Monday, March 31, 2008

Flight music

Interesting (though limited) article on the French IRCAM in today's Guardian. Ircam, the international research centre for contemporary music, was set up essentially to keep Pierre Boulez at home in France. It offers composers opportunities for trying out different technologies - all sorts of sound sources etc, I assume there are performance spaces, there is the Ensemble Intercontemporain and so on. The article suggests that the centre is perhaps a bit outdated now, given that the manufacturing of different types of sounds and other music/video technology has become so much cheaper - anyone can do it at home, almost, and seeing as modern music has divided into many different strands (though those strands already existed in 1976 when the centre was founded). But still it is useful to have such a centre, I would have thought, considering the uphill struggle contemporary music has among the older concert-going population. Young people do not seem to have a problem with this music - more with the concept of 'concert' and the rules that seem to go along with 'going to a concert'.

This reminds me of my thoughts on Friday, whilst travelling to Tbilisi. Listening to all the sounds at the airport, on the buses connecting us from terminal to the plane and reverse, the sounds in the plane from announcements, to the serving of drinks, (including the effects of wearing/removing my noise-reducing earphones), the snatches of conversations in different languages.....it would be rather cool to combine that in a piece of music (though we might leave out the poor guy who was suddenly taken ill in the middle of the flight). Wonder if anyone has done something like this? It would not need to be done in 'real time'....


When you think you have problems...

read this article about the Symphony Orchestra in Iraq. Moving stuff!


Sunday, March 30, 2008

Gap in concert blogs

Now back to Tbilisi for almost four weeks, there'll be few concert reviews, unless I happen to stumble across one accidentally.



Absolutely not a cultural novel, 'Boomsday' by Christopher Buckley (author of 'Thank you for Smoking' which might have a similar focus), is an all-American, very funny in a wise-cracking sort of way novel about the machinations of government in the US. Though these could be the same machinations in the UK, especially in relation to party donors.

It's about a young woman who is annoyed about the huge social security bill for the baby boomers (of whom I am one) who will need to be supported by the under-30s from now and for a long time. Working in public relations, she has a pretty good idea on how to get people fired up, and starts, through her blog, a series of attacks on gated communities for the elderly. This snowballs, and snowballs, and through very close connections with a senator she develops a bill to introduce voluntary transitioning (ie suicide) for people aged seventy or over, in return for tax breaks. This gets everyone in a tizzy, and from here on in all hell breaks loose, with the churches, her estranged father, the president and all sorts of other people piling in, plotting and counterplotting against each other, blackmailing, promising and undoing promises and so on. A typical few months in US government.

The style takes a bit of getting used to, and some of the jokes are just a bit 'oh aren't we so clever to have thought of this one?'. It's very 2006 US; not subtle and not for everyone. The events are of the kind that you read about in the Guardian every day. Is it like 'West Wing'? I don't know, not having seen it. Like it's cover, the book is brash, bold, and a bit vulgar (but also typically American, without explicit sex). Would make a great airport book, though - and an easy read for a day spent sick in bed.

I hope the US citizenship knows, after West Wing and all the other shows, that this is how its government operates.


Thursday, March 27, 2008

A book after my own heart

Picked up 'Finale' by Michael Wallner in Austria. A book with a played violin on it is always interesting.....It's not available in English, though his book, 'April in Paris' is, interestingly also in Polish - which says something about changes in the UK population (theme for a sociological study...). 'April in Paris' is set in the war, and, it seems like all books covering that period, on the title page shows a young couple kissing.

Anyway, Finale. It's set in Vienna and a distant village called 'Ratten' ('rats' to you!). It's about a music manager (yeah!), who comes back to Vienna after a long absence, for medical treatment. Going to a concert (wow!) he spots a young woman in the Philharmonic (now, I mean, really, that is actually stretching the fantasy just a bit, seeing as the book was written in 2003 when there was no woman violinist in the band, and still isn't as far as I know), who he thought had died in a swimming accident.

He becomes obsessed with her, and as the opportunity arises, he starts up a festival in Ratten where her grandmother (a former VIOLA player - of course!) now lives, still working part-time in the village government (aged 80?). The programme will be the Bach a-minor concerto (we've all played it). In between he comes across, and deals with, all sorts of obstacles, not least his seriously deteriorating health. Since he is the narrator, the book does not reach its actual end.

It's a fascinating book, set in a world I know (including Vienna which I know particularly well early mornings and evenings), including little coffee houses, the streets I know, the vinyards around Vienna, all the aspects of music management. It's great, and unputdownable (also rather short). His writing style reminds me of Elfriede Jelinek, though it's not at all pornographic. There is no stated dialogue - the writing is just continuous, and any dialogue is entirely in indirect speech. Very skillfully done, beautifully written, and very recommendable.


I did not wait long enough!

to see Godot, in the State Vilnius Little Theatre's production of 'Waiting for Godot'. Last time I had seen it in Tbilisi, where Robert Sturua had shrunk it into a one-act play. I was a bit surprised when at what seemed like the end there was not a clap of applause. Not a smidgeon! Turns out this production is 3 hours - in Tbilisi it was half that.

The Little Theatre, in Gedimino prospect, is little, with about 200 seats or so. It was recently done up. When I entered the auditorium I immediately felt at home on hearing the accordeon version of 'I could have danced all night' - the identical version that Robert Sturua loves to use. My favourite actor Zaza Papuashvili instantly flashed through my mind, doing his funny little dances to this music - is it in Hamlet? No, it's in 'Twelfth Night'.

So anyway, half of Godot, with partial understanding of the words. From what I could tell, the translation was quite good, into very vernacular Lithuanian, given the level in society of the characters. Vladimir was lovely, as was Estragon. Found Lucky's monologue quite weak, though, compared to the machinegun delivery of his colleague in Tbilisi. The boy was lovely. Shame that they translated Lucky's name into 'Lakis' - kind of lost the whole point!

Overall, though, it was a much straighter production than that in Tbilisi; little song and dance (music by Faustus Latenas - unless the second half turned into an opera, I don't think he did much composing here!), straight down the line, every word translated. Not so enterprising, and got few laughs, apart from Leonardas Pobedonoscevas as the boy. There should have been more laughs - but perhaps it's my social worker sense of humour which is sicker than that of the average caring audience member.

Strange article here about World Theatre Day. This is typical for the worst of Lithuanian writing; all ethereal and oak trees. What's the point of saying this?


Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Classical music portal!

The Guardian writes about this website. It gives you access to classical music videos, many classical music radio stations, video clips (and whole videos?), classical music downloads , all concert halls and venues (all? Let's look for the Tbilisi Opera House or Conservatoire...), and seems to coordinate many classical music sites.

Cannot tell you any more about that because it requires Internet Explorer to operate it. For that I'll need to speak to my religious adviser to see if that is acceptable. Seeing as even in a Windows environment I use Firefox, Thunderbird, and Open Office as my preferred software.

Worth checking out though.


Tuesday, March 25, 2008

'Suite francaise'

this book by the Russian Jewish French Catholic Irene Nemirovsky had caught my eye some time ago, but I always resisted it - period pieces are not quite my thing. But then it turned up under my Christmas tree.

It's interesting. It's in two halves, though these are mildly connected now and again. The first half describes the exodus from Paris as the Germans march in (and to a lesser degree the return to Paris); the second half is about a village somewhere in France, which is occupied by German soldiers, and what goes on during the three months or so of the occupation.

As someone rather familiar with war-time refugee stories (mostly East to West) there is nothing very surprising about the departures from Paris, while people are being bombed, bridges are being mined, and different people have different experiences. Some of these people still had cars, whereas those who fled from Poland to the West four or five years later had nothing (though they were also among the vanquished). There are some lovely little characterizations, though, of those who are rich and who think they can buy everything, of another, very mutually supportive little couple, a dancer who makes the most of her assets and finds strengths in herself which she did not know she had.....

