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Sunday, December 31, 2006

Gadgets!

Two very interesting gadgets have popped up recently. At a bit of a loose end in Berlin yesterday I found myself in a large sports shop which not only had running gear in a colour I liked (black), but where I also found a heart rate monitor at a reasonable price. I had always thought this was something for hypochondriacs and/or wimps, but just a few days before I read something where it was pointed out that these are now cheaper than a pair of running shoes. A great point - and a great purchase it has turned out to be. First I learnt that different heart rates have different effects on the body, eg fat reduction, improving fitness, or something for serious athletes. The fantastic news is that for the fat reduction you only need a heart rate increased by relatively little - for me that's achieved by simply walking fast. Which probably explains why I have found it relatively easy to lose weight recently, since I have walked so much everywhere. And today, whilst out running, I found I ran much more slowly than normal, to remain in the next band up of heart rate - the fitness improving one - and so I was able to run for a much longer time than usual without killing myself. Definitely a worthwhile purchase.

The other gadget, the Roku Soundbridge, is a serious cool piece of kit. If your house is set up for wireless internet, as many homes nowadays are, this thing connects into it. You then connect it to your hifisystem, and bingo, you can get almost all internet radio stations of the world playing on your hifi, even if your computer is switched off. Unfortunately the BBC with its realplayer requirement is not yet compatible with the soundbridge, but that should just be a matter of time. The soundbridge can also play the MP3s and other formats you might have stored on your computer. It's quite small, about 25 cms long, with a diameter of maybe 8 cms, and so quite portable. I will wait till I am at home for longer periods, by which time it might have sorted the BBC question - but it's been fun listening to Minnesota public radio (the classical band) in Berlin!

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Saturday, December 30, 2006

Cultural Differences

This year's Christmas celebrations with my British son and his German partner in Berlin emphasized the cultural differences that exist between the UK and Germany. People who don't know about these things might think that all European countries are much the same, and that cultural differences might exist between Kabul and Berlin, but surely not between London and Berlin. Well, they are wrong. Cultural differences exist everywhere, even between different layers of society in the same country.

In our family we had always fudged a British Christmas with a German flavour, due to family history, with the present business over and done with on Christmas Eve afternoon. But this Christmas Eve we hit a real difficulty over Christmas carols. German and British carols are completely different, and apart from 'Silent Night' there are very few carols which cover both nations. Recently in Georgia I had made fun of a German person who did not know 'Joy to the World' (music by the British-German composer Handel), but I now realise how little each nation knows of each other's Christmas music. And for example the British Easter hymn 'Thine be the glory' is very much an Easter hymn ('risen, conquering son'....) whereas in German it is a Christmas carol ('Tochter Zion') with very few words that really don't fit all those notes - originally it is a chorus from Handel's oratorio 'Judas Maccabaeus'. Between the three of us one only knew German carols, one knew British carols, one knew both - and one violinist knew British carols, the other reluctant violinist knew both, we somehow managed to cobble it together. Unfortunately the internet went down just as we got to the British carols - so we had no words.
En passant, on Thursday The Times had this article about French doctors being trained in cultural sensitivity to allow them to deal with the many British who now live in France. French doctors have much more time for their patients, it seems. Also they think that if Brits go to see their doctor it must be something serious - apparently 75% of French go to their doctors with symptoms of flu (poor doctors!) but only 25% of Brits do so. That's because it has been drummed into us not to bother our doctors with the flu - keep taking the paracetamol. And that's quite apart from the different illnesses that exist in different European countries, such as 'maladie de la foie' in France, or 'Kreislaufstoerungen' (circulatory disruptions) in Germany.

It also seems that in some rural areas in France the populations are rising again, thanks to the British influx (Much like in Northern Scotland). That's good, no? Anyone who has seen the magical documentary film 'Etre et Avoir' and who has small children will be forming a disorderly queue to allow their children to experience such an education system.

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It's a white Christmas!

At least in Kabul, Afghanistan. These two photos are courtesy of my friend Marion who is currently working there.

Seeing the roofs are generally flat, when it snows like this people (men) have to rush up to the roofs and shovel the snow off them.






I can't help feeling that the snowman has a resemblance to the late Saddam Hussein. Count the number of women in the photos.

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Friday, December 29, 2006

Tagged!

Looked at my blogpatrol stats just now, and was a bit surprised to find 60 readers today. Where did they all come from? The only likely source could be Jessica's blog which I know has well over 100, if not over 200 readers per day.

And indeed, she has a book tag (not enough that I am doing Helene's reading of 5 unread books before the end of January [3 down, 2 to go], now there is this book tag, too). It goes like this:
Find the nearest book.
Turn to page 123.
Go to the fifth sentence on the page.
Copy out the next three sentences and post to your blog.
Name the book and the author, and tag three more folks.
So, ignoring a technical manual lying on the settee behind me, I grab a book from the shelf of yet-to-be read books, and find not only that it is in German, but that the area specified involves a recipe for an Indian dish - which I cannot possibly translate from German. It's Kiran Desai's 'Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard'. This probably does not count. Try again in the shelf of yet-to-be-read books.

'They reabsorbed Roman Gaul - or allowed themselves to be reabsorbed into it. The conversion of Clovis proves that the ancient Gauls, who had become Germans and Franks, readopted the values and the political system of the Roman Empire. And if, at the time of their return, the Franks did have to fight, it was not against the Gauls or even the Romans (whose values they were absorbing); it was against the Burgundians and the Goths (who, being Aryans, were heretics), or against the Saracen infidels'.

No, it's not from Caesar's 'Bello Gallico' ('Gaul is divided into three parts....') , but Michel Foucault's 'Society must be defended', a collection of lecture texts. Looks quite interesting, but it has been sitting on that shelf for some time.
I tag Helene, Grannyp, and ... I am scared to do another book blog because I worry what other tags I might get involved in.....Are we having too much spare time?

The talk of Aryans reminds me...for Christmas I was given two antiquarian books on Georgia (by the Black Sea). One is from the 'DDR' (East Germany') and apparently describes a visit or visits to that country by their socialist colleagues from Germany. The other, by A Sanders, a history of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, was written in Germany up to 1942 and published in 1944. My edition is of the second printing batch (11,000 to 20,000 copies) - during that time while Germany was being bombed to smithereens!

The book starts with a chapter on the 'rassisch/voelkisches' (basically 'race'), and a discussion on 'Blut' and 'Boden' (blood and earth which I think might have been major points of consideration in Hitler's philosophy). The chapter goes on to describe how during those migratory periods, during the stone, bronze and iron ages, these Aryan indo-german people migrated from, roughly, Germany, everywhere, east, south, north.It goes on to suggest that the Indians went to India from somewhere in the Iranian corner of the world. This chapter ends by saying 'in each of the indogerman peoples the values of the soul of the nordic race have expressed themselves in a particularly model and exemplary fashion'. Of course, this is a book about the Caucasus - but isnt it frightening to see how a perfectly normal history book is not only influenced itself by the prevailing philosophy, but also in turn is able to propagate and support such a philosophy? I am sure that this can be the case even now in a different context. En passant I had always thought that many of the migrations had started in the Indian corner of the world, but I really know nothing about it.

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Thursday, December 28, 2006

A Ray of Sunshine

'Little Miss Sunshine' is one of the funniest films I have seen for a long time! A family consisting of a father teaching the 9 steps to be a winner, a teenager who has taken a vow of silence until he joins the American Air Force Academy, a coke-snorting grandfather, an uncle who is America's first authority on Proust and who has just attempted suicide, a mother who holds all of them together, and a little girl who dreams of winning the next 'Little Miss Sunshine' competition, set off in a campervan from Albuquerque to Los Angeles for the final of this competition.

In the course of this trip, like every good road movie, a number of truths reveal themselves to each of the participants, and a variety of disasters occur before they finally just make it to the competition location. The scenes of the competition are priceless, with severely over-dolled-up children and then our wee heroine, wearing glasses, and being of a somewhat dumpier build. The dance routine her grandfather taught her is out of this world, as are the stunned reactions of the audience.

When the film opened with the mother of the family, Toni Collette, I thought - I have seen those teeth before! I could only think of 'Muriel's Wedding' - and right enough, this is the main actress of that film, having lost about half her weight, it seems.

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Orthodox Judaism

Pearl Abraham's 'The Romance Reader' (unhelpfully translated into German as 'The Novel Reader') describes the life of a young girl/woman between the ages of about 12 and 18, somewhere in America. Her father is an orthodox Jewish rabbi who is trying to build a synagogue in a former holiday village. There are 6 younger brothers and sisters.

