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Learning the Language of Wine: A Musical Revelation

Last weekend, I had the very last minute privilege of attending the Orquestra Simfònica de Barcelona i Nacional de Catalunya (Barcelona Symphony and Catalonia National Orchestra, or OBC), where I saw the second half of “The Knight of the Rose” by Strauss. Having received a free ticket from the very sweet and savvy owners of Somnio Hostels, who just so happened to know the bassoon player, I spent an incredible 40 minutes not a breath away from the string section. I was so close that I could even make out the haute couture label of the black suede pumps of the 3rd chair violist as she swayed to and fro with the from the gentle embrace of the rhythm.

The experience itself was mesmerizing, breathtaking and intellectually astounding. I walked away feeling like a brilliant layer of pixi dust was spread across my spirit, leaving me with in a gigantic heap of unanswered questions, such as:

  • Why does the percussion session seem to pay special attention to the conductor, while the string section appears obvious to his presence?
  • What’s the difference between a symphony and orchestra?
  • Are symphony orchestras primarily composed of natives or are they a mosh pit of individuals cherry picked from around the globe?
  • When a violist plucks the strings, is there a specific symbol on the sheet music for this and what in the Lord’s name does it look like?

I won’t bore you with my infinite number of questions that poured through my mind, but I do want to highlight the intense feeling of ignorance that sat deep inside me as the players bowed from the semi-standing ovation. The ignorance, thick and unwelcoming, was revealed to me when asked earlier in the evening, “Do you know anything about classical music?” Feeling totally defensive, and slightly shameful, I admitted, “I can appreciate it, but I know absolutely nothing about classical music.”

Sound familiar?

On my hour long train ride home from Barcelona, I sat staring out the window wondering why I felt uncomfortable admitting that I didn’t know anything about classical music. Why was I defensive? And then it occurred to me that classical music is not so different than the world of wine. Like wine, classical music is filled with specific jargon that is unique on to itself, with words such as: theme, movement, sonata, trio, coda, moderato, etc; which generally lowers the bar of accessibility to the public. Like wine, classical music is seen in a sophisticated light, where only the knowledgeable may define quality and glean subtleties, whereby making the average joe feel less than comfortable. And like wine, classical music has been reserved for the wealthy and upper echelons, making us normal folk feel like a performance comes at a hefty price.

As these thoughts swirled in my head, a fierce anger and defiance stirred inside me.”Who says classical music shouldn’t be appreciated by everyone?” I stuttered to myself, making the woman in the thick red framed glasses scoot further away from me into her delapitated chair. “Why isn’t there a hip classical music blog, or a Gary Vaynerchuk of music geeks who brings classical music to the young, eager and passionate?” I muttered to myself while pulling out my iPhone and twittering to the masses:

“Decided that classical music is much like wine = loads of elitist bullshit”

I ranted that there wasn’t information that was accessible to people like me, people who wanted a story, context and rich texture. I tweeted that all classical music sounded the same, and I needed someone to break it down for me, make it interesting, contextual and useful. (photo by m-oo)

And then, something extraordinary happened. Suddenly, people started tweeting back to me:

@solobassteve Loads of em. Tchaikovsky’s ballets are a good place to start for stories, but need to be seen…”

@wineaccguy Actively participating online. I found quite a bit of new music through www.last.fm, especially through their groups”

@pedro_mg abecause music can be an extremely complex language. I’d say good classical radio station, plus Youtube *and* wikipedia”

@zevrobinson Listen to Beethoven’s 6th symph, close your eyes, see the landscapes, listen to the storm build and break, great storytelling”

For days on end, I discovered a piece on Spotify, researched it through Wikipedia and then asked questions of the Twitter community whenever I felt lost or confused. Regardless if it was a composer, a musical term, a philosophy or a cultural aspect, the Twitter community continuously came back with suggestions, clarifications and revelations. And quite honestly, while I sit here listening to a beautifully lyrical and ethereal cello piece by Zoe Keating (video below), I’m reminded how often we let our fears of a new language, a steep learning curve or past experiences, step in the way of our learning.

Social media provides us with a multitude of avenues to research a question, to submerge ourselves in a topic we’re passionate about. Regardless if it is wine, classical music or underwater basket weaving, the only way authentic learning can occur is by admitting ignorance, embracing vulnerability, and requesting knowledge of our community.

“The improvement of understanding is for two ends: first, our own increase of knowledge; secondly, to enable us to deliver that knowledge to others.”~ John Locke.

