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Travel author Rick Steves joins Houston Symphony for a musical tour of Europe

Houston Chronicle logo Houston Chronicle 6 days ago By Lawrence Elizabeth Knox, Correspondent
Rick Steves standing in front of a mountain: Travel writer Rick Steves in Norway © Courtesy

Travel writer Rick Steves in Norway

This weekend, enjoy an exhilarating adventure abroad in about the time it takes to drive to Austin.

Beginning Friday, the Houston Symphony, led by conductor Michael Krajewski and in collaboration with best-selling guidebook author and travel television host Rick Steves, will take audiences on a musical tour through the majestic landscapes of seven European countries - without leaving Jones Hall - in “Rick Steves’ Europe: A Symphonic Journey.”

The program, which began as a television special with Edmonds, Washington’s Cascade Symphony Orchestra in 2013, features a selection of riveting, 19th-century anthems by Romantic-era composers, such as “On the Beautiful Blue Danube” by Austrian Johann Strauss Jr., and the triumphal march from “Aida” by Italian Giuseppe Verdi. In between each work, Steves will provide cultural and historical context before breathtaking visuals of the corresponding destination are projected onto a large screen behind the musicians.

“My whole mission is to inspire Americans to open up to venture beyond Orlando and get out of their comfort zone,” said Steves, who founded his business in 1976 on the same street where his father, a piano importer, once owned a piano store in his hometown of Edmonds. Since, Steves has become America’s leading authority on European travel, sharing his cultural roots through a TV series that airs on PBS, a weekly national public radio show, a syndicated newspaper column, numerous travel guidebooks, a program that takes more than 30,000 people to Europe on 1,000 tours every year and, now, a live symphonic performance.

Although a celebration of Europe, the concert will in fact begin with music that strikes a chord here in the U.S. like “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which became the national anthem in 1931. Hearing music that inspires American patriotism provides listeners with greater perspective and an understanding of how the songs in the rest of the program incite a similar resonance - a “pitter-pattering” of the heart, according to Steves - in people from other countries. For Norwegians, it might be “Morning” from Edvard Grieg’s “Peer Gynt” Suite, for example. For Germans, it might be the overture to Richard Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.”

In the end, “Ode to Joy” from Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony” completes the tour with a message of peace and universal brotherhood. Fittingly, European leaders adopted the famous tune, which incorporated a poem by Friedrich Schiller, as the official anthem of the European Union in 1985.

“This is all I do. I eat and sleep and dream European culture and art and travel,” said Steves, who spends about four months a year abroad. “In the United States right now, it’s more important than ever that we celebrate the beauty on this planet. For a lot of people, they think the world’s a scary and a dangerous or angry place, but the fact is the world is a beautiful place.”

Steves traveled to Europe for the first time to visit piano factories with his family when he was 14-years-old. He would play the handcrafted instruments, such as that made by the premium piano manufacturer Bösendorfer in Vienna, while his father assessed their distinct musical personality, autographing the sounding board of the ones he believed best fit his customer’s tastes to have them shipped back to Seattle.

Four years later, Steves began traveling solo with the earnings he made from teaching piano lessons throughout the year. He had his own studio with about 50 students, but after awhile, he transformed the recital space into a travel lecture hall, and the rest, as they say, is history. For more than four decades, Steves has empowered travelers by sharing his knowledge, curiosity and passion with the world in a myriad of ways.

“This symphonic journey is a fun opportunity for me as a teacher and as a person who loves music and who loves travel to mix it all together and take it on the road,” he said. “It’s going to take music lovers in Houston not just around Europe, but around Europe with meaning.”

Lawrence Elizabeth Knox is a Houston-based writer.

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