Life is extremely restricted, and the children are not allowed to do anything. The oldest girl, sometimes together with her nearest sister, tries to fight for more freedoms, such as the freedom to read books from the local library, to wear stockings without seams or even see-through stockings, to take part in a life-saving course to become a pool attendant - the subsequent discovery of her parents that she sits by the poolside in a swimming costume causes major ructions. Of course she goes to an orthodox Jewish school (where the lessons might even be in Yiddish), and then goes straight into teaching at the age of 17 - which says a lot for the quality of education.... Her brothers enter a Yeshivah and become ultra-orthodox. Finally she marries the first guy introduced to her (much against her better judgement) who turns out a bit of a waste of space. I had not appreciated that orthodox Jewish ladies have to shave their own hair before wearing a wig, and then covering up that wig.....this creates rather strange links to the holocaust.

The book is very readable, written from a growing child's point of view, and gives some appalling insights into the world of very orthodox Judaism - which in some ways does not seem to be that distant from orthodox Islam. But perhaps I don't understand anything about it....

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Bizarre goings-on in Edinburgh

I was really irritated, when Margaret Atkinson's 'One Good Turn - A Jolly Murder Mystery' began in gangster speak. I had known her as quite a good author, and now this? But the book was set in Edinburgh and so I persisted. Turned out that every character has his or her own language, and the gangster speaks only at the beginning and end of the book. Bit surprising though, that an English character with a Scottish father, on his first ever trip to Scotland, is familiar with the term 'a poke of chips'.

It's a riveting read, and very funny, too. Lots of initially disparate, and disjoined, occasionally also dysfunctional, characters pop up without apparent connection to each other, and, like in all good crime novels, eventually end up connected to each other. This even leads to a Christie-an scene where all characters (bar one who is a mute participant, in a coma in hospital, but who is behind all the shenanigans) are assembled in one place - though here the resemblance to an orderly Christie-an assembly ends. There are many bizarre incidents, where, for example, someone stumbles across a corpse on a beach, the tide comes up and he almost drowns while trying to rescue the corpse; or where a rottweiler, leaping at someone's throat, takes a heart attack in mid flight.

The story is set in the Edinburgh of the festival, which the author seems to know well, including the ups and downs of fringe performers and performances. A play which never quite gets it together is one of the threads running through the book. Most of the characters live in the posh bits or very posh bits of the town (unlike Rebus' Edinburgh characters who mostly live in murky housing estates) - it's nice to read about familiar haunts! (Not that I ever lived in posh bits of Edinburgh...).

I don't normally like detective novels but this is a great read!

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Friday, December 22, 2006

Stradivarius

Tony Faber's book 'Stradivarius: Five Violins, One Cello and a Genius' is not really blessed with the happiest choice of title (like '4 Weddings and a Funeral', or 'The Cook, The Thief, The Wife and Her Lover'). It's Faber's first book. We do not know Faber's relationship to string instruments or violin making - it seems he is an offspring of the Faber and Faber publishing house. This figures. Looking up Faber on the internet, I see that the San Diego Union Tribune describes the book as 'enjoyable but flawed'. That's about right.

Faber begins by sketching out, with a few very rough strokes of the pen, the details of Stradivarius' life, before picking on 6 instruments and tracking them, with varying degrees of success, from their birth to the present day.

The book is very readable indeed, and, blessed with a relatively low word density on its 256 pages, a quick read as well. And perhaps, because it does not claim to be a scientific book or paper, it makes this story more accessible to the average reader. It certainly helped me to time and place some musicians, such as Viotti, Pugnani, or Lipinski - and many other names familiar to upper string players drifted through as well.

However - and this is a big, big however - I was really irritated by the first half of the book by the lack of facts. It seems very little is known about Stradivarius himself, his life, and that of anyone else much before about 1850 or so. Facts are thin on the ground. Often Faber offers a variety of suppositions of what might have been the case, but on the other hand something else might have happened. Even when he makes a direct quote, such as a letter by Lipinski, he discredits it immediately afterwards. The book contains some amazing real facts though - such as an orchestra in Dresden ordering 12 violins from Stradivarius, and the 60th anniversary concert of Joseph Joachim's first public performance, featuring his pupils playing on 44 Strads. Wow! The factuality hit rate improves halfway during the 19th century, and the book improves.

I also wonder how much on-site research Faber did when writing his book, other than book research. At the end he describes a scene where he hears a Strad being played in the Palace of the Community in Cremona and he wonders if this is the first time he has heard a Strad close up. This I find astonishing for someone who writes a book about them. Surely anyone who goes to a concert in a big concert hall can hear a Strad at almost any time - they are still quite common, even if many are in safes. To me it suggests Faber is not a concertgoer. So what will his next book be about - the history of apples and pears?

There are two other minor irritations - he consistently writes the name of the Russian violin pedagogue Leopold Auer with an umlaut 'u'. That cannot be the case. The other grating moment happens on almost every page, since he really focuses on the selling prices of the instruments, painstakingly converting them to modern British pounds. So is money all this book is about?

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Merry Christmas!

A very

Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays


to all my readers

and have a super-duper New Year!




(picture courtesy of www.moma.org)

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Orhan Pamuk - I give up...

The Black Book has been lying beside me forever, unfinished, and finished it will never be, at least not in the near future. Pamuk, the Turkish author, has been winning prizes right, left and centre in recent years. I am not sure whether some of those awards have not also been very slightly influenced by his political stance, for example vis a vis the Armenian genocide where he suggested that Turkey begins to accept that it happened. For this and other utterances he landed in court (for something like 'defaming the Turkish nation'), though the last court case was thrown out. The reason why I have so many books by him is that I like reading books by international authors, and at least in one case, when Prague Airport lost my suitcase, this was one of the few books by a known author I could find at Istanbul Airport.

I have read or half-read quite a few of his books, and another one is still waiting to be read (though, note, not in my list of 5 books to finish before the end of January). All his books are very beautifully crafted, very descriptive, and describing in great detail the fullness of all the mental processes undergone by the protagonists. I finished 'Snow', a book set in very rural Turkey which is visited by a Turkish writer living in Germany, and which is cut off for three days by a snow storm. In these days all hell breaks loose, between the more modern Turks and those who insist on girls wearing headscarves. There are a number of deaths, a theatre is taken over by gunmen, and a love story also drifts through the book (all his books, it seems). It is a very gripping book but like all his books very slow moving; you'd really want to have a lot of time to spend on it, and preferably no other distractions whilst doing so.

The New Life, which I almost finished, is about a young student from Istanbul who gets hold of a book which totally changes his life. He keeps reading and rereading it, trying to work out what it is telling him. After a fleeting meeting with the author, who then disappears, our hero falls in love with the author's girlfriend, who also disappears. He abandons his studies, and travels all over Turkey on rickety buses, preferably at night, looking for these two people. In this process he keeps being involved in accidents with deaths, where he finds a certain beauty in the corpses of young women. (Not sure how he finances these trips - maybe by stealing from the corpses??) Then he finds the young woman and they take on the identities of a couple, killed in one of these crashes, get involved in a strange conference and so it goes on and on. Very complex.

The Black Book, which I will not finish now, is about a guy, Galip, in Istanbul who comes home one day to find his wife missing. He is part of a large extended family but pretends to them, and anyone else, that she is away, at home sick or in another way indisposed. He finds that his uncle, a famous newspaper columnist is missing, too. He walks and travels all over Istanbul trying to find them. In the process he takes on the identity of the uncle even to the degree that he starts to live in the uncle's flat and he gets involved with a British TV crew as the uncle. The chapters dealing with Galip are interspersed with the newspaper columns written by the uncle, which remarkably, are very relevant to the turn of the story ('turn' is too active a word, 'meander' is better). Apparently the neighbourhood described by Pamuk closely resembles that where he grew up; in the westernised part of Istanbul.

All his books are very very complex, very very dense, and so quite hard work. Also if you put them down, they might be hard to pick up again after a while. Perhaps they can be described as slow-burning thrillers? As a reader, one wishes to move on to the next bit of activity, but gets caught up in the intricate details of the persons' thought processes instead. They might be good reading if you are trapped somewhere; the density of words per page is quite high, so they would keep you occupied for a while.

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Disappearing into thin air!

... well, not quite, but a combination of careful dieting and lots of walking has caused me to lose about 13 kg (2 stones) in weight in the last 2.5 months or so (and long may it continue??? - even next week??). This has had inevitable sartorial consequences... I have always liked loose fitting clothes, such as chino type trousers, but now it's more like flags in the wind. Luckily in Lithuania it is fairly reasonable to have clothes made smaller, and the local tailoring shop has been a little busy and will be busier still after the new year, before my next trip abroad.

