Thursday 10 December 2015

Historical Ancestral Mansion at Cambados, Galicia, Spain

The Parador group in Spain is a collection of historical monuments converted into luxury hotels, run by the Spain government.  Here at the Parador in Cambados, heart of the Albariño vineyards in Galicia, we had the opportunity of staying at what was once an ancestral mansion.  Its squarish layout betrays its somewhat austere past, but its interior decor was charming and inviting.  

Wednesday 14 January 2015

How did monks live? Try staying at a Monastery-Hotel. Asturias, Northern Spain

Ever wonder how monks used to live?  Well, I am not suggesting an ascetic lifestyle but at least we could put ourselves in their habitat - an 8th century Benedictine monastery, to be exact.  

The Monastery of San Pedro de Villanueva was founded during the reign of the King Alfonso I (693-757, reigned 739-757) in Asturias, the northern province of Spain.  Every Asturian will tell you the glorious history of the Reconquest, when King Alfonso I eschewed a luxury life of a king and waged lifelong battles against the Moors, retaking the entire Northern Spain that was, during his father's generation, conquered by the Muslims.  

Tuesday 13 January 2015

Massif des Calanques, a 6-million-year-old natural wonder near Marseille

Marseille is best known for its port, its 13th century Basilica, a massive cathedral, the fish market, the Arab market, and the heavenly bouillabaisse.  However, not all of Marseille is connected to city life and human history.  In fact, human existence is a recent addition to this amazing coastal city.

Drive down towards the southern coast of Marseille to a town called Sormiou.  Keep heading south until you pass all the houses to an area where car access is restricted.  Continue on foot for about 45 minutes until you reach the ocean.  Here, the coastline forms a roughly horizontal plane east-ward until Cassis, and it is here a geological event happened around 6 million years ago.

Monday 12 January 2015

Medieval Catalonia: Millennium-old town of Besalú

If you think Barcelona is all you are going see when visiting the northeast part of Spain, you are missing out on some of the most beautiful sights of the region.  The county of Catalonia traces back a thousand years, when many  market towns thrived along the important trade routes north and south of the Pyrenees mountains.  The town of Besalú was documented since the 10th century.  

At that time, Spain as a country has not yet emerged; a region called Marca Hispania roughly covers what is now Catalonia, and was a zone created by Charlemagne as a defensive line against the moors occupying Al-Andalus in the south.  Before that, the Muslim forces had conquered as far north as Narbonne (250km north of Barcelona).  

With Charlemagne taking control of the region, peace reigned

Sunday 11 January 2015

The legacy of Ricardo Viñes

I had been learning Spanish music since I was a schoolboy, everything from major composers such as Isaac Albeniz and Enrique Granados to lesser-performed Catalan composers such as Ricard Lamote de Grignon and Ricardo Viñes.  With equal part fantasy and theatre, Spanish and Catalan music never fails to captivate me.  Here is something by Catalan composer and pianist Ricardo Viñes (1875 - 1943), recorded eons ago at a home concert.  

Ricardo Viñes (1875 - 1943) is a personal hero of mine, as he was the pianist credited with the most number of premiere performances, of works by his contemporaries such as Debussy and Ravel and Turina and Mompou and all.  Abandoning the traditional recital programme of Austro-Germanic piano works, Viñes was responsible for spreading and campaigning the names of "new " composers to audiences in Spain and France and Latin America. Without Viñes we might never hear of them today.

Tuesday 6 January 2015

Possible concert idea: "Shuck and Play" with music by Breton composers?

There are other composers who wrote great Nocturnes too, you know.  Guy Ropartz (1864 - 1955) was a French composer who added three beautiful Nocturnes to the piano repertoire. His music can sometimes take after Cesar Franck and Vincent d'Indy, especially apparent in the first Nocturne; at other times, like in the second and third Nocturnes his music offers a palette of stunning harmonic colours and nuances that are unmistakably French.  

