Monday, December 31, 2007

Last review this year....


I could have had my hands full - the Filharmonija had 7 concerts in various locations, the state symphony orchestra, the opera house, all theatres are busy and sold out, the restaurants have concerts (my friend Pavelas Giunteris is playing at a restaurant where the tickets cost about 90 Euros, though I hope you'd get fed, too - at the opera house you can pay more than that and just get a measly glass of sparkling wine...). You should know that some of the orchestras involved have also toured rural parts of Lithuania with the same programme; in addition the Filharmonija has had concerts every day since 26th December, so all Lithuanian musicians will be knackered.

Being a cheapskate, I always wait till January before I go to see repeat of the New Year Eve's premiere at the opera house. Then it's cheaper. The State symphony orchestra's concert this year particularly was not my thing, and so I ended up as usual at the St John's church with the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra. They do two sittings on the same evening; I got the first when they were still fresh.

The programme is always standard and fairly popular classical or baroque stuff. This year the delightful Robertas Servenikas conducted a Bach orchestral suite (not the one with the Badinerie), a number of arias and duets, and as always the Haydn farewell symphony. I wonder if we always need the same thing, but then what would the Vienna New Year's concert be without the Radetzky march?

It all went quite well; in the Bach I noticed that the orchestra is moving towards a more historically informed approach, which was nice. There were also some very fast moments. One of the movements seemed to have a divorce between the woodwinds and the cellos, but otherwise it went well. Church acoustics don't really help here; this church is particularly strong on resonance.

This was followed by an interlude of operatic and oratorio arias sung by Ignas Misiura and Milda Smalakyte, including an aria from Judas Maccabaeus in English, I think(wrong time of year), the 'how many shags has he had' aria from 'Don Giovanni' (wrong setting, in a church), an aria or two and a duet from Figaro (my memory is getting hazy here), and Franck's Panis Angelicus sung as a duet. This sounded odd to me, and reminded me of a few days ago when my son and I played the Bach double violin concerto on violin and viola (a version exists), where the viola with its stronger voice rather dominates the violin. This website suggests that PA is for soprano and SATB choir, which makes more sense. Here I thought they were just singing the notes, rather briskly, but not putting in the feeling of utter devotion that I would expect from this piece. And the lower voice was far too dominant.

Finally the farewell symphony with its well-rehearsed act of the players leaving the stage, which the orchestra has performed on New Year's Eve every year since 1966. Jee, the orchestra blistered its way through the Presto! Shame that Papa Haydn did not take into account the capacities of future players when only one or two were left on the stage. But everyone was happy and floated out of the church with the feeling 'what a good end to the year'.


Why CDs?

Recently I read a great review of Masaaki Suzuki's recording of the Bach B Minor Mass. So I ordered it from Amazon at a cost of 32 Euros. It's a SACD - never quite sure what that means, but most of the time I listen on my Ipod anyway.

A couple of days later eclassical emailed me, with the very same recording for download for 5.99. Eclassical is a kosher classical music download site, so there is no question about legitimacy. Clearly their version was just normal, as opposed to SACD, but for the Ipod it was perfect (once I had sorted the little problem of the track numbers being the same on both 'CDs' and the movements being intermingled). One order cancelled at amazon.

offer all (?) their vast library of tracks for download, as do others now. I suppose if you were a hi fi freak you would want to buy CDs (or probably preferably LPs), but in any case we also don't know how long CDs live - there have already been reports of early CDs deteriorating.

Of course it's not safe storing all your music on an Ipod only which is why Itunes, for all its faults, is quite good at storing it on your computer hard disk. Which may not be so good for you either, if that crashes, but then you could use jungledisk (at a fee) or MP3tunes locker (for free) to store your music off site in that big storage space in the sky. I suppose you might worry about security and someone nicking your tracks.... then again, that could happen at home, too - no?

Is there a future for CDs? Answers on a postcard....

How is the recording? Great - have not heard all of it, though I heard the huge intake of breath at the beginning before they launched into a very slow Kyrie. He generally does not rush. Suzuki does the Mass with a small choir of 15 or so, and period instruments. You realise this when one movement in particular sounds quite flat, but it's just the different tuning. I like transparent Bach - there's a band in Edinburgh who does Bach like this in the Canongate church twice a year. Overall it's a wonderful recording, every word is pronounced extremely clearly - the Japanese can do an 'r' if it's necessary. It only misses one small thing - when I recorded the mass from the radio at the 1975 Proms, right at the end of the movement just before the 'Et resurrexit' the organist must have leaned on the keyboard and out came a squeak - I wait for it every time I now hear the music...


The good Monsieur de Saint-George and his violins

Monsieur Joseph de Saint George, a black French composer, was born in Guadeloupe in 1739 as the son of a French land-owner and an African mother. Unlike the unfortunate offspring of many other such liaisons this family was together and young Joseph received an aristocratic education in France, where the family relocated when he was 10 years old. He became a fine horseman and fencer, and it is suggested he received violin lessons from Jean Marie Leclair.

In 1773 he took over the orchestra known as 'Concert des Amateurs' and turned it to one of the best in Europe. Later he became the first non-white freemason, and took an interest in the revolution (despite having been favoured by Marie Antoinette as a potential opera director at one stage). He formed a regiment of black volunteers to fight against the coalition troups and became the first black Colonel of the French army. He was then arrested during 'the terror' for being a friend of the Duke of Orleans, and spent 11 months on death row, until Robbespierre fell; after which he regained his fame and carried on with his musical activities, finally dying in June 1799. In 1802 Napoleon brought back slavery and his works were banned from the repertoire he had written 215 in his spare time..... (One can guess that the CD notes were written by a French person, no?).

A French author, Alain Guede, wrote a book about Saint George in the late 1990s, following from which a society, 'Le Concert de Monsieur de Saint-George', was formed for the restoration of Saint George 'to his rightful place among composers'. It apparently provides free scores to those who want them, and has a website. Unfortunately there do not appear to be any viola works...

This CD (thanks, fonoforum for this) is difficult to track down, though amazon.de has it. It consists of 4 violin concertos, including a sinfonia concertante for two violins and orchestra. They are played by three different violinists, Bertrand Cervera, Christophe Guiot, and Thibault (what a first name for a violinist, no?) Vieux, to allow the adoring public access to different interpretations of his music. Not sure why they described it as 'la langueur créole du Voltaire de la musique' - there's not much languor about it.

The music is wonderful! First when I heard it I thought it was a bit simple, but actually it's great fun. Very elegant, like French music of that period, usually is, and there's a bit of an overuse of plucked bass (particularly in the sinfonia concertante, but it's sooo delightful!), but it's great fun (yes, it's French music that I like!). Occasionally some clichéd use of octave transposition slips in, but generally it's quite virtuosic music and would be a great addition to the teaching repertoire, so tired old violin professors don't always have to listen to the same Mozart concertos. Very solidly from Classical Central, though the soloist gets to play more than in a typical Mozart concerto. (When Mozart was in the depths of depression in Paris in 1778 following the death of his mother, he could find no-one interested in his music - Saint George had bagged all the attention).

The performances are generally enthusiastic, one of the soloists suffers a little from intonation and rushing at things, but overall it's a great set of recordings, and a real find. Saint George's music should really be played much more, and not just as the token black of classical music. It's not as if he was the only one - the chap who inspired the Kreutzer sonata (not Mr Kreutzer) was also a black violinist named Bridgetower. I am sorry to say I discovered this by going via an absolutely disgustingly racist site (it should be exposed, it's the Stormfront White Community here - though at least it allows for opposing views), which lead me to this very interesting site, on African heritage in Classical Music.

And there was the British chap, what's his name again? Didn't Philippe Graffin record his violin concerto?

Shame though that this is still a matter for debate. Noone talks about woman musicians nowadays, unless they are conductors.....



It's time there were changes.

I'm kind of embarassed about the different types of people drawing attention to my blog - not that I am not delighted with that, of course! But the blog has been too wide ranging. Fairly detailed music and book reviews on the one hand, traveller's trales on the other hand, and comments on political and social situations on the foot. So if you are a Globalvoices reader looking at a comment on the social situation in Georgia, and the next time you look you find a scathing or positive review of a concert, you may wonder 'what's she on about' or 'what's she on'. Similarly the music links from Jessica or the Overgrown Path might be surprised to find comments about running on slippery surfaces, or teargas in the streets of Tbilisi. I suspect that the Globalvoices community may be less interested in the details of a conductor's trouser problem, and while the musicians may be (and should be) interested in what goes on in the world around them, they may well lack time (like we all do...).

Sooooooo, this blog has slightly changed its name to what it should have been in the first place (will that upset the links?), and will concentrate on the arts, music, events, and books, whereas Good Buy, Lenin! will look at life out East, and sometimes West, depending on where I find myself at the time. I'm kind of tempted to set up a third blog of purely personal stuff (extracting the running etc), but first I need to recover in a darkened room from setting up Lenin's blog. The title? Think of it - out East (in most countries, though not all) you can buy everything now, all kinds of food, all types of cars, guns, the police, the judiciary, the election. 'Out East' refers to post Soviet countries, mostly. 'Good Boy, Lenin!' might have been one about a dog.....whereas 'Das Sozialistische Ausland', a DDR title, is a bit hard on my non-German speakers.

Inevitably there will be overlaps, but I'll deal with those when I come to them.

In the meantime, a very Happy New Year to everyone, especially those who are performing tonight! I wish I were among you....


Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Four Seasons ... a la Vivaldi

Since I always leave my mobile phone at home, I don't normally draw attention to myself at concerts. But I may have done today when half-way through Camerata Klaipeda's 'Four Seasons' I had to check the programme to see if these concertos had been described as 'adapted by....'. Unusually the auditorium was dark, so what was a woman to do except whip out her micro-torch and check the programme. Bit of a shame for the cameraman who was filming right behind me - TV viewers may have seen the screen change nature for a moment.

Vivaldi for purists it was not. Vilhelmas Cepinskas, the founder of Camerata Klaipeda, is a gifted violinist, playing everything with great ease (especially this piece which I have heard from him about three times now); he is also a gifted arranger, and it seems he gets a bit carried away with himself. Bits of the solo were passed around the band, does the third concerto really have no violin solo in the second movement (? the harpsichord suddenly got busy), there were slides - long distance ones - which were certainly not even thought of by Vivaldi, and other very much not baroque ornaments. It was only tinkering at the edges, though - but what's the point? A mildly jazzed-up version? When do you start describing a piece as 'arranged by....much Baroque music allows the performers to add ornaments, change tempi (Bach's cello suites) but shouldn't that be in the Baroque style?

Then Boris Andrianov from Russia played the Haydn C-major cello concerto. The Camerata Klaipeda consists of very young players - I doubt if many are over 25, and I reckon it's a bit of a risk letting them play by themselves without a conductor. Here the soloist let them do the whole introduction before then launching himself faster than the band; they did their best, but there was not that much togetherness. Andrianov blistered through the final movement at breakneck speed, and including some wonderful little moments here and there.

He came totally into his own though in his encore, a Moldovan dance arranged for cello and orchestra, which was just brilliant. Not that far off the kind of music you would get in a Kusturica film. This was amazing, and he and the band interacted well.

After the interval (did I mention this was a long concert, five concertos before the interval?) the Camerata on their own attempted a string quartet for tango by Piazzolla. Just now I am reading Levitin's book 'Your Brain on Music' where it discusses categorization, prototypes and examples of particular things. This was a case in point. The music was written by Piazzolla (presumably), all the bits were there, the slides, the slaps, the scratches - and still it did not work. Every time the music turned around it took a while to get going. With a good conductor they would have been fine.

How fine was shown immediately when Vilhelmas Cepinskas joined them in a mini concerto by Piazzolla for violin and string band (possibly an arranged quintet - it was a programme change). It went much better; there was some intimate interaction between Vilhelmas and the viola lead which she played beautifully, and the band had a much greater sense of purpose.

The next piece was an Eastern Europe special. The 'Bremen musicians' is a children's show based on the fairy tale of the donkey, dog, cat and cockerel who busked (if I remember correctly from my childhood). Every Eastern European capital seems to put this piece on at least somewhere in the city (most have a children's theatre or three). Andrianov then made a suite for cello and orchestra out of it, and Cepinskas further arranged a little violin part for himself. Now, this ain't highbrow music - it's absolutely children's music, though it gets a bit lively at the end. The audience, many of whom will have fond memories of the show, loved it. The arrangement was brilliant and it was huge fun. It's certainly a piece you could perform more often in a fun concert. The band also played really well.

But the peak (and geez, wasn't it time we got to the end of the concert?) was Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No 2, arranged for violin and string band. Bit complicated, no? Liszt presumably wrote it for piano, and then orchestrated it (? I've played it in a big symphony orchestra), and I assume further that Cepinskas arranged it from the piano part, rather than the orchestral version - he would have gone crazy with that. This was brilliant! Cepinskas really has a bit of the Hungarian in him, and this was pure showmanship. The band got completely into its stride - it was a fantastic end to the concert!

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There's a hole in my head

....connecting both ears, after they were thoroughly blasted through by Vladimiras Tarasovas and friends at tonight's concert at the Filharmonija. Whew!

The concert was described as 'Jazz at Christmas'. My Oxford concise Dictionary of Music talks about the music of the blacks, then dixieland, swing, be-bop (not sure what that is) and modern and free jazz. Frankly, today's programme could have passed very easily as contemporary classical music, too. But we know (and the audience knows) that Tarasovas' definition is something like the liberty of doing what he likes. And often it is very cerebral. He is very well regarded indeed in Vilnius, and his concerts are usually close to sold out, even though his music can be a little challenging.

Tarasovas, who I am told is 60, but I don't believe it, is a virtuoso percussionist. His technique is awesome. He began this concert on his own with the '12th Act' including a video installation, where he played percussion on his own for about 40 minutes. It was a bit challenging, also for the audience, and at one stage he could not raise his head without the audience thinking that he had come to an end, and applauding. The pieces did have a clear structure and clear themes (including the William Tell overture on instruments without harmony or differentiated notes), and terrifying technique, but it was a bit hard work trying to follow him. People were however extremely interested in what he was doing; much more so than in classical concerts where they sit back and relax. This was almost participative music making. So maybe we should have more concerts like this? Though one person near me managed to sleep through the loudest uproar.

The second half, Tarasov's 4 movement piece called 'Drumming' (did I mention that the whole evening involved percussion instruments only?), brought another 6 percussionists on stage, including Arvydas Joffe, Marijus Aleksa, Darius Rudis, Arkadijus Gotesmanas, the delightful Pavelas Giunteris, and Vytis Vainilaitis.

This piece consisted of main themes, with then the individual percussionists being given opportunities to show off - which may have been as close to jazz as you can get. The second movement, 'Brushes Touch', was played only with brushes - but boy, the different noises you can make with brushes, and the third movement 'Summit' had a rondo like quality, with the same theme linking the different soloistic interspersions (actually it was almost like two rondos within each other) - in this the fabulous Pavelas had a wonderful solo with the timps - give a guy 4 timps and arms and legs are flailing all over the place....The final movement, Mr Hi Hat, was a wonderful session where each soloist only had a set of foot-operated cymbals (hi hats) and a couple of sticks - and yet produced a huge variety of sounds and rhythms.

The second half of the concert was pure dead brilliant - the audience loved it, and asked for more. And got a version of 'Silent Night' played with miniature instruments. Wow, what a concert!

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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Another airline mishap

Sergej Babajan, the delightful conductor and soloist of tonight's concert at the Vilnius Filharmonija, in the course of the evening appeared on stage in two different pairs of trousers, neither of which matched his blazer. Luggage is still travelling presumably. Since he's not that tall, it may have been too difficult to borrow a suit from someone else.

It was a great concert! We've had odd Boxing Day concerts with the Lithuanian chamber orchestra, particularly under its long-time conductor, when the conductor was tired and so was the orchestra. Since he left, the orchestra is improving, though it always needs a very strong personality to get them to play their best.

Tonight's concert, a full Bach evening (as is the tradition on Boxing Day, we were told - it ain't so, we distinctly remember a ropy Schubert one Boxing day), consisted of two Bach piano concertos and the Magnificat. I'm never convinced about Bach piano concertos; they just don't sound right - and why is there a harpsichord being played at the back of the stage (it was almost inaudible in any case, but maybe is needed for the continuo). The transition from the slow movement to the final fast movement in the concerto in f minor is so corny, it's pure romanticism.

But oh, that second movement - Babajan played it soooo calmly, it was total bliss! The orchestra picked slightly the wrong moment to be energetic - the cellos in particular under the delightful Dainius should just have swum along in the slipstream, rather than trying to drive the thing. And the pratt behind me should not have picked this quietest of all movements to get out his reading glasses 'clack clack', read the programme, and put them away again 'clack clack'. I suppose it was boring for him - otherwise you could have heard a pin drop. Babajan must have liked this movement, too, because he gave it as an encore. The other piano concerto (d-minor) went very nicely, too. Babajan really did beautifully with these concertos.

The Magnificat in the second half involved the choir Jauna Muzika, and the singers Jekaterina Tretjakova, Milda Smalakyte, Ieva Prudnikovaite, Mindaugas Zimkus, and Ignas Misiura (I am almost certain he used to be double-barrelled). If ever you need a singer to look style, call for Ignas - he can do style for Lithuania - and most Lithuanians are good at style anyway. But Ignas' outfits are sublime! Today he was wearing a black frock coat lined in red, set off by a maroon bow tie, and what looked like a Paisley pattern handkerchief in his top pocket. Ever so snazzy!

He sings well, too, though he had only one solo and one shared aria. Usually I hear him and his colleagues in a small church where I sit about 3 m from them; here I was a bit more distant, and their nice voices did not come across quite so well. Ieva's voice, which can have foghorn qualities, was more scattered here, and not quite so dominant. Not sure whether her aria quite hit the low notes that Ieva is so impressive at. Bit of a shame, really. Milda seemed to have trouble controlling her face when she was not singing. Jekaterina had a very bright soprano voice and was a bit over-enthusiastic with her entries. Mindaugas and Ignas did well, as they always do - a very solid, reliable pair of (pairs of) hands. You have an oratorio? You need sound singers? Get Ignas and Mindaugas on the job. Ignas is particularly multitalented; I always remember him doing a version of a Paul Celan poem on the topic of the holocaust - it was awesome! But Mindaugas, there was one odd moment - when Bach writes 'qui venit', even if it's on a melisma, I don't think it should be 'qui ve-he-he-he-he-nit', more like 'qui ve-e-e-e-e-nit'. I doubt it was meant to be a laugh.

Something else I found a bit strange, though I have not previously paid attention to it...when the cello (together with the harpsichord) was doing an obbligato line, or simply accompanying a soloist, why did it need to be doubled by the double bass? (In Lithuanian the 'double bass' does not have 'double' in its name). That seemed like a very high risk strategy - though they pulled it off perfectly. Not convinced that this is necessary, though. Maybe the double bassist was bored, or the conductor required it?).

