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Introduction top

Hi. I’m Rudy Maxa. 300 years before Christ, a wise man said, "If the king loves music, there is little wrong in the land". If this is true, Europe is thriving. Music rings out from its concert halls, opera houses, festivals, markets, and street corners. Wherever you’re heading—from Ireland to Scandinavia to Italy—music is yours for the listening. Next, it’s A Music Lovers’ Europe on Smart Travels.


You'll find another handy concert hall and music locator at hoppa.com.

Travelers delight in Europe’s world of live music. They gather—for concerts, street music, and opera—to honor musical genius. Whether old-style or cutting-edge, a music scene breaks down cultural barriers and promises a ‘surprise.’ If the occasion is a music festival, well beware. You could lose your heart, toss away your agenda, and find yourself practicing the hardanger fiddle. It’s worth the risk—the power of live music stays with us long after we’re tucked in for the night.

In this half hour, we highlight my favorite musical moments in some irresistible—worth-a-special-trip—destinations; from Italy and the French Pyrenees to Ireland’s County Clare and Norway. We’ll hear familiar classics—Aida in Verona, and Mozart everywhere in Austria.

Where we come across music to remember, we come across musicians to remember—skilled and passionate. These are artists—so expect some innovations! Still, you can hear ‘traditional’ music all over Europe.


Interested in the European music scene? Check out www.musicnavigator.org.


Gruppo Emiliano, Italy top

Now in my day that meant ethnic or folk music. We’ve all heard parodies on folk music. But when did you last see serious folk musicians poking fun at themselves—in the form of ‘cabaret’?

Where else but in Italia—Northern Italy in the town of Bologna? We caught the unpredictable Gruppo Emiliano in a dress rehearsal. Gruppo Emiliano describe themselves as “four souls bound by friendship and the incessant need to make music rather than just listen to it.” Performing together since 1979, these artists thrive on the physical hard work of playing, the joy of bringing audiences close-in, and the challenge of breathing new life into old music.

From the sublime to the ridiculous, they insist on doing it their own way!


You'll find the Gruppo Emiliano performance schedule at www.gruppoemiliano.it.


Aida top

Like its villages, musical Europe offers variety, from new-age sounds to ancient Celtic. Each is a theme for planning your trip—your own musical treasure hunt. Europe’s music is wildly diverse. It engages us personally through rhythm, melody, harmony—ideas, emotions and words.

For example, what do you think of that classic genre often composed by a musical genius? You know, the grand slam that calls for orchestra, libretto, stellar performance and voices? You’ve got it—Bravo! Next, a night at the opera!


New to opera? Get your feet wet at www.operaworld.com.

North of Bologna lies the elegant region of Veneto—known for exquisite lodging, scrumptious dining and cultural attractions to match.

You’ll recognize the popular town of Verona as the meeting place of star crossed lovers—the Montegues and the Capulets, Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare’s plays put Verona on the tourist map. Reminders everywhere point to Verona as part of the Bard’s literary trail.


Discover how Shakespeare's play inspired Bellini's opera at artsedge.kennedy-center.org.

(Opera House) But, we are on a search for music—superb music. So, the magic for me lies in Verona’s unsurpassed Opera House—the majestic Arena bequeathed to us by Ancient Rome. It’s one of the best preserved of Italy’s Roman amphitheaters, with 2,000 years of history. Close your eyes and listen—you can almost hear gladiator battles, grand theater performances, and classic opera!

We’re in luck. The program this evening is spectacular Aida, a tragic love story unfolding in ancient Egypt.

Music lovers have flocked to Verona’s summer opera for more than 90 years. Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida opened the first season in 1913. Except for a break during two World Wars, the Opera House has played to sell-out audiences every year.


You can book tickets for Verona's Opera Festival at www.arena.it.


Mozart in Austria top

To seek out good live music is a sure way to meet the locals. Verona’s production of Aida had to deliver to a savvy audience—many of whom know Verdi’s score inside and out. Now, should you find yourself in Austria looking for formal music--Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is everywhere!

Mozart was born in Salzburg, where he was celebrated as a child prodigy, even before his tour of royal courts in Europe at age12. Today, the town vigorously honors its native son. Statues, museums, chocolates, even the airport is named after Mozart and, everywhere, his music is played.

At age 25, restless and ready to escape, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart headed for the city lights and sophistication of Vienna. In the magic city, he composed and performed remarkably, and led a life of highs and lows for ten years. And then-- at age 35--he was dead. A shockingly short life for the long, brilliant legacy he left. He gave us great operas—including Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro, The Magic Flute. And Church masses, symphonies, piano and violin concertos, and the Requiem he left unfinished.

