertheless, I am glad I went, though it is certainly a place to visit for only an afternoon. 

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Leonard Cohen in Madrid

  Having bought my ticket in March, before I was certain I would even have a reason to go to Spain, last Friday was a long time coming. Regretting not seeing Cohen on his tour three years ago, I splurged for a ninth row center ticket, to make the most of the rare chance of seeing him perform live. And knowing that Spain loves Leonard more than the United States does (Spain recently awarded him the prestigious Prince of Asturias award for poetry, where Cohen delivered an unforgettable acceptance speech), I knew I would be in for a treat. 
The band took the stage to a standing ovation, followed by the lithe Leonard Cohen, a mere 78 years old, who promptly dropped to his knees next to Javier Mas, his Spanish guitar player, urging him to embellish the opening tune, “Dance Me To The End Of Love.” These days, Cohen’s rumbling bass voice adds both a dark and romantic layer to his songs. This, along with his incredibly tight nine-piece band, creates a breathing work of art.
The second song performed, “The Future,” is perhaps Cohen’s grimmest. But even when painting a post-apocalyptic picture, Cohen lightened the mood when he sang the lyric “white girls dancing” as his two female white backup singers did synchronized cartwheels. Next came the classic “Bird On The Wire,” transformed by a beautiful bluesy-soul guitar introduction. Leonard also changed the second half of the line “And if I have been untrue, I hope you know it was never to you” to “It’s that I thought a lover had to be some kind of liar too.” 
After “Everybody Knows” and a personal favorite of mine, “Who by Fire,” the band performed “Darkness,” with the Hammond B3 organ and the blues harp (performed by Cohen's tour manager Mike Scoble) taking the lead along with that snarling abyss of a voice. The next song performed from the new album was “Amen,” which was accompanied by both jazz guitar chord and violin solos. Later, Cohen sang “My Secret Life” with co-writer and third female vocalist Sharon Robinson. Before the intermission, Cohen performed a peaceful, hymnal rendition of “Anthem.” A break followed, but not before Cohen introduced everyone from the band members to the lighting technicians, and then went skipping off of the stage.

The second set kicked off with “Tower Of Song,” where Cohen played a keyboard that sounded like steel drums, and pounded out a solo, after which he wiped his hand across his head and mumbled, “That was hard.” Then came the famous “Suzanne,” followed by “Night Comes On,” after which a surprise setlist change was made by Cohen. He informed the band, and they played “The Guests,” the first live performance of that song sine 1985. “Heart With No Companion” followed, with a down-home, singalong arrangement. On “Democracy,” Leonard took up the Jew's harp, and then the two cartwheeling backup vocalists, the Webb sisters, performed “Coming Back To You,” and afterward Sharon Robinson sang “Alexandra Leaving,” another song co-written by her and Cohen. Later, the perfectly sculpted lyric “Hallelujah” was sung, followed by “Take This Waltz.” This song had a special significance that night, because it was originally a poem written by the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, one of the finest poets to ever live. Cohen's lyric is very similar to the original, with a few Cohenesque changes inserted along the way. Looking at Cohen’s body of lyrics, one can see that Lorca has had a substantial influence on his work. 
After briefly leaving the stage, Cohen came back for the first encore, where he performed “So Long Marianne” and “First We Take Manhattan.” After the first song, Cohen looked at his watch— 12:35 a.m. Not done yet. Leaving and returning again, the band played “Famous Blue Raincoat” and “Closing Time,” a good closing song (of course). But he wasn’t done yet. After leaving and returning a third time, Cohen performed “I Tried To Leave You” and “Save The Last Dance For Me,” a Drifter’s cover. He also had incredibly kind words for the audience, saying he didn’t know when we would meet again but that he had given his all, and then he said, “May you be surrounded by friends and family all of your life— and if this is not your lot, may blessings find you in your solitude.” He bowed gracefully and left for the final time. 
The concert lasted almost four hours, beginning at 9:15 p.m. and ending after 1:00 a.m., just in time for the madrileño crowd to eat dinner. It was an amazing show, stuffed with thirty-three beautifully arranged songs (full set-list here) accompanied by exquisite performances. It was truly a concert the likes of which I may never see again, the kind of concert that makes one want to dedicate one's life to creating art as wonderful as what was just witnessed.  

Sunday, October 7, 2012


Last weekend I took a bus to Sevilla and Cádiz (separate post on Cádiz forthcoming). The afternoon I arrived in Sevilla, it was raining lightly but promising to continue indefinitely. The bus station didn't have a map so I wandered around looking for one, asking people for the general direction to La Catedral. Sure enough, there was a tourist booth there and I got my map and found out Thursday was a good day to visit Sevilla because admittance to the cathedral and the Alcázar (royal palace) was free. So I went into the cathedral, the third largest in the world. 

