Monday, April 30, 2007

Maris and his Mahler

A packed Musikverein, Maris Janssons, his Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Mahler's 7th, as always a monumental piece with a huge orchestra, with 5 movements. The podium was tightly packed, and those poor audience members sitting at the top of the rostrum had to peer round the double basses.

I must admit to not knowing this symphony very well, though there were moments that I recognized. I was also thinking about what makes Mahler distinctive, apart from his monumental scores, and very long pieces. Decided that it's his use of Austrian motifs, both rhythmic and in terms of intervals, and his heavy use of trills, often from the clarinet, but also the upper strings (maybe they are supposed to remind of a zither??). Don't think anyone else after the Baroque period uses them quite so often.

It's funny how often his second movements are quite relaxing, after very tortuous and heavy first movements, often with rural dances or well-known tunes - that's the case in the second, seventh and ninth symphonies, as far as I can remember, and which one is the one with 'Frere Jacques'? Apparently this symphony describes the journey from night to day. I wish I had read the wikipedia entry before the concert...

Janssons has a delightful way of conducting, very active, dancing around on the rostrum, sometimes both feet flat on the floor but more often not, often smiling at his players - it must be a joy to play for him, at least in a concert. But it takes it out of him, and he needs quite long rests between movements to catch his breath.

It was a wonderful performance, full of energy, with Janssons drawing the sound out of his orchestra by his fingertips, massaging the music. The double basses really drove the music on and supported everything. The violas had some beautiful solos, and especially one long passsage together with the cellos was oozing with chocolate. Some of the instruments were almost inaudible, though, such as the lute and guitar in the fourth movement, and the cowbells which we could see but not hear. Perhaps some of the Austrian moments could have been a little more Austrian, but you may have to have that in your blood. Overall it was a fantastic evening, and I know now which seat to buy next time I go to the Musikverein.....


Sunday, April 29, 2007

Stört Ihnen das?

One of the many things I love about coming to Vienna is the difference in language between German German and Austrian German. Not only are there specific words, but sometimes they change grammar, too. Much like British English and American, really, divided by a common language. Eg

die Ecke (German German) ; der Eck (Austrian German) ; corner
die Sch**sse (GG); der Sch**ss (AG); sh*t
Ausverkauf (GG); Abverkauf (AG); sale
die Treppe; Stiege; stairs

Having said that, the German Germans, even educated ones, can be pretty rough on grammar, as I noticed in Berlin recently.

Today's saying (see headline) is cringingly, toothachingly, eyewateringly ungrammatical. It should be 'Stört Sie das?', using accusative rather than dative. It translates directly as 'Does it disturb to you?', and came out of the mouth of an extremely elegant and smart looking middle-aged lady in the similarly elegant Wiener Musikverein. I nearly wet myself! She was temporarily disabled due to an injured foot, which was sticking out of the wheelchair she was using, and might have been in someone's sightline (don't ask, and don't try to imagine it... takes too long to explain). Funnily, then the lady addressed then answered, 'Nein, ich übersehe es einfach' - which can be translated both as 'no, I'm simply going to look over it', as well as 'no, I'm simply going to overlook it'.


Sequins and Sequelae

wow, read this book in less than a day - not only is it unputdownable, but also a hardback which I don't want to shlep in the luggage.

Ruth Thomas' first novel 'Things to make and mend' is a brilliant book, also reviewed here. Thanks, Mum for sending me the TLS review of it - and never realised you can read that online! It drifts between now and the 70s, when the two main protagonists were 15 and the best of friends; but this does not last for long. Teenage life in the 1970s in East Grinstead in Sussex, as well as 'today's' Edinburgh, is described extremely well, from the scholarship girl at the posh school, the girls having needlework lessons, to the traumas of teenage life, in one case being rather more traumatic than average. Actually, the book is also very funny, though under the circumstances it might easily not have been. After the two friends fall out they only reconnect when 28 years later they accidentally meet in Edinburgh. Nothing is what it seems, and every time you think you have worked out what has happened to whom, another unexpected turn appears.

How do I know that today's Edinburgh is described extremely well? When someone mentions street names and the relationships between hills and streets, describes the bronze pigeons sitting on the ground at the top of Leith Walk (very close to the best Scottish, if not UK-wide, Italian deli Valvona and Crolla, incidentally), has a taxi driver asking one of the protagonists, on the way from the airport, 'Ken Embra*?', describes the bungalow on the way in from the airport (I stayed in one in the first few weeks when living in Edinburgh), then I think she has a grip on Edinburgh (the Scottish Arts Council grant for the writing of this book helped, too, I suspect).

The two characters speak, roughly, alternately, although one has more to say. Interestingly, one tells her story in the third person, the other in the first person; often it is written as if they are chatting to you directly, or writing their own autobiography. It's quite an easy read, and totally fascinating, including also the small quotes from, it seems, needlework instructions from the classroom and embroidery details which I am very unlikely to ever come across.

Highly, highly recommendable - the only problem is, it's too quick a read - but it's just the right length for the content.

*'Ken Embra' = 'Are you already acquainted with Edinburgh?'


Rhythm is it!

I can now ruin my reputation completely and state that I had a few breakfasts with one of this week's soloists and that I cavorted almost naked with one of the composers! But no worries, wives of the affected, honour, virtue and fidelity were preserved.

Last night's concert at the Filharmonija was totally different from last week's Beethoven and Brahms. For a start, we were in the 20th and 21st centuries. And the hall was much fuller - but since one of the soloists was a big band, there might have been many mums and dads, aunts and uncles (as we used to say, when our Ayrshire Symphony Orchestra did concerts with children's choirs - I see they played the 'Snowman' again!!! last year).

The concert went on by chronological order of the compositions, starting with Geoffrey Bush's 1949 overture 'Yorick'. It was a typically English piece, of its period, and I could imagine it as the opening music for a black and white film, especially with the little oboe theme which sounds like some monks scuttling around their cloisters. Then there is the inevitable bright trumpet sound, and fanfares, much loved by English composers of that period. Reminded me a bit of that Elgar overture (Cockaigne?) which we also played lots, and also of the 'Gollywog's cakewalk'. In fact it is a tribute to the comic Tommy Handley, well before my time. It makes me wonder how the Lithuanian conductor related to the piece at all, but they did well.

Rolf Liebermann is a Swiss composer, who worked and studied with Hermmann Scherchen in Budapest and Vienna, where Scherchen ran the 'Musica Viva' orchestra employing mainly Jewish refugees from Germany (until....). From 1957 he lived in Germany, running at one point the Hamburg Staatsoper, and some time later running the Paris opera. Much of his music is kept in the Paul Sacher Archive, itself a fascinating subject for an article. It was Liebermann's concerto for Big Band and orchestra, written in 1954, which we heard next - you would not normally expect that from a Swiss guy? The band was crammed in behind the orchestra, and the piece was quite interesting, with some very big bandy kind of pieces, and some more orchestral pieces. In one of the 8 movements, played without interruption, only the band played, and in another only the orchestra played. The final movement, a mambo, was brilliant and the orchestra rocked, though the conductor did not. It could probably have been played with much more of a swing, but it needs to be conducted that way, and in a big band way, those playing solos could have stood up which would have made it much more fun.

In the second half we had two pieces by Arvydas Malcys, a cellist in the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra, who in the last two years has had many of his pieces performed. Not surprisingly, generally they are kind on the orchestra. The first was a VIOLA concerto (1997), played in one movement, and performed by Hartmut Rohde, a well-known German violist, who looks younger every time I see him. The concerto started at what must be the highest note of the viola and eventually drifted back to almost that note. There were moments of minimalism with the same little motifs repeated over and over again, then rather fiendishly slowing down, but also nice slow expressive moments which used well the low pitch of the viola. There was no clear tempo structure, with fast and slow moments appearing interchangeably. The piece ended on such a slow moment, where the orchestra played long extended, and unchanging notes - it sounded good but was dead boring for the musicians, as you could see with the number of closed eyes! Rohde's viola was well audible throughout the hall - at the beginning I thought he had serious issues of sound and intonation, but things settled down after a brief period.

The concert ended with Malcys' concerto for saxophone and orchestra (2004), with Liudas Mockunas as the soloist. Seems to me it was a soprano sax since it did not look that different to a clarinet. Mockunas is a jazz musician, and gee, what a display! Virtuosity? You've never heard anything like it! I wonder what he might have been like as a violinist or viola player. This was quite a jazz concerto constantly changing beats and rhythms which resulted in the conductor's hands almost in a knot; the structure of the concerto was relatively traditional, though. The piece seemed to start on a children's song (I don't know many Lithuanian songs) and then developed into an explosion, a fireworks of sound. I can't believe that the composer wrote all those notes! Especially in the cadenzas which were just a blur of fingers and notes all over the place! Even the orchestra was agog, although they must have heard this during rehearsals. Here the orchestra parts seemed a bit more interesting.

Afterwards there was a huge reception type do, funded by the German ambassador, who, like his predecessor, and his colleague in Tbilisi, is a great patron of the arts in Vilnius - you see him and his wife at all events. Why can't we Brits make them like that? Never mind the nosh, it would be nice if they simply turned up at some cultural events - it's good for them, and in countries where culture is still valued highly, good for the image of the UK.