If you’re interested in some famous Spanish classical guitarists, I would consider looking into: Gaspar Sanz (1640-1710), Fernando Sor (1778-1839), Mauro Giuliani (1781-1829), Francisco Tárrega (1852-1909), Agustín Barrios Mangoré (1888-1944), Andrés Segovia (1893-1987), Alirio Diaz (1923), Presti-Lagoya Duo (active from 1955-1967: Ida Presti, Alexandre Lagoya), Julian Bream (1933), and John Williams (1941).

If you’re into famous Spanish composers, check out: Isaac Albéniz from Gerona, Enrique Granados from Lérida, Joaquín Turina from Seville, and Manuel de Falla from Cádiz

Portuguese composers might include: Pedro de Escobar, Manuel Cardoso, Duarte Lobo, Filipe de Magalhães, Carlos Seixas, Diogo Dias Melgás, João Domingos Bomtempo, Marcos Portugal, José Vianna da Motta, Luís de Freitas Branco, Joly Braga Santos, Fernando Lopes-Graça and Emmanuel Nunes; organists such as António Carreira or Manuel Rodrigues Coelho; singers such as Luísa Todi or Elisabete Matos; pianists such as Maria João Pires or Sequeira Costa; cellists such as Guilhermina Suggia.

If you have any classical artists, educational websites, blogs or twitter personalities we should pay attention to, please don’t hesitate to share them below!

Cheers,

Gabriella Opaz

  • http://www.ryanopaz.com Ryan

    Better yet, I want to know what wines pair with these musicians! I once had a friend make me a set of CD’s with wine pairings for each CD. Pop anyone one of them in and then sit back with a bottle of the corresponding wine, and enjoy. It was truely a great thing. My favorite was a Tuba artist paired with Gewurztraminer!

    • http://www.winetastingsandmore.com Betty

      Wow, would I love to see the music and wine pairing list. That would be tremendously fun. The question for me would be how food what impact those pairings. Gabriella, thank you for such a great write up. I couldn’t agree with you more that this notion that you have to be an expert to enjoy wine or music does a disservice to both. I created a wine video on this very topic – http://tinyurl.com/ye2vqfy.

  • http://www.winetravelguides.com Wink Lorch

    What a fantastically original post for a wine blog, Gabriella – I loved the connections you made between wine and classical music, something I’ve never thought about because by the time I was falling in love with wine, I was falling out of love with classical music (shocking I know) because I was somewhat over-subjected to it as a child.

    I know that Classic FM has done lots to popularize and explain classical music in the UK so you might want to take a look/listen at that.

    To answer some of your questions above:
    * Why does the percussion session seem to pay special attention to the conductor, while the string section appears obvious to his presence?
    Having played violin in an orchestra – I often mimed when I couldn’t keep up – I was towards the rear of the 2nd violins ;) – I can tell you that following the complicated music was often enough as there are so many violins; if you are a percussionist you are often one person e.g. the timpanist and you have to come in at exactly, exactly the right time.
    * What’s the difference between a symphony and orchestra?
    Certainly the English (British) meaning of orchestra is just that – and a symphony is a piece of music. A symphony orchestra plays mainly symphonies I guess and it sounds smarter and differentiates perhaps from a chamber orchestra or a jazz orchestra!
    * Are symphony orchestras primarily composed of natives or are they a mosh pit of individuals cherry picked from around the globe?
    The very best orchestras cherry pick from around the globe.
    * When a violist plucks the strings, is there a specific symbol on the sheet music for this and what in the Lord’s name does it look like?
    It just says above the line of music ‘pizzicato’ which is the latin instruction to pluck!

    Hope this helps and hope you enjoy your discovery of classical music as much as your discovery of wine; there’s certainly as much to learn, I guess!

    And yes, Ryan, matching wine and music (classical or other) is a whole other skill/enjoyment!

    • Patti

      Your first comment about keeping up reminded me of a very funny concert I went to when my daughter (Ryan’s sister) was in band at at school. She was having a very hard time learning a small line in the musical piece. She decided that she would pretend to play and not mess up the whole piece. Unfortunately when it came time to play, all the other flute players must have felt the sam way as suddenly there was no music for so many beats, then all went on as planned. It was really funny especially the faces of the flute players when they realized what had happened!!

  • http://www.vineyardadventures.com Robbin

    I concur with Wink after being in the percussion section from high school through college. There are 5 trumpets and ONE person holding the mallets on any given percussion instrument.

