Saturday, August 30, 2008

Dull and boring - or safe?

As I write, 3sat, the Swiss-Austrian-German channel is broadcasting Mozart's 'Die Entführung aus dem Serail', from the Zürich Opera House, in a production by Jonathan Miller. I was looking forward to a slightly different, funny and interesting production. But in fact it's extremely standard and staid. And not even conducted by Harnoncourt who often conducts there, but by Christoph Kõnig.

The set, a palace garden surrounded by 3 high walls (which might have been the set of his 1980s 'Magic Flute' in Glasgow minus the books), with a palm tree in the middle, does not make sense. Why should a palace entrance, with a rather minor door, be set back between two walls? Or is it the tradesman's entrance? The costumes are pure 18th century - so it's as traditional as you can get. Klaus Maria Brandauer, an actor who plays Bassa Selim, rather shows up the non-native German-speaking singers with his natural speech. He has a rather high voice for 'authority' characters who in Mozart tend to have a low voice (eg Sarastro in the 'Magic Flute', or Don Pedro in 'Don Giovanni'). Alfred Muff as Osmin is rather restrained, and not the rather evil but also partly funny character that I would have expected (another parallel to the 'Magic Flute' 'singspiel' - Monostatos; both are made drunk, the first with alcohol, the second with music; perhaps showing, in a rather racist way, how 'simple [foreign] people can be easily manipulated).

On the other hand, this opera could easily be seen, and treated, as an East-West (euphemism alert!) opera, eg setting it the 21st century, for example in Afghanistan or Iran. That might have been interesting - but would any opera house have touched it, these days? Think only of Osmin's aria (freely translated) '[they will be] beheaded, then hung, then stuck on hot spears etc' (how can someone be beheaded and then hung??). And that might be dangerous, and start up a lot of trouble. Maybe that's what they were trying to achieve in this production - but it's dull! I'm off to bed!


Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Summer reading

Have had lots of time to read, in different languages. Including
  • Ismael Beah's 'A long way gone' (in Spanish). A harrowing tale of a child soldier in the wars of Sierra Leone, including moments of almost unbelievable cruelty, escapes, wars catching up on him, an event at the United Nations in New York while he was still a school boy (in the middle of winter when he had never seen snow) and final escape to the next country, Guinea. The book appears to have been discredited a little, but is still a very useful source document for anyone who has to do with the resettlement of traumatised children.
  • Haruki Murakami's 'Kafka on the Shore', his best yet, as far as I am concerned. It's unputdownable! It's about a boy who runs away from school, an old man who was involved in a strange accident at the end of the war and who can talk to cats, the boy's friend who turns out to be a female-to-male transsexual (or perhaps intersexual, in this case), various other people connected in mysterious ways, and some, quite frankly, spooks. There's a murder and some strange tale about disappearing cats, the story travels from Tokyo to some far flung island - and to the end you don't know what has happened or what is going to happen. Brilliant, and a good, long read. I hear Murakami is due to have another book out soon. Can't wait!
  • Donna Leon's 'Death and Judgment' (in Spanish); one of her usual books which I had not read before. Very nice with the descriptions of Venetian footpaths, bridges and so on. To some degree her books are much of a muchness, what with corruption and socially important people always playing a role. But nice to read, especially with her sense of irony.
  • Lilly Brett's 'Too many men', the predecessor of her book 'You gotta have balls'. Story of a neurotic woman and her Auschwitz-surviving father returning to his roots in Poland. It's nice, and interesting, but frankly, I thought that the balls book is better. 'Too many men' is divided up by (imaginary) conversations with Hoess, the head of Auschwitz (probably portrayed in 'Schindler's List'), which, while adding information for those readers who don't know much about it, breaks up the story. After a while one becomes inclined to flick over these conversations. But still quite funny and also a good read.
  • Colum McCann's 'Zoli' has been lying on my desk for some months, waiting for a comment. It's about a Roma woman who in the 1950s, as the then Czechoslovakia becomes communist, gets involved in politics and becomes political flavour of the month, before the regime changes, and she is effectively excommunicated from her community for fraternising with the enemy. So she has to leave the country. It's a bit weird - there's some English guy in it who after a while fades out; the story jumps backwards and forewards and every time it does so it takes some time to sus out where it's at. Not all that riveting.