For good reason, Mozart’s music is featured in concerts throughout the world. For a memorable evening we’re attending a concert in Vienna’s elegant Orangerie at Schonbrunn Palace. Nightly concerts take music lovers back two centuries to the genius of Mozart. I can’t imagine a music lovers’ tour of Europe without an evening in Austria applauding the enduring work of the master.


For more, read The Compleat Mozart: A Guide to the Musical Works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart by Neal Zaslaw and William Cowdery.


House of Music, Vienna top

Even with ‘Mozart’ on the brain, don’t leave Vienna before its House of Music catapults you to this century! On the fourth floor, you’ll find the Mind Forest—fun for any age--a playful, intense experience with hyper-instruments. Making music through actions! No sheet music or actual instruments—just hand motions and computers. Millions of visitors linger on all five floors of the House of Music—with its history of the classics to experiments in sound. For me, the Mind Forest rules! Or actually, I mean, I rule! Sensors respond to my every move! One exhibit even makes you the maestro of a virtual orchestra! This should be easy, right? It’s New Age. It’s virtual. It’s crazy, interactive musical fun!


If you'd prefer a music tour of the city, check out www.vienna.com.


Traditional Irish Dance top

Music has always mesmerized. In Greek legend, the song of Sirens on the cliffs lured sailors to a watery death. There was Orpheus who could tame wild beasts with his harp. And the blow of a trumpet, in medieval times, called troops to battle and changed the course of history. Today, we travelers seek out music that brings us together, lifts the spirit, and tells us where in the world we are.

(The West Coast of Ireland) Let’s say, we were dropped blindfolded onto this spot. Breaking waves, whipping wind, and a familiar Irish sound all around. Within seconds, we’d know where we are. Maybe it’s true that it’s “easier to understand a nation by listening to its music than by learning its language.”

Where better to test this theory than in western Ireland, where music is the soul and heartbeat of the countryside? On the Aran Islands or near Galway, the sounds of fiddle, flute and uulin pipe draw you to them—ready or not. Irish musicians stand prepared to play—in festivals, pubs, on streets, or at an exciting new music center.

About 60 kilometers from Galway, the town of Ennis lies nestled on the bank of the River Fergus. Founded in the 13th century by Franciscan monks, today it is the lively capital of County Clare. About 24,000 people live here.

Glor Irish Music Centre opened in 2001, and this pride of Ennis is moving full bore on its mission to ‘celebrate the diversity and vibrancy of Irish music.’ A blend of music masters, serious students and creative spaces make possible the work of Glor--to learn, record, and preserve genuine Irish song and dance.

It’s a stimulating place, driven by tradition and innovative spins. Glor nurtures creativity. The core of ‘tradition’ remains, but the interpretation of a piece ebbs and flows—vibrant, quiet, or plaintive—depending on the experiences and artistic choice of the musicians.


You'll find the Centre's calendar and bookings at www.glor.ie. You can take a listen to some of the music on-line, as well.


Norwegian Folk Music top

It’s no surprise that Glor’s hard work to keep artistic values alive attracts thousands of visitors. Who wouldn’t like to hang out in a vibrant scene enjoying extraordinary talent? Now, one of the perks of a treasure hunt like this one is finding camaraderie at very turn. Appreciation is contagious among music lovers.

In a different rugged land, we meet more extraordinary talent at a festival in Telemark, Norway, a few hours south of Oslo. A breathtaking drive takes us past jagged landscapes and historic sites. We drive ‘til we reached Sauherad, a village adorned with fruit trees and two 12th century stone churches. It’s an ideal backdrop for enjoying traditional Norwegian music.

We’re guests at Evju Bygdetun, an 18th century farm house that’s still a working farm. Until the end of the 18th century, this farm was owned by a noble Icelandic family that included a few royal knights. The traditional costumes are rather ‘regal’ looking, but so far no shining armor in sight.

Keeping the past alive is the mission of Evju Bygdetun, the region’s cultural center. We peek into authentic, restored cottages, admire collections of silver and crystal, and say a word to the goats and chickens. But once they bring on the feast and a Hardanger fiddle you’re in the presence of a traditional Norwegian dinner.