I thought, however, that it might be nice to buy some new trousers. A couple of days ago I went to every clothes shop in the Akropolis shopping centre, and did I find one pair that fitted? I did not. The fact that I like my trousers to end rather higher than the pubic hairline had something to do with it, apart from the inevitable handicap of living in Lithuania, where the girls have skinny legs up to their armpits. Thankfully today at last I was lucky at 'Buddelei', a German clothes chain which also exists in Vilnius. The only thing is that it makes me feel like a mature German lady - and I don't consider myself either mature or German! And tomorrow I will pick up my Landsend order in Germany - we know that American clothes need to be comfortably made ;-). In case this sounds like a contradition between wanting comfort and having lost weight - I have gone down two or three sizes!

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Thursday, December 21, 2006

Turkmenbashi and Abramovich leave their posts

Just heard that the President of Turkmenistan has died of a heart attack. He is the first to die of those post-soviet leaders (except maybe the chap in Azerbaijan, but he died slowly and could appoint an heir) who made themselves full dictators, with a plan to run the country for life. This he certainly did, though perhaps his life was shorter than planned. As the article says, he called everything after himself, from the Turkmenbashi (a name he adopted) kindergarten to the Turkmenbashi factory.

Only a few weeks ago I had chatted to a Turkmen lady living in Vilnius, who told me that the pensions in Turkmenistan had recently been cut, on account that the families should be responsible for their relatives. He also abolished the opera and ballet since they were not within the spirit of his nation. At one stage it was proposed that young women marrying foreigners had to pay about 50,000 dollars to the state to be allowed to leave, but apparently this could not be implemented realistically. Pictures of him, and a statue in gold, were everywhere. Turkmenistan has huge gas and oil reserves and is a very rich country, but where all that wealth goes, no-one knows. The Gross Domestic Product per person, according to the CIA world fact book, is 7900 USD per person per year. My friend's mother's pension was, before the cuts, 600 USD per year - a good pension, as she said....

And Mr Abramovich, owner of Chelsea football club and a large chunk of Siberia, where he is governor, is giving up politics. I hope this is good for his health. The deal was, according to some sources, that as a governor the Russia government could not do him over like Mr Khodorkovsky, owner of Yukos Oil , who had intended to be a presidential candidate in 2008, but who was thrown into prison on tax evasion charges about 2 years ago; his company was stripped from him, sold in a rather dubious transaction to another company, and the foreign parts of the company were dissolved. Apparently Mr Abramovich has sold most of his assets in Russia and intends to live in Europe, possibly London. He's probably between a rock and a hard place now - he will definitely not please Mr Putin. Will he have to look over his shoulder and into his teacups for the rest of his life?

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Camerata Klaipeda - full of Zest!

The Camerata Klaipeda is a very interesting little string orchestra. Founded by the Lithuanian violinist, Vilhelmas Cepinskas (or Cepinskis) who studied at the Julliard School in New York with Dorothy Delay, it is a gathering of 13 string players plus Cepinskas, all of whom are under 30, and some are still at the music academy. The aim is to give the young ones experience in small orchestra playing with good soloists; like all young people's orchestras they play with oodles of energy and enthusiasm. Why and how people lose this, I don't know. One of the interesting little things the orchestra does is that the violinists swap places after every piece, so the leader of the seconds might be at the back of the firsts for one piece, or beside the leader of the firsts for another piece. People slip from back to front and side to side, and it all works really well. It's not possible for the 2 each of the violas and cellos, but perhaps they change parts if they play very divisi music.

Anyway, yesterday's concert in the Filharmonija was an evening of transcriptions. I am not sure I approve of quite such an undiluted approach to transcriptions. Tke Kremerata Baltica does it, the Moscow Soloists do it, and now the Camerata Klaipeda does it, too. Is it something about Eastern Europe? And they all scale up music, like sonatas, trios or string quartets. There is plenty of nice music for chamber orchestras, so why go for all these transcriptions?

The first piece was Cepinskas' transcription of the Martinu sonata for two violins, with Cepinskas himself and the Ukrainian Oleg Krysa as the soloists. I am not sure this transcription worked well, because it lacked the contrast between the piano accompaniment and the violin sound. As a result, the two soloists drowned a little in the massed strings behind them. Also there seemed to be some uncertainty between the two soloists and it certainly put me on edge, wondering what might happen next. But all went well enough.

Oleg Krysa then played the Shostakovich sonata, orchestrated by M Zinman. Apart from the piece being neverending, and a little morose, it went very well. I felt Krysa was far more relaxed in this, and did some sublime playing, totally in control. The second movement had a lovely section sounding like bells, where the bell sound moved around from one fiddle to the next, and one never knew where the 'rrrriiinnng' might come from.

Finally the orchestra picked up the Mendelssohn Octet. It was a bit awkward with the violins playing their parts in groups of two or three to a desk, whereas the lower strings all played an individual part. The double bass part was added to Toscanini, we were told - but the double bassist was spotted shaking his head. The orchestra really took off for this one, zipping through the piece, almost lifting off. This was by far the most successful piece of the evening! The concert ended with a lovely encore of what else but Piazzola.

The Mendelssohn octet used to give me nightmares, and for a long time I could only listen to it from behind the settee. In my early chamber music playing days one evening another quartet attending the same course asked my quartet if we fancied playing this piece in the evening. It seems that is the sort of thing one does. The only problem was that they played it every year, and I had to sightread it - it became more of a Mendelssohn septet.... Hearing it last night, with one of the violas opening with syncopation I am sure I would not have played that part!

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Quasthoff - An Ordinary Kind of Bloke

I can see why someone said that they did not care for how this book, The Voice - A Memoir, was written - but it's a matter of taste. After this comment I expected it to be written in the hallmark TV kind of style (overcoming adversity and all that), but in fact Thomas Quasthoff and his brother Micha put it together in a very entertaining, blokeish kind of way. This emphasizes the fact that he is just the bloke nextdoor, good for a party, good for a trip to the pub, and he happens to sing. In his book he remorselessly takes the p*ss out of critics and other media folk! Understandably since he, as a 'Promi' (a celebrity) suffers a fair bit at their hands.

As it happens, he was born with thalidomide damage, causing him to be very short, amongst other issues. At the time, Germany was not that up to integration of persons with disabilities, so he and his parents went through the usual periods of institutional care, since, for example, no school would admit him initially. Also the music academy at Hanover rejected him since he could not play another instrument. However, he and his family persevered, and despite his lack of formal (ie supported by a piece of paper) music education he ended up winning the ARD competition in 1988. And the rest is history. He is welcome in every concerthall and opera house in the world. His repertoire is very wide, including jazz , due to a misspent youth and his brother's keen interest, including performing, in jazz. His voice (baritone) is like velvet, or hot chocolate - he himself suggests that this smoothness comes from also singing jazz and popular American songs, like Sinatra. I suspect that if it has notes, he'll sing it. Here are some sound samples.

Recently he has also taken to singing opera to raving reviews, and since the late 90s he has been teaching (though, Mr Quasthoff, I don't think you were the only performing teacher at Detmold Hochschule fuer Musik - Nobuko Imai also taught there, and performed a lot. I know, it's 'only' the viola...). He must be the only music professor in German history who does not have a single academic qualification!

It seems he is mates with our own Yuri Bashmet. He suggests that the Moscow Soloists who regularly perform with Bashmet are supported by him so that they have a reasonable quality of living (unlike other Russian orchestral musicians). Well, maybe.

If his mother had been pregnant with him 20 - 25 years later, with ultrasound scanning and interventions being available, one wonders what would have happened. This is a very sobering thought.

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Monday, December 18, 2006

Books Challenge

My friend Helene blogs about a books challenge where between now and the end of January you read five books of the collection of books that has been sitting on your shelf, unread. This is an excellent idea, given that I have almost 4 ft (1.12m) of bookshelf full of unread books. The question is, when to read them - the TV with lots of interesting German and French channels is very distracting... all those travels as well.

So anyway, I have picked five books, focussing particularly on hardbacks (which are more difficult to transport), though cheating slightly because I am not going to read Foucault or Che Guevara's biography or 'Managing Change and Transition' over my winter break. So I've picked:
Quasthoff's 'Die Stimme' (which I am told is not particularly well written)
'One Good Turn' by Kate Atkinson (a 'Jolly Murder Mystery')
'Shadow of the Silk Road' by Colin Thubron
'Stradivarius' by Tony Faber
A book by Yasar Kemal (I have two, but I have a feeling I might have read one of them in another language already....)

