In 2012, Rick Steves, the longtime TV host and travel writer, recorded a special for public television called Rick Steves’ Europe: A Symphonic Journey. In it, he partnered with the Cascade Symphony Orchestra in his hometown of Edmonds. For the program, Steves selected pieces from Romantic titans—Strauss, Wagner, Beethoven—and introduced each with some historical context. “In tonight’s program,” he said, chipper as ever, “we’ll be enjoying Romantic music from a time when Romantic music stoked the national pride of countries all over Europe.” The orchestra then kicked into "On the Beautiful Blue Danube" by Strauss, “the heartthrob of the Romantic age in Vienna," as cameras panned across Austrian vistas and landmarks.
After it aired, Steves figured the piece was done. “Then in the last couple of years, symphonies all over the country have been asking me to come and host this,” he told me over the phone. He did it in Virginia, in Houston, in Denver, in Boston. On Friday night, for the first time, he partners with Seattle Symphony.
Steves begins the concert with pieces of American patriotism like "The Star Spangled Banner" and "America the Beautiful," before decamping for Europe and playing music that frequently fanned the flames of nationalism. That’s to try to get a patriotic frisson going in you (or maybe the opposite), so you feel the context before he shuttles you elsewhere. His goal is to expand Americans’ empathy, to help them “realize that other people find other things to be exciting that we might not find to be exciting, and we find things exciting that they might not find exciting. And that’s called ethnocentrism.”
I asked if the renewed interest in the concert might stem from the rise of nationalist rhetoric that’s found new life lately.
"I haven’t figured it out exactly," he said. He did find it interesting that so many symphonies were contacting him suddenly and that, at the moment, expanding our empathy is "more important than ever."
In part, I think it’s also a renewed interest in Steves. Last year New York Times Magazine ran a feature profile on him, noting his devotees of all ages and comparing him to Mr. Rogers and Bob Ross. This, I think, is part of his persistent appeal: In an information-bombarded present, kind-hearted earnestness is comforting. But that only gets at half of the Steves equation.
In a few weeks, Steves will come back to Seattle on February 6 to debut his new documentary special, Hunger and Hope: Lessons from Ethiopia and Guatemala, which looks at structural poverty in the two countries and ways we might help, one being “smart foreign aid." Talking to me, he took off describing the needed changes and how ending extreme poverty (the 10 percent of the world living on less than $2 a day) would cost the same as what we spent in Afghanistan. Then he approached with a stark pragmatism. Even if some shrug at the humanitarian issue, they should care because of global stability. “You could solve hunger if you wanted to, and that would make our world a much safer place.”
One of the more interesting things about Steves—compared with Ross or Rogers—is the juxtaposition between his indefatigable cheer and his recognition that the world is fraught and needs work. He is able to support the latter with the former. He released a new edition of his 2009 book Travel as a Political Act in 2018, which espouses the same mind-opening powers of travel. If he sometimes oversimplifies—as this NPR review of the book found in spots—it seems intended to reach people who might be less receptive to, say, hearing about nationalism or marijuana legalization (he was an early advocate, due to policing inequities) or the problem of hunger in a world rich enough to have eradicated it.
Rick Steves’ Europe: A Symphonic Journey
Jan 17, $38–$88, Benaroya Hall
Rick Steves: Hunger & Hope
Feb 6, $15–$60, Town Hall Seattle