Generally it all fitted together well, everyone paid great attention to the conductor, and it was a very pleasing performance. (One wonders how it would be with just the soloists as the 'choir', but probably the choirs trades union might have a word or two to say about that).

Judging by this concert Mr Babajan, who is from Armenia, but sensibly lives in the US, had a very successful trip to Lithuania. And I hope he finds his trousers.

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The bedroom secrets of Masterchefs!

You'd like to know these, wouldn't you? But even Irvine Welsh's book of this name does not give them away entirely.

'Tis another book set in the bowels of Leith (Edinburgh) where guys are tough and girls have more sense than getting involved with the guys. Unusally Welsh strays to the outskirts of Embra - though the character from there, Brian, is a total anorak - does not drink or smoke, is a virgin, goes hillwalking and to Star Trek conventions; attracts bullies like flies.

Both Brian and Danny from Leith, a hard drinking, drug-taking son of a punk single mother from Leith, are inspectors in Edinburgh Council's public health department, who go out and inspect restaurants. You can imagine how Danny reacts when clean living Brian arrives in the workplace....

Danny has another problem. He does not know who his father is, except that he thinks he is a chef. His mother absolutely refuses to tell him..... This is his real goal in life, finding his father - so he tracks down everyone who ever worked in a particular pub which his mother frequented in her green hair days. Will he find the answer? He certainly finds out who cannot be his father.

The story develops a rather bizarre link between Brian and Danny; one that could not happen 'in real life'. It's weird - while the events in Welsh's books could not happen in sober middle-class life, they are perfectly reasonable in the drug-fuelled environment that he usually writes about. But in this book drugs do not fuel everything, not all the time. It must also be the book with the most disgusting sex scene ever (and it's consensual sex). You would not want to meet that over your breakfast.

I liked the book, apart from the slight weirdness. Lots of Embra places to recognise; the language is fairly easy even for non-Scots speakers. Of course there's plenty of violence (quite interesting violence at times) but you wouldn't read an Irvine Welsh book if you were sensitive about this. Like all his books, it is very, very funny. Good value for money, too - it's quite a long book with small printing....

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Christmas Eve in Vilnius

Of course I had meant to get the Christmas tree at the end of last week; I had seen some outside the supermarket but found the price of around 15 Euros a bit outrageous.... Then I had spotted some being sold outside the opera house, but at that moment had no time. Another day, after a run, I did not get back down the stairs from my eerie....

So it was that on Christmas Eve we were still minus a tree. No problem; people will be selling them off cheap, I thought.


First yesterday was already a non-working day, what with it being between a Sunday and a public holiday. What they do here is that they work on the Saturday and then get the linking day off - not a soul was to be seen in the Military Police opposite me by 1 pm on Saturday....
So whereas in the UK on Christmas Eve shops are going crazy until late, in Germany they go crazy until about 2pm, in Lithuania yesterday not many shops were open. Outside the supermarket on Sunday I had only seen two miserable little trees - but I had been very early, so maybe the delivery had not arrived. Decided instead to try the opera house (zilch), and the little farmer's market - it at least was partially open (not normally on a Monday - I had been a bit worried about that). Spotted a reasonably sized, albeit skinny, high class of Christmas tree - a mere 50 Euros would have secured it. Moving quickly on we clocked a guy taking a small tree into his shed; bit small and bit expensive for height. There was always the garden centre next door - we could see trees in their lock-up - but the garden centre was also locked up. So back we skedaddled to the guy in the shed, which was firmly locked by then - managed to rouse him and got the nice little tree including one or two decorations. Of course, it's one for planting....neither do I have a garden, nor even a spade to plant it illicitly in some forest....

In earlier years we had played in a mass in St Theresa's, but this time there weren't enough people to play....shame. So we went anyway. First time I had been in a mass in a Lithuanian catholic church. It's interesting.

No-one sings except the choir; there are no hymn books. The choir seemed to be doing a classical mass, but oh dear, it was not very wonderful. The choir was also very assertive, and taking no prisoners - at one stage we heard through the loudspeaker beside us a priest reading something from the bible, but the choir was having none of it and sang out even more loudly, if not clearly.

The congregation does a great deal of standing up and kneeling, as in all Catholic churches, though going straight from standing to kneeling to standing must put a bit of a strain on ancient joints. Maybe that's how some people keep fit. It was noticeable that we were not the only ones unfamiliar with the rituals - the two sides of the nave had different patterns of rising and falling.... The eucharist was interesting; the church contained at least 200 - 300 people, but the taking of the bread, with about 80% participating, was over in 5 minutes. I know because there is a helpful clock. Note I talk about the 'taking of the bread'; a priest whisked up the church with the wine, too, but I did not notice anyone getting any - unless they got it before the bread - but surely that would be against the rules?

Walked home through a totally deserted Vilnius to mulled wine and 'The Producers'. What more could you ask for on Christmas Eve?

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Sunday, December 23, 2007

Happy Holidays!

I told someone recently that I don't do discussing religion. Those of my readers who are from the West of Scotland will understand.

So, whatever your persuasion, whether you are Christian, Jewish (isn't Hannukah past?), Muslim (as in Turkey), Hindu, whatever, or like my poor Dutch friend Hans who is in China and has to work Christmas Day (but wait till the New Year Celebrations come around); have a great break from work (except for Hans), and pray to whoever you normally pray to.


Saturday, December 22, 2007

Russians returning to the homeland ...not

This rather interesting blog by a Lithuanian resident with a Russian first name describes a scheme funded by the Russian government that encourages Russians living abroad to return 'home'. Something to do with the decline in population, I expect. Much like Germany did in the 80s and 90s, and is now paying the price.

Unlike the rush of Russian 'Germans' to Germany (which has lead to a whole lot of problems, since they won't integrate with anyone - their German is poor, they expect to have everything provided for them, and their attendance in integration clubs consists of sitting together at a table and singing Russian or Volga German songs), the Rush to Russia from Lithuania is not even a trickle.

Of the 219,700 Russians (here in 2000), only 543 returned to Russia since the programme opened this year, but 540 moved from Russia to Lithuania (who and how? They may have been people who were sent to Siberia, or people who married Lithuanians). A net gain of 3 for Russia. A relief for us, because we need our taxi drivers, bus drivers, repair men, postwomen....Does the allegedly corrupt Mr Uspaskich count in this number?

It would be interesting to know how many Lithuanian Russians are out west - a great deal more than are in Russia, I expect. They'd be fools to go and live in Russia where life for the poor is downtrodden and miserable.

According to the same blog, the Lithuanian president said after the Russian election result came out: 'The people of Russia made their choice, God help them'.

The Guardian reported yesterday that there's a suspicion that slim and disciplined Mr Putin may be the richest man in Russia, and thereby Europe. Why would that come as a surprise to anyone?


150 tons of smuggled citrus fruit

Customs officials around Georgia have in the last 10 days found 150 tons of smuggled citrus fruit and nuts. You may laugh - who in their right mind would smuggle something like this?

Actually, it's deadly serious. When Russia closed its borders to Georgia, suddenly Georgia lost a huge market for its citrus (and other) fruits and nuts, as well as for its wine and other goods. At one stage fruits were taken through South Ossetia (which is in Georgia but trying to break away with the help of Russia). So obviously Georgian farmers are in deep trouble. Just before I left Georgia a week ago the price of a kilo of mandarins (the fruity kind) was under 40 Eurocents; here in Vilnius it's about 1.5 Euros.

Interestingly, considering that Lithuania is oh so supportive of Georgia, I can't find Georgian wines anywhere in the supermarkets, though I have seen Moldovan wines. Get the right Georgian wine, and it's fine, though there is some very sweet stuff around, too.

And why do we in Lithuania get our pomegranates from California when Georgia and Turkey have perfectly good ones? They may not been quite as nice and round, or shiny, as the Californian ones, but at least this way we could support some needy folk.


Friday, December 21, 2007

Hidden Talents

Sometimes I think I need to divide this blog into three parts or have three blogs; music, political and general Eastern European stuff and personal stuff - but then, would I be able to whinge about not liking French music in the musical corner?

When did you last hear of Plovdiv? What's Plovdiv, you ask? It's a town. Where is it? In Bulgaria; it's the second largest town in Bulgaria. Pray, so what is she writing about a town in Bulgaria? Just who, like, cares?

Well, isn't it funny that less than three weeks after I review here a book set largely in Plovdiv, I find myself looking at the back of Vladimir Kiradzijev, who was born in Plovdiv, just like Dimitre Dinev, the author of said book. Both left Bulgaria for Vienna, one in 1988, one in about 1990, with our conductor going off to study there - and he still teaches at the music university of Vienna. Meanwhile Dinev lives and works in Vienna. Are any creative Bulgarians left in Bulgaria?

Kiradzijev seems to be a very charming man, much loving in with the orchestra, being very Viennese with the ladies, and giving individual praise where it's due. Also not giving individual praise where it's not due....

The concert began with Beethoven's violin concerto with Ji-Yoon Park and my favourite percussionist, Pavelas Giunteris, playing those famous four timp notes just perfectly (he played every note perfectly throughout the concert - as he always does). Ms Park, who has been educated largely in France, played every note perfectly and in the right order. She has a very sweet tone. Sometimes it was a bit difficult to hear her over the band. At times I felt she was rushing a bit, particularly in the cadenzas where she could have lingered here and there. She looked a bit miserable, though, when not playing. I was also a bit concerned about the conductor giving her very clear entries now and again, but wondered whether that was his micro-management way of conducting the Beethoven. There was the odd moment of blissful beauty, though, especially in the last movement when she did a lovely little dance together with the bassoon. The orchestra had its moments - the French horn opening of the second movement seemed to be a brick that dropped on the floor, and the orchestra's style and the soloist's style did not always match. Overall it was not a performance that set the heather alight.

