One of the most challenging aspects of the production was obtaining permission to record and film in each of the 36 churches, selected for their beauty, architectural interest and historical significance. Initially most of the priests we contacted in Spain were unwilling to allow us to record and film, and perhaps rightfully so. We offered nothing to benefit their communities. We brainstormed how we could achieve our goal to record this music while giving back to our host communities, and we decided to offer that the recording sessions double as free concerts. The Spanish priests were more agreeable to this revised proposal. These negotiations marked the beginning of what would become one of the profound lessons I learned from the Camino: Be open to life’s changes as they will bring great beauty and dimension to any experience. Performing concerts would bring far more beauty and dimension to my experience than I could ever imagine. Rather than simply recording the suites, I would have an opportunity to share Bach’s music with thousands of people.
After six years of planning, I was happy to begin my journey in the Pyrenees and a town called, Roncesvalles. Seated in the church called Real Colegiata before an expectant audience, I was finally living my dream. I began with the first Bach Suite I ever learned, the G Major. As the sound filled the church, I listened in awe of the beauty of the space and the intimacy and purity of the acoustic. The ancient stone glowed with warmth and resonated perfectly with Bach’s music and the sound of my cello. The stained glass shone with vivid colors, and the perfect architectural proportions made the space divine. The following morning, I took my first steps and passed a road sign that read, “Santiago: 790.” Nearly 800 kilometers lay between me and Santiago de Compostela, not to mention a further 80 kilometers beyond Santiago to the Atlantic Ocean. From that day on I endured many blisters, almost constant pain, and indescribable exhaustion. The only remedy was to put one foot in front of the other. As I walked the Camino shaped me into a new person. It was not only the Camino that changed me, but the people I met along the way and their wonderful communities. Each time I played a concert, I felt so grateful that I could share my favorite music and give something back to the people who were hosting this momentous journey.
“Simplicity in all things’ was a one of the lessons of my Camino. On a purely material level I learned about my real needs. I carried a change of clothes, a sleeping bag, some basic personal items, rain gear, and my cello. These basic items satisfied my needs for 45 days. My simple existence revealed another truth: the essentials in life are clean air, clean water, sufficient food, warmth and beauty. Now that I have returned to my life in New York City, I find myself thinking more about my basic needs. This philosophy has also shaped my approach to music and the cello. Simplicity in all things is a mantra that will change any cellist’s technique and any musician’s approach to phrasing! It must have been a focus for Bach while composing his Cello Suites, where the harmony is composed melodically and most of the counterpoint must be imagined by the listener. Perhaps his simplest masterpiece is the Sarabande of the Fifth Suite, in which Bach manages to communicate the most profound expression with the least material.
Throughout the journey I played 35 concerts featuring the Cello Suites. My relationship with Bach’s music, my interpretations, my pacing, and my approach to phrasing changed entirely. It was amazing what a profound impact each church had on my performance. Some of the churches were huge and required a very specific kind of projection, and a more generous approach to time with more space and breath in the tempo. Other churches were so small and resonant that I had to temper the energy I was putting into the cello so as not to saturate the space with sound. Some of the churches were absolutely perfect for music and enabled me to play without changing my sound or interpretation. My favorite church was in Vilar de Donas, the oldest and most beautifully preserved of the churches along the Camino. The stones inside the church were blotched with green moss and the wooden doors were cracked, allowing ribbons of light to cut through the dusty air. Original Celtic paintings covered the walls and ceilings. The crude brush strokes of an artist from the 7th century expressed so much humanity, humility and simplicity. The ancient church made me feel a deep connection to the past, and I imagined all of the people before me who had inhabited its walls. The Camino and Bach’s music are incredible connections to our past and to the lives of millions of people. Playing Bach’s music in Vilar de Donas, I felt extremely fortunate to be a cellist, to be a pilgrim, and to experience that connection.
Many pilgrims, including dear friends of mine, ended their journey in Santiago, so arriving at the Cathedral de Santiago really felt like reaching the finish line. I had the incredible opportunity to perform there that evening, and I was amazed by the number of pilgrims who came to enjoy the music one last time. There was very little space left in the chapel as pilgrims squeezed in around me, crowding the aisles and spilling out the entryway. Looking out into the audience, I saw many familiar smiles and felt such a glorious sense of community. Following the concert in Santiago, my friend Peter, a regular attendee at the concerts, approached me and thanked me for the music and all of the performances. He also thanked me for providing the thread that held the pilgrim community together. I am still so touched that Peter, and apparently many others, felt such gratitude for Bach’s music and that it became a vital part of their experience on the Camino.
After enjoying an extra day in Santiago I set off to walk the final 80 kilometers to the Atlantic Ocean and a place called Fisterra. The ultimate destination for pre-Christian pilgrims, Fisterra was believed by ancient cartographers to be the furthest western point in Europe and the end of the earth. The route beyond Santiago was rugged and more challenging than the previous 800 kilometers. There were far fewer pilgrims on the trail so following the jubilant arrival in Santiago the walk to Fisterra seemed to be a quiet and beautiful epilogue. After three grueling and painful days on the trail, I arrived at the Atlantic Ocean. The cliffs at Fisterra were immense and towered above the crashing waves below. That night I played my last concert on the cliffs, surrounded by many happy pilgrims perched on the rocks. We all experienced the same sense of being forever changed by the Camino. It is so rare in the race-pace of modern society that we have the opportunity to walk, think, breath, and live simply. The experience changed my life, both as a man and as a musician. The fullness of those changes will reveal itself in time. My task now is to integrate all that I learned into my daily life and to live according to the truths I gathered along the Camino.
Following my journey I had the opportunity to join Carolina Landriscini and all of the wonderful young cellists of Soncello for their Third Summer Cello Meeting in Culleredo, A Coruña, Spain. It was a wonderful experience to work with all of the talented students, both in private instruction and as the conductor of a cello orchestra. It was my first time conducting and I must say, I was nervous! The experience was made extremely comfortable by Carolina and her colleagues at Soncello and by the eager students and their positive energy. The rehearsals were limited but effective and we enjoyed a successful performance of three small arrangements for cello orchestra, including Michelle My Belle by Paul McCartney. All of the cellists played beautifully and it was a pleasure to see so many young people and families gathered together to enjoy a mutual love of music and the cello. I have encountered many such organizations all over the world, but the joy and enthusiasm I witnessed in Culleredo was very special. What Carolina and her colleagues are doing for the young cellists of their city is commendable and is deserving of the utmost support and recognition, not only in their community but throughout Spain and the world. It was a pleasure to spend a couple of days with such lovely people and to be part of something impactful for so many young cellists. The Encontro was the perfect finish to the greatest six weeks of my life, one I will never forget. My sincere thanks to Carolina and her team for bringing me to A Coruña and the Soncello family!
For more information regarding the forthcoming film and recording, please visit www.walktofisterra.com.