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Rick Steves + The CSO

Rick Steves and the Colorado Symphony Orchestra?  Yep, Rick is on a different kind of tour!

Rick Steves Symphonic Journey

On Sunday afternoon, I had the pleasure of attending Rick Steves‘ Europe: A Symphonic Journey with the Colorado Symphony.  This is the live presentation of Rick’s PBS Special of the same name.  It is a multimedia experience, with Rick introducing eight pieces before the symphony performs them, accompanied by clips from his long-running television series.

I went in expecting a light afternoon’s entertainment and ended up taking copious notes on the ideas that the experience evoked.  First and foremost, this is a high compliment to Rick and the CSO.  Art can be light entertainment but at its best it should cause us to think about, feel, and consider ideas that maybe we had not before.

We’ll begin with the highlights.  It was a pleasure to see the CSO again. The new season brings us a number of new faces.  This was the first time I had the opportunity to see Bertie Baigent conduct since he joined back in 2018.  He’s quite young (24!) but was charming and seemed at ease with the group.  More important to my inner-cellist were the two new faces in the cello section:  Principal Cello Seoyoen Min and Assistant Principal Cello Chloe Hong.  They too are quite young–especially for principals–but talented and energetic.  Seoyoen also ably handled a peg failure that had her A string hanging uselessly.  Well-played Seoyoen, well-played. 🙂

Rick Steves w CSO 9-15-19

The songs in the performance are the same found on the TV special and I would love to know the logic behind some of the choices.  The overarching concept is the connection between the music of the 19th century and the concurrent social and political upheaval of the period, collectively referred to as Romanticism and Nationalism (different and yet not so different from the modern concept of Nationalism).  This is the era of tragic romantic poets and gothic architectural fantasies set against a seemingly endless series of wars fought to create or tear apart countries.  Songs celebrating a nation’s (or would-be nation’s) natural beauty and culture, such as Strauss’ “On The Beautiful Blue Danube” or Smetana’s “The Moldau” make perfect sense in this context.  As does including an orchestral version of Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy“, which has become a song of peace and brotherhood across nations.  Grieg’s “Morning Mood” from Peer Gynt is a nice nod toward Norway and their folklore (though of course I would have preferred “Hall of the Mountain King”!).  Verdi’s operas still rouse the Italians, so this works for me too.  I’m even ok with starting the program with our own “Star Spangled Banner” to exemplify how music can stir the patriotic spirit.

Then there are the pieces that leave me scratching my head.  Was it necessary to include England?  They had the poets and they brought down Napoleon but really the age of Victoria was the age of Empire, not the struggle of people taking hold of their own cultural and national destinies.  Unless you consider it England’s cultural destiny to rule of a quarter of the planet, which is a discussion for a different day.  Berlioz’s “Marche Troyenne” from his opera Les Troyens (The Trojans) is, well, French but perhaps not representationally “French”.  The poor French did spend much of the 19th century sorting out the legacy of their Revolution, but a more appropriate choice would have been the French National Anthem and revolutionary battle cry “La Marseillaise”.

And then we get to the elephant in the room.  No discussion of 19th Century Nationalism would be complete without Richard Wagner.  But no discussion of Wagner in this context (or most contexts) is complete without acknowledging his overt antisemitism or his later appropriation by the Nazis.  However, these difficult facts are completely removed from both the program and the program notes.  And the choice of music from the relatively benign Die Meistersinger is a very safe selection.  Sanitizing Wagner feels like an odd choice for a man who recently made a show about fascism and has urged us for years to travel and see the world to expand our horizons.  This frustrates me both as a Rick Steves fan and as a classical music fan.  Why leave it out?  Rick doesn’t shy away from addressing the darker aspects of German and European history in his shows, so why do so here?  Now is not the time to start whitewashing history.  I cannot come up with a palatable answer to this question.  Rick – if you are reading, please let us know!

In sum, yes, the concert was entertaining and the program thought-provoking, though maybe not in the intended way.  Which I’m ok with, because I walked away with lots to chew on and to share with you. 🙂

Let me know your thoughts on the matter in the comments!

Before we go, a few songs that didn’t make it in the program.  Perhaps in Volume 2?

La Marseillaise, aka the French National Anthem.  Remember this iconic moment in Casablanca?

Grieg’s “Hall of the Mountain King” from Peer Gynt.  One of the most metal classical music songs (Apo and Savatage have done covers!):

As Finnophile, I am a tad disappointed that Jean Sibelius’ Finlandia was left out of the mix:

If we’re going to include France, I’m more of a Bizet fan than Berlioz, even though this wasn’t a huge hit when it first came out (hard to believe now!).  I believe you will recognize the “Habanera” from Carmen:

I hope this has you thinking about music and it’s deeper cultural meanings or at least has you humming a catchy tune or two.  Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum and neither do we!


PS: Quick side note to the dude sitting behind me at the concert. The orchestra are not “people who get do a hobby on stage.”  They have studied since childhood to work very hard for very little pay to create the music we enjoy.  They should be respected and appreciated.  Not dismissed by the blowhard in the audience bragging about how much he paid for his seats.  Which was a little weird since mine was only $20…