This was followed by Szymanowski's second symphony; a wall of sound, generally, with three movements. It has the odd Viennese moment, and the concert master, Zbginiev Leviskas, played these beautifully, as he always does. He is such a wonderful soloist and leader - I know I say it every time. There were moments when the entire orchestra was playing and boy, did they mow down the audience. Not sure what happened to Szymanowski at the end, but it came to a very sudden and abrupt full-stop. Did the milk boil over at that moment?

Finally they did Strauss 'Till Eulenspiegel'; very nice; this orchestra plays this quite regularly. Another opportunity for Zbginiew to show off his talent (and again very Viennese music). The piece has a moment where it goes into a dance - the conductor was ready to jive off the rostrum! The death bit at the end could have been rather more tragic, but generally it was an ok performance. The winds were in better shape than in the Beethoven (in the Szymanowski so many of them were playing all the time that individual ones were not really heard).

There was only one omission - usually in this concert hall the delectable Agne Kubiliene does the announcements (it's an Eastern European thing); she is stylish from top to toe and her diction is so sharp it would cut through steel. She was not there - is she ok? This needs to be investigated!

So not a bad evening out for the sparse audience that was scattered throughout the concert hall. What else can one do on a Friday night in Vilnius?


A la France

I love the French lifestyle, and the elegance of French men and women, the sound of the French language, French food and wine.... but French music? Ye gads! (I may have mentioned this before). From that over-fanciful, over-ornamented baroque to that dippy, wishy-washy, impressionistic stuff by Faure, Poulenc, Debussy, faffing around and not coming to any specific conclusion - let's put a solid note on the table. Bang!!!! This excludes the Romantics like Berlioz, Bizet (though he has his moments, too, in that trivial Arlesienne Suite) and maybe even Cesar Franck. At summer school a tutor hit a chord on the piano and said 'this is Debussy' - wasn't it just!

Concerts by a single singer and a pianist also don't turn me on particularly. I find it embarassing being eyeballed by a singer who has nothing to do with his or her hands.

So what was I doing in Liora Grodnikaite's concert of French songs, accompanied by Povilas Jaraminas? [Picture by IMGArtists who represents her]. Young Liora, a former Covent Garden 'Young Artist', has a stunning, warm mezzo voice. Her stage presence is awesome. She is very tall, further enhanced by 4-inch heels, always dresses very simply and very stylishly (No Marie Antoinette in the garden with frilly gown here), letting her warm, chocolatey, voice be in the centre of attention, and steps on the stage extremely composedly. She simply lets the music out, and does so stunningly. She expresses the music very well indeed, and sings with very clear diction (these were all French songs, bit of a difficult language to sing in). This was all fairly slow music - I wondered how she had got on as the second lady in the Covent Garden Magic Flute, which is very fast stuff...

And why did I leave before the second half? I may not have been the only one, judging by the number of people who rushed at the stage with flowers even during the first half. Liora is revered in Vilnius, particularly for some reason by the Jewish community (who despite preconceptions to the contrary here do not seem to go to concerts more than any other population groups, except when Liora sings or there is a special Jewish concert) - a few years ago she did an outstanding, overwhelming concert of Yiddish songs written by Anatolijus Senderovas. Maybe the Jewish community does not have that much homegrown talent....

Anyway, I left before the second half because I found a programme in the rubbish bin and discovered that Massenet was next up. I absolutely can't abide Massenet - not after playing that oh so sugary Meditation for some music exam (my piano teacher recently offered me a piano version - over my dead body...). I expect the second half went well, especially when she did the arias from Carmen (recently she had the title role at the Latvian National Opera) - she'll have had them rocking in the aisles!

Felt a bit sorry for Povilas Jaraminas, the accompanist. I must admit not remembering him from anywhere. He did a little solo spot playing some French piano music, when we all wanted Liora to come back. Oh well.


Thursday, December 20, 2007

Odd stories

The Baltic Times reports, amongst others, the story of the French guy who met a girl on the internet, visited her in Vilnius, and then found himself handcuffed to a radiator in a flat and robbed of all his belongings. It took him 3 days to wrench the radiator off the wall and get help (while the downstairs neighbours were flooded). I suppose then that I could lock my bike quite safely to the radiators on the stairs....

In Latvia police stopped a drunk driver to find that he was blind. He was guided by his equally drunk teenage passenger. A week later they stopped him again, only to find that in fact he was the owner of the vehicle! (In Germany no-one checks the eyesight of a driver once they have passed their test. A relative with macular degeneration still drives during the day, even though he has difficulties judging distances....As long as it is only his funeral!)


Wednesday, December 19, 2007


Caucasian male, height - 5'10" to 6"; weight - in proportion with height, keeping himself fairly trim; age - about 40; hair -brown; distinguishing marks - appendectomy scar; beautiful hands with long fingers. (For non-Americans, a 'caucasian' is a white person; nothing to do with the Caucasus).

This is Šarūnas Puidokas who I did not expect to see when I booked my ticket for 'Kontrabosas' (Double bass), the play by Patrick Suskind. It's a play I had wanted to see for a long time, but never was in Vilnius at the right time. Actually I expected to see a different actor, so I was tiny bit miffed. But never mind.

'Double Bass' is a monologue lasting just over an hour. It features an actor, and, surprise surprise, a double bass. On a fairly bare stage. My heart sank a little at the sight of this. Having been to theatres in Georgia with my 10 words of Georgian I feel that I now have an obligation to go to Lithuanian theatres, too, with my maybe 500 - 1000 words of Lithuanian. Whereas in Georgia I just let the words wash over me, in Lithuania I feel I should make an effort and try to understand. In any case, it's difficult to do anything else in a monologue.

The instrument confused me. The strings, at the end of the fingerboard, were about 4 inches above the fingerboard. How can you play that? What was wrong? The fingerboard looked like it was in the right place....but hey, what's the bridge doing right at the end of the fingerboard? And that tailpiece, why has it got such a long tail? Once I worked all this out, I could move my attention back to the actor. But it was weird; when he left the stage at the end, he did not take his big fiddle with him. That really grated!

So the play is about an orchestral double bass player who has been playing it for years (he's a proper civil servant - it's a German play); he begins by saying how important the double bass is in the orchestra, and goes through all the history of the role of the double bass (he was mostly right, though there was something which sounded out of place to my musicological mind; can't remember what it was). He then meanders around the meaning of life, a performance with Abbado conducting, him never getting a solo, some woman problems. I thought that it was a play translated from American - this guy was very nervous, and kept saying 'gerai, gerai, gerai' as in 'ok, ok,ok', but now I wonder what the German equivalent would be. Šarūnas Puidokas did really well; it seemed just so natural, like a total stream of consciousness which it would be in real life - but I missed Robiko Sturua's funny walks! Puidokas even got a note or two out of the instrument, when it was needed, which was great. And his hands - oh his hands - they are soooo beautiful!

Though, if you are a foreigner in Vilnius, with not a word of Lithuanian and no knowledge of music, maybe pick another play to go to, eh?


Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Vilnius is changing

Whew, got home on Saturday and bought concert tickets just for the next two weeks - it feels like I had to milk the ATMs. Frightening prices they have these days - time I got out my student card; having discovered the benefit of the cheaper 'standing' seats also helps. But the concert halls are still full....

I swear that if you go along Gedimino prospektas, the major shopping street in Vilnius, and have a coffee at each coffee shop along its length, you'll either need to be scraped off the sky (if you had an espresso), or you won't need to eat for a week (if you had a latte). You could of course balance that with a meal at each restaurant on the street, and a drink at each bar.....If you spent a week in Vilnius, you'd never need to leave the street for food or drink, and could possibly eat and drink in a different place each meal. It's obviously becoming a service economy. Not sure that all the businesses are doing all that well, though - some of the shops change hands at a frightening rate.

Some things take longer to change. Having needed a bit of medical investigation recently I put it on my BUPA card and forgot all about it, until I got home. Wow, those charges looked high - the price looked like the Euro version of the Litas price. Inquiry revealed that when the treatment centre deals with BUPA they put a coefficient on the bill. I reckon it's a factor of 3. Nice work if you can get it out of the foreign insurance companies who don't know any better and think that the cost is low ... Another hospital which I need a tiny operation at, and who I asked about the price, has first asked about my citizenship and whether I contribute to the local social insurance system. Though it's private treatment. One rate for the job obviously does not exist. If I pay more, I expect a better service - or should I be looking at this as a form of redistribution of wealth? But already I pay quite enough taxes ...

This is how it was in the Soviet days, when museums and such like charged different entrance fees for locals and for foreigners. Then again, I remember having roof repairs in Scotland and the company asking, before giving me an estimate, whether it was an insurance job....


You wish to learn about Georgian music?

I'll give you Georgian polyphonic singing, here, on Saturday at 15.00 hrs British time, and you can listen to it for another 7 days on the internet. (Link to the music player in the little yellow box).



Sunday, December 16, 2007

What playing!!!

Did not mean to go to two concerts within 28 hours of landing in Vilnius, though I knew of another concert this afternoon. At lunchtime, after a long run (in better shoes, so no sore feet) and a very nice Irish breakfast, had a look at the Filharmonija website to see what was what. The concert began to look interesting - the second half had Tchaikovsky's trio for violin, cello and piano, which I love. But I did not know the performers, and when there are two of the same surname, I tend to worry; sometimes one can be vastly better than the other and drag the second one along.