Saturday, April 28, 2007

Proving something I am not

For the signing of a legal document here in Lithuania the notary tells me, after a quick perusal of my passport, that I need to have a document from my country of birth to prove that I am not married. Leaving aside the fact that my country of birth is not my country of citizenship, just how does a Brit do that?

They suggest a barrister. We don't have those in Scotland, but here I'm nitpicking again. Luckily I've once or twice bought houses in Scotland, so I dealt with a solicitor for that. I've asked him - let's see what he says. But doesn't he also only know what I tell him? The Lithuanian notary tells me there must be some authority at which people are registered. Well, Mrs, there ain't. Even though in the UK we are the most supervised nation in the world, we don't actually have to tell the state where we live or who we live with, unless we want benefits or something. In other European countries there is a great requirement for people to register their address, and even, in Lithuania, you need to spell out your educational level when you ask for a loan or a residence permit.

So I've now contacted the General Register Office in Scotland, who apparently can give me a chit, for a fee, to show that I have never got married. In Scotland. My passport is UK. Will the notary understand about devolution? She did not seem to be of the listening persuasion. The National Insurance computer, covering the whole of the UK, probably does not have these details, and all those I knew from that organisation are now retired. But how will they in Lithuania know whether I have a husband anywhere else? Strangely, they don't need such a certificate from the Lithuanian authorities, after 6 years' residence here. Which is strange, because last time I signed such a document, I had to get the document from the Lithuanian authorities, rather than the Scottish ones.

Considering that for the last almost 30 years I have had to, as an unmarried mother, listen to all that vitriol about us from British governments of both flavours, this is really a bit ironic.


The earth has been moving...

..it seems, in Kent. The BBC reports that Paul Smye-Rumsby, who lives in Dover, said: "It was about 08.15 when suddenly the bed shook violently.

"I thought my wife had got cramp or something but then I saw the curtains were moving and the whole house was shaking. It lasted about 1.5 seconds."

Just how do people deal with cramp?


Ah'm offski then - that's 'o' 'f' 'f' - 'aff'

as the late Ricky Fulton would say on Scottish TV every Hogmanay night. Actually, this is the approximate translation into Scottish of the title of Hape Kerkeling's book 'Ich bin dann mal weg'. This is extremely unlikely to be translated into English, since - who is Hape Kerkeling? It would appear that he is a German comic - yes, apparently they do do them. He is supposed to be on German TV all the time, and famous. Not so I've noticed but maybe I don't watch the right channels; I'm also inclined to change channels after a glimpse or two of most comics or other 'Promis' (celebrities). So what am I doing reading a book by this guy?

Actually, I was given it, and thought I'd take a look. Since it's a hardback it's not one I care to shlep with me to Georgia (having said that someone has just given me a copy of the huge tome of Grout's 'A history of Western Music' which is as we speak in my backpack to read on the plane, together with another hardback book which looks too good to leave at home). Kerkeling, while he is, as we said, a comic, is quite bright really. Someone who has been in the media since the age of 16 has to be. I'm sure being a successful comic is as hard work as being a successful concert pianist, and as a spoken comic people may expect you to be funny all the time, whereas a pianist at least needs a pianna to perform. He also speaks about 5 European languages, including Dutch.

So this book is about his time on the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrim's walk to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. He started at St Jean Pied de Port in France, some 769 kms from Santiago. Impressive, no? There were moments where he hopped on a train or a bus, but these seem few and far between. According to the rules, and to get your certificate of completion, you have to finish the last 100 kms on foot or horseback, or cycled the last 200 kms. It should be added that northern Spain is not flat, and some really quite significant hills and passes have to be overcome. Our hero is blessed by the fact that his time seems to be unlimited and he can put in rest stops as he needs them.

The book then describes his progress and his pain, the people he meets, tells a few stories about his progress in life so far, and it also contains a considerable amount of deep thinking about the meaning of life and God (not in a missionising way). Like many of the other pilgrims he faces many adversities, including being too wet, too hot, the path being very steep or running alongside an extremely busy highway. The pilgrim's hostel accommodation seems to be as good as the price you pay for it (nothing, except a donation), so he finds small guesthouses etc. He meets a wide range of characters, of whom the funniest is a couple from Remscheid, Germany, who he hears arguing through the wall in their bedroom before meeting them face to face - so he knows both their private and their public lives, and observes them with appalled fascination. Right at the end of the treck he also makes friends with two women, one of whom he had met at the start but who had eyed him suspiciously until he tells her that, seeing as he is gay, he has interest in her body. After that they are the best of friends.

The book is very well written, and in fact unputdownable. It's written fairly simply, at the same time entertainingly but also containing 'insights of the day'. These you can take as deep meaningful lessons to learn (as he may have done, it seems that for many people this walk is a life-changing or life-reviewing event), or you can skip over them lightly. It's a good book for anyone wishing to embark on this walk since it describes what it feels like, which is just as important as having a travel guide. It makes such a walk quite tempting!


Friday, April 27, 2007

Rostropovich is dead!

Only a week ago I was chatting to someone from a Vilnius orchestra who told me that their summer orchestra tour with Rostropovich had been cancelled due to his ill-health. Today he died - it seems he had cancer.

Young Lithuanian and, actually young musicians from most former Soviet nations, have much to thank him and his Rostropovich foundation for, which used his considerable fame to organise scholarships and maybe even helped to organise music students to study with particular teachers. That's apart from the help his foundation gave to children in need, including those suffering from cancer. To be fair, though, the ticket prices for the concerts associated with his charity sometimes were eyewateringly high. But the story goes that he waived his fee for these concerts.

He was a great friend of Lithuania - I have a feeling our President, in a previous turn of office, gave him honorary Lithuanian citizenship. He would often be seen visiting his friend Rodion Scedrin's lakeside house near Vilnius. Obviously his concerts were always sold out.

Our President, Adamkus, is a few months older than Rostropovich. He made a point of attending Rostropovich's concerts, one of which fell on the President's 75th birthday. Our President has spent most of his life in America and was probably not used to Russian ways, especially relating to male brotherhood. (He's not generally approving of Russia, being one of the two Baltic Presidents who refused to attend the Russian 60 years after the end of WWII celebrations.) But Rostropovich of course had his own problems with Russia. At the end of the concert Rostropovich jumped off the metre-high stage, ran round to the President, and slobbered three very wet kisses all over him. The President has just about recovered. Needs to be said that Rostropovich was big into kissing people; I must be one of the few he has not kissed.

The music world will be poorer without him.


Free ticket

I wish I could say that the Filharmonija heard my comment about being paid to visit their concerts, but today it was someone else who seems to have placed a free ticket in my letterbox, anonymously. Weird? Unfortunately that day I will be in Vienna listening to Maris Janssons and Mahler's 7th rather than attending a concert by the French Group 'NoJazz' in Vilnius. Thanks, whoever it was!


Thursday, April 26, 2007

Music and History

One of these days the Filharmonija needs to start paying me to attend their concerts! Took me some time to decide to go to today's concert of the Tartar Music Orchestra of the Kazan Conservatory. I feared I might not like it, but it would be interesting to see what they do and what the music is like. The concert was in aid of the Tartar's 610 year presence in the Lithuanian Grand Duchy (they are linked to Trakai whence they were imported to by ...Gediminas? from Crimea though the story goes that originally they are from the Iraq area). Due to their dark good looks, and the German's lack of knowledge of the finer details they also suffered much during the second World War. From somewhere I already knew that it would be a long programme (24 items!).

But that was nothing compared to the sinking feeling I had when I saw the band coming on stage with those instruments, which the Russians call 'national instruments'. These are anything that is plucked or strummed, mandolin-style, including some balalaikas (triangular), domras (egg-shaped), and a number of other such instruments. This website describes the domra, and this goes for them all, as 'When you play the domra, you play with a plectrum and mostly, you use a tremolo method giving a monotonous endless tone'. And they are trying to get people to play these instruments? There were 11 of these, about 2 accordeons/bayans, a double bass, a flute and variety of kurais (Bashkir national instruments like recorders), clarinet, two violins and percussion. Apart from a singer with the helpful name of Gubaidulina (Lilia of that ilk).

The link to history comes in where all these plucked instruments are clearly Russian, and I wondered what Tartar music was played on before the Russians waded in, and perhaps adapted the music to Russian instruments? Much like Khachaturian is accused of Europeanising/Sovietising Armenian folk music.

Some of the music was Tartar, but the band had no hesitation to also play Rossini and Piazzola on their national instruments (as I have heard Telemann and Vivaldi concertos on similar instruments in Russia). The Tartar music is interesting - I can hear bits of Caucasus music (that hard drum), and of Chinese harmonies, as you might hear in Turandot (I think) and other pieces that purport to reflect Chinese influences. The players' faces reflected all that is good and great about Russia, and its ethnic mix. Strange how the Russian hoodlums forget their own country's history when they beat up all the Chinese after Japan beats them at football.

How well someone plays an instrument with a plectrum is not something I can comment on. The violinists were a bit rough, particularly in terms of lacking vibrato when it was needed, strangely, for Russian training - there were moments when the notes were really not nice at all. The flute had moments of breathlessness; the accordeon/bayan players did some very virtuosic stuff and tried to engage the public (attendance, and participation, was limited) with only very moderate success. It was not entirely necessary in a programme of 24 items for one of them to give an encore! One young woman played a well-known piece 'Caravan' by one V Novikov on the bass clarinet, almost the size of herself, but was often drowned out by the band behind her - you could only see her fingers moving. The singer would be nice for operetta; she hammed it up greatly; her voice was rather over-bright but for a provincial opera company, in little operettas she might be fine. Dramatic roles? I don't know.