A la Piaf

Monday night, a chilly and wet night, with the final concert of the St Christopher Festival programmed for the courtyard of the Teacher's Palace. Having just got back to an empty cupboard from Germany I'd had a cold beetroot soup and a beer outside some cafe and was thoroughly chilled. Rushed home, threw on lots of warmer clothes - and then found the concert was in St Catherine's church. Since it was the closing concert of the festival (of 62 concerts, including an organ, a guitar, a piano and a harp mini-festival!) everyone who was anyone was in the audience.

It was an evening of 13 (13??) Piaf chansons. This is a show that has been running at the National Drama Theatre for a number of years, and this time translated into the church (or the courtyard, as should have been). It was fun - the singer, Evelina Sasenko had a nice voice, the band played well, and the two dancers, Jurgita Liaugaudeite and Deividas Meskauskas, were wonderful.

And yet, and yet. It lacked a certain 'je ne sais quoi'. Je sais très bien que se manquait. It was just a bit stiff - the songs were sung straight down the page, with limited added personality or risk-taking; Sasenko's dancing was also a bit stiff, and her accent could really have done with that very sexy French 'r'. Her rather dishy producer, though, was brilliant, when he sang at the end.

Then again, it was a lovely way to end the concert season. Welldone, St Christopher! One request - next year, could we have a wind festival, too? Brass? We hardly ever hear any here....


Friday, August 22, 2008

Questions of stability?

Weird audience at last night's concert of Mindaugas Backus (cello), Toni Salar-Verdu (clarinet), and Alexander Pouliaev (piano), who played a programme of late 18th/early 19th century music at St Catherine's church. Apart from being slightly sparse in number (about 75% attendance, as the Spanish papers might say), they applauded almost all the time (and being worn out, not enough at the end - I mean, you just don't let a bunch of performers go after only two bows!), did not stop talking before the second piece, and most extraordinarily of all - one guy wandered onto the stage to look at the Hammerclavier just as the pianist came out to do his stuff. The guy did not stop, and suddenly realised what he had done - meanwhile the audience had not noticed that the performer came on stage, and did not join in my applause (much). But I suppose it was nice that they came to a concert and that they enjoyed it, and maybe they'll be back.

It was probably the first time I had heard a hammerclavier in Vilnius. It looked like a harpsichord (and had no sustaining pedals), but sounded more like a piano - sort of half-way in between the two. The clarinet was an early model with open holes (like a recorder) and only about two bits of the metalwork that modern clarinets are covered in. And the cello, while described as a historic instrument, had no spike (and perhaps gut strings?) - I would have expected a shorter fingerboard; then again, maybe that only applies to the early models of upper strings - the Haydn cello concertos already go up quite high on the instrument. I was contemplating the playing position of a cello held between the knees - suddenly a cello, which might have served as a third leg, what with the spike, is becoming much more part of the player's body, what with the player cradling it between his legs. It must seriously change the stability of the player who no longer can lean on the instrument, where the instrument can slip (though those with a spike do too, from time to time), and where the pressure on the legs must be considerable. Did not some cellist retire hurt because of the damage to his knees from a career of historical instrument cello playing?
(The other question of stability related to the hammerclavier, of which only three of its 5 legs were supported by blocks, with the other two hanging in the air. Seemed to work, though).

The trouble with historical instruments, they say, is their limited dynamic range (apart from the squeaks and whistles you get in early brass instruments). I remembered this during the first piece, a very delightful classical trio by Adalbert Gyrowetz who I had never heard of. At times I found it difficult to hear the cello - even though I was sitting in the second row. The first movement of this piece is rather long, compared to the other movements - but it was very pleasant. Was it the opening of the third movement (three chords) which reminded me of something by Mozart? Gyrowetz was born seven years after Mozart, which explains the very classical style for someone who died 83 years later in 1850. The performance was nice, and well coordinated.

Following this Alexander Puliaev climbed on the stage for Beethoven's 32 variations on an original theme, once the audience had settled down. In my mind I had mixed up the variations pieces of the evening - I was thinking of 7 variations, so assumed the piece would pass in a minute or so. But it did not, and went very well - also showed that the hammerclavier, as opposed to the harpsichord, does have some dynamic potential.