Am I glad I went!! What power in playing, what virtuosity! The three were Rasa Vosyliute (violin) and her sister (?) Egle on the piano, with Giedre Dirvanauskaite on the cello. I will use their first names from now on....Rasa and Giedre are, I think, members of the Kremerata Baltica, the young people's chamber orchestra of the three Baltic states. In fact it seems that the Lithuanian end of the orchestra was at the recital in force, and even Gidon Kremer was in the audience (though their interaction at the interval suggested that they had not seen each other recently). Half the Lithuanian chamber orchestra was also there. I noticed that some of the young Lithuanian male musicians have taken it on themselves personally to carry the weight that I lost; haven't they, Mindaugas and Dainius?

The Kremerata does loud, powerful and virtuosic playing, and so did these three. The programming was very interesting, with a Czech first half and the Tchaik in the second half. Starting with Janacek's Fairy Tale(s) for cello and piano. It's clear that Giedre can play it loud and dirty; she has a wonderful attack on her cello - not sure about lyrical because nothing much was that lyrical..... Total control over what she was doing! This piece has a rather odd ending which neither pianist nor cellist nor this member of the audience could do anything with. Weird stuff.

This was followed by Schulhoff's Duo for violin and cello, in memory of Janacek. It's a great piece, with a scintillating second movement (in the 'gypsy' style) and Rasa and Giedre played it extremely well. Schulhoff has written duos for viola and cello, too - I heard them being played by Geringas and a violist; they are also great. Technically both sets are some miles above the eyeglasses duo.

Then Rasa and Egle played some romantic pieces by Dvorak; relatively lightweight stuff but very pretty. The last movement was a bit cliched.

The Tchaikovsky - isn't it long? But it has beauty in every phrase. I know it very well, and my gold standard performance was by the Pauk/Kirshbaum/Frankl trio at the Edinburgh Festival some years ago. This was then, and is even more so now, a bunch of middle-aged men who have played together for a long time, and I suspect that Frankl and Pauk in particular may have lived through some harrowing moments, including rapid departures from Hungary in around 1956. The young ladies in this performance were probably not over 30 and may have experienced fewer personal tragedies (0ne hopes). I'm going into this a bit because this trio is actually a mournful thing, written in 1881-2 in memory of Tchaikovky's friend Nikolai Rubinstein, a pianist (not Artur Rubinstein, as the announcer slipped up). Our young trio played it absolutely stunningly, and extremely virtuosically - but it was the mournful bit that was missing. This piece should have the audience in tears.....

Note for the future - it does not look wonderful in a piano trio if the violinist is standing between the pianist and the cellist, with her back to the pianist. Even though they know each other well, it does not suggest much communication.


Saturday, December 15, 2007

That Jacqueline Dupre must have had some power to her elbow

It's really not fair on any cellist to have a Brit, steeped in Jacqueline Dupre, review a performance of the Elgar Cello Concerto.

Young Edvardas Armonas had that pleasure this evening in the Vilnius Filharmonija. Given that his dad is a cello professor, too, it made me wonder during the performance what motivated the choice of 'Edvardas' for the first name....

Edvardas Armonas studied in Cologne, with Frans Helmerson (as now does that wonderful cellist, Giorgi Kharadze); both have been, or are, also closely involved with the Kronberg Academy, the German centre for top cellist development, as is the very young Marie Elisabeth Hecker, also reviewed by me here. I'm doing well on young cellists, no?

Armonas may be a minute or two older than the other two. Last time I heard him was in Yo Yo Ma's masterclass in the Vilnius music academy. Was it him who played Shostakovich, which prompted Ma to say that actually he had not engaged much with Shosty himself?

Anyway. Armonas may have missed the Dupre moment of that extremely powerful, blistering opening that she had, with the sobbing slide down on the C string, but he sure made up for it. He was in total control of the piece, with perfect intonation apart from one note, and there were moments of exquisite beauty. Not quite as many as with Kharadze and the Haydn that time in Tbilisi, but nevertheless there were. Particularly in the second movement which has a (repeated, and repeated within itself, so it comes up four times) moment where the cellist dives in on an off-beat - Armonas held that rest before it beautifully just that teeny bit too long to have the audience at the edge of their seat. (He could have varied it a little in the repeat within itself, but never mind). Sometimes the orchestra overpowered him, but perhaps I am so used to the Dupre recordings which may have had microphones in interesting places that this may not be a fair comment. The end was stunning, and his phrasing was great.

As an encore he played the two gigues from Bach's third cello suite. Well played, but it's not the kind of interpretation I like - just cleansing my ears with Anner Bylsma's version. Armonas went rather elastic on the tempi, and over-romanticised the second gigue (which of course should be played be differently from the first one). But this is a never-ending debate; each to their own. In the red corner are the romantics (Daniel Hope, Edvardas Armonas), in the blue corner are the Historically Influenced Players (Bylsma, Harnoncourt) - I tend to the blue corner.

The concerto was preceded by Jonas Nabazas symphonic poem „Song about sadness and happiness“. Nabazas was born 100 years ago, and this was written in 1933, one of the rare moments of Lithuania's independence. Before someone starts picking nits saying that Vilnius was in Poland then, let me tell you that Nabazas was based in Kaunas, the capital of independent Lithuania. This piece was kind of film music, with the odd moment of chinese sounding music in it, too. Quite big and complex. Ah well.

Finally we had Cesar Franck's D-minor symphony. Now, me, I don't like simpering, wishy-washy French music, and tend to lump them all together, Franck, Poulenc, Debussy, Faure and Messiaen (oh, Messiaen - he's got his 100th anniversary coming up next year.....can't stand the stuff). The opening blast of the Franck made me look at the programme, to note that Franck was born in 1822, so considerably earlier than that impressionist lot. Then I realised that Franck was actually of Belgian origin, and I further realised that I knew the symphony quite well. It's really fairly traditional romantic, considering that it is written in 1886 to 1888, with the first movement particularly being quite recognizably in sonata form. Lacks a scherzo, but by that time in the 19th century people had moved well away from the 'normal' sonata form. I do like Berlioz a lot, and this was quite a bit like Berlioz, what with the bright brass sound, the wide range of instruments and so on.

At this time in the concert I had moved up to the 'standing seats' above the orchestra. Something had made me want to see the conductor, the gorgeous Modestas Pitrenas, conduct - the standing seats are quite good, even better, if you have them all to yourself. It's one thing seeing them from behind (particularly Vytautas Lukocius with that delightful waggly behind - where is he these days?), but another to see people interact with their band. You also spot other things, involving fleeing follicles, for example. I'm sorry to say that the smile count was low, tended to come up when he peered in my direction (though he could hardly have spotted me what with the rather ornate balcony railings I was looking through). That would be three times, and after the slow movement to the oboes who may actually have smiled at him first. Then again, he's not a scowling conductor either, and the piece went well. The other interesting thing about this location, compared to the stalls seats, is that you can much better follow the music, and how the ball is thrown around the orchestra. Not only can you get a rough idea of the score because you can see the more or less black bits, but it makes it really easy to see and hear who plays what. Not all the balls were tossed about equally - sometimes they were hit back a bit half-heartedly, but generally it was a good effort. The orchestra likes to play loud, and it got plenty of chances for that!

I'll be spending more time in the gods in future!

(Photo by Mikhail Raskovskij)


Near miss!

Yesterday morning looked out of the window, it was all foggy in Tbilisi. Had heard of another Austrian airlines flight being diverted last Sunday to somewhere in Turkey. Heard the full story today - they were dumped in Trabzon, then had to wait for a bus for 5 hours, then had a 13 hour treck across Turkey and Georgia to Tbilisi, including 3 hours at the border....

Yesterday morning gloomy, piano lesson was p*sh because my mind was clawing at the airport doors to let me out, instead of in my fingers, in the afternoon it was even foggier! Oh no!

Went to the theatre to see, only for the third time in a month, that Moliere play - and if it had not been night, the sun would have been shining coming out of the theatre. Not a trace of fog!

Tracked the Austrian flight from Vienna and all was well. Apart from the very very bumpy take-off in what seemed like howling gales. That's when I heard that another Austrian flight, last Thursday, had been cancelled. Having been stuck in Armenia once for the same reason, I can only say that we were very, very lucky indeed!

It's brill, being at home! Off to a concert tonight...


Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Got a distinction!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Tonight found on the internet the result of my first (of 2) OU music diploma courses, A214. An introductory music course and all that, but ending with harmonising Bach, rather ad nauseam (it would be if it was not Bach).

In my usual style I had rushed through the course like crazy (with now 21 OU courses under my belt, I have a technique for getting maximum results in minimum time, but it does not work so well in cumulative courses, as this one was). The last assignment was really heavy, got a bare pass on the Bach harmonisation part (so many red comments, it looked as if the tutor had spilt blood on the page) and a much higher mark on the Mozart part, and it was only during revision, shortly afterwards, that I began to remember what I should have used in the Bach.

Anyway, looking at my overall average and using what I thought was the OU formula to calculate the overall result, before the exam, there was no way I would get more than second-best. Thankfully I hung on in there with the revision. Can't believe that I got a distinction!

Mind you, after this year's little effort I still don't think I know much about music....Roll on next year, and AA302 - it's at a higher level....and I am doing Spanish as well.

Hasta pronto! (can't do an upside down exclamation mark...)


No bliss is felt, however

.... by the British Council which has been ordered by the Russian government to shut up shop by January everywhere except the Moscow HQ, see here, headed by a picture of Putin with the face of the cat that stole the cream (not the one on the right)

One might say 'tin-pot dictator' if it were not such a big country. It's all getting back at the UK, about the Litvinenko situation in particular (Russia won't extradite who Britain thinks is responsible for the murder of the dissident), the expulsion of 4 Russian diplomats from the UK following said murder (or something), maybe the spy-in-the-stone, and anyway.

