Thursday, August 16, 2018

do you rock?

"We do not have earthquakes in San Miguel de Allende."

I have heard that refrain as long as I have been coming here. But I always filed it away in the same drawer of the second greatest myth of San Miguel de Allende -- that the city is built on a giant crystal that gives the place its magical aura.

"No earthquakes" sounded far too much like Camelot --  "a law was made a distant moon ago here/ that July and August cannot be too hot." After all, Mexico City is just down the road. And it is famous for its earthquakes.

So, i was skeptical. No, that is not quite true. I just didn't believe it.

Mexico sits atop the ring of fire that arcs Up from Saith America along the Pacific coast of the Americas, across the Aleutians, and down the Pacific coast of Asia through Indonesia to New Zealand. Why should San Miguel de Allende be spared earthquakes when it sits on the ring.

The reason is that it does not sit on the ring. I should have believed the people who live here. A quick bit of research proved I was wrong. The central highlands of Mexico, at least, north of Mexico City, are almost earthquake-free. South of Mexico City, it is a Seurat-inspired canvas of earthquake dots.

It is true that Mexico is part of the notorious ring of fire that hosts earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. But, it is the Pacific coast and the triangular portion of Mexico that are most at risk.

The science is simple.  Mexico sits on top of three of the Earth's largest tectonic plates. The North American. The Cocos. The Pacific. These plates are in constant motion rubbing against one another. When one gets stuck and suddenly releases itself, we feel that familiar jolt and shaking accompanied by the sound of a freight train.

San Miguel de Allende rides on top of one of the plates -- relatively far from the fault lines. On the other hand, Barra de Navidad, is located just about where the three plates meet. That explains why no one there ever says: "We do not have earthquakes in Barra de Navidad." Because we do. And all of us who live there have felt them.

The map at the top of this essay shows all of Mexico's earthquakes -- from 1990 to 2017. Only for the past 27 years. There are hundreds more.

I took a look at a chart that includes a more complete history. There are 61 recorded earthquakes over 7.0. Of those, 13 occurred within about 60 miles of my house. Only Oaxaca has more.

Do you see the red dot on the Pacific coast about a quarter of the way up on the map? That is just about where I live. All of the additional colors are tremor marks.

That may explain why rock and roll is so popular in Barra de Navidad and why the serenity of the chamber music festival is held in San Miguel de Allende.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

another reason people might like san miguel de allende

I am an expert eye-roller.

Angela Merkel is an amateur compared to me.

Let me give you an example. I am at a dinner party in our little fishing village. The woman beside me says, "What I miss most here is shopping centers. I wish there was a Bed and Bath here." My eyes rolled so far back in my head that I could have been auditioning "The sun will come out tomorrow."

It is funny how we react most to the perceived flaws in others that are exactly our own flaws. That is not original with me. But it is true.

Today was shopping mall day for me. (See! I wrote that sentence without budging my eyeballs.)

And not just any shopping wall. The granddaddy of malls in this area. Antea Lifestyle Center in Querétaro
. If that "Lifestyle" in its title sounds a bit pretentious, you may want to withhold judgment until you visit it.

My hostess, Barbara, and my Morelia fblogger pal, Jennifer Rose, insisted I would enjoy a visit to Antea. I was skeptical. After all, shopping malls are not my natural habitat -- unless they have book stores. But they were absolutely correct.

Opened in 2013, it is Mexico's largest shopping center. My initial pass through the mall,walking on each of its three levels, racked up just over 3 miles. By the afternoon, I had over 5 miles to notch on my pedometer.

The mall is anchored by two large department stores -- Liverpool (the American equivalent of what Macy's once was) and El Palacio de Hierro (think Bergdorf Goodman). In between are the usual mix of stores found in most high end shopping malls around the world. Gucci.
 Salvatore Ferragamo. Williams Sonoma. Crate and Barrel. Tommy Hilfiger.

No mall would be complete without a food mall. Antea has two. One for fast food (Burger King, Carl's Jr., China Express, Subway, an interesting salad fast food spot that I passed up, and more -- all places I was avoiding on my healthy diet quest).

On the other side of the mall, with plenty of space creating a c
ordon sanitaire, are several proper restaurants offering cuisine from France, Italy, The States, Japan, China, Mexico, and other countries one would not expect in a mall.

