Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Delta Airlines vs Tajik Airlines

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Just flying from New York to Dakar, Senegal, on Delta Airlines. Jeeez, what an airline! Could not believe the Terminal 3 in JFK, which is only just above Shcheremetova in Moscow in terms of ambience (ha, ambience!) and comforts.

Strange customs they have – you buy your duty-free and then they deliver it when you board the plane. First time I had been through that experience. I suppose there could be the appalling danger that someone travelling abroad might buy stuff for people not travelling abroad, and thus rob the system. So not knowing the drill I went to the passport checking desk at the boarding gate (third passport check at least), asking about my duty frees. They told me I would get them 'inside'. 'Inside where?' I asked, thinking of, for example, prisons (British slang for being in prison is being 'inside'). When I got on the plane, I was told.

So eventually off I trooped onto the plane, and on stepping on it did not see any duty-frees, and thought that maybe they hand them out later. But asked anyway, and just as well, I had walked past them on the way into the plane, between the final check and the plane doors. Wouldn't call that 'inside', guv...

Now, coming back to Tajik airlines and the comparison. Delta has the nicer seats which probably don't fold over. On the other hand, the plane gets tossed around in the air like a ping pong ball in a tumble dryer, whereas the Tajik Air planes were always, but always, rocksolid – you would barely know you were flying. Then again, Tajik Air would regularly run out of fuel at Dushanbe, necessitating a stop somewhere in Kazakhstan to pick up fuel to get to Moscow. The quality and presentation of food, on the other hand, about matches that of Tajik air; I don't think I have seen food similarly presented this side of the Iron Curtain – it was almost a sort of retro-chic, with a yellow plastic train with faux wood 'pannelling', plastic containers with heatsealed polythene lids...wish I had taken a photo. And at least Tajik Air would keep running round with soft drinks for the passengers on their four-hour flights, but I haven't seen anyone volunteering soft drinks for us (the wine with the meal came out of a milk-type container and was served in the cheapest kind of plastic glass possible...).

It's always good to know which airlines to push nearer the bottom of the 'favourites' list.


Monday, August 08, 2011

Thou are 'Wall'!

It felt a bit like being in Midsummer night's dream yesterday at the Rose Theatre's performance of Don Giovanni. The Rose theatre, a nice modern opera house style theatre, with rather a cramped pit for the band, finds itself in the fifth and 6th floors of a building that houses a shopping centre on the lower floors, including a Whole Foods, which was far too tempting at the end of the show. The price of property in New York...

The staging was rather interesting (the programme does not make clear who was the producer - was it Ivan Fischer himself?). As the audience trundled in, Ivan Fischer, the conductor was already sitting on his chair, and a number of statues (the choir, wearing grey clothes and with all-over make-up) inhabited the very sparse stage, consisting of a pair of podiums (podia?) and nothing else. Occasionally the statues moved - probably a health and safety requirement, particularly on the part of the woman who was in a Lenin pose for a long time. In the course of the evening they sometimes danced, formed walls, the doors to Hades (effectively), and very effectively shuffled off anyone who died (sitting at the side of the stage, above the band, I could see all this).

The playing was great, as was the singing, generally - though I felt that Myrto Papatanasiu, as Donna Elvira, seemed to hang about a lot waiting for the next entry in her first contribution. Maybe that was how it was designed - but that moment was an intense conversation, and you would expect her to launch into her words immediately the previous person had finished speaking. Zoltan Megyesi's Don Ottavio was rather unfortunately staged - as his Donna Anna (a fine Laura Aikin) was totally distraught about her father's desk - he just stood far away from her - it was not exactly like he was comforting her, even though the words suggested this. (The surtitles were rather fun, by the way). So occasionally the production hung a bit, and there was too much standing and singing - the stage could have been busier. At the same time the production had us by the edge of our seats (thanks to the surtitles which got the most laughs, even though those were also used rather sparingly).

Leporello (Jose Fardilha) had real character, and Don Giovanni (Tassis Christoyannis) came across as a real bastard, just as he should have done. At the end the audience was delighted - and isn't that what counts?


Thursday, July 07, 2011

Ballet, ballet, ballet

Have seen about 5 ballets in the recent five weeks, including Coppelia, The Bright Stream (music by Shostakovich, a very funny tale of country folk on a Soviet collective farm in the 1930s, brilliant), a mix of modern dance pieces and two Tchaikovsky ballets (Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty) - all part of the American Ballet Theatre Season at the Met Opera building. Including also Julie Kent's 25th dancing performance anniversary, and one of the last ever performances of a famous male dancers who has retired at the age of 43 - 20 or more years of lifting ballerinas above his head have taken their toll.