And anyway, one has to flex one's considerable pectorals, no? (Picture from the Telegraph, and that's the last time I've read that paper!)

The BC closure is officially due to the usual technocratic/bureaucratic reason 'no legal basis for its operation', 'violation of tax laws' and the usual. It's so transparent, no? There's an agreement on the renewal of its operations that has not been signed since July - I wonder whose fault that is.

If the Yuke is anything like the US about paying employee taxes in foreign countries, the Russians might have a point. The 'murricans don't on principle pay any taxes for their employees in foreign countries on the grounds that their - omigod US greenbacks - money might support a dictatorship. A few years ago their Lithuanian employees were in deep shtick because naturally they had not paid their taxes either (in Eastern Europe private individuals often don't see a connection between them, the state and the quality of services they receive). So there was a small question of an outstanding tax bill of some 1.5 million Lithuanian litu (about 500 k USD).
Somehow though I cannot see them getting away with this in Germany, the Yuke or France.

Mr Putin has nominated a chap for president, who in turn, while not yet being President until he gets elected in March, has already nominated Putin as prime minister. Oh darlings, it's such a love-in!


Bliss is...

...when you have finished a piece of work that had the danger of encroaching on homeleave - and just at the moment of finishing it Cecilia Bartoli is singing one of her sublime Gluck arias on my iPod. Aaaaaaah! I can go home now!


Heavenly Almonds

This is what the 81 -year-old Lithuanian president said when talking to the Kauno diena newspaper: "I am full of energy and strength, therefore, after 2009, I will not sit back in a rocking chair somewhere in the country and look at the sky contemplating heavenly almonds. No. I think I will be a very active participant in the life of Lithuania," he said.

I'm trying to work out what heavenly almonds are, and whether something has been lost in translation?


A colloquity of bloggers

This week, of my favourite bloggers not only is Wu Wei in Tbilisi, staying in a hotel in a road about 100 metres below my flat, but also Carpetblogger, who is staying in another hotel about 400m along the road from me. Wu Wei reports on life (and very occasionally work) out East and in the UK; Carpetblogger reports on life (and never work) out East - currently she's based in Istanbul and I'm jealous!

It makes me wonder who else I'd invite for my favourite blogger's dinner party in Tbilisi - there'd be Grannyp, who I'd have to rustle from her spot on the sunnier side in life (Tenerife?), and then there's Jessica Duchen, though I'm not sure if I could provide the necessary music background for her (but musical contacts could be arranged by the dozen...). But only if she left her Korngold at home!! And finally, of course, operachic, if we could only prise her out of the opera world gossip scene. There ain't much here, though Montserat Caballe is singing here on Friday - an I'm Not Going! Not sure that we could offer many chic shopping opportunities in Tbilisi - maybe some psychedelic tights, an enamelled cross, or a felt skirt?

Weird. All these people are women. That ain't much fun for a dinner party! Then again, with these women....


Saturday, December 08, 2007

Angels' tongues

Non-German speaking readers, avert your eyes.

This book by Dimitre Dinev (Angels' Tongues) is probably the first Bulgarian book I have read (in German, I ain't that good on languages...). Not published in English, I'm afraid. Picked it up in Vienna, which is quite a treasure trove for literature from the more south eastern parts of Europe.

The book portrays not only the lives of two young men from the same town in Bulgaria, but also the development of Bulgaria from the usual soviet-type society to the market economy (though our heroes leave for Austria just as this happens). As it happens, they only meet each other right at the end of their books, even though their fathers bumped into each other at the birth of one of them, and the father who worked in the militia spied on the other who was a big noise in the party.

This 600 page, closely printed paperback is excellent value for money. While it is a bit put-downable, it is also a) very interesting, since what do we generally know about Bulgaria anyway, and b) very funny - the author has a lovely dry sense of humour, and a beautiful turn of phrase (he writes in German, and....just looking at his biography in the front of the book....it's interesting how much of his life may be reflected in the book, too). So seeing as German is not his native language, it might be even more awesome how good he is at words. Then again, some of us are also not writing in their native language.

Take this little example - one of the characters, Iskren, has a successful little business, when he is visited by two guys who offer him 'protection'. Iskren tells them he has nothing to fear; the next day two handgrenades destroy his shop. Up turns the police, and he tells them the story.

'We'll see what we can do', the responsible inspector assured him. As far as the 'see' was concerned, the police had it all under control, but with the 'do' and the 'can' they had their difficulties.'

Lovely little phrase - and the whole book is full of them. (A guy, who was a miner, had been happy under the earth, so happy that he had taken a piece of it out in his lungs when he retired.)

I could read it again to savour the language. It could make quite a nice film, too, I think and produce quite a good documentary of life out East, as it changes, and the impact this has on people and their lives. My Bulgarian friend Radost was surprised to hear that the book also refers to a woman called Radost, who, although her part is very small, is nevertheless a key character. (Sorry, Radost, it may not be available in Bulgarian, unless it has been translated).


What's with my stats?

My reader stats have suddenly increased and doubled today compared to a couple of weeks ago. But I see no new links to my blog anywhere, apart from Wu Wei's blog last week. Not sure why this happened.

Wu Wei arrived in Tbilisi a week ago and seems to have had her head down working all the time (just now she is typing away furiously on her laptop in the hotel a couple of hundred metres down the road from me).....It's funny - we met in Vilnius 6 years ago, have been drifting all over the place since, and now are together again in Tbilisi. It's nice to have a friend around.

What she may need to learn about Tbilisi, and which we only learned a week or two ago, is that what appears to be a Government panic, requiring the consultants to do huge amounts of work and give tons of advice, often over the weekend (the EU does not allow this, thanks!) and in the evenings, is forgotten a couple of weeks later because personnel have changed. 'What is that you are talking about?' their successor asks. Sometimes it's almost good not to do anything - but of course, you don't know that in advance.

Anyway, looking at the details of my stats - I come up with some strange searches. Someone looked for 'porno sauna' which lead them to a book review; someone else looked for 'Lithuanian pussies' which lead them to a story about the miaowing kind in Istanbul. Perhaps not what he had in mind. Quite a few had an interest in 'Turkish men' (don't we all?).

And then there were the usual music-related searches, including a link recently from a blog on the Usher Hall renovation in Edinburgh which picked up on some throw-away comment I had made about the hall's atmosphere during the festival.

Ms Melancholy, on the other hand, seems to have lost some readers from her delightful, and very interesting, blog. Surely they haven't all come here?


England - Land without Music?

Thus a German writer, Herrmann Schmitz (who he?) described the island a hundred years ago, according to this Guardian article. In terms of composers, he had a point - just at that time there was some dreadful composing about in the Yuke.

Moving on 70 years and in the education cuts of the 70s and later music was often the victim. I only heard this. In Scotland, at the time my son was at school, most schools had at least a peripatetic instrumental instructor, though on the other hand classroom singing in primary schools depended very much on the talent and interest of the individual teacher.

Suddenly the government has picked up classical music, there is the music manifesto, and now Classic FM and the (London) Philharmonic Society are starting a series whereby each month a particular piece is played all round the UK, and presumably also on Classic FM. Not much British music, of course, what with my comments above. And no living composer. I'm not sure that Dido and Aeneas, Purcell's short and really rather trite opera (but perhaps the 'best' English baroque opera) will take people to listen to classical music. A lot of the stuff is the usual war horses - Dvorak's cello concerto, Tchaikovky's swan lake - the kind of thing you hear on the background of adverts nowadays. Not sure about this kind of music - it's stiff and starchy, and makes people expect formal clothes. There's a lot of fun contemporary music about, particularly with lots of percussion as main ingredient or soloist, which might attract a much wider audience. ( I remember watching a little American boy (his dad was military attache at an embassy, with the appropriate matching haircut father and son) being totally amazed by a concert consisting only of percussion music - unfortunately the family left at the interval). Then you could bung a bit of classical stuff, too. People need to be inspired - but what inspires the persuaded may not persuade the uninspired.

There is also supposed to be guidance on how to listen to music, but Isserlis' effort at the bottom of the article is too thin for music aficionados, and 'what is he talking aboot' level for those with no info about music. It'll be interesting to see how classic fm will promulgate this. They could start with 'this is a cello', and 'thus functions a concerto'.

It might be good bringing this kind of music into the environment where people might be persuaded - having it as background music in a busy bar or pub, or having the odd live performance in the street or other public places (ie involve the buskers!).

Apart from the article there is also a Guardian blog story (please don't try to learn English from this one), and a link to a rather interesting little test site which measures the skill with which you listen to music (I think). Apparently the Guardian blogger was not very good at it.

I hope it works!


Friday, December 07, 2007

Another President Play

It's Tbilisi, it's the Rustaveli Theatre, it's a premiere - it's a president play ('Birdie died in the glen' - go figure - it may be part of a Georgian poem not very well translated). Remember that democracy is a bit fragile in Georgia - exactly a month ago today the teargas and the soldeiers were streaming down the main street. Today the soldiers were streaming down the street again, to the Rustaveli Theatre where they watched the performance - three rows of them in uniform. It must have given the creeps to folk on the street seeing the soldiers wandering along.