The second story also has a beautiful, and quite biting, characterization particularly of the middle class ladies in a village who have conflicting thoughts and ideas - should they resist the Germans or not, how can they show their superiority to those common people in the village, while at the same time the common people in the village also look down on the fine ladies. Everyone in the village does quite well out of the occupying forces, what with charging them well above the going rate for anything (as a foreign consultant, I recognize the symptoms). In passing, given the films I have seen of how collaborators were treated by the French after the war, I wonder what will have happened to some of the people in this village.

Neither story, though, seems to go anywhere. The first one just finishes, the second one contains a crime that someone committed and ...nothing happens.

Now, here comes the problem with reviewing such a book. In itself, you would say, yes, it's interesting, nicely written, but it's just a snapshot of a situation. What happened next? This is a bit of a weakness.

Then you turn over the book and you see that the writer [most probably] perished in a concentration camp. And at once it becomes more difficult to review the book. It is absolutely possible, therefore, that she meant to continue the stories - but she was taken away in 1942. Her husband a few weeks later. The children survived, hidden all over the place.

Clearly, also, the writer anticipated that things would not go well for her. Appendices in the book contain much anguished correspondence about money (Jews were not allowed to be paid royalties), and eventually many efforts by her husband trying to get her back from wherever she was sent - an effort for which he paid with his life.

So, then, do you review the book as the oeuvre of someone coming to a tragic end who maybe was unable to tidy it up and whose editors did not dare tidy it up, or as a piece of literature regardless of the condition of the author; as a risky work of its own period, or, like me, as another brick in the body of literature and biography involving the Third Reich? Think of Anne Frank - was she a great writer? It's like reviewing Bach with ears that have heard Stockhausen as opposed to ears that have only heard baroque music. An impossible question.


Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Naked Violin(ists)

Just catching up with the February Strad, whilst (not entirely) watching Julia Fischer and Daniel Mueller-Schott playing the Brahms Double Concerto.

This music business, sometimes it makes you sick - the two have recently brought out a CD of the same piece, now they are playing it on TV and I think they played it in a few concert halls up and down the countries....product placement or what?

I see Ms Fischer and Tasmin Little have something in common - they are under the impression that fabric is still being rationed. Ms Fischer's red dress, whilst long, only just covers the essential places - her cleavage is so low that you can almost see her belly button, and I wonder if she has ever had a conversation with anyone about wardrobe malfunctions?

Ms Little, who very generously has made some of her recordings available on her website (for free!), has apparently had to save on fabric to pay for this - the publicity photo for the recording called 'The Naked Violin' shows an almost naked violinist, wearing little more than her fiddle. Since she and I must be about the same age I like to think that after all my running my body is as good as hers....I must try that outfit some time in the streets of Tbilisi.


iPod crash

In case someone read one of my other blogs about internet addiction and the computer was going to be staying off for the rest of the day, and here we are an hour later....I can explain.

Somehow, in the middle of everything else, I managed to wipe everything off my iPod, all 8000+ tracks - thanks to one of my Linux programmes. I had tried simply to remove some duplicated Bach flute sonatas.


Luckily I am close to my computer and my laptop, and between them should be able to restore - but it's not as straightforward as dragging all files over to the iPod. Time will have to be spent....

Could be worse - my last iPod did not even live as long as this one.


Strange book

Can't remember what made me buy Richard Feynman's book 'What do YOU care what other people think?'. I'd had it on my self of books 'to be read' for at least a year.

Feynman, a physicist, was involved in the development of the atomic bomb (nice man??), and it seems he also got a Nobel Prize, for physics, presumably. I had thought this book would be a 'meaning of life' type book, and I have a feeling I may have given it to someone else for his birthday.

It's a strange collection of materials, consisting of a rather moving story about his first wife, a few letters to his family, some anecdotes about his travels, and a large section on his part of the 'Challenger' disaster enquiry. I wonder how they chose to put these writings together in one book?

His writing style is very strange; extremely colloquial, to the degree that you think some of the stories are written for an audience of 10-year-olds. Which makes it very easily readable and accessible, of course. It is clear that he has a huge enthusiasm for science, and is very keen to interest people in it, and to use any means whatsoever to connect people with science. He also seems to be a hands-on kind of guy who is not afraid to ask difficult questions, and is very happy to connect with people at all levels of organisations and society in order to find out sensitive facts, or just to talk to them. There are stories of him having wonderful relationships with other people's children who, when he was expected for dinner, would not go to bed without connecting with him first.

This is all very well, and very pleasant, but it seemed a bit pointless to put together a book about it. Until I got to the bit about the Challenger disaster (when one of those space shuttles exploded shortly after take-off). This I found really fascinating. Call me a techie (which I was before I turned all warm and loving and 'social' ['social' only in the technical sense, not in the meaning of 'sociable']), but it took me straight back into the world of systems analysis and systems failure, my happy hunting ground of about 25 year ago. Seems that the Challender disaster was a classic case of systems failure - technical problem combined with management issues, and possibly political pressures. This section I found absolutely inspirational and would hope to use his approach in dealing with my work, too. Unfortunately often there are political reasons why this might not be appreciated; and in cultures where people can be sacked at whim for giving open and free information you have to weigh up the risk to individuals.


Saturday, March 22, 2008

'Musicophilia' - not music and the mind

...is a rather more unputdownable book about music, this time by Oliver Sacks, who I always thought was a psychiatrist, but actually he seems to be a neurologist. He's famous for having written other books about neurological conditions, notably 'The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat'.

In my current interest about music and the mind I had bought the book, which people had been raving about. And indeed it is a great resource - for those who are interested in music and the brain. Like Alex Ross' book 'The rest is noise' it covers a huge amount of ground, but not too much in depth. Probably Sacks covers a larger percentage of the ground than Ross does - but I would not really know.

The subtitle 'tales of music and the brain' says it all. There are lots of stories about people who cannot speak, but sing; people who have apparently total dementia, but can still perform music, about musical hallucinations, earworms, perfect pitch, synaesthesia, people who lose their feeling for music, others who gain it in old age, music therapy and Parkinson's disease... you name it, it's described in the book. As long as you don't look too much for music and emotions; David Levitin's 'Your brain on music' is better on this. Sacks only touches on this a little.

So it covers lots of topics, and it would be a very useful resource for someone who might be looking for a starting point to do some research in relation to music and the brain, as in 'pick a topic'. Or for someone faced with a brain/music problem either in themselves or their relatives. In depth the stories are not, and given that he often talks about the brain and different parts of it, it would have been quite nice to have a map of the brain (though perhaps we could look that up on the internet).

It's very pleasantly written, giving a lot of personal (mostly patient) stories - which make it unputdownable, and it's easy to race through it, as I did in two days. I'm glad I did not pack this hardback book to take back to Georgia - not much reading value for weight....


Thank you, Verdi!

An hour after I came home after last night's dreadful concert, 3sat rescued me from my musical depression with Verdi's requiem (I know, I know...hardly cheery), performed by the wonderful Semyon Bychkov with his WDR Rundfunk Orchestra, no less than three choirs, and a group of soloists including our very own Violeta Urmana (who has not sung much in Vilnius recently).

That was a passionate performance, though even here the Dies Irae, my most favourite part of it (offering plenty of scope for amateur psychologists) was not as harsh or biting Abbado's available on youtube. But otherwise, like much of Verdi's other music, it is really rather ice cream music, no? That part where the soprano and alto sing an octave apart - oy vey - and there are some other similar places, too. Probably perfect, though, for an outpouring of grief at perhaps a peak time for emotion in music writing. Only a day or two before I had thought about anger in music, and about Mozart's Dies Irae. His is a much more refined kind of anger - but he was limited by the style of music writing available to him. I wonder what his audience might have said had he plonked Verdi's Dies Irae into the middle of his requiem (and he might have had good reason, too....).

The concert was broadcast from the Cologne Philharmonic, which seems to be a very new hall - apparently the size of a football stadium? The three choirs were all easily accommodated in what seemed like the gods about a mile from the conductor. Presumably the wiring for recordings was pre-installed. And does the place really have a glass roof?