My choice for the day was P.F. Chang's. A bowl of brown rice topped with spicy shrimp and vegetables. It was an adequate lunch, and came close to staying within my self-imposed limits. As is true with almost all Chinese food, the portion was too large.

No modern mall worth its golden aura would be complete without a movie theater. A multiplex movie theater. Not surprisingly, Antea takes it a step further. It hosts a 
Cinépolis VIP multiplex.

I have heard great stories about these theaters. They sound similar to a concept in the Portland area -- Cinetopia. I would have liked to watch a film there, but time (and my walking) got away from me.

Jennifer told me there was also a City Market next to Antea, and I should not miss it.

I had no idea what City Market was. But, the sign gave me a clue. It is a subdivision of La Comer. Therefore, I knew I was going to see groceries.

City Market is to a grocery store what Whole Foods or Trader Joe's is to Safeway. Artfully designed to seduce shoppers into filling shopping carts with high-end Mexican and foreign foods. It is the type of grocery where you might run into an informal caucus of Democrats Abroad.

Jennifer knows me well. It looks like a great place to buy food. But, I would not drive nine hours to shop there. It is nice to know, though, some people have a stunning grocery store in their neighborhood.

Antea is about a 44 minute drive from San Miguel de Allende. On one of my non-concert days, I may return. There were a couple of items in Liverpool, Williams Sonoma, and Samsung that interested me.

Oh, stop rolling your eyes!

And then there is the prospect of a movie in that theater.

There. That's better.

Monday, August 13, 2018

throwing the first stone

Cobblestones. The bane and charm of Mexican colonial towns.

San Miguel de Allende has enough cobblestones to outfit the European 1848 revolutions. That is not surprising. Cobblestones were all the rage when the town was a major stopover for silver trains taking their booty from the mines north of here to Mexico City and then on to Spain.

This was before the age of shovel-ready asphalt projects. Stones were plentiful in Mexico. They still are. And the Spaniards were fully aware of how to build cobblestones roads. Spanish cities were filled with them.

And, like much of highland Mexico, the roads change no quicker than the religious processions. The house where I stay is just a couple of blocks away from the Old Royal Road that brought the silver trains through here.

It is incredibly rough. I do not know if it is in the same condition when the wagon trains used it, but it is a bumpy ride. I drive it daily, and I have yet to find just the right speed to avoid jostling apart my dental work.

That is why I am startled when I see footwear like this in San Miguel. And I often see even higher heels than that.

Now, I know women's shoes are not built for comfort or utility. And they are not designed for men to even begin understanding their purpose. An ex-girlfriend once told me: "I don't wear these shoes for you. I wear them for me. And to show other women that I am attractive and healthy enough to hold on to my man."

I have no idea if that is true or not. At least, she thought so. And I have no better explanation for what strikes me as potential neck-breaking activity.

What I do have an idea about is, with the possible exception of Italian women, Mexican women seem to be the champions of fashion footwear. Rivaled only by young Mexican men who seem to have a soft spot of exotic footwear.

Me? I have been wearing my special walking shoes everywhere. I doubt any blog authors have shot my shoes for a similar essay -- other than as a supplement to why American and Canadian tourists dress like poor people.

But I am not sticking my foot into that tar pit again.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

can't stop the music

Now that we have reclaimed chamber music for the people (scaling the barricades), what are we going to hear?

If you had been with me the past two weeks, you would have heard two groups each with a different style. But both are successful interpreters of their chosen selections.

Listening to chamber music is no more difficult than reading a novel. (I think the analogy is my creation. But I may have stolen it. Only the Chinese steal more intellectual property than do I.)

Most chamber pieces are divided into several movements with a unifying theme. Let's call each movement a chapter in the novel. The movement has a musical theme just like a novel's first line.

Each movement is written in sections. Think of them as paragraphs. Just as each section consists of notes and musical phrases based on the movement's theme. Just like words and sentences.

It really is that simple. We understand novels because we learned to read early in life and, through our reading, we developed a sense of what to expect from the story form -- how the narrative works.

Appreciating music or painting or poetry is as simple as enjoying a novel. We merely need to learn the form the artist has chosen to create the work.

Because they are accomplished, both the Miro Quartet and the American String Quartet let us clearly hear what the composer wanted us to experience.

The American String Quartet is a very traditional group. The name is far older, but this group of performers just celebrated their 44th year together.