Anyway, theatre here (and the Rustaveli under Robert Sturua in particular) seems to see it as its role to propose democracy and expose the weaknesses of those against democracy, ie currently the President. Someone thought that this was a very dangerous play at this time. I don't know. The same theatre has another play on the same theme, 'The Soldier, Love, Bodyguard and ...the President'. Frankly, they are both much of a muchness, portraying the President of Georgia, played by Beso Zanguri in both shows - it's the likeness - as a womaniser, who likes to wear his wife's clothes (an impossibility in real life given the different sizes of both), married to a foreign wife (yes), a rather paranoid person surrounded by security guards who he can or cannot trust, by friends who he can or cannot trust and so on. This play, in one very long act (about 100 minutes), does not have much of a plot, other than the signing, or refusal to sign, of some document. He has conversations with different people, but never more than one other person at the time (they hardly ever talk to each other or are on the stage with each other). There's a live pond on stage which both women have to jump into at some stage, but otherwise it's not very interesting.

I would be inclined to go and see 'The Soldier' etc; it is a bit more interesting. Or maybe it was because it was the first president play I had seen.

Don't think I would be rushing back to see this again. Thankfully it was being translated by the same deadpan person who has translated earlier, otherwise it would be quite unbearable.

In the foyer before the show I saw David Papuashvili, father (I think) of Zaza Papuashvili, both of whom I have on the DVD with that soft-porn film 'Georgian grapes' [and that dreadful German film]. I congratulated him on the film I had seen but tried to mumble its title - other people were present.


Four minutes

Didn't we have the phrase 'four-minute warning' about the countdown to nuclear (or as a Canadian acquaintance recently called it 'nucular') war?

This '4 minutes' is a German film. If you like unusual films and you like romantic piano music, you might like this film. On the other hand, people who like romantic piano music are often sensitive souls, with an eye for beauty - this film is not for them.

It's intense, it's violent, it's brutal - an onslaught on the emotions. Not sure that I can tell you all about it, seeing as I only saw about half of it: the cinema was packed, we were late and sat on the stairs, peering round the side of a pillar (it was the Tbilisi film festival, and among the German films there were not many recent ones, though a lot of Fassbinder films, which are really quite old now).

The story is about a piano teacher in her 80s (Monica Bleibtreu), who pays her own money to take a grand piano to prison, and gives piano lessons. Amongst the 3 or 4 people she teachers she finds a highly talented, but also very very angry and damaged girl. They finally get themselves together, not without many ups and downs, and prepare for the Jugend musiziert competition, the main youth music competition in Germany, which has rounds from local to regional to state to national level. To win anything at national level, in a country of 80 million people, is to be the bees' knees.

In and around this story are other problems in the prison, a frustrated warder who knows all operatic arias and enters a TV competition not very successfully, another warder who does not understand that one cannot play the piano with hands handcuffed behind the back, the girl's behaviour, the other women's behaviour (and I always thought German jails were nice and well organised - think again). The piano teacher has her own difficult past going back to the war....

The film is not entirely believable - the repertoire for the competition is too narrow, and the end is just unlikely; also one asks oneself whether an 80-year-old lady would be encouraged to take on a violent 20-year-old; though in this case the 80-year-old fought her corner well to be allowed to do so. Also the idea of transporting a grand piano on an open flat-bed truck in the rain just lacks a tiny bit of credibility.

However, the film is extremely powerful. It certainly does not make a statement in the sense of that French film about M Mathieu and his children, that music heals all wounds. Or does it? The ending does not look all that hopeful (and is just sooo unbelievable, though the music, specially written for the film at this point, is brilliant!).

It's a bit on the long side, or maybe I just felt that because of seating conditions (111 minutes), and the music is a bit too much the same, most of the time - but it's still well worth seeing, just because it is so different. It seems to have won lots of prizes, too.



Saakashvili, former president and presidential candidate, drops into a kindergarten where the children sing the national anthem.

A totally spontaneous event, no doubt. The children go to the kindergarten dressed like this every day. Notice that the little boy's heart seems to be in the wrong place.

(Picture from AFP)


Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Kitsch as kitsch can

....as my dear Mama would say. Sweet ...ing Jaayyyyzus, as my friend Noel would say. Overpriced and over here, as someone else might say.

What am I talking about? The concert of a series of two of the group 'Georgian voices' at the Tbilisi conservatoire. It's ok, they are over.

Georgian voices, or Kartuli Chmebi, is a group of 9 male singers who sing Georgian poliphonic music. Which is of course difficult, and they, like Basiani, sing very complicated songs, including those with yodelling. The yodelling, which obviously is very high, was done by the only guy with a beard - probably like another baby-faced friend of mine, his wife would not let him shave it off.

Their singing was great; the usual, more complex Georgian songs which my singing group would not be capable of, the dynamics which my group does not do - it brays instead, the yodelling - oh, forget the yodelling. They were wonderful! Great group to have around.

Though Basiani is better, what with being multitalented; see this review of their concert in Vilnius. Basiani can not only sing, they can also play instruments and dance, even if the dances were a little symbolical. Real Georgian dancing - oh vey, it's seriously fierce, especially that of the men. But go to any theatre in Tbilisi and you get hints of it.

Anyway, four things really really got on my wick:
1. There was an old man acting as compere, introducing the singers and giving thanks to the sponsors and so on, as is the case in many Eastern European concert halls. But, as is also the case with old men in Eastern Europe, give them a microphone and they are off - verbal diarrhoea - if it were physical, he'd be in a hospital on a drip. So endless talks between the songs. (And let's not forget that there was no break in the 1.5 hour concert - people might not have expected that).

2. There was a choir of about 60 boys between 6 and 16 who suddenly popped up in the middle. Must be another Eastern tradition - in Vilnius we have the choir Azuoliukas ('acorn') with a similar number of boys which gets wheeled out now and again in serious concerts - with usually far too many boys for the piece in question. Anyway, these boys, dressed like the men in the black dress coats with rows of 'bullets' along their chests and a dagger at their waist, and a white neckkerchief so big that it tied around their waist at the back, then burst into Mravalzhamier (a good luck or congratulation song) - it was only the second time that evening that it was sung (but not the last!!!). It comes in a zillion different versions - this was an excruciating westernised - bastardised - version which should not have seen the light of day. Cringe-making it was.

Of course, it's the old orchestra management trick - and I've used it myself - bring in a large children's choir, and all the grannies, aunts and uncles, mums and dads will buy tickets. Not sure about the 'buying' part in Georgia, what with general cash flows. But guess why 'The Snowman' is so popular with amateur orchestras in the UK - rehabilitates the cash flow every time!

3. Then a piano accompanist appeared. In a concert of Georgian music? This is where sweet ****ing Jaaaayzus appeared. Joannas do not belong into Georgian music unless they are female, human, and they sing it. Anyway, a boy with an ok sort of voice sang a solo, accompanied by the choir. The joanna was rather overpowering, but we got through it.

Then another group appeared, an instrumental group with folk instruments, including various kinds of plucked/bowed string instruments (whose bowing, even though they were playing the same harmonies, was somewhat random, as at times was their intonation - eeek), some flutes of the up-and-down variety, and a 20-stringed portable harp which looked like a window box ready for the sweet peas - its contribution to the sound was not great. They played quite nicely, generally.

But then came cringe-making moment No 4.

4. A female appeared and sang a song with two males, accompanied by the band. The band played an introduction that was pure Austrian folk music; then they burst into song, properly in 3 voices as is the Georgian polyphonic wont. But ye gads, what was this? It was 'Suliko', the popular alternative Georgian anthem, just different words, and the notes took different turns. Rhythmically and harmonically it was absolutely the same thing. If you know Georgian polyphonic music and you know 'Suliko', you know that if ever you are looking for an example of musical 'cliche', you have just found it. Suliko is a poor man's version of Georgian music (I know, because I've harmonised it in different ways and then realised why musicians don't like it). It's like Bruch writing the Scottish fantasy - someone else's idea of what a country's folk music should be like. Add to this the slushy accompanyment and it was seriously apple strudel with walnuts (for the Georgian flavour) and lashings and lashings of custard, cream and icecream, all at the same time. Yuk, yuk, yuk.

And we paid 20 laris for this when for half the price we could have got a very nice (not necessarily tasteful, but nevertheless nice) theatre performance for half the price. Now I know and I don't need to go again. If the guys just did their own singing, it would be fine...maybe you need to hear them abroad where they cannot afford to bring all their hangers on.


Taking the money and running

An Irish consortium called Duke House bought the old Municipality Building in Vilnius in 2004, completely renovated it (only the outside walls were left standing) and popped in a posh shopping centre, with shops like Marks and Spencers and Bodyshop. Now it would appear they are trying to sell it - probably they think they have made as much money out of it as they can.

This is the worst kind of investors, no? Taking no interest in the continued development of the centre, or in Vilnius, just out for a fast buck.

Not sure how well this shopping centre is doing. Vilnius, unlike other capital cities, is relatively deserted on the weekend, and these shops are at the expensive end for Vilnius incomes. Visiting it a day or two after it opened I found it quiet, and never since then have I found it busy either. I haven't bought any clothes at M&S since they have a reputation for drabness, and those who can afford to buy expensive clothes in Vilnius are the young ones who would not buy this stuff. M&S also have a food section, but it's all food that keeps, and a small packet of muesli does not do anything for anyone.

It'll be interesting to see what will become of the centre....


Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Absence of light

Like many Northern Europeans I easily get depressed on dark winter days. Make that on dark days. This was one of the reasons why I went to Istanbul a couple of weeks ago, because my flat in Tbilisi is seriously dark, hanging, as it does, off the side of a mountain. It does have a wonderful view across the town, but when it's cold you'd only look at that from inside, across the large roofed balcony - which also does not allow much light in. It's also one of the reasons why I left Scotland which can be cloudy from November to April. And it's the reason why I can't wait to get back to Lithuania, to my flat with the large windows and the bright lights.