Friday, March 21, 2008

Te Martyrum candidatus laudat exercitus - and the heather is still damp

(translated, somewhat iffily, as 'the noble army of martyrs praise thee' from the Te Deum). It ain't muslim martyrs we are talking about, for once.

Tonight's noble army of martyrs was sitting in the audience, unless they were the Kaunas State Choir, who sounded as if they had walked all the 100 km to the Vilnius Congress Palace. Tired or what?

But anyway. Tonight's concert by the Lithuanian State (Not National) Symphony Orchestra was extremely unusual in that it was conducted by Juozas Domarkas of the Lithuanian National (Not State) Symphony Orchestra. I never thought that would happen - nor did anyone else. But it's time they started collaborating in advance of the 2009 European Capital of Culture year.

It was all Berlioz. Whose idea was it to programme 3 overtures all after each other? That really did not work Could they not have dropped two and done Harold in Italy instead? Interesting scoring for Benvenuto Cellini, with a bass clarinet and 5 percussionists, including two timpanists almost falling over each other. Pavelas Giunteris, the best percussionist in Vilnius, used a most fetching pair of red-headed drum sticks. Despite all that, the heather was not set alight, though - very pedestrian performances. I noticed talented Povilas Jacunskas was leading the cello section; he did so well in the Fortvio concert on the weekend, but it seems he still needs to get the hang of leading a group. At least he was confident on the notes.

Berlioz Te Deum in the second half of the concert was dull, to put it mildly. At one point I measured the distance from my seat to either end of the row, but it was too far to walk out. Dull, dreary, dreadful, deadly.

I see the piece is scored for huge forces, with two choirs, a children's choir, and a vast range of instruments, including 12 harps (not in the choral sections). I doubt we have twelve harps in Lithuania, never mind twelve harpists. This was a bit of a shoe-string production then, what with apparently only two flutes instead of four, no harps, a Korg 'church organ', and the rest of the band. To be fair, I see that three of the movements are described as 'Prière', which I suppose means 'Prayer' and perhaps they should be sung quietly and without excitement. But it's a fifty minute piece, without drama or development. Can't exactly say that Berlioz was ahead of his time and link him to folk like Morton Feldman, who wrote extremely slow-moving, contemplative music. Not with forces like this. Lord, spare me from this one.

Would not recommend going to the Congress Palace in the next week or so. They are putting on the Magic Flute (in a concert hall); seems to be a staged performance what with all the building gear lying around, and the main entrances into the auditorium blocked off for the public. How does the fire police allow this?


Servenikas in Munich!

in April my much-admired Robertas Servenikas will be conducting at the Munich Staatsoper - wow! He was invited to conduct the Gubaidulina viola concerto (hey, what a choice!) for a premiere of ballets by Martin Schläpfer, Hans van Manen (no less!) and Simone Sandroni. Welldone!

I see the website says he is the musical director for the whole evening, though only one piece involves an orchestra.... The violist is Dietrich Cramer, one should mention out of viola solidarity. Apparently Servenikas has had a good chat with Gubaidulina about the concerto and is now all set. There will be six performances in total, though most in June.

I wish him luck - he will do a fine job!


Thursday, March 20, 2008

Ruhe sanft - but do so quickly!

After a friend told me yesterday that gee, that piece is hard, it's so heavy on the soloists, and we've just had a long rehearsal, what will it do for the audience .....I expected to hear all of Bach's St Matthew's Passion tonight at the Filharmonija.

Suffice it to say that they can perform the half they cut next year; it'll make a full concert. Bit of a strategic mistake to print the whole text in the programme....Only on this morning's run I had listened to part of the whole version recorded by the Dunedin Consort from Edinburgh, and noticed some unfamiliar bits. It's often performed incomplete, what with it lasting 3 hours (which my runs don't) - a couple of years ago in Berlin I almost asked for my money back....

The Lithuanian chamber orchestra and the choir 'Jauna Muzika' were conducted by Neil Thompson, a fairly regular visitor to Vilnius, from the UK. Given that although there were two orchestras, as required in the score, but only one organ, two flutes and two oboes, I wondered if the parts they cut were those which effectively would have had four flute or oboe parts and two organ parts. I haven't got the time to do a note for note analysis - though reading the score during this performance involved a lot of flipping over of pages! (I've taken part in a performance with two organs - I was turning pages at one and my maths/music teacher was glaring at me from the organ opposite!)

Generally the performance went well. It was quite standard, with a choir of about 30 (could have been worse if the Kaunas State Choir had sung), five soloists (four after the interval) and the band. None of that newfangled stuff where there might be 16 or so singers all doing solo roles and choir parts at the same time. That'll come to Lithuania, too. Eventually. Maybe we should invite the Dunedin Consort.

The soloists were quite good, though it's scary that when you have the score in front of you, even without reading glasses, how you notice the intonation moments. Jekatarina Tretjakova had a quite a good Bach voice, no wobbles - which would have been totally inappropriate. If she had injected some blood into her arias it would have been even better. 'Blute nur, du liebes Herz' means serious pain and agony. That did not come across. Kestutis Alcauskas was good as the Evangelist, and had a very clear enunciation. He translated that 'Mein Gott, mein Gott, warum hast Du mich verlassen' beautifully. Ignas Misiura was stuck with doing Jesus, Judas and Pilate at the same time - this is where our arrangement falls down - and his Greek?/Hebrew? version of the same phrase was heartbreaking. Poor Mindaugas Zimkus had only one aria in the first half, whereas Laima Jonutyte (who I have never heard before) had a number of mezzo arias. Both did well, and were fully in control.

The orchestra soloists playing the obbligato parts all did better than I had expected; occasionally breaths were taken where none were needed, but generally, for a band that does not play much Bach church music, they did very nicely indeed. We could let them out of the country with this.

The tempi were verging on the brisk, I thought. Music involving sleep should not be played fast. Two arias were thus affected, and the final chorus - a meditation, as my friend in the band described it - would not have got anyone to meditate. You know how it is when you want to fall asleep in a hurry? You don't. This could have been played much more restfully.

I wonder when we will hear it again?

Postscript to my comments about the St John's Passion with a Robert Wilson scenography - came across his name in 'The Rest is Noise'. It seems he is a minimalist producer (put that together with minimalist music, or Morton Feldman, and oy vey....). There could be a case for having so little movement in Baroque music what with each piece (aria etc) having one Affekt - but on the whole I think I prefer a Passion to be Passionate....


Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Klezmer Hummel

What's this, I thought, as Ilan Schneider and Leonidas Dorfmanas launched into the Hummel Fantasia for viola and piano? Where are we, in a shtetl? This is now going to sound really bad, and it's not meant to be, seeing the two musicians, originally hailing from Vilnius, are Jewish, and now live in Germany and Luxembourg.

Schneider is a very, very fine viola player. He makes a beautiful sound, and like most of those raised in Vilnius musical education has perfect intonation. He trained as a violinist first, but now is the lead viola player in the Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra. He's also a lovely guy, who still like Lithuanian food, or so he told me a year or two ago. No really, if you need a really sound, really in control violist, get him in. (I would not dare to comment on the pianist, but they played very well together and were well-balanced).

For those of us who go to viola congresses, the programme was a bit too predictable, and that's why I left before the second half - it contained a Brahms sonata, and when you hear x versions of them in congress master classes you get a bit sick of them. (Last time he played here I had to leave to go to another concert...not much luck!).

I know the Hummel Fantasia, in fact, I might have the notes. It's an odd piece. You'd think that a fantasy would have a slow part (which it did), and a virtuosic part (which it sort of did), but there were long gaps of piano solo - maybe it's for viola and orchestra, in which case it would sound better? The solo parts did not seem to connect so well; at the beginning there was a hint of theme and variations, but later the theme seemed to be lost. Strange.

This was followed by Schumann's Maerchenstuecke, written for cello and piano but transcribed for viola by Mikhail Kugel. Kugel himself is into the virtuoso end of viola playing. The transcription had one or two odd corners, where clearly the viola had run out of string length, and something had to give (like an octave or two).