By "traditional," I mean the focus of the players during performances is on one another and the music. There is little, if any, eye contact with the audience. The effect is that the voice of the composer seems unfiltered as it reaches the listener, without the performer's personality getting in the way.

Traditional does not mean a lack of versatility. Each piece the American String Quartet played was appropriate for the style in which the composer wrote.

None of the pieces were fluff. Each required the audience to be engaged. To use Copland's third plane of listening (why san miguel de allende?). Even though the pieces were complex, the listening technique I described earlier gave form and purpose to what the composer intended.

Their two programs included music from the romantic and modern periods:

  • Anton Webern, "Five Movements" (1909)
  • Johannes Brahms, "String Quartet No. 3 in B-flat major" (1876)
  • Ludwig van Beethoven, "String Quartet No. 16 in C-sharp minor" (1826)
  • Dmitri Shostakovitch, "String Quartet No. 7 in F-sharp minor" (1960)
  • Bela Bartok, "String Quartet No. 3" (1927)
  • Maurice Ravel, "String Quartet in F major (1902) 
For those of you who know Ravel for the highly-overrated Bolero, and wonder why he is considered such a great composer, you might want to listen to this to enjoy the extent of his genius.

The style of the Miro Quartet is is quite different. They are showmen. And I do not say that disparagingly. By nature, every performer is an actor.

But their style reflects the personalities of the players. Articulate faces. Bow flourishes. Bodies in motion.

That style can be distracting. Too much personality. Too little composer. Too much Edward VIII.

Not so with the Miro Quartet. All of their animation takes its cue from the composer. They are merely reflecting what they play. In effect, they add to the composer's voice.

They also played a program of very demanding pieces, but with the clarity of professional guides leading their audience through new and beautiful worlds from the classical, romantic, and modern periods.

  • Robert Schumann, "String Quartet No. 1 in A minor" (1842)
  • Kevin Puts, "Credo" (2007)
  • Ludwig van Beethoven, "String Quartet No. 16 in F major" (1826) -- Beethoven's last string quartet, which is often called his musical autobiography
  • Franz Joseph Haydn, "String Quartet in E-flat major" (1793)
  • Anton Dvorak, "Cypresses" (1887)
  • Ludwig van Beethoven, "String Quartet No. 15 in A minor (1825)
Even though I knew his name and some of his other works, Kevin Puts's "Credo" was new to me. It is an optimistic and personal piece from a not-so-optimistic time. If you would like to listen to a rather short piece of modern chamber music, here it is.

I am currently sitting in a master class conducted by Amit Peled, the world-class cellist we met yesterday (scaling the barricades). He is instructing one of the 12 young cello students from yesterday's concert in cello technique. And the public has been invited to sit in.

Not only is the student learning new technique, we are learning the variety of sound an accomplished musician can elicit from an instrument -- the cello, in this case. The experience is giving me new things to listen for while enjoying this rich form of expression.

We are now half-way through the festival. For me, this is almost a practically perfect month.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

scaling the barricades

Chamber music is the people's music.

Or it once was. You certainly would not know it today. Its current image is of snooty liberal elitists sipping Chardonnay and eating organic goat cheese. And that is too bad because the beauty of chamber music belongs to everyone.

Quartet is a rather mediocre film (even with the presence of Maggie Smith). But it includes one of the most brilliant summaries I have heard about the tragedy of elites corralling types of music as their exclusive preserve.

Tom Courtenay's character describes the true character of opera to a group of students far more interested in rap than in opera.
Originally, it was people like you went to the opera. Casual clothing, they took food, they took alcohol, they threw things. Anyway, that was a long time ago that rich people took over the world of opera with their fancy dress, and they took the soul out of it, they made it something that it's not.
Every year I come to San Miguel de Allende for the chamber music festival, I think of that soliloquy. Even though the audiences here do not wear fancy dress, they often wear their best. And the vast majority, many who may know very little about music theory, do know the imposed strictures of theater etiquette.

If a piece has more than one movement, you applaud only At the end of the piece. Applauding at any other time would expose that little secret that you grew up in a trailer house in Wyoming, rather than Manhattan (as all of your friends believe).

And always give a standing ovation, but only at the end of the full performance, no matter how perfect or indifferent it may have been -- as if you were still in high school and your best friend Lisa has just disemboweled "Feelings."