The lighting in my flat in Tbilisi is a bit of a catastrophe. There are plenty of chandeliers all over the flat; shame that a) some of the light sockets don't work, and b) the bulbs pop about every five minutes. Yesterday I bought a dozen lightbulbs, a couple of weeks ago I had bought another six. It's down to dodgy wiring rather than power surges, I suspect, since my laptop has never been affected.

So why don't you buy long-life lightbulbs, I hear you ask? a) doesn't work - even they croak after a month or two., and b) those you get in Tbilisi give the most appalling light, roughly resembling that which you might expect in a morgue. Cosy light it is not. But carrying lightbulbs from Vilnius to Tbilisi is just a step too far.

The most catastrophic area is probably my bathroom. It has kind of brown/beige patterned tiles, floor to ceiling. The ceiling has a suspended thing hanging off it with a diamond pattern of green, brown, mirrored and white glass squares. The 3 lightbulbs are behind this. There is also a light above the wash hand basin which had never worked until I recently popped in a bulb, only to discover that it does not switch off. Ho hum. Did not matter so much since the bulb died after about 2 weeks of constant light, and the following one lasted just for my bath. In the meantime the ones in the ceiling had died, one after the other. I replaced two with the long-life bulbs - the only ones I had; when the last normal bulb went and that above the basin, having a bath was like being at the bottom of a very dark river. This is what headtorches are for, reading in the bath. Let's not think about safety. Imagine my excitement today when I borrowed the neighbour's ladder (which has its own issues - its legs splay out) and with great difficulty and knocking knees replaced two of them with normal bulbs. (The third one is above the toilet which has no place for someone, potentially collapsing with a ladder, to hang on to.) I should have got the 100 watt ones, though.....

I can't believe I keep going into the bathroom to look at the amount of light I have there!

Incidentally, visiting a friend's flat yesterday we spotted the British 3-pin sockets. Unusual in Tbilisi. It would appear that this was the residence of the first British ambassador to Tbilisi after independence, so everything was done British. Like no sockets in the bathroom, one of those funny pull-string switches in the toilet....The arrogance of it all! Or was there really nothing in Tbilisi at the time? All new tenants have to buy zillions of adapters to use their European plugs in these sockets!


Monday, December 03, 2007

Young, er, British Conductors

The Telegraph reports on the new young conductors pulling British orchestras out of the pits that some of them have been in. There's Vladimir Jurowski of the RPO, there's Vasily Petrenko of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic - who is reported to have turned it around, there will by Kirill Karabits of the Bournemouth symphony orchestra and Andris Nelsons, aged 28, of the CBSO, and there's Edward Gardner of the ENO.

Notice something? Four out of the five of them are from Eastern Europe (and three of them, Petrenko, Jurowski and Gardner, are with IMG Artists (whose photos I'm using, as well as Konzertdirektion Schmid [Nelsons] and HarrisonParrott's [Karabits]).

3 points arise:

1) aren't they a lovely bunch of fresh-faced lads?

2) What is wrong with British conductor education?

3) Do we still have no young women becoming conductors?


My feet hurt!!!

After running about 14 km on Saturday and 12 km on Sunday my feet are hurting! One has been doing it on and off for a bit, but now the other one has come out in sympathy. But it's just my normal running distance.

It seems that you are supposed to replace your running shoes quite often....The pair I've been using in Georgia is the first pair I bought once I started running, about 3 years ago. There's a newer pair at home in Vilnius. I mean, how many pairs does a person need?

Maybe lots? They tell me that running shoes should be replaced every 800 - 1200 km. At 30 km running per week that's about every 6 months, at 150 Euros a pop. I wonder if you can get a quantity discount? Someone I know has 8 pairs - a bit obsessive?

Plus in Vilnius it's not so easy getting a good range of running shoes, so I need to get the ones I like by mail-order....

Running ain't cheap!


Another Afghanistan book

Khaled Hosseini, an Afghan who moved to the US in 1980, has written another book to follow his best seller 'The Kite Runners', a story of the friendship of two boys in Afghanistan, which then breaks apart (the friendship, that is - though Afghanistan....?).

His new book 'A Thousand Splendid Suns' (sounds like a quote from a poem), is also set in Afghanistan, from before the Soviet Invasion in 1979 till about now. It follows first one woman, then another, and finally they are united to face all that Afghanistan can throw at woman during this period. This is the usual - difficult marriage arrangements, abusive husbands, catastrophic healthcare, inability to study/work, starvation, dead bodies everywhere....

I'm afraid if you have read one book about the lives of women in Afghanistan, you've read them all. This adds nothing to the debate, other than being an additional resource. It has been written in American English, which slightly grates, when you read about 'ass' and 'kids' (not those of goats...). The literary value is fairly negligible - you would not read it for the wonderful use of language. On the other hand, it could be much, much worse....

The book is sold at airports, and of course it's good, and important, that the topic is accessible to many people who might not otherwise enter a bookshop. Then again, it's a very fast read - although it's a large paperback, the print is well-spaced out on the page and you can read it in a day (it is unputdownable in that respect). So it fills up (hand) luggage space but won't keep you occupied for even a trip from London to Australia, say.

This book is interesting, but I liked the first book much better. Oh, it's hard following a successful first novel!


Saturday, December 01, 2007


Hüzün is a peculiar kind of melancholy which affects Istanbullus (people who live in Istanbul). So says Orhan Pamuk in his book 'Istanbul'. It's in the sense of spiritual loss, where for example if someone has spent too much time amassing worldly goods, he may feel hüzün because he may not qualify for paradise so well. In the case of Istanbullus, Pamuk suggests that it also reflects the loss of glory that the city had during the Ottoman empire. The reader of the book feels, though, that Pamuk himself has quite an intimate acquaintance with hüzün.

The air of hüzün is promulgated in the book through the use of black-and-white photographs only, of which they are very many. None were taken later than about 1972, I suspect, and these may be the ones of Pamuk himself. It's strange how small black-and-white photos don't actually tell you that much.

If you are looking for a tourist guide to Istanbul, do not buy this book. It does not tell you where to go and what to look at. If on the other hand, you are like me, and enjoy wandering around the streets, expensive ones and poor back streets, looking at what people do and how they live, and you have time to sit and contemplate Istanbul, buy it. I was reading it on sunny and very grey November days in small cafes in Istanbul, having spent much time crawling all over the back streets of the old town and of Beyoglu, and I could well relate to what he is talking about in the book.

In a sense, it's a memoir of his childhood and youth (in a large but not necessarily happy family) where Pamuk seems to have got his own way rather a lot; for example bunking off school with not too much disapproval of his family (so why does he wonder, in another part of the book, that his results were not as good as his older brother's?). It reflects his childhood in a family where mother and father are often at war, his internal adolescent struggles, and his search for identity - what or who will he be?

At the same time he looks at Istanbul through western eyes, which have very long since closed - they are mostly 19th century painters and authors; he also uses the eyes of 4 melancholic Turkish authors. He describes the old wooden houses and palaces which in the past were frequently cause for major conflagration (whilst wandering round Sultanhamet last week I saw quite a few rickety wooden houses where I thought about fire risks), the poverty of these areas (which I saw looking into some of the houses with dirt grimed walls and lightbulbs hanging any which way, or rows and rows of windows with lots of pairs of jeans drying outside them, suggesting the residence of many labouring men), and at the same time the contrast of his fairly privileged young life. At one stage in his teens he takes up painting with a passion, though it seems he often paints in the style of someone - often impressionists? Does his painterly eye explain the very detailed descriptions in his other books?

This books is great for lists of things: 'To savour the back streets of Istanbul, you must first and foremost, be a stranger to them. A crumbling wall, a wooden tekke - condemned, abandoned, and now fallen into neglect - a fountain from whose faucets no water pours, a workshop in which nothing has been produced for eighty years, a collapsing building, a row of homes abandoned by Greeks, Armenians and Jews as a nationalist state bore down on minorities, a house leaning to one side in a way that defies perspective, two houses leaning against each other in the way that cartoonists so love to depict, a cascade of domes and rooftops, a row of houses with crooked window casings - these things don't look beautiful to the people who live among them; they speak instead of squalor, helpless hopeless neglect'. Something like this picture taken last Sunday, but imagine it on a grey day and in black and white. The pictures in Pamuk's book do not include satellite dishes....

(This little extract brings up the eternal conflict in the tourist's soul [or which should be in the tourist's soul]: picturesque poverty is interesting to look at - but is that not also exploiting the poor? People talk about going to Cuba before it changes [if the Americans, especially their Cubans, ever get in there again] - but what's interesting is the way the buildings are, the transport system is, the people live. But who asks the people who live in such constant grinding poverty, where for example a house may not be a shelter when the rain comes in, or when the doors are so poor that anyone can go and steal things? On the other hand, things that rich people do are often activities that they do anywhere in the world. So maybe this means that the rich have globalised, whereas the poor maintain the traditional cultures? But then, what or whose is 'the traditional culture'?) Topic for another debate.

Of all Pamuk's books, this is the one I like the most. I love the atmosphere of gentle melancholy of the book, of a sense of mourning of what had been (though I suspect the present is not as bad for Istanbul as Pamuk describes it - but I don't know enough about it yet - next time I should do what he did at some stage of his life and hop on a bus just to anywhere). It's also a relatively shorter book, with the text broken up by pictures, so it's not so quite hard work to read (in one cafe I spotted a young Turkish woman, with not many words in English, who was reading his book 'Snow' - the only other book of his I have read beginning to End - and she thought she had not chosen well. She should try some of his yet longer, and more fantastic, ones...)

I am not sure though how much it means to people who have never been to Istanbul, and should they travel to Istanbul following their reading, they might get a bit of a surprise.