Finally in the first half there was the Arpeggione, very standard viola repertoire.

In all three pieces a beautiful sound was produced - where the bow hit the string. And that was the problem in the whole first half of the concert - he was too light on the bow. You missed the beginnings and ends of phrases, all the time. Clearly he is very good at pianissimos, but it was as if the phrases briefly dipped onto the strings - they did not connect. The Schumann is a cello piece originally, and cellos don't really do lightness. In the Schubert and the beginning of the Hummel it was as if he was a wandering fiddler in an Eastern European cafe, wandering from table to table, lingering a little, rubatoed a little to get everyone's attention, and after a little while wandering off to another table. It just was not focused and continuous enough. Yes, it was very interesting, and when bow connected well to string, it was wonderful - but was it Schubert, or Schumann? It might have been them with lashings and lashings and lashings of cream....


I hate singing!

I do, anyway, especially if I had to do it suddenly, and solo, without a piece of paper to hold on to.

Seems, though, that the Austrian mezzo Christa Ludwig, 80 this week, was also not entirely enamoured with it, as described in the German weekly 'Die Zeit'. Always having to take care of herself, always protecting those damn vocal chords, it messing up family life - her mother explained to her that having a talent is like being cursed. Suspect a lot of people, especially talented children under pressure from their parents, can relate to that. She complains about Solti whose conducting style involved bouncing all over the place, but where the entries were like a sword, whereas Karajan gave more rounded entries (oh yes? he was a stirrer, was he?).

Inevitably, EMI has brought out 'The Art of Christa Ludwig'.


Es ist vollbracht!

This is Friday's text, of course (St John, 19:30) and perhaps I should not really compare my completion of Alex Ross' 'The Rest is Noise' with Jesus' death on the cross......but it's a fitting set of words.

Got the book around Christmas, was reading something else at the time, read the first half here, there and everywhere,before I left for Georgia, forgot it at home, came back, it was still looking at me and blocking me from other reading, so yesterday on page 363 I set myself a goal to read at least 40 pages a day to finish it by the end of the week (539 pages of text). By last night I had really got into it.... another target fulfilled early.

It's a monumental book, of course. One of the reasons for its putdownability is that it contains lots of little stories about lots and lots and lots of 20th century composers. It must have taken a huge amount of research putting all this together, and really, to fully take in all the information contained in it you would need to read it again and again, or pick up one or two lines of thought and follow them through. It's so rich in information (albeit also anecdotes) that if it were food, it would be close to indigestible. At least the anecdotes lighten it from time to time. It is a fantastic resource for students - it's not in-depth enough for very serious research, but it has a list of over 500 references which can lead the researcher further and further and further. It's certainly my most dog-eared book - apart from the fact that it is falling apart after the first reading.

Like a piece of music it also has its own rhythm (though you could not say that about the pieces of some of the composers such as Feldman). Like in a symphony (that seems to almost be a swear word in the context of this book) you know when the end approaches, so you do in this book, as it approaches the end of a section on a composer - it always describes a piece of music, and the writing changes from the past tense to the present.

In passing it also gives interesting descriptions of life in general in the countries involved ('the social conditions of composing') which I have found quite interesting; for example where he describes how in Nazi Germany the needs of 'the people' always came before the needs of the individual. This is interesting and explains some sayings I hear from time to time ('duty [to the public?] comes before pleasure [for the individual/family?]' - one of the banes of my life).

And yet, and yet....Overgrown path had a debate about the american-centricness of the book, and particularly its thin treatment of British music. While I can think of reasons for having a very short chapter on British music, I was rather surprised by the 7 page description of the plot of the opera 'Peter Grimes' - by far the lengthiest description of anything in this book. Since I know and love the opera, it would have given me opportunity to sing it all the way through - but I really know it well enough not to read the plot again....

Actually the book starts very Europeancentric, then many of the composers involved end up in the US (eg Schoenberg, Hindemith, Adorno - not a composer, but often quoted), and after the war only the US, Germany and France seem to exist (apart from Peter Grimes), with a bit of the Soviet Union (I must be one of the few music bloggers who has actually seen the Armenian Composer's Union Home in Dilijan, Armenia, where Britten worked on pieces for Rostropovich [it was the day of the outbreak of the Iraq war and I was staying in an Armenian army rest-home across the valley]).

Although it covers an increasingly wide range of music including 12-tone music to minimalism, most of even the 'western' world is not included, eg Spain, the Scandinavian countries except Finland, South America (Piazzola does not get a look-in..). Japan and China get a mere glimpse, British music has huge gaps and here he goes on more about homosexuality than anything else, it would seem; German music beyond the Darmstadt summer schools is hardly mentioned, Australia has a very passing mention of Peter Sculthorpe (can't really expect little Lithuania to get a mention).... I would not rely on this book as the ultimate guide to 20th century music, though of course it already provides a wonderful snapshot.

But...'The rest is noise?' All the rest? Doubt it very much.


Anthony Minghella RIP

That nice Anthony Minghella has died, aged 54. Apparently it was an operation that had gone wrong. He was the director of 'An English Patient' and other films, and he was a lovely person.

He came to Vilnius about three years ago to direct the Madam Butterfly cooperation with the ENO and the MET. It was a stunning production the likes of which the Lithuanian public had not seen before, including some complicated Japanese puppet work, and amazing costumes. Other people and I chatted to him during a reception prior to the premiere and found him a really personable, self-deprecating guy.

What a shame.

(Picture from the Guardian)


Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Romantic Quartets

Holland Music Sessions is a programme offering master classes, concert tours in Europe and the US, and management to talented young musicians (applications are open for Summer 2008). Clearly a wonderful opportunity, and tonight at the Filharmonija three young Lithuanians received scholarships for this year's events (two were absent, studying in Germany....). The programme is at least partly funded by AON, an insurance company (welldone, AON!). This was good, because they must have provided about 90% of the about 40 members of the audience, listening to previous participants of the Music Sessions. Shocking, that - it was blamed on the fact that the Filharmonija never has concerts on a Tuesday.

Tonight's group was the Lendvai String Trio (violin, viola, cello) with Martin Sturfaelt, piano. The Lendvai String Trio consists of 3 young ladies from the UK, Sweden and the Netherlands respectively. It's brave to set up such a trio - the repertoire is a bit limited.....hence the pianist.

And that's where the problem lay. Martin Sturfaelt, a very competent pianist, is an extremely confident young man. A much better and much more charismatic pianist than the poor young man who played last Friday. Martin did some announcements in perfect English, and I am sure would make a wonderful TV presenter. Boy, could he talk. Could he talk?????

The programming was a bit odd; lots of single movements from this and that. Maybe a wise move given that the audience was full of people who don't usually come to concerts, but actually, the audience coped very well during the pieces with more than one movement. It was mostly romantic music, apart from Schnittke who had taken a bit of Mahler's a-minor piano trio and added a second movement, based on Mahler's sketches. The first movement of this was wonderful, very early Mahler; the second movement...I think the Mahler fragment was at the end; otherwise it was pure Schnittke. Which is fine for me.

Steenhammer's Allegro brillante for piano quartet, Faure's piano quartet in c-minor, and Schubert's string trio in B major (first movement) were also very pleasant pieces indeed. The Schubert was particularly nice, because it was the only piece where you could actually hear the string players, and suddenly they developed welly. In all other pieces they were dominated by the piano, you could see them moving, but they did not cut through. The viola in particular, which, as an instrument, was so dull in appearance you felt like slapping some varnish on it, was almost totally inaudible, as was the cello. Did the ladies lose courage when Martin played? It was such a shame. When they went off the stage with Martin at the end, it was like he was herding a gaggle of geese - but on their own they were perfectly confident. Men! Women!