Though living well into the 1950s, his late-romantic language

Tuesday 16 December 2014

Harking back to a bygone age - recital at the 1901 Arts Club, London

Music had, for centuries, played an important role in our society.  Paintings and documents have long afforded us a glimpse into the vibrant musical life of generations past, particularly the music salons of 19th century.  These salons were meeting places for music lovers, performers, composers,  instrument makers, and the curious minded public of every walk of life - a cocktail of interesting characters unlikely to come together if not for the occasion.  Several performers would take to the stage, with slightly less fanfare than at a concert hall proper but every bit as compelling and

Monday 15 December 2014

Book Review - The Recorded Legacy of Vladimir Horowitz

Photo with 'Recorded Legacy of Vladimir Horowitz' author, Jun Kinoshita
I often call pianists of my age the 'Horowitz Generation'.  I grew up listening, watching, and reading about Vladimir Horowitz; my parents weren't using Mozart as a ruler for pianistic excellence, but Horowitz.  In our modest collection of recordings at home, Horowitz' far out-numbered any other pianists.  

At Juilliard, I sat in David Dubal's class.  Mr. Dubal is well-known far and beyond for his radio programme, his encyclopedic knowledge of the piano repertoire, as well as his association with Vladimir Horowitz.  

Sunday 14 December 2014

Kykkos Monastery - Cyprus at its most lavish and opulent

In the course of my travels, I try to seek out locations and sights that would stir and inspire me.  My heart is often drawn impatiently towards the destination, sometimes forgetting that the journey getting there is just as much an experience.  

The island of Cyprus is a Mediterranean paradise.  After working in Nicosia and Paphos, both bustling resort paradises (particularly the latter), I set off in search of one of the most lavish and religious icons of Cyprus, the Kykkos Monastery.  In distance, it is only 70km from Paphos,

Wednesday 10 December 2014

Chott el Jerid, Tunisia - Dry Salt Lake the closest thing to Mars on Earth?

In the days of our grandfathers, sunrise was the tranquility that begins the cycle of daily routines.  As light filters through darkness, the sun rises every morning tempting the birth of a new day.  Today it is as much a spectacle as the Eiffel Tower or a football match, with no less commotion.  

True enough, while we were in Tunisia, we hired a tour guide who could bring us to the salt lake of Chott el Jerid where we could watch the sunrise, a sight that is bestowed upon us for millions of years.  Chott el Jerid is a dried up salt lake at the border with Algeria in southwest Tunisia.  With only about

Monday 8 December 2014

D'Berto - The Best Seafood Restaurant in Spain!

Spain is a country that has insanely good food almost everywhere you go, and to crown an establishment (not only by me, but by every food critic in the Iberian Peninsular) as the best seafood restaurant is a royal feat.  It has to boast not only the best cooking but also the best ingredients, and it is not a title born out of snap judgment.  Welcome to Restaurante d'Berto.

d'Berto would probably win the title of the most obscure fine dining location - in O Grove, Galicia, Northwest Spain, no less.  I first met Berto months before I visited his restaurant,

Sunday 7 December 2014

Rashaville: rural tourism, an immersion in country life in Serbia

After my concert in Belgrade, Serbia, I had the immense fortune of meeting Russ Stanoylovic, a larger-than-life character who now runs a rustic ranch and hotel outside Belgrade with his amicable Chinese wife. Through my agent, Srdjan Stojanovic, who is no less a legendary character in the Serbian music circle, I was arranged a visit to Russ' ranch, affectionately called Rashaville.  

Some 60km outside Belgrade, or about an hour of scenic drive, a large banner spans across the country road

Friday 3 October 2014

Studenica Monastery, one of four UNESCO Heritage Sites in Serbia

It is staggering to see how many Orthodox monasteries there are in Serbia.  Except for one or two modern structures, these monasteries all originated from the Middle Ages, built roughly from 12th century to 16th century. 