Despite the long programme, and speeches, the concert was over after 2 hours and 10 minutes. It's one I can tick off as having heard.


When I see 'French Duet' ...

...in a concert programme I immediately think 'Debussy' and 'ye gads'. So I might have seen an announcement of this concert before, but not recently and certainly not the day before outside the doors of the church where it took place. It took a bit of waiting time at the dentist's, and a read of the papers, to notice who exactly was playing there.

It was Michel Michalakakos, viola, and his wife Natalie (who has a different surname but it's not on the internet), violin, together with the best chamber orchestra in Lithuania, the St Christopher Chamber Orchestra under the delectable Donatas Katkus. Michalakakos often comes to Vilnius, but the last time I had seen him was in Montreal, Canada, at the International Viola Congress 2006, where he had been the proud flag carrier of the French representation, and they had put on a stunning, outstanding, day's events - one of the best ever! So obviously I had to be at this concert, especially since also it had been a long time since I had seen the St Christopher in action.

I suspected that the Mozart Sinfonia concertante might be on the programme, but I had not heard of the Pleyel Sinfonia Concertante which they also played. Violin and Viola must have been a bit popular at the time, because one of the many Stamitz had also written one. And of course Pleyel, of the Salle Pleyel incidentally, though he's Austrian, had also written some very pleasant violin/viola duets. This started off as an extremely delightful piece with a long first movement containing many lovely little classical music moments. The second movement, a rondo, though theme A seemed to appear only about three times, began with what sounded like a little classical minuet tune on the violin (though it was in 4/4 time) which was then responded to by the viola. But this movement also had some very dark, Don Giovanni-ish moments. The third movement - well, if it had been longer I might have found to say something about it; as it was it seemed to finish before it ever got started. I wonder if the soloists' parts were any longer than a page? Interestingly a (rather rough and tooth-achingly sharp-sounding) recording by the Concilium Musicum Wien suggests that there are only two movements, with the second one labelled as a 'rondo-moderato - Allegro'. That might explain this. The viola part of the whole piece seemed to have rather more accompanying scrubbing than the violin part, so it was not quite evenly balanced. The two soloists played this sounding much more in control than the recording, with a beautiful tone from both instruments (but especially the viola, of course!), and having fun, too! There was only one little moment where the violin, after some pyrotechnics, got into a tiny difficulty, and when the viola repeated the same section an octave or so lower, he came out in sympathy.

The Mozart Sinfonia Concertante, which we hear in Vilnius about once a year, was beautiful as always. I thought the violist was happier than the violinist, but perhaps the violist has played this 100 times more. The orchestra responded well, though there were moments in the introduction of the first movement when things could have been even crisper (you know when you expect a particularly thrilling, and much loved, moment [it's some pizz's in the first fiddle] and it does not quite happen). It's also possible that the first fiddles could not see the conductor well around the soloists; in any case he was very close indeed to the edge of the stage. In the introduction to the second movement the conductor kept surging like a jellyfish and pulling the orchestra along.

The concert finished in a chamber orchestra arrangement of Shostakovich's Quartet No 8, which my son played at the end of his school career. It's the one based on the notes D - eS - C - H, or to the English-speaking world, D - Eflat - C - B; Shosty's initials, so to speak, since a 'Sh' is one letter in Russian. This was wonderful; the orchestra was clean, crisp, full of energy, clearly picking up on the theme which went right through the piece. Fantastic stuff!


Sunday, April 22, 2007

On Beauty

a totally, totally different book from the one reviewed below. This was well reviewed last year or so, when it came out; it's by Zadie Smith, the author of 'White teeth', which, if I remember correctly, is about immigrant families of different backgrounds and their children getting it together. A bit Romeo and Julietish, which, come to think of it, also drifts through this book.

'On Beauty', the Guardian review tells me, is Smith's homage to EM Forster. Well, I wouldn't know. Compared to Slaters, while successful, rather simple family, Smith's family is dominated by an extremely intellectual father who deconstructs Rembrandt in his spare time. He thinks he is right, all the time, and that he can defeat anyone with sheer force of intellect. One of his children takes after him, another becomes a Christian, much to the horror of the father, and the youngest hiphops along, getting himself into a dangerous scrape or two. Did I mention that the father is White English, but wife is black American, so the children are effectively black, too? The father has an [intellectual] arch enemy living in England, also black, who his eldest son goes and stays with, falling briefly in love with that guy's daughter (Romeo etc). Then the arch enemy ends up teaching at the same campus, and all hell breaks loose. Not least because the father thinks fit to sleep with anyone in a skirt (unlike his arch enemy, a severe Christian), one of whom describes him as being 'only human in a theoretical sense'. Oh yes, the mother tries to hold it all together, like it usually seems to be the women's role in families. A number of other random characters also appear.

It's a totally unputdownable book, poking endless fun at people in universities who are super-intellectual but unable to deal with real life. It's beautifully, funnily and extremely well written, endlessly more complex than Slater's book with which it should probably absolutely not be compared. In some ways it reminds me of David Lodge's books, though all his books are set in Academe, and this is the first one of Smiths in the same location. I am sure it would make a wonderful film.



I got this book, by Nigel Slater, first as an audio-book which I loaded on my Ipod thingy to 'read' whilst travelling. A book that saves on weight is a useful book. I'm not used to audio books, however, and find it difficult to keep up the concentration; particularly when in Tbilisi I connected the Ipod to a set of speakers but wandered around the house, or clattered around the kitchen. It's different with music - and in fact I have the strangest ability to go into something akin to a trance even with the loudest music pouring into my ears, getting my rest and still not missing a note. But with wurdzz it's different.

So somewhere somehow I picked up a copy of the book. To my transatlantic readers it should be explained that Nigel Slater is a food writer who has been writing in the Observer (a Sunday newspaper) seemingly forever; I can't remember who was there before him, maybe Prue Leith? There was someone else before her, Kate/Katherine Whitehouse (??) but I never experienced her as a foodwriter in a newspaper. She did write a wonderful paperback on cooking in a bedsit which came out in the mid 1970s. Unfortunately I left all my cookery books behind when I moved house in 1986, and the successors in the flat threw them out. There had been some interesting stuff amongst them; I managed to replace some of them with their later versions. He has brought out, as is every foodwriter's wont, a number of very interesting cookery books, and of course you can read his recipes every week in the Observer.

This book is about his childhood and adolescence. He tells it, heading every chapter, some very short, with a heading of food. This is very nostalgic, though some of those foods, like the trifle with the very firm jelly (Delia Smith would not make it like that) and many other of the ready-made foods are thankfully a flavour of times past. I hope. Cadbury's Smash? Angel Delight? Perhaps with the current obesity epidemic in the UK, they have been replaced by much more evil foods. The story is told in a very flat, northern sort of way (especially if you listen to Slater reading it). A bit Alan Bennett, but not quite as droll, with short sentences and simple words. If you read it very carefully, you come across gems like someone having 'lips like a cat's bottom'. Slater seems to have had a bit of a hard childhood, what with his mother dying when he was around 10, a fairly unapproachable father who sometimes threatened to place him in care, and who died when Slater was about 16, and the demon cleaning stepmother. His mother could not cook but she loved, the father could not cook and his love was expressed in strange ways, and the stepmother cooked wonderfully but definitely did not show any love to the boy. Add to that the fact that he woult not eat certain foods, driving his carers crazy. All pretty horrendous stuff, really. No wonder he escaped as soon as he could. At the end of the book we also learn things about hotel kitchens which we wish not to know.

It's a great book for recalling a particular period of life in Britain what with the food - especially the prawns Marie Rose - , the house in the countryside with steamed up windows, the Aga and no central heating, and the early attempts at love or rather sex. It would make a great subject for a sociological study of which level of society ate which food. I do remember the packets of trifle mix including the jelly, the custard, the biscuits and the hundreds and thousands, but that's nothing like Delia's rich sherry trifle with the biscuits, the fruit, the sherry (if you like), the double cream custard, and the further layer of double cream on top. Scrumptious? Let me go and look up the recipe!



Actually, there were two concerts today. The first was a collaboration between the music academy, the American Centre, and a local wind band called 'Trimitas' (trumpet). I only got the first half of this concert, and do not really feel qualified to comment on wind bands. The final piece they played before the interval was one of those rousing pieces, 'we are Americans' and was presented by the conductor as a 'gift from the American people'. At this point it is well worth remembering that the American people as a whole are delightful people, helpful, kind and extremely polite, and very different from their government. If this piece had been played in Scotland, it would have been described as 'foot-tapping'; a kind of American Radetzky March where the audience had to applaud along in places (which were a bit long, and the audience faltered). I'm told the sound of the band (combining Trimitas and music academy students) had improved considerably in their collaboration with John Lynch, the conductor straight from Kansas.

This was to be followed by a dance performance by our own Egle Spokaite, and dance students, in collaboration with an American choreographer and dancer, Patrick Suzeau, but I had to rush off to the Filharmonija for another concert.