There was another 'piece' - frankly, we could have done without it, the concert was quite long enough - which they called 'Ipod Shuffle' where they played a series of tiny pieces by, if I remember them all, Tchaikovsky, Messiaen, Atterberg, Di Lasso, Ravel, and one or two others, in random order. When they mentioned 3 minutes each, and the overall list of composers, those of us in the maths business worked out all by ourselves that this would take 18 - 21 minutes. Too long, and the pieces were obscure. It would have been more fun to either take something and do it in the styles of these composers, or to do a medley of well-known pieces. As it was, when Martin laboriously announced the solution after the interval, it seemed like a test at school. And this audience, I mean really, none of them would have heard of Atterberg...

Memo to their management: I am sure they are very nice and very talented young people (and we saw the trio's talent when it played alone); just don't have them playing together.


Monday, March 17, 2008

Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi

We'll have a religious theme this week, what with Easter approaching (can't do Pass-over or any of the others unfortunately....).

For those of you who don't speak Latin the title means 'Lamb of God, who carries the sins of the world' ['...miserere nobis' - '...have pity on us']. Quite right, too. Though I think that placing our sins on the back of a little lamb and expecting it to have pity on us as well is asking a bit much, no? Unfortunately my Latin is too rusty to say 'we have pity on you because we made you carry our sins' in Latin. (The Agnus Dei part of the Catholic liturgy and comes at the end, right after the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Benedictus, Sanctus sequence of a mass [or even Anglican service], as you would know if you have played in, sung in a classical music mass - the best pieces of music! I love masses of masses!).

What brought on this sudden attack of good old Catholic religion (which I actually quite like even though it's not mine)? A documentary on the inner workings of the Vatican, which also showed the Pope's farm. Apparently he had been given a 15-day-old lamb at Easter, and the farm worker had hand-reared it. It was a beautiful white fluffy lamb, and it ain't going to be eaten if the farm worker has anything to do with it. I could just imagine it with a bishop's staff in the crook of its little elbow....


New Music Director at Vilnius Opera and Ballet Theatre

(Bit of old news this, but no-one tells me anything). In February the talented Robertas Servenikas took on the position of music director of the Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre. The post had fallen vacant following the death of Jonas Aleksa a year or two ago (or even two and a half???). The opera house had looked all over the place for a new director - a Pole had been a strong candidate - but now we have found one on home turf. Could it be something to do with the salary that might be on offer, or, whisper it, with the quality of the orchestra?

Servenikas is a wonderful guy, vastly enthusiastic and a good sound pair of hands. He has been working in the opera house on and off since Aleksa died, and is increasingly extending his operatic repertoire. Should also be said that he is probably the most enterprising conductor Lithuania has in terms of contemporary music - if you have a new composition, he'll be the man to perform it for you.

Now his task is to rebuild the opera orchestra (I would suggest), and to move it from currently wobbly and depressed, via sound and reliable, to outstanding and inspiring. It won't be an easy or overnight task - and maybe there need to be personnel changes, but this should become his legacy at the opera house.

(Photo from LNOBT magazine 'Bravissimo')


Through a glass, darkly

Bit disappointed with Donna Leon's latest offering 'Through a glass, darkly'. Not only the rather unimaginative title, but it's also much of a muchness with the other books - though perhaps that's the nature of crime novels, where readers expect the same thing again and again?

It's set in the glass blowing industry in Murano, near Venice, and the text is sprinkled with Italian words relating to this - while you can guess many of them, it would be nice to have a glossary somewhere. There are many dark goings-on, also in nearby Marghera (where the pollution is said to be much worse than in Murano). Rumour is that Leon had written another novel first, dealing with pollution/corruption (in Marghera?) but had got rather carried away with anti-pollution/corruption rhetoric....

Otherwise it is the usual mix of lovingly described family meals (the children are increasingly becoming age-less, the Commissario's mother has now totally succumbed to Alzheimer's), debates with his boss - a vain buffoon who knows which side his bread is buttered on, and the extraordinary amount of time and freedom apparently available to Italian commissarios, who seem to be able to go to places and have coffees or glasses of wine quite as the fancy takes them.

Like many Donna Leon books you don't get the satisfaction of seeing the baddie being led to the cells, handcuffed - there's always a moment of frustration at the end of her books.....

Oh well. But on TV they are very nice. Now back to Alex Ross' 'The Rest is Noise' and let's see if I can crack that!


Sunday, March 16, 2008

Two concerts of one half (each)

Two concerts, starting two hours apart today. Could have made all of the first concert, but without a car, and with needing to be early in the second concert to get a good seat, I left after the first half.

It was the trio 'Fortvio' (piano trio, ....think about it). Consists of Indre Baikstyte (accompanist in the music academy, Ingrida Rupaite (leader of St Christopher's Orchestra), and Povilas Jacunskas (first cello desk of Lithuanian State Orchestra). I have been aware of Povilas since before he started studying at the music academy 7 years ago. Ingrida I heard recently play solos with her orchestra, but there she was a bit lacking in confidence - not the case today! Makes you wonder about interpersonal dynamics in the band....Ms Baikstyte did all the emoting she cannot do as an accompanist. They are all good musicians. In fact, looking at them today, I wondered what it is that happens to Lithuanian musicians once they turn forty and many seem to lose the will to live. Was speaking to someone today who said that the Opera House orchestra is really difficult to motivate - yes, we can hear it!

Our young trio, in existence formally since 2006, has already won some international prizes - the International S Vainuno Chamber Music Competition in Vilnius in 2006, and the third prize at the J Brahms International Chamber Ensemble Competition in Austria last year. Keep an eye on them!

I heard Haydn's G-major piano trio, and Shostakovich's second trip. Both were great. Gee, the energy and the communication the group has! The Haydn was a bit dull for the cello perhaps, but he did not let it show and played along perfectly with his fellow players. The Rondo al' Ongarese was so ....Ongarese ... with loud, dirty cello playing (only where required!) and everything. None of that (falsely) refined 'oh, the notes must all sound nice' playing. This was pure Bull's Blood and temperament.

The Shostakovich, which I recognized when I heard the second movement (and I am surprised I had not reviewed it before) has a funny start, which would be good for a listening exam - 'which instrument starts first'? The cello plays harmonics for what seems forever while then the violin enters with much lower notes. Like the Haydn last movement it has plenty of scope for rumbustious, temperamental playing - I loved the beginning of the last movement, which the violinist and cellist played like the approach of a couple in a tango (not in tango rhythm of course) who then dance violently with each other. I wish I could have heard the remainder of the concert.

But I had to rush to the Lutheran Church for the next concert of Musica Humana of Bach and 21st century Lithuanian music. When I saw the balance of the programme, I was a bit dismayed - one Bach, three modern pieces. But by then I had hailed one of the composers, so had to listen to his work - which was ok.

Like yesterday we were made to stand in memory of someone. I could not believe it yesterday, but now I've checked - it was in memory of Margarita Dvarionaite, a (woman) conductor of the Filharmonija for over 30 years. We had them here, first? Maybe it helped that Dad had been a quite well-known if not exceptional composer (and brother is violin professor, whose children are music teachers...another dynasty).

So although I was aghast that they put the 'Air on a G-string' on the music stands, under the circumstances one could hardly protest.

This was followed by Bach's concerto for oboe d'amore in A major. Oboe d'amore, in Lithuania? Methinks the delectable Robertas Beinaris, our best oboist, has a new toy! It must be the first d'amore anything in Lithuania. And a very fine, dark tone he produced, too. It was a bit lost because he was in the middle of the orchestra, and the pitch is not ideal for that, but hey, keep it coming, Robertas. Played as beautifully, and securely, and confidently as he only knows how.

Osvaldas Balakauskas' clarinet concerto, brand new, was the last piece I heard today. It's in two merged movements, with largely the same rather spiky rhythm for the orchestra throughout (or at least for the first fiddles, practically among whom I was sitting). The second movement read 'Andante' or 'Andantino' on the score, but it was hard to tell the difference. It seemed very virtuosic for the clarinet who was constantly playing. Again his sound was a bit lost among the orchestra, or maybe I was just too close to them - plus I was really paying attention to the first fiddles - who went astray at one stage despite counting very hard. It happens, I suppose. Now, don't ask me if it was atonal (no, almost certainly not) or serial music (also almost certainly not) .... It was quite pleasant, really, but very hard work for the clarinetist.