The Hardanger fiddle is like a violin and one of the few European folk music traditions to survive nearly unchanged. Each instrument is handmade and decorated, often with mother-of-pearl inlay. Amazing. Four or five sympathetic strings underneath the fingerboard create echoing overtones. Once you’ve heard this fiddle you’ll always recognize the melody and drone of the Hardanger. Music like this makes you part of a community. You have to participate, even if it’s just to tap your foot to the beat.


For more on Norwegian folk music, go to www.norway.org.uk/culture.


Musical Instruments Museum, Brussels top

And you’ll keep your foot tapping at MIM in Brussels. Forget the stereotype of “silent” rooms. The Musical Instrument Museum—known as MIM—holds ancient, rare instruments from all over the world. MIM calls itself “a museum of the new generation” as old instruments come alive at a touch and the spaces resound with music! It’s interactive learning, where families, students, children and performers can put on headphones, take tours, try out multi-media tools and attend class. One of those unexpected finds, MIM is Brussels’ music link to the public.


For a wealth of links about musical instruments, visit plato.acadiau.ca.


The Bandolets, France top

Part of the joy of seeking out music in Europe is that, at times, you come upon a jam session or a solo violinist quite unexpectedly. Or a trio that breaks into song at a moment’s notice—when you’re riding a tram or hiking up a mountain.

Like this group—Bandolets. For one thing, they need no instruments, only their voices, their harmony and their trust in each other.

If you’re going to find a traveling acapella music troupe, it might as well be in the French Pyrenees. One of the most popular regions in South France, its capitol city is Toulouse, and its villages, forests and ski slopes attract thousands of visitors year round. And you better believe, lots of group singing goes on.

Bandolets sings about the history of the Pyrenees. After the Roman Empire fell, the region faced one warring group after another. Today’s recreations of medieval jousts reflect the struggles with the Visigoths, the Franks, and the Basque, to name just a few. Life’s hardships are exactly the stuff of traditional ballads!


Find out more about these traditional singers of the Pyrenees at www.pyrenees-pireneus.com.


Garndiffaith Gleemen Choir, Wales top

In the land of kinship and coalmines, “contagious” is the word for Welsh music. In south Wales, in the town of Pontypool, the Garndiffaith Gleemen Choir carries on an age-old tradition of Welsh men singing their hearts out. Often included in ballads about battles and conquests, or a crisis underground, is a longing for home and loved ones. Wherever Welshmen gather, in a pub or at church, they seem to break into song. Their legendary reputation holds fast.


For a list of male voice choirs throughout Europe, go to www.malevoicechoir.net.


Dioscuri, Sicily top

In selecting the finale of our musical tour, I can’t help myself. We’re heading back to Italy—way south in Agrigento, Sicily. We’ve made a loop back to a long-standing group of talented musicians who put their spin on traditional music, and who thrive in a stunning setting, among the home of the ancient gods.

Dioscuri—the folk band of Agrigento, Sicily—is named for the twin gods Castor and Pollux, the Dioskouroi. The Dioscuri represent, in their simplest form, the ever-changing cycle from dark to light, and light to dark.

For more than 30 years, Dioscuri has been known for solo performance, choral harmony, pure, acoustic music and—above all—virtuosity. . On these shores Greeks fought Greeks, then came Roman, Spanish and French conquerors. Today Dioscuri’s old songs keep alive the history, tradition and spirit of all things Sicilian.

Sicily’s south coast is home to the ruins of a 5th Century Greek city—known as the Valley of the Temples. Despite its warring past, today Agrigento seems idyllic, even spectacular. Here we wander through remnants of historic temples, houses and streets, near the dramatic coastline, imagining life in an ancient society. Despite countless conquests, Sicily—the crossroads of the Mediterranean—remains fiercely independent and proud of its heritage.


Need some help finding Italian Folk bands? Go to www.italianfolkmusic.com.

And so, we’ve seen how great music can make for great travel. What better way to feel the mood and spirit of a place?

Even that skeptic philosopher Nietzsche said, “Without music life would be a mistake.” But it’s never a mistake to build a theme trip to Europe—start with something you love, and find it everywhere. As for me—I’m off to my lessons on the guitar, the eulinn pipes, and the hardanger fiddle. Catch my debut. I’m Rudy Maxa, and I’ll see you next time on "Smart Travels."


Interested in planning your vacation to Europe?
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New to opera? Get your feet wet at www.operaworld.com.

Discover how Shakespeare's play inspired Bellini's opera at artsedge.kennedy-center.org.

For more on Norwegian folk music, go to www.norway.org.uk/culture.