The Boston Pops offered Rick Steves’s “A Symphonic Journey” on Thursday and Friday at Symphony Hall. In his 1961 musical Sail Away, set on a luxury liner packed with vacationing Americans, an exasperated Noël Coward inquired, “Why do the wrong people travel, when the right people stay back home?”
Such a sentiment represents the antithesis of the worldview espoused by Rick Steves, the nation’s preeminent–and perhaps only–”travel guru,” who appeared in an excursionary program of 19th-century European symphonic bonbons. For Steves, travel is for everyone, and much of his knack for curating experiences that engage the souls and challenge the intellectual boundaries of his fans comes directly out of his deep appreciation for (particularly European) art and music.
Why do we travel? What do we gain by getting off our couches and experiencing the world? What mythologies about ourselves do we offer up for fresh challenging? What’s at stake for American travelers as we hone our common identities amidst the global volatility of 2023?
Though these meaningful aesthetic questions are at the core of Steves’s efforts, the event itself displayed a light, jovial touch. Steves’ vision for Symphonic Journeys, first produced in 2013 with his hometown Cascade Symphony (available HERE), probes how 19th-century European nationalism (and “the other 19th-century -ism, Romanticism”) manifested in symphonic music, featuring “cultural heroes” of the era, including Verdi (Italy), Grieg (Norway), Elgar (England), Smetana (Czech Republic), Strauss II (Austria), Saint-Saëns (France), and Wagner (Germany). The lone piece outside of the standard canon was a blistering movement from Aram Khachaturian’s Violin Concerto (composed in 1940 for the Odessa-born David Oistrakh), whose obsessive pentatonic figures were rendered with winsome, smashbang panache by Canadian-Armenian violinist Eva Aronian.
In the late 19th century, European artists fashioned idealized depictions of bucolic landscapes and rousing military victories as a way to capture and broadcast national pride. Meanwhile, wealthy cosmopolitan Americans began to travel the world, seeking a larger sense of themselves amidst America’s emerging global importance. Like a modern Pied Piper of the Passport, Steves seeks to democratize this impulse today in a way that cuts across modern American society, irrespective of political ideology or prior knowledge. (For an intriguing, if somewhat darker, philosophical corollary to Steves’s relentlessly sunny outlook on the confluence of travel and art, see Alain de Botton’s reflective The Art of Travel.)
Videos culled from the untold hours of B-roll stock footage Steves has collected over the past decades provided visual accompaniment to much of the evening’s music: an effective touch, even if the iconography showcased obvious cultural landmarks and tropes in a way that at times suggested a highlight reel from the Epcot Center world pavilions. One major aesthetic battle of the nineteenth century, namely, the debate over programmatic vs. “absolute” music, found little acknowledgment here: to Steves, this music is perched firmly in the former camp, assumed to be “about” something, and that something is nationalistic in ambition and celebratory in spirit.
For a nation comprised largely of immigrant stock, the lingering ghosts (and in some cases, assumptions) of the nineteenth-century remain a critical part of our cultural inheritance, for better or for worse. The gilded interior walls and balconies of Symphony Hall, constructed in the century’s final year, provide additional reminders that the (literal) scaffolding of the central orchestral repertoire emanates from the world of mid-to-late 19th-century Europe.
Steves, whose earnest optimism (rather like a Mr. Rogers who really believes in your travel goals) makes him almost impossible to root against, is an ideal guide to synthesize music, history, and travel. He calls himself a travel guide, but given that he’s a constant visitor in places rather than a local (notably, he doesn’t hide his reluctance to learn languages), he’s perhaps more accurately a travel advocate. And in an era where mainstream familiarity with European art history is steadily vanishing, Steves has taken on the mantle of public intellectual, even if his appearances skew almost exclusively to the PBS crowd.
Though he’s not a trained art historian, Steves has probably done more to advance public appreciation of European art than any other recent public figure. A born educator, Steves has an urge to share and to “get people out of their comfort zone,” and a rare knack for boiling down broad historical concepts into easily digestible contextual nuggets. (As he offered in an impromptu appearance on Boston Public Radio on Friday afternoon, “People pay the same for tickets to the Louvre or the Prado, but if you understand what you’re looking at, you get three times the value.”) He’s also a fine musician himself, and worked as a piano teacher prior to assembling his travel empire. Steves knows his audience, who are comprised mostly of novice American travelers (or at least travelers who enjoy the safety of crowds), and provides a valuable service that challenges the complacency of those who place “the American way” at the center of the Known Universe. Steves understands the strengths and challenges of the United States with the confidence of someone who has seen the world, and returned home with a new appreciation of personal freedom (some may be surprised to know he has long been a public advocate for the legalization of marijuana) and Emersonian individualism.