Yesterday's Sleeping Beauty, which I think I have seen for the first time as a ballet, had the lovely Alina Cojocaru as the lead female. She was awesome, dancing it slightly over the top, with some extremely challenging positions, often holding on to them just a smidgeon longer than would have been strictly by the book. Overall I have to say I am getting a bit sick of Tchaikovsky ballets. They probably reflect the time and society they were written in, where there were prima ballerinas who needed to show off their steps, and as for the corps de ballet, its main role was rather more of a corpse de ballet. In both Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty (and probably also the Nutcracker) their main activity seems to be standing at the side of the stage, immobile, watching the stars of the performance strut their stuff. Not really very democratic.

And then, apart from the performance, who was the Lady in the Black Hat who sat in the director's box in the second half? I had spied the box as empty at in the first half and made my way there in the interval, when I saw a shopping bag outside it, and this lady talking loudly into her phone. I asked her if the seats were free, then 'vacant' and she said no, it's my seat (there are four...). Interesting that she did not enter the box until it had gone dark, and with wearing a black hat and dark clothing, and being rigidly turned towards the stage, was almost invisible to the rest of the audience. Was she Someone Famous?


Monday, May 16, 2011

A very rare symphony concert!

Just made it into the concert of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall last night. Had left it late to leave home, found the subway was not running to Manhattan, instead I had to run to the tram (should have taken the bike after all) and then rushed across Manhattan from the tram stop, sliding into my seat in the balcony on the first applause. Luckily all these concerts have started with someone talking, so I did not miss any music. Boy, it's a long way up to the balcony, and then again a long way down to the front row (and a much longer way down to the floor of the hall). During the first half I noticed my seat neighbour fingering the balcony rail, which looks like painted cast iron, and is less than half an inch thick...not much to separate us from tipping down on the folks a long way below us. (She did not return for the second half).

The topic for this concert was the evolution of the symphony. Having rushed in at the last moment I had not picked up a programme, and often I don't like to look too much at the programming in advance, because I go for the performers rather than the programming. That way I get to hear interesting stuff. I knew it was Beethoven 5 at the end, and some Bach at the beginning, among quite a long list of pieces.

The announcement was that all pieces in the first half would be played continuously and that there should be no applause till the end of the first half. So Mr Nagano and the pianist (who I just discovered was the famous Angela Hewitt - I now hear all these people live that I used to hear on the radio) came on the stage... and the performance started with what I assumed to be Gabrieli, and turned out to be two of his Symphoniae Sacrae. Beautifully played by the brass section of the orchestra, standing in two groups opposite each other, and tossing themes backwards and forwards. It's so nice to hear brass music without having to fear that they will fall apart, have kinks and whatnot. Apart from being among perhaps the earliest pieces to include the s-word in their titles, they also served as rather nice fanfares to start the concert.

Immediately the last of their sound stopped reverberating round the hall, the audience had its solo of coughing. The CH actually gives out free cough sweets, in packets to be opened rustlingly (my seat neighbour had four and did not even cough...), but there seems little effect. Regardless, Ms Hewitt launched into the first of 3 sets of Bach Sinfonias for keyboard, a total of 10 out of the set of 15 - I actually have the sheet music, an Urtext version, here, but it's probably a bit naff to take sheet music to concerts, though people have been known to do that (haven't seen it in CH). While she was playing I was wondering whether I approved of Bach being played on a piano, but then thought that a harpsichord might not carry well in CH, and anyway, Andras Schiff does all his sublime performances on piano. It was a bit strange, hearing her play this music in front of the huge band and the immovable Kent Nagano .... Then a piece for orchestra followed, where I swear each section never played more than four notes at a stretch, with the same micro-motif appeared throughout the piece in all sections. It was fascinating how interesting this piece was, and yet not a single bit of melody. Turned out it was Webern's Symphony (op 21). It must be really hard to hold this piece together, and I wonder how it feels to play it? Emotionally I would not rush to hear it again, but intellectually it would be interesting to hear it a few more times to get more of a grip of it. This was followed by more Bach, and Stravinsky's wind symphony. Quite a rollercoaster of pieces!

Finally, well almost, we had Beethoven's fifth symphony. Yes, ok, a war horse, but well worth waiting for, and I suspect the lollipop to draw in the audience. It was a majestic performance, extremely fast, occasionally I thought the suspensions could have been held a smidgeon longer. But there were some other awesome corners (I really like extreme pianissimos, or pianissimi). Strangely I found the brass extremely bright. The instuments looked different, and later I wondered if they had used cornets rather than trumpets.

But this was not the end of the concert. As the conductor went off, some other musicians sidled onto the stage.... the first encore was something contemplative by Debussy, followed by the Le Corsaire overture. A great thrower-out, even though it might be strange to end a concert with an overture.

I've also realised that in NY no-one gets flowers at the end of a concert. My theory still stands that the poorer the country the more flowers the performers get (maybe they don't get much of a fee there). In Germany they get official flowers, in Lithuania official flowers and, often, a single tulip or whatever is in season, from audience members, in Russia I saw a lady bring in homemade bunches of flowers delivering them at all sorts of moments in the concert, like between movements (the next day I spotted her raiding rubbish bins for beer bottles), in Armenia tiny girls with bouquets larger than themselves struggle onto the stage. I suppose a bunch of flowers is an additional expense. Fair enough, what would the travelling performers do with a bunch of flowers, but it still seems a nice gesture.