Given that I am also preparing for my music diploma (more of that later) that'll take plenty of time. Then again I read one whole book in one day, and when I was sick a couple of months ago I went through books like a dose of salts! And really, I have nothing much else to do over the next 10 -12 working days....

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Vilnius Ghetto

Amazon is very good at knowing what I might be interested in reading - it's a great marketing strategy. So when a book popped up by Schoschana Rabinovici called 'Dank meiner Mutter', I thought it was another book on holocaust survival, and I have read quite a few. However, turns out that Schoschana was a girl from Vilnius - that immediately made it much more relevant!

Indeed it is a story of holocaust survival, written in 1991, and it seems, written in German. Schoschana, or Susie, as she was then, was 9 when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, which Lithuania was part of at that moment in history. She describes vividly all that happened to her large extended family, all of whom lived in central Vilnius (she uses the Polish street names, but one can work out more or less where the locations were). The family was quite comfortably off, but as life became more and more restricted, they moved together into increasingly crowded apartments, at one stage living 15 to a room - and then it gets worse. Just before the fall of the ghetto it is decided to build an underground refuge, with the entrance going through an outdoor toilet with very complicated plumbing arrangements. As a number of invited families gather outside the entrance, other people join in, too, and in the end 180 people go into this hole. The only oxygen supply is via a chimney and people have to behave quietly and not use energy. A baby who cries is accidentally smothered by his father. Susie's mother discovers she suffers from claustrophobia....

After a day or two they decide that this is not going to work, and they go back to their or other people's houses, where eventually they are caught and sent via days sitting in a graveyard in December, sent to the first camp, near Riga. Life there is predictable, little food, much disease etc. Finally via another camp Susie and her mother are liberated - the father's brother also survives, out of a family of more than 15. But it is indeed thanks to her mother that Susie survives; the mother who bribes a guard to let her 10-year-old daughter join the working women (as opposed to the 'to be disposed of' women), the mother who makes her dress and wash every day in freezing conditions, the mother who gets all sorts of jobs which come with extra food, thus allowing Susie to eat, the mother who bullies her out of starvation - and finally Susie also saves her mother's life.

The book is not wonderfully well written, but it is a harrowing story told in a very matter-of-fact way - after all, the author was very young at the time of these events and saw it through a child's eyes. I read it through in one sitting. The details in the book triangulate well with the recent film 'Ghetto' , based on a play by Joshua Sobol, about the Vilnius Ghetto Theatre, started by the Germans to entertain the ghetto population. It's a gripping film! The film's soundtrack by the composer Anatolijus Senderovas is awesome, mixing yiddish songs with Bach's Ciaconna, amongst others. The songs are sung extremely authentically by Judita Leitaite. The DVD of the film (which is in English) is available from Amazon in Germany, though I noticed that some Germans here did not much care for the film - but the linguistic quality of their comments makes you wonder what exactly they watched the film for, and what kind of people they are.

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Sunday, December 17, 2006

No whimsy here

Today's concert in Vilnius was by the violinist Marija Nemanyte and the pianist Daumantas Kirilauskas. Both are Lithuanians who have studied abroad (Kirilauskas) or are still working abroad (Nemanyte). I must confess that 'ah ken Marija's faither'. Both her parents are violists, but Marija plays violin. Nobody's perfect, I guess ;-).

The programme included Haydn's Sonata Hob. XV:32, Schnittke's Sonata No 1 for violin and piano, Webern's 4 pieces for the same combination, and Strauss' violin/pianoflat major, op 18. I might have heard the Haydn before, but did not know the other pieces.

Ms Nemanyte is a very forceful player, attacking her violin with all she has got. I wonder how she would do with very romantic music, say, the Massenet 'Meditation' or some Kreisler. As it was, the music was chosen to show her strengths, and this it did. I was confused at the beginning, because the Haydn is supposed to start with an Andante, but the tempo seemed like anything but an Andante. Still, the second movement, Allegro, was faster than the first.

Similarly in the Schnittke the difference between the Andante and the Allegretto was very slight. This was an interesting piece, particularly so since, unlike Schnittke's other pieces, it did not seem particularly 'poly-stylistic', mixing elements of all styles from baroque to contemporary. This really was quite contemporary. Nemanyte is used to Schnittke, because she plays in the Kremerata Baltica and only yesterday she was seen on the Mezzo channel playing one of the Schnittke concerti grossi. She seemed quite at home in this piece. To my mind, Schnittke is not played enough, but his music is not everyone's taste.

The Webern (not one of my favourite composers) was over in 5 minutes (all 4 pieces). The two slow movements were played with a practice mute - which was fine, except the concert hall is near a busy road and we could very clearly hear the traffic passing. It was somewhat esoteric, rather more symbolical than real violin playing, with the odd note here and there.

The Strauss sonata reminded me of his horn concertos; lush late romantic music, lots of notes, not extremely virtuosic (only virtuosic) and very expertly produced by the duo. It was a good piece to finish a concert on, and a great thrower-out for the audience. This piece should be played more often.

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More Shostakovich!

Back home in Vilnius, last night I got my regular Filharmonija fix. It was Shostakovich and Rakhmaninov.

Started with a small suite of pieces from 'The Gadfly' - some film music in which the orchestra was at its lush best. Then Marie-Elisabeth Hecker, the very young German cellist, with the Shostakovich cello concerto, who played the same piece in Kiev in September. This time I felt that it was a little bit less energetic than before - I think much of it can be played quite dirty, with lots of lovely cello crunches. But it was played with total confidence and ease. Afterwards she told me that she had had to learn the piece in 3 days (and consign it to memory) - It helped her win a competition in France. Astonishing! Apparently she is now involved with the Kronberg Academy, which is the German cradle for good cellists, and also with Gidon Kremer and his Lockenhaus Festival. She will go far with connections like that.

Strangely, in the morning, listening a discussion on BBC Radio 3, someone was complaining about a female cellist being compared to Jacqueline Du Pre, on account of her hair. Young Ms Hecker also has hair like Ms Du Pre....

This piece was followed by 'The Bells', a choral symphony by Rakhmaninov based on poems by Edgar Allan Poe (did he not write some well known crime story?), with a choir and three soloists. One of the soloists was a Latvian tenor called Viesturs Jansons... I wonder if he might be related to Maris Jansons, the conductor, in which case this would be another East European musical dynasty. This review of another performance refers to the piece's lyrical beauty; hmm, well, there was not that much lyricism in this performance apart from the second movement (Asta Kriksciunaite, soloist); it was quite a 'pin your ears back, it's going to be noisy' type of performance. Only very occasionally did choir and orchestra run themselves down to something less than a double forte.

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Reading books in several languages....

has the disadvantage that, if you find an author you like and buy his books in one language, you are never quite sure when you buy books by him in another language that they are not the same. Even with Amazon you cannot always look inside fiction books. Titles are rarely translated word for word. And it's irritating when you grab a book to take on your travels and then find that you have read it before - and you don't have enough other books to last the trip!

So I had taken a collection of Chekhov's short stories 'The Steppe' (Oxford World Classics edition) with me to Kiev. I am not generally fond of Russian writers (though I have also read few) but I like Chekhov: he writes nice stories which describe the world of 'ordinary folk' in the Russian countryside very beautifully and probably also very accurately. The translator, Ronald Hingley, describes these stories as studies of the Russian underclass (of the time) to which he estimates 80% of the population belonged. I suspect that life for this group of people, living in the countryside, has not changed much in the last over 100 years. Isn't that frightening? No development in over 100 years? Yes, there may be cars, TV sets and things, but many people still survive on subsistence farming, the healthcare is limited and access to social protection - it is such that the social protection is almost not worth accessing. I am not sure what the subsistence farmers of today can do to protect their pension rights for tomorrow. But then, in Russia the life expectancy for men in particular is probably less than the pension age now (as it was in Germany in Bismarck's days when old age pensions were first introduced).

Many of his stories don't really have a result or happy/unhappy end - they often describe a day in the life of someone or a journey to a place - but what happens the next day, or when the people have arrived, no-one knows. His descriptions of the countryside and of people, even their tiniest actions such as a smile, are exquisite.

The translation is very interesting; it seems that country folk in Russia, as everywhere else, speak with different accents compared to city people. So here the translator has given some folk a British north country way of speaking 'it were', others sound more west country... The expression 'it would make a cat laugh' also pops up unexpectedly - the only person I ever heard use that expression (frequently) was my colleague Jean in Scotland. I was slightly taken aback by the presence of 'gophers' in Russia - not that I know what kind of critter a gopher is, but it was the sudden Americanism that puzzled me!