(To be fair, several brave souls broke convention tonight and gave a standing ovation for The American String Quartet's rendition of Dvorak's string quartet #3. It was applause well-deserved.)

Audiences at concerts are every bit as stylized as the social set in an Edith Wharton novel. Think of The Age of Innocence.

It was not always so. Admittedly, chamber music had its birth in aristocratic drawing rooms. But, through the 18th and 19th centuries, it was played for popular audiences who would stomp and applaud anything they liked -- even in the midst of a movement, let alone at the conclusion of the movement.

For a brief moment this afternoon the stylized theater etiquette was steamrolled by the joy of the people.

Amit Peled is known as one of the world's best cellists. The fact that he plays the cello Pablo Casals played is a rather telling credential. He is also a teacher at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore.

He brought six of his international (The States, Czech Republic, Taiwan, Spain, Cuba, and China) to perform at the festival. He combined his Cello Gang with six of Mexico's best cello students to form an ensemble a dozen strong.

With only a few hours of practice as a group, they performed this afternoon at a free concert for the public. A large portion of the audience was Mexican. Some were students. Some were family members. But most were people who had come to hear good music. Many had never before attended a concert.

None of the pieces on the program made any demands on the assembled ears. They were strong pieces, but easily accessible. Bach's "Air on the G String." Piazzolla's "Melody in A minor for Bandoneon and String." Klengel's "Hymnus for 12 Cellos." Strauss's "Pizzicato Polka."

One cello is beautiful. A dozen are celestial.

But, the showstopper was Villa-Lobos's "Bachianas Brasileiras Number 5 for Voice and Cello." The "voice" belonged to Rosario Aguilar, who had won a competition to perform with the ensemble.

The piece gave her adequate space to demonstrate her range and control. And, even though a portion of the piece had her soprano voice impersonating a violin (when, of course, the violin was developed to imitate a soprano's voice), she performed it flawlessly.

So flawlessly that the audience could not withhold their approval. Applause flowed freely between movements, eliciting frowns from the socialized set.

I am with the clappers. The people should reclaim chamber music and show approval the moment it occurs. It is the perfect medium for developing a palate for the appreciation of serious music.

You might consider joining me next year here in San Miguel de Allende. We will storm the diatonic scale together and reclaim the people's music.

Listeners of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your chords.

Friday, August 10, 2018

the ball is in play

You girls may want to take a break. The boys and I are going to have a chat.

Of course, you all are free to listen in.

In my travels, I have encountered some interesting techniques to entertain men while they tend to the necessary business of emptying their bladders.

Guys regularly encounter the most common diversion. Usually, in sports bars. Portions of the newspaper are posted at eye level to allow a quick read while doing what needs to be done. I have seen several variations on this. Magazine articles. Newsletters. Even an occasional campaign piece.

All are rather clever because they are utilitarian. You can learn something simply by visiting the men's room.

The most irritating development has been the appearance of advertisements. It makes using a urinal no more interesting than sitting in a bus reading the commercial cards.

The most interesting device i had encountered was in the officers/NCO club in Greece. Someone had tacked a mimeographed sheet above the urinals giving nicknames to particular -- I guess you would call it styles. "The Thunderer" was my favorite.

But something far more clever has eased The Thunderer off of the front page. it has been replaced by the novel accessory I discovered in each urinal at a shopping center in San Miguel de Allende. It combines necessity with the Mexican love of football.

I guess the object is to create a stream sufficient to put the ball in the net. But, like some Sisyphean curse, the ball merely spins and spins. Never making a GOAAAAAAAAALLLLLLL!!!!!

Boys never grow up. I guess that is why we have toys in our restrooms.

OK, Steve. You told us you were going to tell us about the music that has drawn you to San Miguel de Allende. Instead, you give us two toilet jokes. When are you going to get off the pot?

Soon. I promise. Soon.

I attended my third concert tonight. Concerts four and five are tomorrow. I think I have enough material to share with you.

And I will. Eventually.

Thursday, August 09, 2018

don't call it graffiti

Some people hate it. Others love it.

And you can tell by the words they choose to describe the art form where they stand on that divide.

The haters call it graffiti. The lovers call it street art. Or urban muralism. Or, with a nod at reconciliation, post-graffiti art.