Saturday, March 15, 2008

New concert, new audience

Well, partially new - the Rimsky-Korsakoff Sheherazade we hear about once every two years at the Vilnius Filharmonija - the sheet music is so much used, it's well patched and very very fragile.

Tonight's concert by the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the talented Robertas Servenikas, began with Joaquin Turina's Fantastic Dances. To be honest, it was a bit of misprogramming in Vilnius, seeing as last night, at the other concert hall, we had heard effectively Ravel's Spanish Dances (ok Rhapsody), and at one stage I wondered, did they only ever have one dance in Spain? I am sure the same material was used for at least one of the dances. Turina (1882 to 1949), has a very short entry in Wikipedia, as is that in my dictionary of music....The piece was quite nice, if you like that sort of thing, but rather cliche-y and full of lush upper strings; sort of Hollywood meets sanitised Spain. Maybe I just had enough of Spain in two evenings running. Again, it did not feel all that Spanish, but it may have been the nature of the written music rather than the interpretation.

Nestor Marconi had come all the way from Argentina to play Piazzola's Bandoneon Concerto. This was a bit of inspired programming on behalf of the Filharmonija - it got people into the concert hall who you don't often see, especially young people. Great move, Ruta! In fact, the hall was packed - and they got a better deal for their money than last night. This was lovely; he communicated beautifully with the orchestra (which may have been a little leaden, not quite in the spirit of Piazzola), but he did his best to pull them along - if they had lifted their noses from the music from time to time it would have been grand; but it's not normal run-of-the-mill repertoire. It's a nice piece, and we could hear the bandoneon quite well - myself, I thought it was due to the amplification (seeing as one time he leaned over to one side and the thing suddenly started to roar), though my friends tell me that 'experts' said to them that the microphones were for the broadcast. The loudspeakers either side of the stage must have been just for decoration in that case.....

He added two encores, one seemed like a Piazzola medley - I recognized several of his themes, and then another piece, much loved by the audience. Got a standing ovation. I wondered about the breadth of the bandoneon repertoire - it must be even more limited than the viola repertoire....

Finally, every year again comes 'Sheherazade'. Many of the young people were still in the audience and may have got exposure to music they don't usually listen to; this is quite a good piece for that. The violin soloist played well, mostly, as did the cello leader. The lead clarinetist deserves much praise. I wonder if more risk could have been taken with tempi, elasticating them more (in all pieces this evening) - that would have made it more interesting. But much fun was had, much scraping was done and the audience was happy.


Friday, March 14, 2008

I swear I've seen those beats before

Bit of a concert of two halves tonight at the Lithuanian State Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Vladimir Ziva. I'm sure I've seen him in Moscow before - there was a conductor of similar build and colouring who always gave the beats to the band before they started....at the Tchaikovsky Conservatoire, with a Russian orchestra. But it was before my blogging days, and the ticket I may have kept would give no info, and programmes are hardly worth getting at the venue. No matter.

The first half had Ravel's 'Spanish Rhapsody'; a nice piece with well-known parts, but it did not quite have the Spanish swing, or whatever you call Spanishness in music. It just did not quite go, even though the orchestra played rather well - there was some nice trumpet playing (never guaranteed here). This was followed by Lukas Geniusas playing the Saint-Saens second piano concerto. Young Lukas, born 1990 in Moscow, is the offspring of Petras Geniusas, the best-loved pianist in Lithuania. Lukas' uncle is a conductor, as was his grandfather. It's another one of the Lithuanian dynasties, of which we have too many. Lukas lives in Moscow and gets his training there (the Russian granny might be a piano professor). Frankly, the performance did not set the heather alight. Even though the hall was packed to the rafters with friends of the family, not a single 'Bravo' was heard. The first movement was dull; after that he got going a bit, but he was too much huddling into the piano (says she, sitting at the far left of the hall) and he did not really let it rip. He played a well-known Chopin encore, with a bit more zing, but also with quite a few iffy chords. Not totally convinced. Also the way he sidled onto the stage, looking as if he was about to be beaten, I wondered if he was totally comfortable.... This reminds my of my Georgian colleague, who at 16 toured Lithuania playing a Grieg piano concerto, but then became a gynaecologist, and now is second-in-charge of a powerful NGO. Young people still have options open to them.

The second half - wow, what a half! It was Mozart's 40th symphony. I have always had doubts about this band and Mozart, but boy, did they play well this time. Even though it was the big band with 12 first fiddles and so on. With a hint of HIP performance, a delicacy I have never heard before, pianissimos which were like a feather on a pillow of air, coordination in the first fiddles never seen before - it was wonderful. There were some such Mozartian moments! They played all repeats (frankly, was that necessary? The second movement goes on and on and on, with much of a muchness). They belted into the third movement, only to reign back hard for the trio start, before again.... 'and they're off' - race you to the end.

Mr Ziva had a funny little habit of turning round in the final beat of the piece, presenting the music to the audience. The first time, at the end of the Ravel, we were rather startled to see him grinning at us! At the end of the concert, they did a little encore of the last movement of the Mozart, slowed down dramatically, he turned around, and handed it over to the audience like a bouquet of flowers. What a charming gesture! The audience went wild - this was a well-deserved standing ovation.

When's he coming back?


Pianos for the People!

This little story describes how 15 pianos, unguarded, have appeared across Birmingham (England), and anyone can (and does) play them. It's an action of the artist Luke Jerram by the name of 'Play me, I'm yours'.

What a wonderful idea!

Though perhaps not under my window, please....


Thursday, March 13, 2008

'Und neigte das Haupt und verschied'

'and bowed his head and died' - Jesus in Bach's St John's Passion.

But he didn't. He frigging didn't! I'd heard that this was a very slow production at the Vilnius Opera and Ballet Theatre, but I was not bothered. I love this piece, bought the score and came back specially for this performance and the St Matt's Passion next week in the Filharmonija.

The score was a mishtake - the opera house was pitch dark. I had bought the last ticket available, in January (!) and was in the 15th row. Almost no point of going at all. Couldn't recognise anyone on the stage. Which may be as well in some cases.

I began to worry when the orchestra started noodling around the opening introduction; noodle, noodle, noodle and not a clear note among it. It then turned out to be an extremely stylised production by the American Robert Wilson (if he were Scottish, there would be about 500 of them in an area the size of a thimble). Fast movement? Forget it? Movement (I'm talking human movement, not part of a piece of music)? It was robotic, they moved, and then froze for a good long while - often in poses akin to Indian temple dancers. The costumes were sort of clerical, single colour head to foot; the choir members' heads were painted the same colour as their clothes. Beams moved along the back of the stage - every time you looked, they were in a different place, but you hardly ever saw them move. Now, I love the piece, but I could not see the band, there was no action on the stage, and I could not read my score. Not my idea of a Bach passion. Not interesting. I did not feel any passion.

The opera house orchestra is not made for Bach either. The obbligatos were really quite rough. The singers...so I cannot tell you who sang what, because I was too far away. Especially since my score has 5 main soloist parts, and the website lists 10 singing soloists, plus two choir members stepped forward during the applause. One of the singers had a voice problem, and the German Dominik Koninger sang for him from the edge of the stage (the part of the servant, I think). Not bad. The male alto had intonation issues, I thought - his first aria seemed way off-beam. Johannes von Duisburg, a regular attender in Vilnius, probably Jesus, did well.

At least the diction was better and I could understand most words. People seemed to like it, though I am not sure whether the standing ovation was due to achievement or due to the need to rush to the loo urgently - there had been no break and people suffered.


French word for today...

'youtuber', as found here....


Monday, March 10, 2008


Found 'The History Boys' on my return home (must have travelled for only two months from Ayr to Vilnius. Thanks, Pat!).