The translator says that this collection is not typical Chekhov - so 'll have to read some more. And yes, some of the stories were in a German collection of Chekhov stories, about the lady with the little dog and others.

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Saturday, December 16, 2006

The power of music

Just watched 'Das weinende Kamel' (the weeping camel), a story set in the Gobi desert in Mongolia, with Mongolian actors (actually a real Mongolian family). They live of breeding camels. These are particularly cuddly camels (though perhaps it was also filmed in the spring, since everyone who met anyone asked 'and how are you surviving the spring' - much like 'how do you do').

Lots of camel mums have babies, but one of them won't let her baby near her to feed. Nothing can be done, until the family remembers an old folk remedy....the two young sons, one not looking older than 7 or 8, are sent off to the nearest town (a day's or two camel ride away) to find a horsehead violin player. A horsehead violin has a trapeze-shaped body, two strings, interesting f-holes, and a scroll shaped like a horse's head.

They find one in the local music school, where he is instructing a recalcitrant group of students in the playing of this instrument. He finds a replacement to take his classes, and the next day rushes out to the countryside on his motorbike. There they find the similarly recalcitrant mother and the sad baby camel, and he starts to play his violin, with the mother of the human family singing. And see, little by little, the camel mum calms down, bursts into tears, and lets the baby near it. And all ends well.

Does it end well, though? The smaller son discovered TV on the trip into town and now the family has a TV, a solar panel on top of the yurt and a huge satellite dish to lug around.

The loveliest moment was at the end of the film, when all actors lined up in small groups with their names printed on the screen below them. This included the two main camels and their names.

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Sinking fast

The British papers this week have been full of bad news for T Blair. Apart from him being interviewed by the police over the honours for cash affair, yesterday's news that a corruption inquiry by the Serious Fraud Office has been stopped due to 'National Interest'. The alleged corruption had to do with BAE (formerly known as British Aerospace which famously left Prestwick, Scotland, for Toulouse) perhaps encouraging, in some way, Arab countries to buy their military equipment. It would seem that the inquiry was just about to reach the crux of the matter.

The national interest apparently relates to the fact that Saudi Arabia is considering placing an order for some more military jets or something, and if the investigation continues, this 70 million GBP contract might be lost.
This suggests two things:
1. Corruption is in the national interest
2. The tendering/contracting process on the current order is also not white as the driven snow.

Makes you glad to be represented by such a sleaze-free government, does it not? Both stories are very closely linked to T Blair - I wonder how long he can hang on. But would he want to go due to corruption? Then again, could he be impeached? Remember that Clinton was impeached for only getting a ....(word omitted to spare the sensitive) - see this wonderful you tube video.

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Friday, December 15, 2006

A Nightmare at the Opera

This lovely comment by Simon Jenkins in today's Guardian describes the hullabaloo that has broken out in Milan after the tenor Roberto Alagna rushed off the stage in mid-performance. Apparently the spectators in the Gallery booed him for 'a rather laboured B flat'. That sounds like an audience with steel, who were looking for a return for their expensive tickets - 'if we pay that much, we expect every note to be sung perfectly and with expression'. Not like those of us who even (politely) applaud those for making an effort who have laboured with rather more than one B flat - like the whole octave range. It sounds a bit like the Glasgow Empire which used to be the death of comics. It must be interesting to attend the Scala.

Mr Alagna is suing the scala for not protecting him from the audience - what if they had thrown stones, he asks. Do many people attend the opera with stones in their pockets? Would people in the gallery, a packed standing area presumably, really wish to enter the opera house with eggs or tomatoes in their pockets? He also feels the rest of the audience should have protected him...

Simon Jenkins anticipates European Directives to result from this, on health and safety grounds. It makes you wonder how long it will take before performing artists can sue concert halls for stage fright.

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Thursday, December 14, 2006

too much spare time?

It seems that my friend Helene has too much time on her hand. Here she blogs about books she has read and might take to desert islands and so on, and challenges her regular readers, amongst them moi, to to the same (the way I understand it). And how does the trackback thing work? Maybe next week..

Just watching a film with Stephen Fry in French set in about 1970 or so on arte; including a hot torrid sex scene with a woman over a washing machine which goes straight from switch-on to spin. Fry is famously gay, of course. He keeps his clothes on. But then he ain't the only gay actor having to do things like this....This was immediately followed by an actress playing the end of a Bach cello suite - the close-up of her hands only came up as she did not have to move her left hand anymore....

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Kilts in Kiev

well, sort of kilts. Today is the office Christmas party. I hate these things, and was relieved that a week ago (working on another project and not knowing about the party) I had bought a ticket for La Sylphide at the Kiev Opera House. I had often heard the title of the ballet, but never heard of the composer, one Jean Schneitzhoeffer, or the choreographer, Filippo Taglione. It was created in 1832, and it seems the choreography has not changed a bit since then. There is also something called 'Les Sylphides' about, a ballet created in 1907 based on Chopin's piano pieces orchestrated by Glazunov and choreographed by Fokine. All very bewildering.

Anyway, I was delighted to spot guys in kilts on the stage. Wow! Apparently it's about a farmer, James (wee Jimmy) who dreams of a sylphide (fairy) as he is about to get married to Effie, the neighbour's wean. He has a party in his rather baronial hall, or the Big Hoose, with lots of lads and lasses in kilts and checked skirts. The kilts are not quite kilts, the sporrans are attached to wide belts, and some of those kilts are far too long! (Kilts always do things for men's legs, regardless whether they are skinny or very well built chaps, but it really helps to see those bonnie knees). Also in this case, it seemed, something was worn underneath. Anyway, during the party the neighbour Gurn (Gurn???) and his maw, Madge arrive. Madge, being something of an old crone, not to say a witch (what does that say about old women?), who tells fortunes from reading hands, has bad news for Effie and indeed wee Jimmy. The sylphide flits about during the party and the dancing, only visible to oor Jimmy and finally nicks the wedding ring and floats off. Bad news! Wur Jimmy runs after her, leaving his bride in tears.

The second act opens in a woodland glen where Madge does a Macbeth act, boiling things in a cauldron, with a few handmaidens attending. Wur Jimmy and his sylphide are happily dancing about in love, when Madge appears again and gives Jimmy a scarf to help him keep the sylphide forever. As it happens, she poisoned it, and when he wraps it round his lass, she dies, and later so does he - with the witch triumphant.

'Tis but a short ballet of 1.5 hours including interval, rattling rapidly through the storyline. There is lots of nice dancing, including hints at highland flings, 8some reels (more like 24some reels) and sword dances, and there is no lingering about being soulful or even doleful. The witch (danced by a man) was wonderful! The two main characters did well - there was not a great deal of inspiration but all the steps seemed to be in the right places - a bit insipid, though. The synchronicity of the corps de ballet left a few things to be desired, particularly when small groups of sylphides danced. The orchestra had its rough edges here and there, but also got through the piece. But overall it was a fun and interesting evening. Another choreography I have seen.

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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Free Mozart downloads!

Here are free downloads of all Mozart's music (sheet music). A fantastic resource. Note that the site is totally overwhelmed just now.

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Out in the Sticks!

Off into the far West of Ukraine today to run a seminar. Not the very far west, because there is a place called Chop which is signposted as 700+ km from Kiev, on the Polish border apparently. My place was only 300 km from Kiev (or so).

The project rule is that we do not travel by marshrutka (minibus) for safety reasons, and even the project driver is not allowed to make both trips on the same day. (Which reminds me of the days when I used to travel north through Scotland, leaving work at 3.30 pm, driving 400 km to Elgin, listening to a concert, and then driving 400 km back afterwards, arriving home at around 2 am. But never mind.) So we had planned everything, leaving this morning, workshop in the afternoon, returning home tomorrow. But then apparently the project rules changed, so we went by marshrutka. I am not convinced about the logic or the motivation of this all. So we went up by marshrutka in the morning, and returned with another one in the evening.

On the way we saw 3 accidents; one was a marshruta completely concertina'd from behind, the other a long vehicle lying across the full width of the motorway (which did not matter, since there was no barrier across the motorway, so we simply drove across on the opposite side to get around the obstacle - but with a barrier the accident might not have happened, we assume someone just attempted a U-turn across the motorway) and a further accident.