This programme, I'm sorry guys, was extremely staid and conventional. Could have been played 150 years ago. Beethoven's Fidelio overture, 2nd piano concerto and Brahms' first symphony. The absent audience must have thought so, too. Fair enough, at the same time my first concert was still continuing (well attended), and there was another concert in the Jauna Muzika electronic music series. But few regular concert goers wopuld have been diverted to these latter concerts. So basically I suspect that people just found this Beethoven/Brahms concert boring. If in Vilnius there are only old folk in concerts, the concerts are boring.

Barry Douglas, with his flowing grey locks, carefully manicured stubble and impish smile looks like the archetypal Irish guy. I'm not sure what makes people look Irish or British, but somehow one can see the difference. Bit of a sensitive topic, which as a former West of Scotland resident I should move off quickly.

Anyway. In Beethoven's day the Hammerklavier was more common, and it sounded as if Douglas had taken this on board, hammering away at the piano, particularly in the first and jeez, taking 'attacca' literally, when bursting into the final movement. As described below, I have problems with sound at the moment, but thought that the Steinway sounded extremely crisp. I have always thought it lacks warmth, but here it was so clear and crisp that it could have sliced the air into tiny segments. The middle movement lacked warmth, I thought, though I suppose Beethoven was not really a romantic composer. There was little communication between conductor and soloist, not necessarily for the wrong reasons, and the orchestra sure had its moments. Someone had mentioned to me that in Lithuania it's difficult for the winds to make a common entry at the same time; I had forgotten that until at one moment the winds clattered in quite spectacularly one after another. As an encore Douglas played something that sounded like Debussy, again I felt in a slightly clinical way. But I'm no lover of Debussy or his ilk.

The Brahms, one of my favourite symphonies (I have a bad memory of playing it), was ok; very noisy (has he not written 'p' or even 'ppp' anywhere?), and it was only during the violin solo at the end of the second movement that I thought - this is usually played much more slowly, no? Anyway, the orchestra seemed to enjoy playing it, though I am sure they have played it lots of times before. I've heard it at least once in Vilnius. It would have been nice to stay at the other concert for the dance, but I had not been to the Filharmonija all year.


Saturday, April 21, 2007

Marks and Spencers is here!

This week the new shopping centre at Gedimino 09, in Vilnius, opened. It's in the former municipality HQ which has been transformed quite astonishingly. Only the outside walls were left, and inside there are now four floors of shopping (not all of them used yet) including the Body Shop and Marks and Spencers. They did do a very nice job.

This is Vilnius, however, and must be one of the few capitals in the world where the city centre is almost deserted on the weekend. I popped in on the second day after opening, following a theatre performance - yes, there were queues at M&S, but nothing outrageous. You certainly did not have to fight your way through the crowds. Even today, on the first open Saturday, business was not particularly busy. Vilnius people seem to like to shop at the edge of town, at the big shopping centre at Akropolis. I am sure even the farmer's markets here are much busier on a Saturday than this shopping centre, or any others in the town centre. It's quite astonishing how quickly the shops change hands - there are now three or four shopping centres within spitting distance of each other, but not many people go there. M&S and the Body Shop are also not cheap, in Vilnius terms, though other shops are even more expensive.

I did not buy any clothes at M&S; it's not really my style, and I had also just completely reclad myself with much smaller clothes than before (to such a degree that last week in Germany I had trouble finding clothes small enough for the new me....). But they have a food department! It has no fresh foods, but it had seville orange marmalade which you can't get here, and my favourite musli! I should probably stock up a bit more on both - I just wonder how long this will last - the stuff is really quite expensive, but it's cheaper for me than shlepping it back from the UK. BHS has been and gone; it lasted about a year with its dull and dreary clothes. British companies don't realise that women in Lithuania, especially those with cash, are extremely stylish and also often extremely tall and thin. Folk don't really do frumpy!


Help - what's the real sound??

Getting used to this hearing aid is interesting. You kind of break it, and yourself, in over a period of about a month, with 1.5 hours per day for the first week, 3 hours per day for the second week and so on - usually taken in 3 bits per day. Of course, my life isn't like that. There seems little point of wearing it at home for that half hour or an hour, just to hear better the rattling of my keyboard. So I've always used it in a batch of several hours, when I was with people or in a concert. The other day I took it off at the dentist's and thought: 'Jeeez, it's gone quiet'. Obviously it does make a considerable difference.

Wearing it at concerts is another issue. I have been terrified of it whistling where other people can hear it. It whistles, for example, when I bring my hand near my ear, or when I hug someone. Adjusting it in the middle of a concert is a bit of a no-no, for the moment, until I sus it out better. I did notice it whistling a little, on and off, in a concert where I was sitting virtually on the first fiddler's lap, with the trumpets 3 metres behind. Though it does not do that in quiet moments, thankfully.

So you ask, why use it in a concert at all? Actually, it is programmed to pick up and amplify those bits of the sound range that I have trouble hearing, and today I noticed a marked difference in a concert of Beethoven and Brahms. It was amazing how clear, crisp and bright the orchestra sounded, and I wonder about those reviews I wrote where I said the orchestra sounded dull.....As it happens the aid should be set more strongly so that I hear even more, but that causes more feedback (whistling) and it makes the sounds more metallic. So the question is, how real is the sound that I hear? The current setting is a compromise between needing to hear and not having the whistling. But what the heck am I reviewing then? Should I keep off the topic of the sound altogether?

This will take some more experimentation. I was wondering, whilst listening to the orchestra, what the results might be if the orchestral musicians had their hearing tested....


Friday, April 20, 2007


Tonight saw the opening night of the 'Jauna Muzika' electronic music festival in Vilnius. It takes place every year, for a week or so, and has most recently found itself in the contemporary arts centre - a very suitable location, and for your ticket money you get to see the pictures, too.

Although the topic is new music, tonight's programme was relatively old; George Crumb's Black Angels electric string quartet, a quartet whose author I will remember as soon as the website of the Lithuanian Music Information Centre agrees to open up, and Steve Reich's trains.

Crumb's Black Angels (1970) is apparently based on the Vietnam war. This only included the people on the stage, the Chordos Quartet; who played not only their own instruments, but also bowed some Indonesian gongs, some tuned glasses, had some mini-maraccas, sang and made other noises, scrunched and scratched, and for a while played their violins and violas upside down (very competently). The piece generally was white noise, with rarely a bow placed squarely on a string. But every now and again quotes popped up, of something by Bach (?? B A C H???) in the first movement, a bit of Schubert's Death and the Maiden in the second movement, and the upside down playing reminded the audience of a viol consort. The style was also particularly vibrato-less, to the extreme of making the notes sound not very nice. The instruments were amplified which was just as well - such was the sound level of the 'not connecting the bow with the string' approach.

This was followed by Ezekiel de Vinao's 'La Noche de las Noches' for string quartet and electronics. The electronics were produced by a computer, and included a range of sounds including church bells which electronicly changed the nature of their sound, and later a much amplified roaring cello. The music was much more connected (especially between bow and string!) and more like real music; at some stages the sound level became very loud indeed!

Finally we heard Reichs 'Different trains' which is for a string quartet backed by a string quartet recording, together with the voices of train conductors and such like. It was supposed to have three movements, 'America before the war', 'Europe during the war', and 'after the war', but at least the second and third movements joined together, and there was not much of a gap between the first and second either. Had he added 'Britain after 1970' an almost silent movement might have followed, with a few scrunches for the crashes. Reich writes minimalist music, and there was much repetition in it; however, particularly in the first part the trains were very identifiable, including their whistles. Of course, trains also make repetitive music. And there was a difference between the US trains and the European trains during the war (though they seemed to move too fast for the time). What I liked particularly was the way in which he had translated the spoken announcements into music; the announcer would say something and the cello or viola would repeat it. This piece seemed much more focused that Reich's streams of consciousness, when he and his team were in Vilnius last October. It was also relatively short. I had always thought it was supposed to be performed with trains in the background.

The Chordos Quartet did well; they are a bunch of young(ish) performers, all Lithuanian trained, who do much ink-still-wet type of work, though their website suggests they also play other music. They have two performances in this festival and regularly perform at Gaida, the autumn modern music festival (without electronics, usually). They are therefore well experienced at this sort of thing, and very well organised. They did very well indeed, and seemed to be in control of their recorded music most of the time. Of course, one would have liked to have heard some real notes, but the small moment of Schubert was something one could take home. One tip, though - with this kind of programme you can assume that your audience does not know the music, so please get up when it's over so we can give you some applause! (Bit difficult, considering they were wired up.)

I wondered, though, about the cost of these performances - with living composers and those recently dead the performance fees are high, and then there is the rental of the tape/CD as well....Lithuania is doing well!


Men in Black BMWs

Is it only in Eastern Europe that tangling with a black BMW is bad news? Usually these are driven by men, of strong build, with short haircuts, wearing black, often bedecked in golden jewelry. I would not like to investigate their tax returns - do they make tax returns? Even worse are black BMWs with darkened windows so you cannot look in. The word 'mafia' comes to mind, as it does with pinstriped suits where the stripes are far apart.