The rift tends to be generational. Young people find it cool. Older people are prone to call it vandalism. If that is true, even though I fall easily into the senior citizen camp, I am a traitor to my race. I like the stuff.

The street art in San Miguel de Allende started as a problem. Like many cities, bored teens (almost exclusively boys) started tagging walls in town. It was rather minor, but when the UNESCO-designated central was tattooed with narcissistic signatures, the authorities got worried.

At about that same time, a resident American artist, Colleen Sorenson, saw two very talented young artists arrested just outside of her neighborhood, Guadalupe, for painting what she thought was a very interesting piece of art. Enraged that artists were being arrested for merely painting, she devised a plan.

She knew street art would never be appropriate in the central area with its historical heritage. But her neighborhood had lots of blank walls that had the possibility of being enlivened with murals. And, if the walls were made available for murals, the taggers might be drawn to painting something more formal.

So, she approached the city government. After surviving the usual bureaucratic struggle arguing that the murals would be a tourist magnet for the Guadalupe neighborhood, she had her project.

But there were some restrictions:

  • No painting could be done without the permission of the property owners.
  • None of the murals could be visible from the historical district.
  • The murals could not be advertisements for commercial establishments.
  • Political content was prohibited.
With those restrictions in mind, Muros de Blanco was launched with a fiesta where young public artists were invited to paint the first volunteered walls. Colleen is persuasive.

That was 2013. Since then, there have been additional fiestas and more walls painted. Other walls have been painted, as well,without the need of a fiesta.

Word has spread world-wide of this project. Even though Mexico and San Miguel de Allende were late comers in urban muralism (South America has been a leader), artists from Canada, The States, Brazil, Japan, France, Costa Rica, Switzerland, Kenya, Spain, and other countries breeze through town and spend a few days creating some outstanding art -- and some not so outstanding.

Urban muralists know they work in a transitory art form. The sun and moisture will destroy most of the murals within a year or two, what the artists bittersweetly call "the life of a wall." Murals painted on metal, stucco, or brick will last longer.

But, eventually they will all be replaced by new mural painted either by local or foreign artists. Colleen spends a good portion of her days enticing home owners to volunteer their walls for a project that has brought new life to Guadalupe.

The brief tenure of the murals remind us of our own eventual deaths. And, just like our lives, they provide joy to others while we live.

Let's take a look at some of the murals. I will not add much commentary. That you can provide for yourself.

Remember the rule about no political content? This mural rather shatters the rule. The Communist Manifesto is hardly neutral politically.

And the ban on commercial content? Gone.

But life is not all politics (fortunately) or commerce. Sometimes, it is pure beauty.

Or just pure art.

With a little Magritte thrown in for flavor.

Most of the pieces avoid rank sentimentality, but not all. The left side of this mural is quite good. The right side looks like something off of a Mexican Mother's Day card.

And some are merely whimsical.

Or sublimely surreal. Dali would appreciate the rhinoceros.

Decay creates its own art form. Colleen informed us that photographers love to shoot details like this. So, I did.

This dragon has a fascinating illusion of illumination.

Comic book art with an heroic twist. Notice the post-production pixelization on the woman. My mother would approve.

Or this life-morphing piece.

I included this mural because of its technique. The artist projected an outline and then used aerosol paint to complete it.

This piece is nicknamed "road kill," I call it "hello, kitty."

Young artist from Queretaro and a Canadian friend created this mural. It depicts The Beast -- the train that brings children refugees through Mexico to the United States from Central America. The children are represented as fleas on dogs acting as the train. The mural was painted before The Beast was known internationally.

Everyone's favorite is this mural. Painted by the Mexico City artist Sego. It honors the leader of the farmers who stood up to the cartel in Michocan, and who was jailed by the federal government for his troubles. Painted on a metal door with aerosol.

If the goal of the Muros en Blanco project was to turn the Guadalupe neighborhood into something new, it worked. It is always hard to say if the murals drew new businesses to the neighborhood or if the new businesses reflect the spirit of the murals.

Either way, Guadalupe is becoming known for its restaurants, its emerging art galleries, and a boom in new construction.

My friends Todd and Shannon introduced me to the murals as we drove by them a few years ago. I never followed up on foot. I should have.

Even for those of you who see these murals as graffiti, let me suggest that you should come see them in person. You just may switch to the other side of the divide.