The last time I met Bolivia Bottome was in London, at the performances of the Teresa Carreño Orchestra at South Bank Centre. She had just concluded a long conversation in her near-perfect English with a local dignitary, then turned and greeted me most cordially in Spanish without skipping a beat. There then followed several beats, or rather, several measures of rest, during which I attempted to recall from ancient memory the formal pronouns and forms, in order to respond in kind. Not only did the recall effort fail dismally, but the ensuing panic left me bereft of words in my native tongue, causing to stammer in English a response made all the more gauche by its aborted aspirations. Bolivia looked surprised for a moment – just a moment – but then asked, in the kindest and least confrontational way: “Jonathan, I have heard you express yourself beautifully to Maestro Abreu in Spanish. (She was exaggerating in her kindness, I assure you.) Why won’t you speak Spanish with me?”
Others quicker of wit might have rescued the situation, but given my graceless initial reply, I considered honesty to be the best policy. “Señora, whenever I converse with someone as articulate as you, I feel my grasp of your language is so inadequate that I do you a greater discourtesy by speaking it than by speaking English.”
Bolivia laughed gently, took my arm and said:
“Jonathan, we have many visitors to Venezuela, regular visitors, who come and kiss us on the cheek, tell us how much they admire our work, how inspired they are by the music, how much they love being there, and yet after all this time they still cannot put two words together in our own language. Your Spanish is not perfect (Personal note: understatement…) but when I hear it I know it comes from a place of true respect and commitment, and I value it more than the nicest compliment paid in English.”
What a great lady. Lady, in the most elevated sense of the word.
Life is simpler when you’re young. For me, as an aspiring classical musician growing up on the Canadian prairies, some things were unequivocal: the Berlin Philharmonic was the greatest orchestra in the world, and Claudio Abbado the greatest conductor. Age and education have a way of introducing a few shades of grey into the bichromatic dichotomies of adolescence, but even doctoral degrees cannot shake the last vestiges of intensive self-conditioning during formative years. When I finally met Claudio Abbado in 2010, at a rehearsal in Caracas with the younger Símon Bolívar Orchestra, it felt like the culmination of a life-long quest that until that moment, I never even knew I had undertaken.
I won’t pretend I knew Maestro Abbado. I shook his hand, and secured his extremely reluctant permission for a photograph, and that was the extent of our interaction. Despite his long illness and obvious frailty, he had just led an exemplary, energetic, awe-inspiring rehearsal of Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite, and was eager to retreat for the evening.
As I walked away from the conductor’s green room, I contemplated why Maestro Abbado was there. This gentleman’s name and reputation were so esteemed that any artistic position anywhere in the world was his for the asking – although apparently he never asked, as a point of pride. He could demand the most exorbitant fees should he so choose. Yet he came to Venezuela to conduct. A man with no need of further laurels or riches went where he could make music best, in a way most consistent with his ideals. And he chose Venezuela.
My colleague Etienne Abelin had the privilege of collaborating often with Maestro Abbado and eulogized him wonderfully in this article.
Geoff Baker, Sistema scholar and Reader at Royal Holloway, University of London, has offered me the sincere professional compliment of writing a response to my blog Searching for Simplicity. In Dr. Baker’s response, titled Searching for Complexity, he expands on some ideas in my entry and examines others, making points that are complementary, contrasting and at times contradictory to mine. I don’t always agree with Dr. Baker, nor he with me, but that is precisely what makes this kind of discourse valuable and productive. Aside from being a far better writer than I, Dr. Baker habitually asks the difficult questions, or makes the incisive observations that some might prefer we collectively ignore. This doesn’t always make him popular, but it always make him well worth reading.