The marshrutkas have inbuilt entertainment - they all have DVD players, so the captive audience is trapped watching more or less appalling videos. On the menu today was:
an appalling Russian film about teenage boys trying to discover sex
a strange Russian film about some children and chases with snowmobiles
an American never-ending double act called 'Pure Women' set in the Civil War with lots of births, deaths, and diseases
another American film which I would describe as a 'God-film' where a doctor, who has been able to save a child's life, finds herself accompanied by an Angel or two. The Angel roles call for 'silent type' acting, with lots of significant looks. Truly dreadful. I thought I recognised the main actress. Since all films were dubbed in Russian I did not really get much of the content.

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Bashmet in Glasgow

Here is a review in the Guardian of Bashmet's concert in Edinburgh, conducting the fabulous Scottish Chamber Orchestra (thanks, Pat). Does not seem to have gone wonderfully, due to odd programming and unexpected interpretations. A bit of a shame, really.

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Salome in Vilnius

No, I cannot be in two places at once, but this morning I came across this review in the International Herald Tribune of the Lithuanian Opera and Ballet Theatre's new production of Strauss' 'Salome'.

I am a bit amazed that an American critic rushes all the way over to Vilnius to see an opera, but I have an idea of how this may have happened. It is a friendly enough review, though I agree with the critic that the casting of the main character was maybe not the most ideal - but who else do we have at the moment? The really good young singers all go abroad, and at least the singer in question is solidly based in Vilnius. And she does act well. I also heard her once do a sublime Verdi requiem.

I see that we have a new music director - the last one, Jonas Aleksa, having died suddenly last year. The new director is Jacek Kaspszuk of the Polish National Opera, who is reported to be a very nice person. That cannot always be taken as read in conductors. I wonder in which language he communicates in Vilnius? Quite a lot of people still speak or understand Polish...

The review describes quite a different, rather daring production of Salome, and I wonder how the Vilnius public took it? On the other hand, we are used to modern productions - there are no more cobwebs around the Vilnius opera and ballet theatre these days.

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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

weird stuff

I am using a system called blogpatrol which tells me how many people, from where, and using which internet browser are reading my blog. It's quite interesting - and people get to the blog with the weirdest questions - especially after I reviewed the '*** life of my aunt'. In the last couple of days there have been many entries from a 'blocked referrer' - I wonder which system that might be?

I was also a bit surprised to find a surprising level of interest in my story of 2 December about the Sitkovetsky concert; then I tracked it down to this site, which had picked up bits of it. Interesting how things move around the internet.

Talking about music, as we were not - the German TV cop show I am watching while I write includes a policeman (or a Polis, as we say in Scotland) called 'Schikaneder'. We know whose offspring he must be - and yes, of course he is in Vienna!

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Tin openers

Being blessed with left-handedness, I find most tin openers quite hard to use, especially the very basic ones where I always have visions of stabbing my hand. Though not as much as when I am in a flat somewhere and reduced to opening tins with a huge kitchen knife! That's serious, almost suicidal, stuff, especially in countries where neither kitchen knives nor medical equipment might be particularly clean.

So a couple of weeks ago in Moscow I picked up an Ikea tin opener for my travels. And a beautiful piece of kit it is, too. Called 'Charm'. A lovely shape, and not the kind that cuts up my clothes during transit. But how to use the dratted thing? I spent about 10 minutes trying to apply it to a tin of mushrooms, with little success, and getting more and more hungry. Finally an enquiry to Google provided the answer on youtube here. Thank you, internet! What did we do in the days before internet? Ask Mum?

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Sunday, December 10, 2006

Planning law in Kiev

Looking at these two excrescenses one wonders how people get planning permission in Kiev. The building on the left is the new Hyatt Hotel, which fits with none of the buildings around it, and the design seems particularly pointless. It is being built by builders from the Caucasus region; I see them being picked up in a bus every evening to return to their accommodation? The building on the right, built generally in a style at least resembling the buildings around it, but grander - and it is two floors higher than all other buildings in the neighbourhood. This can be seen quite often in Kiev, as it does occasionally in Vilnius (the Novotel in Gedimino prospektas being a prime example).

Then again, one perhaps does not need to wonder how people get planning permission.

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Grey December Hash

A slightly crazy moment on today's hash in Kiev. No, they did not fall in - though they did a pretty good imitation of teetering on the edge (of what - insanity???).

December, dreary December is not a great time to wander/run round the countryside, especially countryside as this, which would be better covered under a foot of snow.

It was somewhere near the edge of Kiev, a place where people find it convenient to dump their rubbish, especially building rubble - we have such places in Vilnius, too. I don't suppose there is any environmental police, or if there is, they can probably be paid off.

And a very long hash it was, too. Not vertically uphill, like in Tbilisi (which of course is ALL DOWN HILL!), nor like the one I had set in Vilnius, where folk rebelled after 45 minutes of walking - this was a solid two hours of walking and running through housing schemes, sliding on muddy tracks around two ponds, and then up and over and down and around through a forest, coming out at a cemetery, and having the final circle near a busy motorway junction. Since I was the only runner, I had the dubious delight of checking out all the false trails - especially the one that finished on top of a virtual cliff. Thanks, Sergey! There was also that 'fierce' guard dog whose bark got higher and higher, and whose tail went lower and lower, as I ran up to it....

When I picked the mistletoe I also realised that I might not have climbed a tree since I started wearing glasses... the tree nearly ended up wearing them!

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The People's Act of Love

Well, there is a love story in it, but it seems rather peripheral - though perhaps, given that almost the only female character in this book by James Meek is the connection between a number of men, it is more of a central part that one thinks?

Someone highly recommended this book to me. I hate historical novels, especially if written by contemporary writers, so my heart sank when I saw that it was set in 1919. Even worse, it is set in darkest Russia (actually Siberia) in 1919, largely in a community of castrates (there really was a religious sect that believed that by castrating the men they would become angels). The muddle of the Russian revolution is ongoing, as always levels of brutality are extremely high, even including cannibalism. If you are looking for a thing of beauty, don't read this book. Mind you, it's written by a guy who grew up in Dundee (Scotland). Go figure.

Of course it's not just set in darkest Siberia in 1919, but in the winter of 1919, so total misery abounds. It also involves a Czechoslovakian legion stranded in this community, occupying it, after fighting for ...who knows ...(there really was such a legion). They long to get back to their own country which has existed for about 5 minutes. The head of the Czech legion, a cocaine user aged 24 (cocaine, in Siberia, in 1919??) runs the village and the occupation, and is suitably rational in his decisions. All hell breaks loose when almost simultaneously a murderous cannibal appears in the village and 'the Reds' appear from the other direction, wanting to extinguish the Czechs, and expropriating the villagers.

The woman in the story is not the most sympathetic character; she uses men and constantly changes her dizzy mind about what she wants to do and who she wants to be with. It is not entirely clear what she, as a single woman, actually lives from.

For all the gruesomeness the book is beautifully written; for example, it contains a lovely passage describing the composition of the Czech unit's uniforms after 5 years of being in the war. It won a couple of prizes, and was on the Booker longlist.

Apparently James Meek lived in Russia as the Guardian's reporter from 1991 - 1999, which would have given him plenty of scope to research. I hope things have changed in the Russian countryside.

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Saturday, December 09, 2006

Sounding like an expat....

so I seem to be, talking about people's English language skills. Actually, I can get by in Russian if I have to, though living in Lithuania and working in Georgia and Ukraine, amongst other places, it's not among my most favourite languages.

I am conscious, though, that people from all over the world read this blog, some of whom might wish to visit/live in the places I have been to (or not!), and it's useful for them to know where to go and how they will be able to cope there.

And talking of judgments, one thing that happens to you when you live/work for a long time in places with different cultures, is that your sense of taste shifts. I am not talking about food, I am talking about beautiful things. Often you think of bringing gifts home to friends and relatives to let them see where and how you lived - but equally often you see nothing but ghastliness, shoddy workmanship, appalling colours and outrageous prices (I will not mention the countries concerned, but paintings are amongst some of the most appalling things that see the light of day). After a few weeks in such a place you begin to think 'oh, that's not too bad', and you bring one or two home, to horrified friends/relations/colleagues.

This is what I also feel when I write music reviews sometimes; I think, it went quite well really, they played all the notes in the right places. And then I come home and see on Western European TV orchestras that play with energy, enthusiasm and engagement - and I realise just how low the level can be sometimes. Yes, we pay to go to concerts in Eastern Europe, but sometimes only because there is nothing else - how can we make the musicians realise that we do not owe them a living? And yes, it is a hard life being a musician, from the age of 5 or 6 onwards - but you chose it, no?

