The View from Stage, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco

by vlahides on December 10, 2013

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The view from stage on a sold-out night at Davies Symphony Hall, in San Francisco, always blows my mind. Here’s how it looked last weekend, right before Semyon Bychkov walked on stage to conduct us in Benjamin Britten’s 1962 War Requiem—a death mass for war itself. Tears were shed. Joshua Kosman, in his SF Chronicle review, called us “sensational.” Next week, I’m performing Handel’s Messiah. Music is humankind’s highest achievement; it goes where words cannot, and transforms souls. Come, if you like Baroque, and we’ll share a moment. I’ll wink hello from stage.

The view from stage, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco (©John Vlahides 2013) The view from stage, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco (©John Vlahides 2013)

BBC Knowledge profiled me in this 60-second spot, airing worldwide to promote the Lonely Planet TV series, Roads Less Travelled. The question put forth: Why do we travel?  The conclusion I drew: If you can’t laugh, there’s a problem. That’s me on the camel.

(This piece is part of a package that won Gold for Best Television, at the Global PromaxBDA Awards, June 2013. Hats off to Elizabeth Jensen.)

On location in San Diego, with help from a colony of penguins and corps of giraffes, I hosted this rollicking G-rated travel film (which I also co-produced and wrote) for Visit California, showcasing what’s new around the state this summer. Heavens, I look so clean cut. My mother will be proud.

Favorite moment comes when the giraffe tries to eat our equipment. The thing about giraffes is, they’re the dumb blonds of the animal world: super tall, with beautiful long eyelashes, and not much upstairs. But watch out. Their legs can rotate a full 360º, and they can kill a lion with a single swift kick. The trainer had told me to swat them on the nose if they misbehaved – they did, and I did – but it seemed best to me that we all get along, so I kept laughing and feeding the animals as fast as I could.

Snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef is like swimming inside a giant aquarium. But to get perspective on its vastness means also seeing it from the air – it’s the only living thing you can see from space.

Before co-producing and hosting these short films for Lonely Planet and BBC, I had never before ridden in a helicopter. What a brilliant place to experience for the first time the thrill of vertical liftoff! We flew 50 miles from the coast to a landing pad in the middle of the ocean (note my enormous grin as we step out of the helicopter), then shuttled to a floating dive station and snorkeled the reef. Lifeguards and roping kept snorkelers from drifting out to sea, and guides led us to clown fish hiding in anemones, past mountains of coral, with a rainbow of fishes surrounding me everywhere I looked. From the macro to the micro, seeing the reef from above and below changed my perspective on the ocean, and by extension, the entire planet.

Heart Reef, Great Barrier Reef, Australia – note the perfect heart-shaped coral reef, at center

Before I visited Uluru for BBC and Lonely Planet, I thought, What’s the big deal about a rock in the middle of the desert? Then I stood beneath it, saturated in color and surrounded by shimmering silence, and I felt awe. Now I get it. This is a mystical place.
(formerly knowns as Ayer's Rock)
How incredible to imagine that Anangu people, the traditional owners of the land, have been around for 30,000 years, passing down oral tradition from parent to child for millennia. Consider this: when you come across an ancient rock painting at Uluru, the story told in the artwork is as fresh and alive to contemporary Anangu people as it was to their ancient forebears. Locals speak of tjukurpa, the catch-all term for regional law, stories, customs, relationships, and knowledge, which together create the foundation of Anangu society. Herein lies the key to wrapping your head around Uluru, something I only began to do. I wished I’d scheduled an extra day.

Next week I’ll have the honor of performing Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, under the baton of Michael Tilson Thomas, at the San Francisco Symphony—and we’re recording it. (Last time we recorded, we won three Grammys.) If you appreciate classical music (well, actually it’s Romantic), I highly recommend you come. It’s nearly sold out, so buy tickets tout de suite. Meanwhile, if you’re curious to know what goes into creating a Grammy-winning recording, here’s a glimpse into the making of our last, Mahler 8. Erin Wall, soprano on that recording, will also be singing the Beethoven program.

The second of five short films on Australia that I co-produced and hosted for Lonely Planet and BBC: Kangaroo Island. How surreal to see these wild animals up close—like a safari park, but without fences, people or cars. Incredible.

Kangaroos and wallabies are nocturnal. So many roam this island, and hop across the road at nighttime, that occasionally one gets hit by a car. But here’s the thing that distinguishes locals as good stewards of nature: custom dictates that the driver get out of the car to check the animal; if it’s a female with a baby ‘roo in the pouch—a joey, they’re called—it’s the drivers responsibility to take the joey home, raise it until it’s too big to live any longer as a pet, then turn it back to the wild.

I had the pleasure of holding one such joey in my arms. It kicked and squirmed and tried to get away, until I began humming “Brahm’s Lullaby” and rocking it like a baby. The ‘roo quieted right down, and even laid its head against my chest, a moment I’ll never forget.

BBC America has been running a series of brilliant short films on Australia, which I co-produced and hosted on behalf of Lonely Planet. Wow, Australia—what a country.

No matter how many times I visit Sydney, I always get a thrill when I spot that spectacular harbor, and feel like I’m seeing it again for the first time. I can’t pick a favorite perspective—but how thrilling the view from the Olympic salt-water swimming pool beneath Sydney Harobur Bridge.

Hard to believe the Blue Mountains are so close to Australia’s biggest city. Dense eucalyptus forest, dotted with craggy rock formations, sprawl two million acres, exuding a mist of oil that refracts sunlight a smoky blue—hence the range’s name.

The birds are incredible. As we descended cliffs into a tiny pocket of rainforest, a pair of rare black cockatoos flew past at eye level. Tracing their route, I spotted other giant birds, the sort you only see in pet stores in America, perched wild in treetops, cawing and screeching an echoing chorus.

Dig the ride out of the canyon: you ascend via the world’s steepest railway. The film barely conveys the vertical drop, nor the sensation of feeling suspended, face first, inside a cage. My stomach was in my mouth. I can’t wait to do it again.

The view from the air of Sydney Harbour – note the swimming pool at the bridge's foot, and the opera house across the water.

[Video]: Why It’s Fun to do Live TV

by vlahides on April 6, 2012

It’s always fun to do live TV. This week I appeared on ABC7‘s afternoon chat show, 7Live to inspire imagination about road-tripping California in springtime. For a moment I lost my train of thought, but discovered an on-the-spot solution to conversational stasis: Drum on the newscasters’ desk until you regain your rhythm. And laugh, always laugh. Honesty shines brightest.

Video: Why It’s Fun to Do Live TV from John Vlahides on Vimeo.

[Video] Kitesurfing in Madagascar

by vlahides on April 11, 2011

Adventure sports are as foreign in Madagascar as the concept of leisure time: in a country where 90% of the population has no running water, survival trumps entertainment. French entrepreneurs are trying to change that, investing in new tourism infrastructures to draw foreigners and (ideally) teach the locals new, marketable skills. In my investigation of this subject for NatGeo Television, I traveled to Sakalava Bay, where I had just two hours to learn to kitesurf—normally it takes three days. I’m already looking forward to returning to this barely known beach resort and showering the locals with greenbacks.