It is said that Christianity was spread to Serbia around the 4th century.  The most important monastery standing now is the Studenica (pronounced as Stu-den-ni-tcha), some 200km south of Belgrade, the capital.  Only part of the route is covered by the highway network; most of it winds about small towns and villages, and mountain gorges.  My advice is to

Oyster farm in Morlaix, Brittany, Northwest France

Brittany is well-known for its seafood, particularly Creuse oysters.  Creuses from the northern coast is exported all over the world, and could fetch handsome prices in select supermarkets and restaurants.  Are they worth the price you pay? - or are you simply paying middlemen? 

The famous oyster farms are located in Cancale, about 70km north of Rennes, the capital of Brittany.  It is a great place not just for the regular Creuse - I will get to that in another post.  However, in recent years, it has become a bustling tourist town, so I head out in search for more hidden spots along the

Wednesday 1 October 2014

Bulnes, one of the remotest villages in Europe

Here's another suggestion for your next Spanish vacation: the province of Asturias.  After you've had enough seafood and beaches along the Mediterranean Sea or the Bay of Biscay, the breathtaking Asturian mountains will surely give you a whole new perspective of Spain. 

Almost parallel to the coastline of northern Spain is the mountain ranges of Naranjo de Bulnes (the Orange of Bulnes).  No idea why it alludes to orange as neither the colour nor the fruit is seen in the mountains, but Bulnes must be one of the most extraordinary destinations for tourists.

Several superlatives must be mentioned: Bulnes is one of the most remote villages in Europe, and it can now be reached by

Editorial Boileau - one of the greatest Spanish music publishers of all time

Editorial Boileau, or affectionately known simply as Boileau, has been and is still one of the most well-known and important music publishers in the world.  Based in Barcelona, it champions the publishing of Spanish music over the last 100 years. 

Pianists and musicians will not be foreign to its books with the signature light beige cover.  It is also one of the most easily readable and durable scores I have come across.  I have amassed a collection of its earlier publications as well as newer ones.  This past July, as an incentive to some

Wednesday 10 September 2014

Interview with Mark Ainley

Few personalities in the classical music world garner as much serious attention as Mark Ainley, whose daily updates on his Facebook page "The Piano Files" demand thoughtful consideration from piano-philes all over the world.  If there is ever an internet jukebox for the greatest piano performances, it would have to be Mark's brilliant selections. 

Facebook has become a successful platform for sharing knowledge, useful or otherwise, and our generation has come

Cava tasting at Pere Ventura, Sant Sadurni d'Anoia

No visit to Barcelona is complete without a tour of the Cava vineyards.  The province of Catalonia, of which Barcelona is the capital, is a heaven for foodies and wine lovers.  The Spanish bubbly - or Cava - is as much the soul of Catalans as Champagne to the French, or Riesling to the Germans; and here in Catalonia, Cava making is regarded as a time-honed family-kept tradition, not a cut-throat branding war that are played out by conglomerates.  Here in the Cava country, families and traditions still matter, and pledging allegiance to a wine maker is no less a sport than picking a football team.

This isn't my first time to Sant Sadurni d'Anoia, the capital of Cava making.  I have paid numerous visits to different wineries and vineyards, but one stood out among the rest:

Monday 8 September 2014

With Koji Attwood in Paris

Pianist and pedagogue Koji Attwood has been a close friend since my Juilliard days, and is still one of the pianists I most admire and respect.  When we weren't dissecting the shoulder of a Neapolitan jacket or recipes from previous episode of Iron Chef, we dissertated on the nuances of certain Horowitz recordings or Scriabin harmonies, over Chinese food or industrial strength espressos in Little Italy.  When we

Sunday 7 September 2014

Artisan Glassmaker Gerard Välvet

Right outside of Barcelona are three Cistercian monasteries that form a well-trodden pilgrimage route called the Cistercian Triangle.  The three monasteries, Santes Creus, Poblet, and Vallbona de les Monges are each planted in remote small towns steeply rooted in history and agricultural excellence.  While visiting Vallbona de les Monges, a town of less than 400 inhabitants, I stumbled across an interesting workshop across from the monastery.

Situated on the "main" road that looked to have been dug and paved in the Middle Ages, the high wall of the monastery