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Saturday in Kiev

Dinner with a friend last night at the Pervak restaurant, located near the city centre of Kiev. It's an ethnic Ukrainian restaurant, very much with a countryside theme, and very popular and busy. We were glad we had booked. The menu is very extensive - but make sure, if you eat there, that you also order the garnishes. Otherwise you will end up, as we did, with a plate of meat and a plate of fish and nothing to accompany it. Hint to waiters - tell your customers to order garnishes - and your tip will be bigger! To be fair, the foreign language skills of the waiting staff were none too good.

I had an avocado salad with mozarella and green leaves to start with, my friend had a mixed salad. The avocado salad contained 3 slithers of avocado, some quail's eggs, the cheese (of a factory-made rubbery persuasion) and lots of greenery. This was followed by fish for him, and veal stuffed with cherries for me - two pieces. It was nice, but a bit lonely. There was however bread with garlic butter, and dripping with onion or bacon, as we chose. No wine card, which was just as well, given one of the comments in the above website, so we stuck to beer. When my beer was finished and I asked for water, my friend was also given water to drink, without being asked. Oh well, it's better for us. As he was spooning up the last of his fish, we were asked about deserts or teas/coffees - clearly they wanted us out of the door! The food was nice enough, though, the ambience was good, and the price was slightly on the high side, but probably not for the environment.

My friend also gave me a copy of the Ukrainian Observer, and I was gobsmacked when I read this short story, which describes exactly what happened to me earlier this week. It's obviously very common.

Today wandered round Kyiv - needing that exercise - and lunched at the Sim Samuraiv (7 Samurais) ; a Japanese style restaurant on the side of the Besarabsky market (the market where the goods show no prices so you don't know how much you should pay). It was quite nice, but seemed more expensive than the Yakitoria chain, and with less of a buzz. Probably because the Yakitoria restaurants are always located in a bright building, whereas this is in a rather dark street. The sushi I had was good enough and the service was friendly and English speaking. It took an awfully long time to get my change, though. I still think the Yakitoria is the greatest, even though last time some of my little rolls were a wee bitty dry.

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Friday, December 08, 2006

Still fairly lucky....

I thought I had got off lightly with my little incident in the street on Tuesday night, when it appeared nothing was missing..... except when today I wanted to pay for something, and could not lay my hands on my credit card. Then I happened to look at my bank account (thank you, internet) and found a transaction for about 3600 hrivna (500+ Euros) with a date of Tuesday - and luckily also a reverse transaction.....I think I might have noticed if I had spent that money in Kyiv. So the ****ers had taken my credit card whilst checking my bag! I have to be very grateful to whoever was at the cash register of the shop where my thieves tried to buy a lot of stuff. Lucky again!

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Happy little things...

See the lalitah website. They make nice cushions, including ones stuffed with cherry pips. Apparently you pop the inside into the oven or the microwave and then it gives you lovely cuddly heat. That'll not be the microwave I have here in Ukraine which went on fire last night.

If you click on 'Eine kleine Geschichte' and you know my family you'll know what that's all about. Watch the tree....

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Expensive, very expensive...

From What's on in Kiev:

'Yuri Bashmet and the Moscow Soloists in concert, Palace Ukraina, 14 December at 19.00 Arguably the world’s finest viola player, Yuri Bashmet together with his Moscow Soloists orchestra will mark their fifteenth anniversary with a special programme ‘We are Fifteen.’ A conductor, professor, and director of no less than six international music festivals, Bashmet’s reputation is one which truly stretches around the world. Smart dress recommended. Tickets are 80-1200hrv.'

Arguably indeed... you can just imagine the concert - people poshly dressed, there to be seen, applauding in all the wrong places... The ticket prices go up to 3 times the monthly minimum wage in Ukraine. I have heard various performances with Bashmet and his band, ranging from good to indifferent (most recently Nizhny Novgorod, also in Yerevan, Vilnius...). He did give a very highly acclaimed performance of the Schnittke viola concerto, though, at the London Proms this year.

I'll not be rushing to buy a ticket, or to loiter outside the door trying to get in.

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Thursday, December 07, 2006

Most people in this country don't know the history of this country

So Professor Paul Gilroy of the LSE replied, when asked about the links of the British history of imperialism and the slave trade to racism in the UK today. He suggested that people from outside the UK know British history better than people growing up in Britain today. Appalling indictment of the British education system, is it not?

Another interesting point he made is that people never get away from being immigrants. His children are three generations away from immigration, and he pointed out that many members of Mrs Thatcher's cabinet were seen as immigrants, such as Leon Brittan, Michael Howard, and current cabinet members Margaret Hodge - even though many were born in the UK, and have gone through every step of the UK system. In that case, who am I, a real immigrant, to complain about being treated like a foreigner when I lived in the UK?

As seen on the Islam channel, by the way. Prof. Gilroy comes across as an extremely charming guy. I wonder if he has written any books on the topic. On the other hand, his topic is social theory, so his writing might be a bit dry?

The Islam channel now advertises a charity called 'Helping hands' which donates sacrificial cows and sheep for people in poorer countries. Hmmm. A living cow or sheep might be more productive...

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Breaking into Mozart

This evening after work, strolled home, had a bite to eat, and then off to the Filarmonia for Mozart's Requiem - a must, and one of my favourite pieces of music. (A string quartet version exists which will just be perfect for my funeral, whenever it'll come...).



To my surprise it was sold out! Unbelievable - even standing tickets no longer existed, it seemed....so a few of us lingered by the door, but it was quite late and no-one was selling spare tickets - I missed the two that were going. The starting time came, and still people lingered, especially a lot of young people. Finally they were let in - I tried to get in with them, and was asked if I was a student. Of course I am, having just paid my huge OU fees, but I did not quite have the nerve to push it - here mature students are not very common, and I do not yet have a student ID.



So I was thrown out again....and the remainder of us wandered off...and I looked back, and there were these two young guys, who I had seen earlier, asking if I needed a ticket. Well, of course. I gave them the 30 hrivna for the ticket (about 5 Euros) ...and no ticket, but they wandered off towards the entrance. After previous experiences I stuck to them like glue, and right enough, they talked to the usherette at the entrance, slipped her some money (possibly more like 20 hrivna) and I was in, standing room only. Considering the thought of slipping her 50 hrivna had crossed my mind earlier I had done well. And it is possible to stand for Mozart's Requiem, no?



Could not see the orchestra or the soloists, which makes it quite difficult to judge the performance....Up at the back of the balcony it sounded a bit like an old recording, lots of bass but not many high sounds (or is my hearing getting that bad?). The bass singer was a bit heavy on the vibrato, and in general the music did not sound all that transparent - not much clarity, but it might have been due to my standing place. Anyway, it was a nice end to the Mozart year.





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Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Mozart was the Best!

Having slackened off a bit on the music scene, being 'too busy' on Monday, and 'not bothered' on Tuesday despite a Mozartfest in town, tonight I got myself together to go to the Filharmonia in Kiev. Tonight's theme for the concert of the Kiev Chamber Orchestra was Mozart and Salieri. The concert started with a Salieri symphony ('The national day' or something like that). It really was not a great piece of music; seemed quite thrown together, especially the last movement (although, to be fair, it was a Rondo) - the ending in particular was never-ending. This was followed by Mozart's 29th symphony. Both pieces were played standing up and with a fair bit of energy, almost approaching enthusiasm (but not too much). The conductor, Roman Kofman, managed to pull some nice peaks and troughs out of the orchestra. There were a couple of ropy moments in the French horns, but there are always ropy moments in French horns. I wondered though about the ladies in the orchestra, who wore the usual Ukrainian HIGH HIGH heels, and how they were coping standing up.



The second half was very interesting - it was a concert performance of Rimsky-Korsakov's opera 'Mozart and Salieri'. Have you heard of that? No, I had not either. It's a tiny opera with two protagonists - guess who - and a choir. It's based on Pushkin's verse drama of the same topic, and is a conversation between Mozart and Salieri - Salieri being the bass part, I assume, and Mozart the tenor. it is in Russian which is a bit unexpected, though probably it should not be. The music is fairly classical, and it ends with a big quote of Mozart's Requiem. So the story of Salieri doing Mozart in was already around in Pushkin's day. It was really interesting hearing this little opera.





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Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Brush with the Militia....

...or the penalties of being helpful!