Men driving these cars think they own the world and they have a right to everything, highspeed driving, parking where they wish, across a pavement if necessary, and they can probably buy most law enforcement people. You don't mess with them, and so they get away with lots of stuff. Not always, though - today I spotted one having tried to change lanes rapidly and bumping into a lorry. As a result the whole traffic system in one corner of Vilnius broke down - and will still be broken down, because the police does not rush quickly to traffic accidents!


Thursday, April 19, 2007

Stop me before I kill again...

(no, it's not what you think)...is what George W Bush says on the back of my anti-capitalista t-shirt which I picked up in Friedrichshain market last Sunday. Told you it had interesting things. At another stall a young woman sold t-shirts with poems. One of these went 'I am the stag and you are the doe' - it's a poem by Hermann Hesse. A guy who had sidled up beside me muttered, in awe, 'that's an enormous statement!' (No, I did not buy this one!). Both t-shirts are relevant in the context of 'Bambiland', a ...well, what....kind of play by Elfriede Jelinek.

Elfriede Jelinek, you will remember, is the Austrian author won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2004, much to some people's surprise. Amongst other things she has written 'The Piano Teacher', a book about a sex-obsessed and mother-dominated piano teacher who abuses her student. Many of her books are like that; I've read about two or three....They are not easy reads (in case someone is looking for a bit of pornography...); the language is very complicated. In view of this I was a bit concerned to see a four-year-old going into the theatre. Jelinek did not go to pick up the prize, on the grounds of agarophobia or some such condition. That does not seem to stop her having a site on myspace.....unless one of her fans set it up.

Today was the premiere of the play in the National Drama Theatre in Vilnius, by the Oskar Korsunovas Theatre, but with the production by one Yana Ross from the US. The full text of the play is on her website (click on 'Bambiland' above, then on 'Aktuelles', go to 2004 and 'Bambiland' in German, or 2005 and Bambiland in English [incomplete]), and is a non-stop monologue based on the model of Aishylos' 'The Persians' (in the current climate the British Navy might wish to produce a new interpretation of this play...).

Actually it's about the Iraq war (hence my desire to have worn the t-shirt). It was not put on as a ceaseless monologue, thankfully, but by about 8 actors, five men and three women. One of the men wore the most enormous platform boots, and a huge rubber cone on top of his head; he played God, generally (remember, it's based on a Greek play). The other men and women, bar one, were soldiers in the first half and gods in bambi trousers with little bambi tails in the second half. The final woman came on stage as the Queen of England to the National Anthem (I had to restrain myself from standing up!), but later was a normal person. As normal as can be in this play. There were scenes with people in hoods (Abu Ghraib), a mother picking up toys in the street (which reminded her of her dead children), a puppet show involving inflatable bambis and a skull, another scene involving lots of bloodstained clothes of all sizes and redundant toys; at one moment a pig's head (real, but dead) was dismembered with an axe very close to the front row, bits flying everywhere. It would seem there was a vegetarian rather too close to the action....

Actually, the text is very funny, astonishingly crafted (as you should expect from a Nobel Prize Winner...) and totally scathing about the Bush and Blair coalition with all the others - since I am not allowed to quote anything, I cannot, but it's well worth taking a look at it - if you have time, go and read it. Considering there were no stage directions since essentially it's a polemic rather than a play, the producer had managed quite well keeping up the interest. Of course there is no real dialogue, it's more that the words are tossed about between the actors. This perhaps made it difficult to keep up the interest at times, and there were moments when I found my eyes drifting to 'closed' but I got over that after a while. The applause was rather weak, though, so maybe it was not just me. It's clear that this text has a lot to say, and having it as a play maybe connects it to more people; but it's not easy for producers. I suspect the text is better than the production was, but the producer did try her best.


What I like about Friedrichshain

Berlin Friedrichshain is in the former East of the City; it's now joined together as a local government district with Kreuzberg, across the river (Spree?). It's a bit odd because Kreuzberg is full of migrants and Friedrichshain is relatively 'white' and German. It's the place my son moved to when he first lived in Berlin. At the time I knew nothing about it and was a bit dismayed that he had not gone for Prenzlauer Berg, the 'in place', but actually, I think Friedrichshain is cool.

To be fair I have never spent more than a few days there, so perhaps I am not the best judge. I also know that there are many issues in Friedrichshain, such as racist attacks - but these exist in Prenzlauer Berg, too; only the other day I thought I heard a racist comment in PB. However, this article in the Berliner Zeitung totally slates Friedrichshain, and I don't think the author, Sabine Reichel, is being entirely fair. She's a journalist in her 60s (grew up in the 50s she says) who moved from Los Angeles to Friedrichshain; but she's a native Hamburger, so to speak. Probably she does not have the right background and expectations to survive in Friedrichshain.

So she complains and complains... about her cold flat (which might apply anywhere in Berlin, surely), the rudeness of the shop assistants, the number of people with body piercings, the dog shit (fair enough), the market, people sitting around in parks, drinking and listening to loud music, the public transport system and its clientele, and so on. She thinks Friedrichshain is a fake, but finally she realises that she may just have got old.

I like Friedrichshain because it's different and it's funky. During my Berlin trip I visited the far west of the centre, Wilmersdorf, and found myself in a neighbourhood where the only people under 70 were Polish care assistants, and the flat I looked at faced a hospital and a funeral parlour. The capuccino was cheap, though! Prenzlauer Berg is becoming stunningly beautiful, but also very gentrified and middleclass - as is reflected in some of the very expensive shops there. Now everyone has young children - in 20 years it'll also be a pensioner's paradise.

I like the mix of people in Friedrichshain, most of whom are quite young. Many of whom are punks or have other reasons for piercing their faces - and they will pay for it later with dental bills. At the same time there are also many more established residents from before the wall came down. Perhaps coming from California the writer was not used to a slightly robust way of communicating. Those of us who spent much time in the satellites of Glasgow, Scotland, can well deal with that - but I found all shop assistants friendly, apart from my first visit to a little ear ring shop in Kopernikusstrasse. And if they are grumpy, you just grump back or you are so nice to them that they finally melt. It's nice watching people and seeing what they do and how they behave. The punks don't worry me, the racists do. It would be good if Friedrichshain was more ethnically mixed, but perhaps that will develop.

The buildings range from stunning to decayed, though the modernisation is moving on relentlessly. There are lots of little interesting shops selling all sorts of weird and wonderful things, and there is a great little bookshop, Buchbox, which may not have that many books, but almost all are those I would read. Other shops range from a busy organic supermarket to cheap supermarkets, and a wide range of other goods, many cheap and nasty, and others quite ok. And there is the little market in Boxhagener Platz which on a Saturday has a wide range of vegetables, organic and otherwise, meat, delicatessen etc, and on a Sunday is a flea-market where, if you look carefully, you can pick up interesting things.

There is the cutest little cinema set in the groundfloor of a block of flats, and Friedrichshain now has many restaurants for all levels of income, except the very highest. It's between two lines of the S-Bahn allowing for quick transport to other parts of Berlin - yes, you get crazy people in the S-Bahn, but you do in public transport everywhere. It's because they can't get a driving licence what with being drunk or crazy...and welcome to the real world! I would be happy to live in Friedrichshain, though I would not necessarily buy a flat overlooking a park....


Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Philistines ... or putting the boot in

It all started in March when Tony Blair reminisced about the 'golden age of the arts' in a speech in the Tate Modern, in which he 'opined that arts and culture were absolutely at the heart of what the new modern Britain was all about, actually' according to the deliciously funny article in the Guardian. He suggests that the last 10 years have been a golden age for the arts, what with all the funding that the labour government has thrown at the arts (much of which may have been lottery funded - mainly by poorer people).

Other people are more sceptical - the Guardian suggests that he might have mentioned arts and culture once or twice in the last ten years, and of course he had Noel Gallagher of Oasis round for tea. Not forgetting his much loved Fender guitar which he donated to the Royal Scottish Museum. And I believe he attended the reopening of the Royal Opera House where I believe he had to sit through a Wagner Opera. One of his culture ministers, Chris Smith, was however seen attending the Edinburgh festival, and the late Donald Dewar, Scotland's first First Minister, also attended performances very regularly, without any bodyguards. And of course there was the moment when Sam Galbraith, leaving his post as culture minister of Scotland, quickly bunged Scottish Opera another few million to keep them going. But the latter two were in Scotland (arts are devolved), and neither are in politics any longer.

Since this talk, the great and the good have railed against Blair and his government, with the word count of 'philistines' very high indeed. Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, the Queen's Master of Music, describes the current government as 'utterly philistine'; John Tusa, chief executive of the Barbican is 'sick to death of meddling philistines' in the Treasury, who need an economic case made for every penny invested into arts funding. Let's not say that the government is not sensitive to public opinion; after a TV series on a new choir in a difficult school showed the impact on this on the children generally, the government decided to invest 10 million GBP into music education. That's singing. There's no talk of instrumental teaching.