NY Times reviews of the last two concerts here.


Saturday, May 14, 2011

Overdose of Energy!

'tis still the 'Spring for Music' Festival season at Carnegie Hall (I would prefer to write 'at the Carnegie Hall' but was taken to task by a faithful reader who said in NY they say 'at Carnegie Hall', like 'at church', or 'at school', I suppose. Interesting, and I wonder if it is just musicians who use the latter phrasings, or everyone). (Picture courtesy of NY Times)

It was only this week that I discovered how Carnegie Hall 'works', if I understood it correctly. Apparently it is totally run like a business. Whereas in Europe, especially Germany and I suspect Eastern European countries, concert halls employ orchestras or engage them (ie pay them) to perform there, here orchestras rent the hall, and have to cover their own expenses. And they then get some of the ticket income to compensate (I suppose the other part of the ticket income goes towards the hall rental, but they still have to cover travel and accommodation). So it's not surprising that some American Orchestras, like the Portland from Oregon (established in the 19th century) and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra this week had their Carnegie Hall debut. Dallas managed to raise 250,000 towards the cost; don't know the figure for Oregon. Anyway, it's an expensive business. But on the other hand, if you, dear Reader, feel you want to have your Carnegie Hall debut, just find a kind sponsor to pay for it. I wonder if this affects the programming choices - it does, at times, seem a bit staid to me. Not only that, but also the orchestras and concert halls support the public radio when in other countries I think the radio pays for transmissions of events not of its own organising. Oh, it's a sad state of affairs.

This all reminded me of that opera company, complete with singers, chorus, orchestra, staging. from somewhere deep in the former Soviet Union, North Ossetia (Gergiev comes from South Ossetia), which trundled all the way to Edinburgh to perform in the Fringe Festival (which is more business like than the International Festival). No doubt her CV will now say that she and her band performed at the Edinburgh festival, which is, strictly speaking, true - but it was not the International Edinburgh Festival, even though both run at the same time, together with others...I think the main soprano's dad paid for it. Here's that story,...and her name is 'Viola'. I wonder if someone has told him about Carnegie Hall? She could do an evening of operatic arias...

Anyway, I digress. Last night it was the turn of the fabulous St Paul Chamber Orchestra, from St Paul, which is one of the Twin cities - the other one is Minneapolis (where the 2004 International Viola Congress took place). The tickets were relatively cheap, and the hall was about 60% full, including some of their supporters who had travelled all the way from St Paul. I hadn't heard the band before, but I had certainly heard of them. Like the Orpheus CO they play usually without a conductor, but there is very strong leadership from the first fiddler (I am in no way implying that there is no leadership in the Orpheus, dear Reader!).

As in all Spring for Music concerts, the programming was interesting. (I must admit to not caring a great deal for Andrew Previn/Tom Stoppards 'Every Good Boy Deserves Favour', on another day, which I heard on the radio, about a mental hospital in the Soviet Union; it was quite funny and all that, but is really rather dated now). Last night's concert was fun, and interesting.

First the highly energised team played Stravinsky's Concerto in D for String Orchestra - with all performers standing (obviously apart from the celli). It had some lovely viola parts, was brisk, percussive (written in 1946) and a lot of fun. This was followed by Maria Schneider's (gee, she is about 5 years younger than me, she looked about 30) Carlos Drummond de Andrade Stories for soprano and chamber orchestra, with the soprano being the awesome Dawn Upshaw (sometimes it's hard to write reviews in NY when you have such stellar performers). Maria Schneider usually writes Jazz and Big Band, so this was quite a departure for her. CD de A was a Brazilian poet, and the Brazilian music shone through nicely; it was very pleasant music, reminding me a bit of the Songs of the Auvergne. The only problem was that the orchestral accompaniment was quite loud, most of the time, I was sitting effectively above the stage entrance, sort of behind Ms Upshaw's right shoulder, so it was quite difficult for me to hear her over the orchestra.

Luckily she had a second piece, with string orchestra, of Bartok's Five Hungarian Folk Songs, arranged by Richard Tognetti. I assume it may have been a piano accompaniment once? Sometimes it seemed a bit of a challenge to keep all the strings busy. But hey, this was so funky! Ms Upshaw sang in Hungarian (from memory), and she was having so much fun - as did the audience. Inevitably it was a mix of happy and sad songs - I knew some of them, whether from spending some time in a Hungarian village or from hearing them elsewhere, I don't know.

And finally Haydn's 104 symphony (one of the 12 London symphonies). A lovely, highly energetic performance, with a wonderful percussionist who was a pleasure to watch (not quite up to 'our' Povilas Giunteris, but then few percussionists have that personality). It had some lovely touches in the minuet and trio, with dynamics which might not have been written in the original score (but what do I know about the score of this piece). I was wondering if Haydn's band at Esterhazy, in that presumably cold castle, would have been so energetic.