Strolling down my street on the way home from work, a guy rushed past me and I suddenly heard a wee plop on the street. I looked and found that it was a bunch of tightly folded dollars! I shouted after the guy. Another guy had just walked past me and told me it was the man in front. He came back and thanked us profusely - the money had fallen out of his open wallet. Guy number two muttered something about 'crazy Russians' and we were still in muttered conversation about it, when...

A few seconds later he turned back again and said he had lost two wee bundles of cash, had we seen the other one. (Luckily, oh thank goodness, how luckily, the second chap was still there). We said no and the loser asked us several times; he seemed to think we had taken the money - but he was polite enough about it. We vehemently denied that we had the other bit of money. Then suddenly guy No 3 sidled up, and identified himself as 'Militia' flashing some document. Well, I nearly died!

He asked if there was a problem, we said no, the Russian explained the situation. We all had to show our passports; the Ukrainian had his, the Russian had his in the hotel, and I had my UK driving license, which was enough. We had to turn out all our pockets and wallets - they looked through everything, but did not find anything (I have so many pockets it was only half of them they found; they made me take off my backpack but realised that in that split second of the incident I could not have slipped it off, and put money into it). Thank goodness I did not have any dollars on me - but I noticed the Russian looked at the numbers of the Ukrainian's dollars and confirmed that they were not his. Who on earth memorises the numbers of their bank notes?

In the end the Ukrainian and Russian wandered off together, and the militiaman apologised to me. Gee, who would want to help a guy?

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Monday, December 04, 2006

Kiev

It is 9.00 pm and the power has been off in my flat, my block of flats, since at least 6 pm. The computer battery is the only thing that works. Outside the street is bright and traffic is flowing.... Great!

Arrived at lunchtime - staying in the same flat as last time, which in principle is a relief, although without the 'leccy' it's a different story. Strange how in Tajikistan, with lots of electricity problems I had not a single powercut, apart from the self-inflicted one when I had the heater and kettle on at the same time, and here in Kiev, right in the centre of Kiev, I start off my stay with a power cut.

On returning home, I had planned to unpack, but, well; also had an idea to go to a concert in the music academy, not that far from here.... but then went shopping instead and got caught up in the supermarket; now I am generally sorted for the duration. I noticed that Yuri Bashmet will be playing here on 14 December; with his Moscow Soloists. I could not quite work out where, but somehow I doubt it is in the rather dinky Filharmonia - there was only a phone number on the poster.

A Russian acquaintance tells me that Nils Moenkemeier, the German violist, won the Bashmet viola competition in Moscow last week; also that an American, David Carpenter, refused to accept his joint 3rd prize. Maybe he did not understand how prize winning in Russia works.

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Sunday, December 03, 2006

Clarinet, Cello and Piano

You would not think there is a great deal of music for such a combination, would you? This afternoon's concert at the Vilnius Arsenalas contained just such a mix, with the American clarinettist Julian Milkis, the Russian cellist Alexei Massarsky and the Russian pianist Nina Kogan. It would appear that Nina Kogan is an aunt of Dmitry Kogan (see previous entry) - see what I mean about Russian dynasties? It seems that Kogan and Milkis have played together in a chamber music festival in the US, but I wonder how often the threesome have played together.



The programme started with Beethoven's septet, reduced to these three. That means that the piano must have taken over the role of the bassoon, horn, violin, viola and double bass. It sounded a bit like that, too. With the clarinet being the highest instrument of the three one expected it to lead in places where it did not. The cellist seemed to have difficulties really joining into the music, and failed to engage; he only really took off in the final movement of this piece - and then he really did! I don't think this version really works very well.



This was followed by a trio by Nino Rota, the relatively contemporary Italian composer (1911-1979). Wikipedia has him down as a film music composer - in fact, Rota wrote much of the music to 'The Godfather'. Considering this piece was was written in 1966, it was really very romantic and at least the first two movements might have been 50 - 100 years older. There were lots of lovely cello lines. No weird noises here, none whatsoever. (Though I have heard that he has written more complicated music as well - maybe it depends who he wrote it for!). This piece was written for this combination of instruments, and it worked well and the group and the audience enjoyed it.



The concert ended with tangos, by Paquito D'Rivera' and Piazzola. These were nice, but played rather straight, although the pianist did her best to add a bit of life, as did the clarinetist. Surely even in Russia people must be exposed to Piazzola these days - but the cellist just did not let himself go, and it did not swing.





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Saturday, December 02, 2006

What is it with Russian violinists...

...that they all play with their mouths open? Two virtuosi in Vilnius in two nights, Dmitry Sitkovetsky, and Dmitry Kogan, both had their mouths hanging wide open, as does Gidon Kremer (who blames this on adenoids in childhood). Is it a comment on Russian health care or is it a way of relaxing the jaw?

Yesterday Sitkovetsky played Mozart's 4th violin concerto with the Lithuanian State Symphony Orchestra. This orchestra is not one that you would normally expect to play Mozart, whose music is a) known by everyone and b) very transparent so every member of the audience hears and identifies every wrong note. I would even less turn my back to the orchestra accompanying me in Mozart, normally. However, the orchestra has two major assets: the leader of the orchestra, Zbigniev Levickas, really leads, not just the violin section but the orchestra if necessary (he is one of two 'real' orchestra leaders in Vilnius), and the oboist, Robertas Beinaris, the best oboist in Vilnius, also plays much Mozart and baroque music in a micro-chamber orchestra, Musica Humana, and therefore has huge experience in this style of music. The start of the Mozart was a bit of a guddle in the first fiddles, but they settled down once Sitkovetsky launched forth, though there was always an element of fear in the more delicate passages. Sitkovetsky is a very smart looking guy with a violin which looks like it was bought yesterday. He used a very light bow throughout the Mozart, almost a flying legato, apart from one place in the slow movement where the bow was very hard and flat on the string indeed. It turned into a very stylish performance, totally relaxed, everything in its place, and just so. Very nice. In the second half he conducted Shostakovich's 8th symphony which we were told had 5 movements, but I counted only three. It had a couple of very exposed places for the violas which they carried off with aplomb. My favourite percussionist, Pavelas Giunteris, gave it laldy on the timpany when he picked up the theme of one movement, previously played on much more complex instruments. Sitkovetsky managed to keep the rather huge band, including bass clarinet and bass bassoon, in tight order.

Tonight's offering was over in the Filharmonija with Dmitri Kogan, a scion of a violin-playing family (father is Pavel, I think) with the National Symphony Orchestra conducted by the young Lithuanian hopeful Modestas Pitrenas. All these Russian Kogans and Kagans, playing different string instruments, are very confusing. Kogan/Kagan is the Russian version of the name 'Cohen', I think, since in Russian 'h' is translated to 'g', as my son 'Gamilton' can report from his school orchestra tour. The added factor is that in Russia (as well as Lithuania, and perhaps other post-Soviet countries) there exist musical dynasties whereby father, son, grandson, nephew and niece all go through the musical education system - perhaps because they know nothing else? Why does this not happen in Western Europe?

Anyway, Dmitry Kogan, aged about 28, is the latest offspring - and he gave a blistering performance of the Mendelssohn concerto. Whereas Sitkovetsky was light and elegant, Kogan played it dirty! He very fiercely peers down his fingerboard (which badly needs planing) all the time whilst playing. In the first movement it seemed he was at war with his fiddle, glaring at it, trying to squeeze the ultimate out of it, - and the fiddle answered back with a beautiful sound! This movement seemed a wee bitty slow. In the second movement he seemed to be making love to the violin, and in the third movement, which he opened with a lovely little throw-away chord, he just looked at it amazed that it was producing all these notes so quickly. It was definitely a different, funky and funny performance and the audience loved him for it.

The other pieces in the programme were Stravinsky's Petrushka suite (I had thought Pulcinella, so was a bit surprised by the blast of sound coming at me), and the waltzes from the Rosenkavalier. Petrushka was produced about two years before the Rite of Spring and one can see the development of it. It was the first time I had heard it, I think, so I find it hard to comment. Someone thought it should have been lighter. Playing 'piano' certainly did not seem to be a requirement of either of the two orchestral pieces.



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Friday, December 01, 2006

Bolcom and Morris

A concert at the American Center last night of the composer/pianist William Bolcom and his wife, mezzosoprano Joan Morris, with American popular songs; such as Jerome Kern, the Gershwins, Bolcom himself, and Irving Berlin. And fun songs they were too - and very beautifully, and wittily, performed. These are very wordy songs and a lot of the fun is in the words and the performance, which works well when the singing voice does not quite behave as it used to. Probably for people who do not speak English something is lost, but the performance was such that much was communicated. It was a really fun evening, and a nice blast from the past, produced by two great troopers!

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