Above are two of the four figures hoisting Christopher Columbus' tomb, who represent the four kingdoms of Spain during his life (Castilla, Aragón, Navarra, León). The resting place of Columbus' remains is dubious, but this cathedral claims he is buried beneath this monument. 

I ascended the Giralda, the cathedral's famous bell tower, and the only remaining architectural feature of the mosque that formerly stood where the cathedral does now. It is the highest place in Sevilla, and provides incredible views of the city. 

Afterwards, I went to the nearby Alcázar, largely constructed in the 14th century. Shoes and socks soaked from the heavy rain, I wandered around the palace. John Crow, author of The Root and the Flower, an excellent book on Spanish history, calls the palace the finest example of Mudéjar architecture in existence. This type of architecture is a blend of Muslim and Christian styles. The ceilings in this place are amazing. 

I came to the Sala de las muñecas, or Hall of the dolls, named for the little doll faces carved into the arches, probably as a joke played by the Muslim builders. After searching, I asked a security guard for help to find the faces, because I didn't know exactly where they were and the room was big. He said he'd show me if I promised to return to Sevilla. 

(On either side of the archway, near the bottom, you can see the Gerber baby-type faces.)

The next day, I went to the Plaza de España, built for an exhibition in 1929. The man I was staying with (my first experience with Couchsurfing, and a good one), told me the newer Star Wars films used the place as a filming location. Turns out, some of Lawrence of Arabia was filmed there as well. 

Next, I went wandering through the old Jewish quarter, a cluster of narrow, winding streets. I even stumbled upon a Jewish museum there, where they want to charge you money to see artifacts from the Jews that Spain kicked out of the country in the 15th century. I didn't go in. 

Later, I unexpectedly found the Festival de las naciones, which had booths of many countries preparing their most popular food dishes. There was one for the United States. It was awesome in its steriostypicalness. Food: Buffalo Bill hamburger, chicken nuggets, Obama ribs, onion rings, Kentucky wings. Drink: Budweiser and Duff beer (The Simpsons are weirdly popular here. When I say I'm from Springfield, everyone starts singing the theme song to the show. I even see Duff t-shirts and sweaters on kids, and of course, on the people working in this booth). Posters: Marilyn Monroe, Miami, Las Vegas, Texas, Route 66, Statue of Liberty. It was interesting seeing how the U.S. is perceived. 

Afterward, I went to a Flamenco show at supposedly the best place in town. I was not impressed. It will be very difficult to find an authentic show.

The last morning I was there,  I went to the Museo de bellas artes, which everyone had said was the second best collection of Spanish art (after the Prado). No one had told me that the vast majority of the paintings were religious. Now, I like religious paintings as much as the next person, but after the seventh enormous room filled with nothing but saints, crosses, and blood, I was worn out, and ready for the six hour bus ride back to Madrid. 

Monday, October 1, 2012

Reflections On My First Bullfight

"The best bullfight to see first would be a novillada and the best place to see a novillada is Madrid."
                                                                        - Ernest Hemingway, Death In The Afternoon

Having read Hemingway's nonfiction book about bullfighting this summer, I decided to heed his advice and see a novillada in Madrid for my first bullfight. A novillada is slightly different than a regular corrida de toros (bullfight), in that the matadors have yet to become professional bullfighters, and fight bulls that are a little bit younger, from 3-4 years old.

The Parts Of A Bullfight
A bullfight consists of three main parts. As a preface, the bull is released into the ring and the banderilleros (assistants to the matador), along with the matador, test the bull's courage by attracting it with magenta colored capes, called capotes. After a few minutes, the trumpets sound and the first part, called the tercio de varas, begins.

The picadors (men on heavily padded horses with lances) enter the ring. They get the bull to attack the horse, and as the bull attempts to gore the horse, the picador plunges the lance into the back of the bull's neck in order to weaken it and lower its head. The picador leaves the lance in the bull for at least ten seconds, twisting and digging the sharp lance into the neck. This happens twice, after which the trumpets sound and the second part, the tercio de banderillas, commences.

In the second act, the banderilleros take turns running at the bull with banderilleras (colorfully decorated sticks with sharp metal points), one in each hand, and stab them into the bull's shoulders. This occurs three times, and when the six banderilleras have been placed, the trumpets signal for the third part, called the tercio de muerte.