Wow, it's so wonderful - and so a different world now. Those teachers (hmmm, well) would you get them like this now, in times of targets (and, er, not touching the boys)? That nice school, with its little minibus, those neat school uniforms, those interesting lessons? No mobile phones, hardly any traffic on the streets? Seeing those old actors again, Frances de la Tour (what was her name again in Rising Damp?), Richard Griffiths, Penelope Wilton, that Clive whatisname who always seemed to play headmasters, some more evil than others.....

I see the story is by Alan Bennett - that explains it all! (Including the camp teachers?)

Right nostalgic it made me! Sometimes I really miss that place (and those years.....)


Sunday, March 09, 2008

What am I atoning for?

was what I was asking myself while sitting through the interminable film 'Atonement'. Jeeez!

It was my own fault for not checking it out better. I think I may have read the book(yes, in fact it's sitting there on my bookshelf, looking distinctly read) but obviously I blocked out stuff. Particularly the war stuff. I hate British and American war films; the British ones are all plucky Cockney subalterns caring for those above (or apparently above) their station, and having more common sense than their officers will ever have. If they are not that, it's the guys in the tavern/bistrot/Kneipe singing along to a chap with a banjo. (Music as social glue and all that). Large chunk of war scenes in this film. Not convinced that our chaps would include a rather large black guy - black yes, rather large, not sure. Also our hero walks along and then stands in front of a cinema screen while a film is running, and neither does he throw a shadow, nor does anyone shout at him for standing in the way? Not convinced, not one bit.

So the film (and book) is awf'lly English. Large country house, dippy and rather romantic young daughter of the family, who understands nothing, including how to walk gracefully (had she been watching too much Joyce Grenfell?), sees something, adds two and two together with her imagination and makes seven, and her sister's boyfriend ends up in prison before you can say 'Bob's yer uncle'. Eventually, she starts feeling guilty, by which time it's far too late.

McEwan, the writer, does lovely descriptions - but this does not translate well to film; it's far too langurous, and wallows in sentiment, cliche and self-pity. Like I did by the time it finally came to an end (self-pity that is). James McAvoy was wonderful, though. I see he's a Glasgow lad - I thought I had heard a wee Scottish burr....


What happened to live reviews....

no worries, I'm back in Vilnius, with an action-packed programme. Reviews will start pouring in again shortly......


Friday, March 07, 2008

View from my Window - or Other Colours

Orhan Pamuk's latest offering, the View from my Window (in German) or 'Other Colors' (in American English), sounded like a good book to take on my most recent trip to Istanbul. I expected another book exploring the highways and byways, little corners, tiny streets and unusual courtyards of Istanbul, a book which would lead me into further, so far unexplored corners of the city.

In fact the book is a collection of essays, and a story (though it does not seem to be a fiction story). The essays cover a vast variety of topics; moments from his childhood (which he seems to revel in - he always talks about it), thoughts about other authors, the experience of being in Germany with the expatriate Turkish community where everyone holds a different concept of Turkishness, a fond farewell essay addressed to his father, something that looks like a speech (and what a long one) he made when receiving the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade; in another essay he pokes gentle fun at people who exhibit their books to impress their visitors; he contemplates earthquakes and gives a description of the Istanbullus' reaction to the 1999 earthquake which killed about 30,000 people, and finally adds a story from his childhood of one of the occasions when his father left.

As always, the essays are absolutely beautifully crafted, and because one does not expect anything to happen, or to develop, the long and very involved descriptions do not get in the way of action, as they do in some of his novels. Going by some of his other stories I was rather surprised to find that he has a wife and a daughter; his writing is so contemplative and slightly melancholic that I expected him not to have space in his life for people, apart from the city of Istanbul which he loves. An essay on the earthquake and the high risk of earthquakes in Istanbul (I would not buy a house there) finishes answering the question - why don't we leave? 'Because I cannot imagine a life in any place other than Istanbul'. This makes it doubly sad that after Hrant Dink's murder he left Istanbul to live in the US.

It's a lovely book, one which one could pick up, read an essay or a few lines, and put down again. It's been put together from essays published in a variety of media, and I wonder a little bit if this was an emergency reaction to having to live in expensive New York - but my bookshelf is richer for this little volume. He is growing on me more and more....I still have a number of unfinished books on my 'to be read' shelf....


Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Whiter than the Driven Snow

is Margaret Hodge's impression of the Proms, according to the Guardian. She's the English culture minister, and complains that the Proms do not reflect the multiculturalism of English society. Nor does the Royal Family, for that matter.

Is it that the audience is too white, or the programming? Is she looking for a quota system to represent the different groups in British society? She could start with women composers, black, Muslim and Asian composers...(I'll not even whisper that my Open University music course last year focused vastly on central European composers, particularly German and Austrian, because as I keep saying - British composers, Were Not, Are Not, and May Never Be All That Good). Sounds like she would like to the Proms to offer a concert spot to my black Scottish son, who plays Scottish and Arabic music on his violin, in a band containing, amongst others, a Palestinian percussionist and an Iraqi composer......(the security system would go crazy!)

Maybe classical music is not offered in schools with many ethnic minority children (NB - are Jewish people not considered an ethnic minority?)? Seeing as in Scotland we are trying to repeat the Venezuelan experience, it could be tried in some corner of London, too.

Or, whisper it (again!) - do non-white people not feel welcome in the Royal Albert Hall?


What a difference a letter or two make

The German newspaper 'Die Zeit' has an article on an Austrian lady who was a guard in one or two concentration camps, and who may have contributed to quite a number of deaths, beatings and so on. She had been interviewed twice by Austrian and German police after the war, but got off scot-free. Recently, however, she was within inches of being taken to court. She died before this happened.

Her name is Erna Wallisch.

Which reminds me of Ernst Wallfisch, the fabulous viola player.

And of the delightful Raphael Wallfisch, the cellist, his mother who played the cello in Auschwitz, for her life, and the rest of that talented family. (Not sure if they are related to Ernst).

Isn't it creepy what difference a little letter or two can make to a name? Like put you on different sides in the camps?

Incidentally, I see that Raphael is playing in the Berlin Konzerthaus on 8 May, to celebrate the end of WWII on that day 63 years ago, and also the founding of the state of Israel 60 years ago. Not sure that I would want to push the latter quite so much, given the more recent history. For that I would be very happy to chuck eggs at Mr Wallfisch, even in Germany. (Nothing more than eggs, mind, and making sure they'd miss the cello). They will be playing Schelomo by Bloch, something by Pavel Haas (who perished in Auschwitz) and some other pieces, all Jewish music. It would have been nice to add Kol Nidre to that - would he play it like Misha Maisky in that memorable Vilnius concert in 2004?


Matsuev - reliability?

The Russian pianist Denis Matsuev is due to play at the Vilnius Filharmonija this weekend. I'm cheesed off, because Saturday night (my first Saturday home) is orchestra night, but this time we just get a pianist. At an outrageous ticket price. I'm not going - just going to curl up in front of the telly instead (although there is my friend Pavelas Giunteris' concert in honour of International Women's Day, but it starts earlier and I won't be able to make that. I'll live).

I wonder, though, if Mr Matsuev has a small reliability, or miscommunication problem? He would not be the first pianist who withdraws from concerts for one reason or another. A few years ago he withdrew from a concert in Vilnius, needing someone else to stand in (or rather sit in) for him. This weekend he was also supposed to give an additional concert for the Filharmonija Club (again at an outrageous ticket price), and it has been cancelled. Could be, of course, that club members do not care for twice paying high ticket prices for hearing the same guy two days in a row.

Yes, that'll be it....


Sunday, March 02, 2008

Freud and Nietzsche and Breuer, too

In Istanbul came across the book 'When Nietzsche wept' by the American psycho-whatsit (analyst/therapist) Irving Yalom. I had read another of his books recently and found it very readable, though normally anything with a flavour of 'costume drama' puts me off right away.

All protagonists in the book (Josef Breuer, Freud, Nietzsche and some people in his environment) are real people. It's just that Breuer never met Nietzsche, although this is the topic of this novel. (Breuer worked together with Freud for a while, as his mentor, though Breuer's own once-only attempt at healing the soul burnt his fingers just a bit).