    I very distinctly remember “sucking” the crash cymbals in a performance…in the last measure of the finale.

    I then moved on to classical guitar. This also gets confusing because then there is flamenco guitar which is slightly different.

    (Side note: John Williams is Australian and Julian Bream is British. Wasn’t sure if you meant Spanish as in style or in heritage)

    Completely underrated in the United States as a musician is Charo. Yes, koochy koochy koo, Love Boat Charo. She studied under Segovia!

    There needs to be a Gary Vee for melodic classical music. Modern, atonal composition drives me batty. I blame the Futurists.

    Best of luck with your journey!

  • http://drinksareonme.net Dale Cruse

    One blog to check out is Alex Ross’ “The Rest is Noise” at: http://www.therestisnoise.com He’s the music critic from The New Yorker and gets the web. He hasn’t been as active lately but it’s worth digging through his archives!

  • http://www.bevsites.com Ian Griffith

    Lovely post Gabriella.

    The link to wine had me thinking that for some of us our musical education probably prepared us for a later education in wine. I played in orchestras in the equivalent of US junior high and later studied jazz theory and history. Somewhere in there I think I picked up an appreciation for a subject that includes scientific discipline and artistic expresion. Reading music involves using terms from foreign languages much as wine does and perhaps the barrier was lower because music had already cleared the way.

  • Gabriella Opaz

    First off, thank you all for leaving some thoughtful comments. I think what’s key to this post is the correlation between many of your classical music backgrounds and your interest in wine today. And I think Ian is absolutely correct in saying that once you surmounted one language, the following ones come easy – or at least, easier. I’m off to see Julia Kent (http://www.juliakent.com) at our municipal auditorium in Terrassa, and I’ll be fascinated to see both the demographics of the audience and the way in which her story is told. I promise to report back :-)

  • http://twitter.com/CPFitzsimons @CPFitzsimons

    Wonderful post Gabriella. I absolutely agree. One thing I noticed is that you said "listening to a beautifully lyrical and ethereal violin piece by Zoe Keating " when you obviously meant cello. Just thought I should point it out :)

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/gabriellaopaz gabriellaopaz

      Point well taken! And I've changed the post accordingly. THanks!

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/CarrieJorgensen CarrieJorgensen

    At Cortes de Cima we mix wine and music in a most enjoyable way every year here at the vineyard, during our Annual Summer Vineyard Concerts! This year will be the 8th consecutive year! The musicians are from the Royal Copenhagen Opera, the Portuguese Radio RTP provides the Steinway, and the wine, well, try to guess! ;-) We have uploaded some of the highlights to our YouTube channel, and more info is on our own website here. http://cortesdecima.com/tourism/annual-summer-vin… An event not to be missed!

  • Bill

    Gabriella, Interesting article. I'm not going to comment on the parallels between wine and classical music. Nor can I comment from the perspective of a musician, as several other posters have. If you want to learn more about classical music you should start with the basics to lay a good foundation. For example, Beethoven's symphonies (all of them, listened to in order). Mozart's late symphonies, 38 – 41. Just about anything by JS Bach (I love his solo Cello Suites). Haydn is great. This is not even scratching the surface. The varieties are virtually endless. I'm sure others will weigh in and provide additional must hear pieces and composers. Sonatas, Concertos,, Baroque, Romantic, Classical, Neo-Classical, etc. There is something for everyone. The only way to find out is to listen.

    Bill

  • DavidT

    Wow. I'd never thought of that.____I was a classical musician (semi-pro) for 20 years, and still listen a lot. I didn't get into wine seriously until the musical career was winding down, and I *never* noticed the (now obvious) similarity. Thanks, Gabriella.____If I had to pick on one important similarity that jumps out, it's the one Bill above referred to indirectly — the daunting, bewildering, offputting variety of things that the novice isn't familiar with, and doesn't know how to start getting exposed to. What's the wine equivalent of "The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra" or "Peter and the Wolf", or the musical equivalent of the Jancis Robinson wine course?

  • http://www.somethingsaretimeless.com Ray Hayden

    Can you make wine with out grapes?
    I am a record producer,I have spent 25 years making urban music and worked with the likes of Marvin Gaye Will Smith Mary J Blige and Martine Girault .
    A few years ago a company called IK Multimedia developed software that allowed musicians to create realistic string sound from a computer. I decided it would be a good idea to try to make an orchestral LP with this software and I found an opera singer to help out, you can hear it on my sitehttp://www.somethingsaretimeless.com. Can you make orchestral music without an orchestra?