Compare this to the famous 'sistema' in Venezuela which is funded by the Health and Social Security Ministry and which enables thousands of children to play in orchestras, including the very highest quality orchestra. Consider the state of North Rhine Westphalia in Germany which has introduced a pilot scheme of 'An instrument for every child' in the Ruhr area in anticipation of it being the European Capital of Culture in 2010. Consider the opera performances and concertsspecially for children in Lithuania and other Eastern European countries which are usually packed out, and come and see the number of young people attending opera and ballet performances, and particularly those of modern music! Consider the excellent children's and youth work carried out by orchestras in the UK and Germany, but are children supported by the state in learning instruments, or broadly in learning anything about music, including reading music? The costs of supporting a musical child in the UK are considerable, especially if the child turns out to be gifted - so children from poor families have no chance to benefit from the many useful aspects of a musical training, including concentration, discipline, teamwork and so on. But it's not only poor families who deprive their children - a few months ago I met a highly educated British academic whose children have no access to music because he and his wife did not and they are worried about not being able to support them in their endeavours. I found this astonishing - a bit of a feeble excuse, if you ask me! Even if I had had a child who wanted to, say, play football, or learn to fence, I would have made an effort to find out about these things....
What chance does the arts world in Britain have under this government?


Edwin Paling

Edwin Paling was the leader of the RSNO who, it seems, has gone to live down under (for non-English speakers that does not mean he has died, but that he has gone to live in Australia [or 'Oz']).

I remember him well, having seen him first when he was a mere stripling of a lad (though older than me), sitting beside the then leader of the RSNO, Michael Davies. That would have been in the season of 1975/76 when I had a season ticket for every single concert; and a great season it was, too - it included what must have been Arthur Rubinstein's last concert in Scotland; there was also a young Ralph Kirshbaum (who was 60 last year), and John Lill, Ida Haendel, Menuhin (in the proms preceeding the season)....

A good few years later, when I could again afford concert tickets, I found him sitting, buddhaesque, in the leader's seat - which, it seems, he occupied for over 20 years. Michael Tumelty, the Glasgow Herald Critic, also forever, says that according to Paling the orchestra was totally leaderless after the death of Sir Alexander Gibson, since many of the conductors who worked with the orchestra were not also music directors - and there was no music director to plan the concert programming. Leaving it on guess who's shoulders?

This seems to be a bit of a non-story given that for the last three years the orchestra has again had a music director and conductor, Stephane Deneve, who seems to be doing very well. I hope they will produce as many recordings as they did under Neeme Järvi, who seems to have recorded everything he ever performed - only a few days ago I bought their recording of Shostakovich Ballet Suites.

I wonder if Mr Paling is going to continue working in Oz? Let's see what I find out when I get there in June.


Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Gun control

Languidly clicked on the 'next blog' icon at the top of my blog (random other blogs appear) and landed in this . He's an American guy who collects firearms. Powerful topic today. And guess what? He suggests that the gun ban on the Virginia Tech campus has lead to the tragedy being of the scale that it was - if a single law-abiding citizen had been able to draw his gun and shot the gunman this would not have happened. You must admit that there is a certain perverse logic to this. But then again, had the gunman not been able to get hold of a gun things might have been different, too....

There are some crazy people about!


Mahler and Barenboim

Can't say if I have heard Mahler's 9th symphony before; possibly not, it's not that often performed. This is a relatively straightforward symphony, without choir or other added bits, though the also normal 4 movements, in terms of tempo, are in a different order compared to other symphonies. According to these programme notes there is a mystique around 9th symphonies, looking at Beethoven, Schubert and Bruckners all of whom had their 9th as their last (unlike Leif Segerstam who is hale and hearty and about to premiere his 150th symphony). It was Mahler's last full score, and it is suggested in full anticipation of his own death (his daughter having died earlier and him having been diagnosed with serious heart disease). It begins with an Andante and ends with an Adagio. The very long first movement seemed quite bitty, not quite hanging together, and would need to be heard again (the whole symphony needs to be heard again). The second movement, Rondo-Burlesque is a bit of a dance, (a Laendler? or am I thinking too much of Austria?) and quite easy on the ear. Perhaps the Vienna Phil could have done this one even more sublimely. The third movement has a very nice viola solo or two, and Felix Schwartz, the solo violist of the Staatskapelle, did his very best with it. The final movement has the most amazing ending, keeping dying away, and reviving itself, until it finally peters out altogether. Barenboim did this wonderfully, outstandingly....It was the last concert of a Mahler series conducted alternately with Pierre Boulez; justifiably Barenboim and the orchestra received a long standing ovation.


Masturbation, gang rape and Booh!

Another [normal?] night at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. A night out for two young companions (one who had played in it in an orchestra, the other one a very visual person) and me, for something that is easy on the ear, and, in a promised staged performance, good on the eye, too.

Hmmm. This interpretation by Götz Friedrich has had me rushing to research the content of Carmina Burana. It's based on 12th and 13th century poems found in Bavaria. This is the same period of Chaucer's very bawdy Canterbury tales. According to this the poems are about the twists of fate (2), spring, nature and love awakening (7), drinking and gambling (4), love (10), and a repeat of the fate theme - I see one of the last lines in the love section refers to 'virgin most transcendent' - not in this interpretation, it wasn't. Also I never realised the Carmina had so many words! The spring theme also reminds of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, and this interpretation's treatment of the woman is not far off a sacrifice.

So the stage opens with a woman tied up; she then frees herself, rushes about, and at anything in trousers - even at the body builder who joins her on stage is rather underdressed in tiny green briefs and a green hood (the not very jolly green giant?). When a man is not available she uses a rope or anything else that comes to hand to pleasure herself. At one stage a person pops out from a giant pair of lips (oral, but displayed vertically...). During the pub scene another woman enters the stage with huge balloon breasts and buttocks which are then pierced by someone's [metal] pin. In passing our woman, now half-naked, is raped by a bunch of guys. The tenor takes off his clothes (not all of them, thankfully, he's a big guy) and at one stage sings from a steaming bath.....

I suppose that the interpretation might reflect the approach to women in the 13th century - who really knows? The verses are vastly more subtle and beautiful than this interpretation could ever dream to be - it's romance with a jackboot. Then again this refers to the [a?] woman as a 'medieval sex worker'. One of my companions wondered about the image of women as reflected in the show and whether the rape, nakedness and all that were a way of attracting attention? But in 1995 when the production was premiered that was already a bit old hat in Germany.

On the musical front it was a bit disappointing. Maybe we are too used to having bits of Carmina Burana blasted out at us in adverts and films, but the choir seemed weak, as if sung by thin elderly men well past their sell-by date. It was also felt that choir and the huge orchestra were not always entirely together.

This was the first show ever where I heard 'booh' from the audience. It seemed to be directed at the poor conductor, which was a bit odd, but perhaps it was because he was the only person in charge present in the theatre. But it seemed to be the same male who shouted a number of times; thankfully only during the applause, not like last week in Vilnius apparently, where a member of the audience, during Hamlet, shouted abuse during the whole first act, was ejected and taken away handcuffed, apparently turned loose outside the theatre, and returned for the third act with more of the same, to be again arrested...

Now if you go to see it, you know what to expect!


Oh, the rules!

A nice little story in a Berlin paper described a guy called Janusz who had killed three people, and who had been convicted for at least two of those killings. For reasons best know to himself, one evening last week he presented himself at the prison gates, intending to serve the last 1000 days of his sentence (don't ask how he came to be free in the first place, or why he presented himself).

Unfortunately, the prison was unable to help him, seeing as he had neither ID nor sentencing documents on him at the time. You can just hear the prison guard at the entrance: 'Anyone could come along and ask for a bed for the night'. Janusz was sent packing. He went round to the police. Luckily they were able to help him - and banged him up.


Bank profits

Went to the Deutsche Bank in Berlin, where I have an account, to open a savings account - but what type to choose? The branch in Friedrichstrasse is a 'bank of the future' where you also get a high class cup of coffee while you speak to your adviser, or wait for them; and you can do bits of shopping. What you don't get, however, are leaflets giving you information. These are contained in dinky metal tins, the size of a leaflet; a different tin for each product. You have to BUY the tin to get the full information (the back of a tin has a general description, but I am not interested in 'interest rate up to x per cent'). The tins cost between 2 and 10 Euros, but they contain vouchers for the full value. What do you get for the voucher? In my case a couple of cups of coffee at the bank branch; there was also a nice pen. And how often would I visit the bank branch? Being Scottish I refused the tin, and they were ok with that - but how many people know about this option? It's all a bit outrageous, no?


Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Bach and Easter

...go together like bread and butter, or, to raise it to Bach's level, like a raisin loaf lovingly crafted from the finest white flour, freshest yeast and the most succulent raisins, together with freshly churned French country butter produced by smiling cows and sold in a roll.

Lithuania combines these two as well (the Bach and the Easter). Alas, the raisin loaf is as it should be, but it's smothered in margarine. Never in 6 years in Lithuania have I heard any one of the great Passions. I'm not sure what the problem is - the cost? But certainly the St John's Passion can be put on with quite a small choir and orchestra; I've seen it in Edinburgh, where the soloists also formed the choir, and each choir member had a role. The St Matthew's Passion needs a double orchestra, and choir... The best we get is the Easter Oratorio.