(Come on, I mean...Breuer was treating Bertha Pappenheim, who later became a famous social worker, and presented her case as that of Anna O - this is fact. According to the book he became infatuated with her. It's necessary to know that BP suffered from hysteria (much diagnosed in those days) which had myriad symptoms, including inability to walk, to speak German etc. She got lots of spasms, in her legs, like, which would improve if the doctor massaged the inside of her thighs, during which she would moan in pain. In pain? Just how naive was this doctor? According to the story Breuer was not the only doctor who fell for her. Whenever, on a walk, the doctors had massaged her thigh, they would then continue hobbling themselves - with an erection...).

Yalom is pushing credibility to the limits by suggesting that Breuer agreed to treat Nietzsche without Nietzsche being informed that he was being treated. Ethically this is severely unsound and nowadays would constitute assault. But in those days.....So once Nietzsche is wheedled into the consulting room, and he still does not agree to be treated (because he is incapable of accepting help) Breuer has to pretend that it is he himself who needs help with his obsession with BP, and in the process becomes more and more distraught. Until the book comes to a rather abrupt end.

In passing the book introduces us to Nietzsche's philosophy (I had a look at some of Nietzsche's books today, but like all German philosophers, they are fairly unreadable). If I understand it right it involves only rationality - he is against god, feelings and sex (all of which he describes as baser motivations that need to be overcome); he suggests that people need to be hardened to be able to deal with life - if they are only hard enough they can deal with anything (yes, but....), and he says that everything is down to selfish motives, including the wish to help people (because it makes the helper feel good or assuages his guilty conscience). He is also insufferably independent, and almost totally unable to accept help or love (though he does ask for help in a moment of delirium). I know people like this .... and I wonder if this hardness and rationality stuff somehow influenced Nazi thinking (was Hitler capable of reading Nietzsche??) - in which case it would have affected a whole generation of Germans.

It's a fascinating story, which must have taken a huge amount of research to complete (then again, the story of Anna O as the first attempt at psychoanalysis is well-documented), and it also describes very well the rather tight world of Vienna around 1882, which other authors also refer to - it's not for nothing that a Sigmund Freud could erupt there.

The book is very readable, and compared to 'The Bastard of Istanbul', as a small, tightly printed paperweight, very good value for money. Yes, ok, I read it in 24 hours - but I had time....


Saturday, March 01, 2008

A funny book about Turks and Armenians

Two of my stereotypes were destroyed in the last couple of days - Turks can write funny books (my main knowledge is Orhan Pamuk, though he grows on me more and more), and they can write sympathetic and funny books at the same time about the Armenian question.

Just as well though, that Elif Shafak's book 'The Bastard of Istanbul' is a fast read; as I was flying to Istanbul I began to realise that it might not be the best book to read in public here. I guess the suggestive photo of the pomegranate on the front of the German version should have given me a clue.....Ms Shafak herself grew up in Spain and only returned to Turkey when she was 20, but by now she will be well steeped in all the controversy, what with having had to face a court case on this book.

The book ultimately connects two nineteen-year-old girls, both from large families. One grew up partly in a large Armenian family in the US (though her mother divorced her Armenian father early on and married a Turk out of spite), and the other, totally fatherless (she only finds out about him aged 19 - I know how it feels, though in her case the situation is terrible) grows up in a family of women in Turkey, where the men have always had a habit of dying early. Then the semi-Armenian girl decides she needs to find her identity and can only do that by going to Turkey, secretly, though with the help of the Turkish stepfather (who is an escapee from that all-female household). And so it goes on.

The book covers a huge number of topics - not just the Armenian/Turkish issue, but also the situation of illegitimate children, there's a rape-scene, the story of the Armenian tragedy is movingly told and well-reacted to by the Turkish listeners to the tales (though the characters in the book don't see themselves as having a feeling of guilt, unlike, say, my generation of Germans who still feel guilty for something their parents did).

What's so funny about it, then? It's the characterizations of people - less of the Armenians, but in particular of the Turkish end, where each of the women in that house full of women has her own idiosyncracies, and where a group of characters meeting in a cafe are all failures in their own way, like the 'Secretely Gay Columnist', or the 'Particularly Untalented Poet', spelt in a way that I have not seen since reading my friend Pat's book involving a dancer who was 'Not A Nijinksy'.

At the same time the book has some challenging moments, what with the two 19-year-olds both being intellectual heavyweights in their own ways, one as a nihilist (an existential one?) and the other a serious bookworm, and we get quotes from Jean Jacques Rousseau and others.

My main criticism is weight for value for reading time. I bought the hardback version, which is a huge and heavy book. But the print is well spaced out, and so I read the 450 pages in no time at all, including about 70 pages on the tram from the airport into the town. Try doing that with an Orhan Pamuk book (though I've read 100 pages of one of those by 2 pm this afternoon.....). I'm worried about a serious reading material crisis.....

Otherwise it's a brilliant book!


Live music - at last.... schleppend

Two concerts in one day in the Kemal Atatuerk Cultural complex in Taksim, Istanbul.

This morning, an offering of Beethoven by the Istanbul Municipal Orchestra, a pianist who shall rename nameless, and a conductor called Jurjen Hempel (Juergen Hempel). Oh dear. Oh dear oh dear.

The moment the pianist stepped on the stage, my heart sank. It was the schleppender way she went over to the piano. Beethoven 4 is a hard one what with the pianist having to start all alone. But it gives her to set the tempo. Right. Schleppend. The orchestra started more or less together. The fiddles were playing sotto voce whether the pianist was playing or not. The winds were sometimes inaudible (there are some fine wind lines), and occasionally rough (the horns). Emoting there was none - most of the emoting took place on my eyebrows along the lines of 'what happened there'? It was a far from inspired performance.

However, the hall was full, and she seemed to have her claque; so we got two encores. The first was something romantic, I thought, until - wait a moment - isn't that Bach? Sounds like a bit of a Bach partita or something, like a gigue/bourree/gigue kind of arrangement (I'm not so good on the piano partitas). But every single chord was arpeggiated (do you call it that, when the notes are played like on a harp -teedleleedlelee, rather than on a piano - bang). Dreadful. Off she went, and then launched into a Hungarian Dance. I am sure Jessica's book of the same name will be light years above the quality of this little effort. Not sure whose Hungarian dance it was, a Brahms transcribed by Liszt, and in this case transcribed by someone else for people like me who cannot play all the notes? I could not believe this would be played in a public concert, like this. Notes fell out all over the place; if she played 85% of the notes she did well. She did give it energy, though.

The second half of this concert was a symphony. Without a programme I was confused; I thought it was going to be all Beethoven, but this was so classical - could it be Haydn? Turned out to be Beethoven 1; practice makes perfect, eh, Mr Beethoven. The orchestra and conductor finally got themselves together well in the final movement. In other movements it sometimes seemed as if the first fiddle leader was the only fiddler who was playing - you could hear him very clearly.

In the afternoon, the opera orchestra and chorus put on a concert performance of Carmina Burana, in the same venue. What a difference! It was a huge band (to be fair, Beethoven does not always need a huge band), huge choir (with one or two unfortunate soprano warblers), big percussion section (necessarily), led by a conductor, seemingly an ageing rocker, whose hair had slipped down to around his neck, through from that he had produced an impressive curly ponytail. This orchestra played so well - the concert master (mistress) lead her heart out, the brass section was the best I have heard for a long time, and the others did well, too. Orff does ask something of his soloists, though, no? Particularly in terms of range of voice - one of the guys, who had only one solo, was fairly seriously challenged by the highness of his part. But overall it was a vastly better performance than this morning's effort.

In passing I wondered what else Orff had written? I know his operas 'Die Kluge' and 'Der Mond', both of which are on my Ipod, and of course the 'Schulwerk', an educational system involving many xylophones etc - I was involved in that as a child. From Alex Ross' book 'The rest is noise' I seem to remember that he was not a total Nazi as I had always assumed seeing he stayed in Germany during the war. But symphonies, string quartets - did he write any?