The matador struts into the ring in a brightly colored outfit and red cape (muleta). He makes many passes with the cape, guiding the bull as close as possible past his body, and staying as still as circumstances allow. After ten minutes or so, he stares down the bull, making sure it remains still, and goes in over the bull's horns with the sword, attempting to bury it completely in the bull's neck and cut its spinal cord. A good strike will have the bull on its knees within a minute. When the bull has staggered to the ground, and remains alive, a puntillero approaches the bull with a dagger and pierces the bull's spinal cord to kill it instantly. After the bull is dead, the trumpets sound, and a team of horses or mules come into the ring to drag the bull out of the ring. Six bulls are killed during a bullfight, two by each matador in alternating sequence.

My Experience At The Novillada
As I waited in line to buy a ticket, I asked an old man what ticket he suggest I purchase. This was a good choice, because he told me it was going to rain and got me a seat that was under the roof, but not too high up, with a good view. The ticket costed less five euro, an economic choice.

The opening ceremony began precisely at six o'clock, when the procession of the matadors, picadors, and banderilleros circled the ring.

After the ceremony, the ring cleared and I looked away for a minute. When I looked back, the first bull was already in the ring. He ran around nervously, and tried to go back through the door from which he had entered, which drew laughs from the crowd. The first act of violence against the bull, by the picador, made me tense up and grimace, due to both the bull's horns in the horse and the picador's lance in the bull. The matador did not help the situation, as his first attempt to bury the sword was unsuccessful, as was his second. At last the bull fell to the ground, and the puntillero stabbed the bull three separate times to kill it. It was a gruesome scene, painful to watch, and a good example of a bad bullfight. 

The process began again, though proceeded in different fashion. It was easy to see that this bull was brave. The torero, Mario Alcalde, is twenty years old. His cape work was much better than the first bullfighter's, and he performed a number of successful passes. It began to rain.

Then, in a flash, he was in the air, the bull's horn through his upper left thigh. He fell to the ground and received another wound to his right thigh. The banderilleros managed to get the bull away from him, whereupon he stumbled to his feet and picked up his cape and sword. He would go on with the fight. "Muy valiente," someone said next to me. Losing blood and dragging his leg, he made more passes with the cape. Bent in half and breathing heavily, the red stains growing larger on his white pants, he raised his sword parallel to the ground and stared down the bull. He went in clean with the sword, leaving only the handle showing. A loud cheer erupted, and Mario stumbled to the edge of the ring, leaning on the wooden barrier, waiting for the bull to fall. In short order, the bull fell, the puntillero ended it, and within seconds Alcalde was lifted from the ring and carried to the infirmary, amid a standing ovation and waving white handkerchiefs. Here's an article in Spanish about the wounded bullfighter and the novillada in general.

It being obvious that Alcalde would not return for his second bull, the bull was released into the ring, the first two acts were performed, and then a herd of steers was released into the ring to guide the bull out, to be killed away from the ring. Three more bulls were killed, the whole fight lasted two hours, much of it in the rain.

Thoughts On The Experience
The novillada was certainly the most gruesome thing I've seen, the most difficult aspect being the period of time after the matador drove in the sword and before the puntillero pierced the spinal cord. During this time, the bulls slowly staggered around the ring, sometimes dropping to their knees and getting up again, the matador motioning for the bull to fall. In some cases the bull would cough up a good amount of blood and swoon like a drunk.

At best, the bullfight can be likened to a tragedy, where the spectators know the ending and wait for the acts to be carried out. It is an exertion of man's dominance over animal. Symbolically, the bull may represent man and the bullfighter represent God. We are in a constant existential struggle to survive, trapped in a ring with no way out except on one's back, dragged through the sand. Upon release into the ring after being led through a dark narrow passage, one has the sensation of confused freedom. Soon, the experience of pain narrows one's vision, lowers one's head, and reveals the foregone conclusion. The brave fight despite imminent death— fight to be immortalized by one's actions in the face of death. It is not without reason that the crowd may not only cheer the bullfighter, but also cheer the bull if it displays courage during the fight.

At worst, the bullfight can be said to be a needless act of violence against an innocent animal which results in prolonged suffering and a cruel death. The time and energy of all involved might be put to better use for, well, anything else. It could be said to be a tradition based on cruelty and bloody spectacle, a waste of human potential and a nod to the pessimistic notion that humans are inherently bad and receive pleasure from witnessing destruction.

The truth is probably somewhere in between the two extremes.

Hemingway, what do you think?

"Bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter's honor."
                                                                                -Death In The Afternoon