Then there was some misunderstanding. I and some other members of the audience thought that it was the interval, so went out for a smoke. Some others did, too - but on the whole I was surprised at how few people came out. Discovered then Mindaugas Backus and Puliaev in the middle of Beethoven's 7 variations on 'Bei Maennern welche Liebe fuehlen'. And discovered I could hear the cello very well even at the back of the church, with the glass doors in between.

Toni Salar-Verdu and Puliaev's performance of Weber's concert duo for clarinet and piano, op 48 was good - it was clear that his original instrument, too, has a nice dynamic range, and he phrased the piece beautifully. Once a beautiful phrase in the first movement was broken up, but later, when it was repeated, it was played like it should have been played. Loads of engagement and fun.

Finally Beethoven's trio op 11 No 4 (I'm learning here to be more precise in my descriptions of pieces - Budrys, Geniusas and Geringas also played a Beethoven trio last month, but I cannot remember which one - if he wrote more than one for this group of instruments). This was a wonderful performance! Particularly Bachkus, in his opening of the second movement, played sublimely - and Salar-Vardu almost picked this up. I was wondering why Bachkus does not have a more international career.....Here it all came together beautifully! (But the audience, having tired themselves out applauding between movements, lacked the energy to ask for an encore - it would have been really nice to have one).

I was a bit annoyed that the BGG trio performance was attended by everyone who is anyone in the music world (they are such snobs, they just wanted to rub shoulders with Geringas), but this performance on original instruments - a very rare thing in Vilnius - was not.

The other thing that really irritates me with the St Christopher Festival is how hit and miss their concerts are in terms of programming. Tonight's concert is cancelled due to injury (fair enough, not that I would have gone to hear a solo plinky-plonky harp anyway), last night's concert had a programme change (which was right - the concert would have been too long), another concert I went to had a serious programming change, the website does not always give the programmes. That's not nice.


Sunday, August 17, 2008

Caracoles - or ¡Oh, Barcelona!

Barcelona is a wonderful city - and better visited when it's not so hot and when half the shops are not shut because of holidays! The architecture, not just that of Gaudi, is stunning, and the people are lovely.