This is an odd work. Most of Bach's choral works start with a blast of choir and orchestra, apart from maybe some of the six Christmas Oratorio cantatas. This piece, scored for a very comprehensive band including 3 trumpets, 2 oboes, 2 flutes, timpani and the rest starts with two purely instrumental movements. This set of programme notes suggests that the opening describes everyone running to see where Jesus has gone, seeing that the tomb is empty. The following Adagio is described as the mournful sobbing about the final sin - the apparent theft of his body. (A bit of a melodramatic set of programme notes, this, no?). The four characters at the grave are Mary Magdalene, Mary Mother of James (were they all called Mary at the time?), Petras and Jonas; erm, Peter and John. These two are accused by the older Mary of not being very upset, but they say they are stricken with grief. (Men; even in Bach's time they could not show their feelings!). This is followed by a couple of arias, one by Mary Magdalene, one by Peter, which the programme notes describe as 'The sinuous winding figures in the recorders [flutes] and violins make a soft pillow for Peter’s contemplation' - it's where he finds the abandoned shroud and finds it gives him some comfort. Then they hasten off to try and find Jesus and find the choir of the faithful instead. Jesus, it seems, is never found. The piece was written in 1725, when Bach was 40, so it's not a particularly early work (BVW 249 - but set this against the tortuous and much more cerebral violin sonatas and partitas with BVW numbers of 1000+). The programme notes also suggest that part of this music was recycled from a birthday cantata for the Duke of Saxony 6 weeks earlier, where Bach had written the music such that it could be used for both. He was a busy man, was our J S Bach.

The performance by musica humana in the Lutheran Church went well. The church was packed, the orchestra was exceptionally packed, though setting one viola against 6 violins is a bit optimistic - but there would have been little room for another player. The choir was 'Jauna Muzika', one of the top Vilnius choirs (which will one day soon pass the sell-by date of 'Jauna' - 'young'), conducted by Augustinas Venclovas. The soloists were Ieva Prudnikovaite, mezzo, looking stunning as ever but having little to do, Raminta Vaicekauskaite, soprano, who had a beautiful and very long aria, accompanied by the leader of the second violins, the talented Mindaugas Zimkus, tenor and an unknown bass, who I have often seen around but always thought he was part of the Italian centre - he has that kind of good looks. He was the replacement for someone else so I did not take his name. The two men were virtually joined at the hip in their protestation of grief aria; it was very difficult and they did very well. The orchestra did well, too - Robertas Beinaris as always on first oboe; he's just so good at Bach!

The Oratorio was preceded by the third orchestral suite. It's the one with the Hamlet [cigarillo] theme tune. Such a corny piece - did Bach really write pizz over the bass line in the repeats of that movement? It was hard to hide a grin... It's interesting that it had much the same orchestration as the Easter Oratorio, but it seems it was written during the same period of Bach's life. And it made economic sense for the Filharmonija to engage the additional wind players and get them to play in both pieces ('you will play as many notes as we can squeeze out of you!'). The orchestra did well, loudly and energetically. I'm not sure that it was totally necessary to play all repeats in all movements.

I suppose I am now taking a risk in repeating the joke told to me by an Irish catholic 10 years ago:
'Tis Easter Sunday. Jesus wakes up in his tomb, and thinks to himself, 'where are those folk who were going to roll the stone away'. He hears nothing so he starts pushing and shoving, pushing and shoving, until finally he manages to roll the stone away. He wanders off towards the town, only to meet a couple of his disciples rushing towards the grave site. He asks them what happened. 'Ach, you know how it is, Lord. Judas had come into some money and we all decided to go for a drink....'


Storks over Lithuania

Apparently this years the storks are returning earlier, what with the warm winter and all that. Already two storks have been spotted flying over a small town in mid-west Germany. It seems at least one has arrived in Vilnius....though, unusually, those long, stunningly red legs were topped by a blue plumage and a rather shorter beak than normal....

This is what happens when you go running in shorts at a temperature of 4 degrees C!


Sunday, April 08, 2007


This article from the Washington Post is astonishing! (Thanks, Jessica, for leading me to it). As an experiment, the American violinist Joshua Bell stands himself, with his 3.5 million USD Strad, beside a rubbish bin at a Washington metro station, and starts busking. It's an experiment to see what will happen, how much money he will make, and whether people will pay attention or recognize him. He plays some of the greatest works for violin, including the Bach Chaconne. Over 1000 people walk past him in 43 minutes; one recognizes him (having been to one of his concerts recently), a few others loiter for a bit, a little 3-year-old would love to loiter but is pulled away by his mum who's in a hurry; most rush past. (It's a very long, but fascinating article).

I suspect many musicians have experience of busking at some stage in their lives. My son did it for one summer, in Ayr in Scotland. Just 16, he wanted to get a summer job, went to the local jobcentre, and they would not give him one (it's 12 years ago when jobs were a bit scarce). So he took out his fairly cheap fiddle and played some Scottish tunes - and made as much money then as Mr Bell did this January. It was about as much per hour as he earned as a highly skilled engineer in the UK 10 years later. Interestingly when he went to Edinburgh for a day's busking he hardly made anything at all. Probably the team setting up the experiment made a strategic mistake by placing Mr Bell at a busy place at a time when people were just rushing to work; had he been in a shopping mall things might have been different, and people might have crowded around him.

I remember hearing Josh Bell in Glasgow, quite some time ago (15 years??), and I am sure I heard him live somewhere else before then, when he must have been a mere child. During the interval, in a coffee queue, an older man beside me said, 'Who'd believe that the Americans can produce violinists like this'. I pointed him in the direction of Menuhin.


Saturday, April 07, 2007

Lithuanian Riverdance

In the National Drama Theatre today for the dance show 'Zmones' (People) choreographed by Anzelika Cholina. Ms Cholina is the main dance alternative to the Opera and Ballet Theatre, and some of her dancers are also from that theatre. She does wonderful shows, such as 'Tango in Fa' and 'Romeo and Juliet'. Usually she uses taped music, although this time it was clear that the Drama Theatre also has an orchestra pit, for emergencies, I suppose.

This show was based on rural Lithuanian life, with many folk dances modernised - sort of an evening in a village, with much dancing and drinking, finally everyone falling asleep drunk, and then waking up to a glorious sunrise. The costumes were vaguely traditional, though none of those heavy checked fabrics. The women's low cut dresses were adorned by stunningly colourful, sparkling fabric baubles. At the beginning some of the dancers wore heavy wooden clogs - I did wonder about the health and safety aspects of tipping women with these clogs, none too well fastened, upside down.

All 26 dancers were on stage for virtually all the 50 minutes; there was very little solo dancing, apart from one absolutely stunning young dancer (whose name I don't know since there were no 'characters' as such). Whoever he is, he has huge charisma and he is also a wonderful, wonderful dancer. I thought that the dancers were generally more athletic than those of the opera and ballet theatre (hush my mouth!). The dances were great; beautifully choreographed with some stunning scenes, especially the opening scene where they all ran onto the stage in a long twisting and turning around each other; the men running like a wind mill around the women; a kind of mexican wave thing in three rows, all waving at different moments.... It really was great on the visuals. The music was mainly Lithuanian folk music, modernised. At the end there was a slightly corny scene with the projection of a flight across a very rural Lithuania and all the dancers resting, watching their landscape in amazement.

Turns out that the show was sponsored by a local mobile phone company (ie I am paying for it!) which perhaps explains the unusual folksy theme. I'm afraid at the end, when all the dancers were in a line, the thought of 'Riverdance' entered my head, which I suspect Ms Cholina might find a little insulting since she is a rather highpowered artist. I do think, though, that this show would find huge resonance in places like Chicago and elsewhere with a large Lithuanian expat population, and indeed even in the home country of Riverdance, in Ireland, which also has a large Lithuanian population these days. It would also go down extremely well with tourists in the summer - is it worth putting on weekly performances?

The only thing is...the ticket prices; the most expensive tickets cost 50 litas (17 Euros), which was 1 litas per minute of the show ['tis a short show]; it's a bit heavy for Lithuanians, but again for tourists it might be ok. She says, having just spent considerably more than that to go and hear Barenboim conduct Mahler in Berlin.


Black things

My family understands the term 'black things' very precisely. 'Black things' is liquorice. Any liquorice is not bad, but for me the ultimate are the products of Katjes, a company with a Dutch name based in Germany. My favourite ones are the ones in the red packet, called 'Kittens'. 'Cats' Ears' in the green packet are much the same, in a different shape - and somehow they feel quite sharp what with the points. They are the original ones which started off the company. They are shaped like a little cat, fairly hard, and that makes them last longer. Especially in the winter they go rock hard. I remember moments of my childhood, on holiday in Austria, aged 6, when I'd go to bed with one tucked in my cheek, melting away very slowly (and eroding my teeth, no doubt). Total bliss! Later on I discovered that these hard ones also attach themselves very effectively to teeth, and I've lost more than one filling through them....The next favourite ones are the ones in the yellow packet in front of it, called 'little cat's paws'; they are very soft, and it's very easy to chomp your way through a packet. I am so possessive of them, when I get them, that I hide them - just in case I meet another liquorice lover who I might have to share them with. There are not that many of us, even in my family - luckily. I know two liquorice lovers in Lithuania, who I don't see all that often - I usually try to bring them back a packet, but if I don't see them....

The thing about these products is, which I had already realised through extensive empirical research, that 80% of their market is in the three north western German states, as confirmed by a recent newspaper article. You can also get them in Denmark (Copenhagen airport), and Sweden and Finland are big on liquorice, too, as are the Netherlands. But trying to get them in southern Germany is quite a challenge; apparently the Bavarians like their sweets 'colourful, sweet and funny'. Simple people, eh? They call liquorice 'Baerendreck' (bears' droppings). Austria? Forget it. Luckily you can get them in Berlin where I am going next week; in fact Katjes have just opened a factory in Potsdam, a bit of an unemployment blackspot (and, most unfortunately, talking of things black, also a racism blackspot). Not sure if I am quite as committed (or should be committed?) to go and watch the production lines.