The playing of the Boston Pops was consistently high, with standouts from solo horn Rachel Childers, pillowy brass, and luxurious sweeping strings, particularly on a finely shaped telling of Smetana’s riverbound Moldau. One lovely moment of synchronicity occurred during Saint-Saëns’ “French Military March” (from Suite algérienne), when a snare drum sizzled over footage of the sparkling Eiffel Tower. Though Steves prefaced this piece by alluding to the (“99% vs. 1%”) economic inequality that inspired the French Revolution, any further acknowledgment of increasingly similar present-day conditions in the United States went unsaid.
One intriguing by-product of projecting a map behind the excerpts is having the chance to hear distinctions between regional styles, well reinforced by the chosen selections: in particular, the cool shimmer of the Nordic Grieg set against the lush, formal English Elgar and the hot-blooded, mercurial Mediterraneans. (As a woman behind me exclaimed, “I didn’t know Verdi was so opinionated!”) Footage of sublime Norway fjords provided the most seamless fit with the music, while Verdi’s Overture to I vespri siciliani, based on an event in Sicily, with original libretto in French, and set in Portugal, was paired with videos that focused on Florence. Even amidst regional specificities, every selection spoke the gestural language of the nineteenth-century symphonic tradition: a strong, insistent melody, surrounded by constant variations in orchestration, with plentiful dynamic contrasts and dramatic bravura passages.
And yet, the most moving portion of the evening came not from the stage, but from brief moments of audience participation. As an elderly gentleman sitting behind me proudly croaked his way through the concert opener, “America the Beautiful,” rendered onstage in a gorgeous Elgarian arrangement, I wondered: what do we believe about ourselves? What mythologies about the American experiment taught to older generations as immutable truths are being tested and challenged in the public sphere in 2023? In honor of the Pops’ 70th annual Armenian night, conductor Keith Lockhart asked members of the local Armenian community (according to Steves, over 50,000 strong) to stand and sing their national anthem; the group was led by a few members of the older generation, brimming with confidence.
As the horrific European wars of the twentieth-century recede from memory (only to be replaced by new ones), how is cultural memory maintained in diasporic communities? When is cultural pride an unabashedly good and wholesome thing, and how should we react when nefarious forces allow it to be adapted for exclusionary and even terroristic purposes?
At times, Steves’s program tiptoed uncomfortably around this question, particularly with an overly laudatory section on the unfettered German nationalism of Richard Wagner, whose abhorrent anti-semitism went oddly unacknowledged. (What’s curious is that Steves is no stranger to confronting this topic, having produced a gripping 2018 documentary on the political fallout of fascism.) Wagner, who died in 1883, is by no means responsible for the atrocities of the Holocaust, and yet referring to him as a mere “political radical” without mentioning how virulent anti-semitism provided the glue to his vision of German nationalism seemed a missed opportunity to condemn similar toxic forces of white supremacy and far right nationalism flexing disturbing amounts of strength in our communities today.
In Steves’s radio appearance earlier that afternoon, he made passionate (if implied) connections between the prior evening’s federal criminal indictment of Donald Trump and the triumphant military and intellectual defeat of fascism in mid-twentieth century Europe. Recalling the egalitarian origins of the American experiment, he claimed, “Our democracy inspired the great democracies of Europe. And now we’re flirting with losing it. … This is not politics, this is a societal challenge for all of us.” Steves’s account of 20th-century European history reminds us of the dangers of allowing authoritarianism to take flight, and that indeed, without the enforcement of laws and guardrails, it could happen here.
And yet, these political stakes felt soft-pedaled in the event itself. This is partially a result of the program’s age (2013 feels like a century ago in American political history), but also likely because Steves is tasked with maintaining a public brand that toes the line for a deeply polarized audience. This made the concert feel more like an invitation to the uninitiated than something aimed at seasoned travelers, or for that matter, seasoned historians. One wonders what a less cautious version of this program would look and sound like, though whether such a program would find the same community collaborators (and corporate sponsors) is another question.
A heavily truncated rendition of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” provided the program’s final piece, offered as a token of “the universal brotherhood of man” and “the anthem of the European Union” – and yet stripped of the choir, the text, and the buildup of the rest of the Ninth Symphony, the emotional payoff felt neutered. Given the evening’s central theme celebrating the unifying attributes of nationalism, mentioning that this arrangement was played after the Ukrainian national anthem before President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s address to the EU Parliament this past February might’ve helped to raise the present-day stakes; above all other freedoms is the freedom of sovereign, culturally distinct nations to govern themselves.
Indeed, Steves’s departing proclamation that “The core of a united Europe is here to stay, united in diversity,” underlaid by a map of a wholly content, unified and border-secure Europe, seemed more of a wish than a reflection of reality. As storms of misinformation, fascism, and historically familiar efforts to quash and erase cultural diversity swirl outside our gilded halls, one hopes that Steves’s ambitious itinerary, which depends upon a multiplicity of voices, survives the turbulent present.