Postscript From Spain

By Cathy Fuller

May 9

It's been a few weeks, but the sights, the smells, and the sheer joy of Spain have remained with me.  I couldn't resist offering a few more experiences and pictures from our WGBH Learning Tour in April.

Critic and writer Alex Ross of the New Yorker recently described the opening of J.S. Bach’s St. John Passion as a “divine maelstrom: swirling sixteenth-note figures, stinging dissonances, a pulsing drone in the bass. Three times the chorus cries out ‘Herr!’ – ‘Lord!’ – and then is caught up in the rapid-moving instrumental rhythm, in an image of mortal helplessness.”

It was stirring to hear Masaaki Suzuki bring the Passion to life with the Boston Symphony during Holy Week last month.

Earlier in the month, our WGBH Learning Tour to Spain heard the St. John Passion on a warm night in Barcelona at the Palau de la Música Catelana.

The Palau is a wonderful, riotously colorful maelstrom of its own -- a brilliant space in the Catalan Modernist style. It has swirling ceramic flowers in unexpected places; a stained glass tour-de-force humming abstractly on the ceiling; and desperate horses bursting from stone above and to the right of the stage with Beethoven’s bust below.

The hall's acoustics embraced the transparency and love that conductor Ton Koopman and his Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra gave to the Passion.

Tenor Tilman Lichdi was the Evangelist, narrating the drama with a riveting kind of ease, always impeccable, always completely connected to the text. Koopman lived it with his singers, activating everything from his keyboard – an organ that gave remarkably instant responses to his energies. The chorus sang with an arresting purity.

The other singers were soprano Marlis Petersen, countertenor Maarten Engeltjes, and bass Klaus Mertens, in the role of Jesus.


Not a single drop of rain fell during the entire two weeks of our tour. Nothing but sunlight to dramatize the countless plazas, parks and architectural miracles of Spain. Everything was in bloom.
Barcelona, in fact, is in constant bloom with the fabulous whimsy of Antoni Gaudi, the brilliant modernist whose creations amplify a deep spirituality and a kind of cheerful humanism that I’ve never seen before.

His reverence and adoration of God and nature work their way into buildings that reject the straight line and seem to have grown from the earth. His magnum opus, the Sagrada Familia, is a wild and overwhelming Cathedral-sized church, begun in 1882 and still not finished. The 18 enormous spires represent the twelve Apostles, the Four Evangelists, the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ (the tallest of them all).

The interior columns behave like trees, and in all aspects the building is a living thing.

There was more of Gaudi's genius to revel in at The Guëll Park, a place so charming that I found myself laughing out loud. What fantasy! And what an open-hearted and joyous way to treat space, urging people and nature to play together.

The entire Park, now a World Heritage site owned by Barcelona, is made of stone, ceramic, and natural elements. For the mosaics that appear everywhere, Gaudi used broken ceramic tiles, plates, and cups.

Kai Juel, one of our Learning Tour adventurers, asked me a very interesting question as we strolled the streets of Barcelona. Who could be called the musical equivalent of Gaudi?

I worked on that one for a couple of days, and finally decided that the best possible answer had to be Olivier Messiaen. Ecstatic spirituality; reverential adoration for nature (he catalogued hundreds of birdcalls and worked them into his pieces); an absolutely signature and unique sound; and a new harmonic vocabulary poured into sturdy and supportive structures that behave in new ways. These things seem to me to have common aspects in Gaudi's work.

What do you think?

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