In the UK you can (could?) get Katjes products, but never the liquorice. When their products first arrived on British shelves, I wrote to the company, asking about the liquorice. They replied with a parcel of six packets of the stuff! Heaven! You could possibly get Haribo liquorice, but it was not so nice. Liquorice Allsorts - geeez, who would want to contaminate liquorice with all that pink sweet stuff? I'd peel off the pink or brown bits....You can see my situation, after growing up in the Vatican of liquorice - every time I'd go to Germany I would buy quite a few packets of the stuff. Any birthday or Christmas parcel minus 'black things' was just not right.

There are at least three problems with liquorice; it stains your mouth and teeth black; people can smell that you have just eaten them, and, when I gorge on them, scoffing half a dozen packets in as many days, they definitely clear me out (literally having a blow-out...). That's apart from the fact that it allegedly raises the blood pressure (yes, please, in my case) and if you eat many of them whilst pregnant it doubles your chances of giving birth early; there are also questions relating to its effect on male potency. None of which are my problem. They are advertised as 'fat-free', but oh dear, the calorie count....

I love the stuff!!


Friday, April 06, 2007

Happy Easter!!


Hands up!

Two hours after touchdown in Vilnius yesterday I had bought the first concert and theatre tickets; I'm now getting brave about theatre in Lithuanian, seeing I've done theatre in Georgian of which I know four words.

Tonight's offering was the Lithuanian State Symphony Orchestra, with Alexandr Zemtsov, viola - VIOLA -, and Alexandr Vedernikov (head of the Bolshoi Theatre orchestra) conducting. A very tiny band of the orchestra started off the evening with Haydn's 49th symphony. Haydn? In this orchestra? I was astonished, and pleased to see that a longtime stalwart of the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra was sitting at the front desk of the violas. At least he had lots of experience playing this stuff. The cellos were reduced to 3, as were the basses (probably two to many). This symphony's structure is in the old baroque sonata style, slow, fast, slowish, fast, so it takes a while to crank up. They did get going and they did not do too badly; they were good on the dynamic contrasts, and the final Presto was quite fast. To my horror, there was no applause at the end of the piece! The conductor had thrown his hands in the air (which he did at the end of every piece, it turned out), and it took a good few seconds for people to applaud. Astonishing! This audience does not do chamber orchestra concerts, but even so, the orchestra's managers were in the audience, they should have started the applause. I was stunned by the audience reaction, but eventually started it up...

Zemtsov's rendition of the Bartok viola concerto, which all (Lithuanian) viola students play, was very good. At times he was drowned out by the forces of the now much larger orchestra; the theme of the second movement could have been a bit more haunting, but he really launched himself into the last movement, the tempo of which rather impressed the viola students in front of me. His viola (his playing) produced a beautiful tone (as do all well played violas!).

I thought of leaving at the interval when I saw that the final piece was a Janacek cantata, 'Amarus'. But then, when would I be able to hear it again? Better add it to the collection. It's written for large orchestra, choir, a tenor and a baritone soloist (though parts have also been sung by women; depends who you can get on Good Friday evening, I suppose). According to this NY Times review it's about the unhappy life and death of a monk. Part of me wanted to leave because I noticed that it consisted of all slow movements, but then I peered at the music on the orchestra's stands and thought that it could not last too long. And indeed, some of the movements were taken at a fairly brisk pace. The cantata was sung in Czech which looked like it gave a few problems in the faster moments. The soloists did well, and sang very competently - it's not one that people have in their repertoire, like Bach or the Verdi requiem. I wish though that the baritone had not been busy moving his music stand up and down between doing his bits. Very distracting. What's wrong with holding the music in your hands?

The piece itself was fairly conventional, an early Janacek; with the final movement having no singing in it at all - reasonable, I suppose, after the protagonist died. I noticed the benefits of my music studies (and the score reading practice), following the different voices and their togetherness or otherwise. It was advertised as having five moments, but I, and it seems, most of the audience, only counted 4 - so there was another stunned silence at the end of this piece.


I can hear again!!!

Almost a year ago I realised that my hearing was getting pretty bad when at an interview for a project I could not hear the questions that my older colleagues heard (albeit also with difficulty). We lost - thankfully since we all have more than enough work, but if the reason were the answers to the questions I thought I heard, it's not fair to colleagues. Crowd scenes have been troublesome for even longer than that, and when colleagues begin to say, 'don't worry about having a meeting in our room, she won't hear you anyway', it's time something was done.

So off I went to the hearing man today. Right enough, old age has caught up with me, and there is a noticeable loss in the speech register. Not convenient - as I know only too well. Thankfully technology has moved on in the last couple of years or so, and now I have a very dinky little hearing aid which you hardly notice; shaped like a slightly larger paracetamol caplet, an elegant grey almost matching my glasses which it sits beside, and without those awful earmolds that older hearing aids have. And here in Lithuania it's half the price that the same make and model has in Germany!

The difference is amazing! I pick up conversations much better; this evening before a concert I had a chat with a guy sitting at a table, lots of background noise, and no problems whatsoever. Whilst testing it in a restaurant this morning I overheard the conversation of an Irishman who seemed to have to go to court for something...interesting. The concert blasted me a bit, to be fair, and trying to turn it down caused it to whistle for a microsecond. All sorts of other sounds that I had forgotten are coming back loud and clear. It's slightly disconcerting at the moment that I pick up noises from quite far away and think they are next to me; eg a guy coughs in the row behind me and I think he is about to spit in my ear!

Probably sorted this out just at the right time!


Thursday, April 05, 2007

The army of the dead

Ready to go home in just over an hour (3 am), could not get to sleep, what better time to review Ismail Kadare's book 'General of the Dead Army'? The title in English may be a literal translation from Albanian, but to most Brits it reminds of 'Dad's Army' and it rather lacks rhythm. The German title 'Der General der toten Armee' has more pace to it.

At least one of my readers remembers my review of Kadare's other book, 'Broken April', which I had headed 'barbaric!' referring to the system of blood vengeance in Albania, rather than the book as such. She was rather fussed, to put it mildly. So she read it again and reviewed it on her blog.

In the meantime I thought I'd better read another book by the same author, and this is the one I picked up passing through Vienna one day, in German, naturally. It's about a general and a priest, probably Italian, who are sent to Albania 20 years after WW2 (the book was first published in 1970) to collect the remains of their army who had fought there. They engage a specialist in identifying bodies, some gravediggers and trundle round Albania with a car and a lorry, digging holes and collecting bones. Prior to his departure the general finds his house besieged by people looking for the bodies of their sons; a rather more well-to-do family socialises with him on his holiday to impress on him the urgency of their need to find their colonel son/husband. The search takes 2 years; much of the digging seems to be taking place in the rain, or the cold, with the general and his priest staying in a variety of accommodation. Do they find the colonel? Hmmm....

It's a fascinating book. Kadare writes very simply and briefly (the words are well spread across the pages...); the story of the general and the priest is interspersed with excerpts from a soldier's diary, the thoughts of an understandably vengeful old woman, a little fairy tale. I don't know whether it is Albania, Kadare's writing, or the topics he chooses, but however great the book is, I always feel a greyness of depression creeping over me when I read them; here it's the rain, the mud, the tragedies, the killings (not of the army but again the killing that seems to be in the Albanian soul; where for example at the first sign of the invasion people walk with their guns for days from remote villages to the coast, only to be shot by the invaders. The priest says that even infants have a gun placed beside them in the cradle and it becomes part of their lives. When the topic comes up again, they define war as similar to early morning sport for the Albanians. Remember that this book is written by an Albanian though first published in exile in France....)

Despite that it's a great read; it describes an extremely unusual situation and the reader emphasizes with the general and his sidekick rushing around all over the place collecting those bones. Not that the general should be proud of everything that he does! And what of those whose bones are not found?


Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The Chinese are coming!

This article in the New York Times suggests that classical music is Big in China. Leaving aside that everything is big in China, what with population pressure, the number of classical musicians China is producing is enormous (about 200,000 each year apply to conservatories as opposed to a few thousand in the 1980s), their instruments are getting better and better - you can get a really good Chinese fiddle for a few thousand dollars, as opposed to, in the European viola world at least, 10,000 to stratospheric Euros, and concert halls for classical western music are popping up like mushrooms. Piano shops look like car showrooms, 30 million young people learn the piano, and 10 million learn the violin. Whew!

We had this experience at last year's viola congress in Montreal, where a wonderful Chinese viola professor, chairman of the Chinese viola society, had brought along a band of about a dozen viola players, including at least one set of brothers. In a masterclass one of those brothers, Bo Li, gave an astonishing, riveting, miles above everyone else performance of Bach's Chromatic fantasy (normally a piano piece). Afterwards one of his colleagues whispered to me 'he's not the best among us, you know'. Later on at least two of them, including Bo Li, won prizes at the Tertis viola competition.

And still, as the NY Times points out, China has not yet produced a world class orchestra. It would be ironic if this communist country only produced soloists!