In particular:
  • It has a division into the old town, and 'new town' much like Vilnius. In the old town the buildings of five floors or so are so close together that I am sure that many flats will never get any sunlight. Two people holding hands could touch the walls on either side of the street. The new town has many broad avenues and rather irritating diamond-shaped street crossings which give pedestrians slight detours at every crossing. Never mind.
  • The railways are great! The little Ferrocarril de Catalunya ran always on time and had climatised carriages - a boon when I was melting everywhere else, including my flat. On my last day, taking three short trains to the airport, I was wondering about the kind of people who leave things on trains. How can they do that, I asked myself. Only to find, having left the second train, that I had left my backpack with my computer on it....rushed to the customer service area, asked about it thinking I would never find it again....They phoned the end station, I decided to go there (thankfully I had enough time!), and retrieved my backpack. Brilliant or what?
  • My Spanish, after studying it since November, is now good enough to read newspapers and books - useful, given the Georgia situation. Sadly most books are translated from other languages - there seem to be relatively few Spanish authors. So I read a Donna Leon, a book about a child soldier, and have a book by Bernard Atxaga (a Basque author) translated from Basque. I'm not really into classics like the inevitable Don Quixote.
  • There was some problem with my language course - we had only two students, and the other student, a German, had just finished school and did not even speak English - so had no experience in speaking other languages. The school, to their credit, divided us and gave us individual lessons, but only for half the time I had booked for (but probably still at a loss to them). So my son found a private teacher through the internet and I went off to see her in the afternoon - the combination of both made a huge difference to my speaking of Spanish!
  • Spanish has a lot of 'false friends' - words which sound the same as in another language, eg French, English or Italian, but mean something completely different. My strategy often was to use French words, turn them into something approaching Spanish - and often I landed in Catalan! (That's not so difficult - I read 'Time Out' in Catalan; once you know that 'amb' = 'y' = 'and' you are already a long way ahead). Catalan must be closer to French.
  • With menus, I liked to get them in Spanish and order things - often experimentally. So there were the caracoles, which, since they involved the word 'col' (cabbage), I thought were something vegetarian. They were (or had been) - they were snails! And little ones at that! Nice to eat, but lots of hard work. Another time I ordered the chef's recommendation, only to be faced by a structureless, white, fishy thing - I think it may have been squid.....
  • Tapas are expensive - smallish portions at 4 Euros plus each. As is ice cream in the centre - one ball for 3 Euros?
  • The Spanish, as I learnt in the language course, and by observation, tend to eat at around 9 to 10 in the evening. Obviously I did not want to be seen as 'the tourist', and strangely, it was very easy to fall into this pattern. When I told my language teacher that people in Lithuania dine at around 6 - 7 pm (I mean, what do I know, really?), she was shocked and asked ' what do they do after that?' Not sure how it works with work, though. Many businesses close for a few hours in the afternoon - do people commute home and return to work? That might be easier if they did not have to commute. Concerts, incidentally, start at around 10 pm.
  • One day spotted a man walking along the road totally naked. People did not seem to bother. He had a nice body (and was circumcised). I wish I had a body like his! But I would never get as good a tan....
  • The tourists seemed to be concentrated into places like La Rambla (famous for having 1 pickpocket for every five tourists, though I did not see anyone who looked like one), the Sagrada Familia (the unfinished church by Gaudi, with long queues - I'll wait till it is finished), and the Parc Güell which is full of Gaudi architecture and not bad musicians. I avoided them - the places and the tourists.
  • Went to see a couple of films, one of which may have been among the worst films ever - 'Hedwig and the angry inch' (sharing my late grandmother's name) is about a transsexual (male-to-female) who becomes a band musician. Described as a musical the music is atrocious! The dialogues contain some of the usual mtf jokes, but the film is one that better remains buried. It was shown as part of a huge gay/lesbian festival in Barcelona. I could not go to the festival (it might have been interesting) because the events were divided into men's and women's events, and at the moment that's a slightly difficult topic for me. The other film was 'Prometeme' ('Promise me'?), by Kusturica of ('Black cat, white cat') fame. Totally manic, and crazy, well over the top even for Kusturica, but probably has more than a grain of truth about life in Serbia.
  • Immigrants (of the visible variety) in Barcelona, at least, seemed to come mostly from South America. There were also some Africans, many of which I suspect could be described as 'sin papeles' (without papers) who were selling things in the street, like fake handbags and pirate videos (including 'Mamma Mia' which had only come out in Spain last week or so).
  • On my last day the week-long Festa de Gracia started. A community festival in the neighbourhood of Gracia (a bit like Prenzlauer Berg in Berlin) where streets take it on themselves to put up a massive themed display (see pictures) - eg this year had aztec streets, snowy streets, Hawaiian streets - with most of the decorations made of recycled materials. I can't begin to imagine how much hard work it is to cut up plastic bottles into flowers or leaves, and what the risk of injury is in doing this! In one street some 50 or 60 pensioners, including a man, were busy doing very detailed lacework while the crowd was watching, awestruck. On another plaza a dancing lesson took place, further plazas had displays of dancing - and there was much drumming and many fireworks! Huge crowds poured through Gracia on the day, and it was impossible to find somewhere to eat. (Note that the event opened with a poster saying something like 'Tourists go home. This is not Lloret' - sounds familiar to my readers in Berlin?).
It was a great fortnight!


Wednesday, August 06, 2008


Had found a class in flamenco clapping here. It was wonderful!

Situated in a tiny arts centre in some obscure corner in Barcelona, it meant that I had to ask my way around to find it, what with my own written directions un-understandable. So lots of conversations with little old ladies, who knew very little about their own neighbourhood. It´s a bit frustrating that people understand my Spanish better than my Lithuanian (the latter after 7 years, Spanish after less than a year).

So there we were, sitting in a circle of 9 women and one man, and everything in Spanish - but music speaks for itself, no? It seems that it does not come naturally to all Spaniards either. My clapping, after decades of practicing in concert halls, was by far the loudest and clearest! It was ok to clap - but when the feet got involved, it became complicated - and then the delightful Marta, who ran the class, started clapping off beat!

I am sure we learnt only the most basic of rhythms, but it´s a start - maybe I can get a book on it. If you are in Barcelona, and you speak Spanish and want to learn flamenco anything - check out this website!


Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Does not take me long....

...to find a concert anywhere I go! Bought ´Time Out´Barcelona last night (which is not in Spanish, but Catalan; I hope you are impressed) and found a little concert in La Pedrera. Seems to be a building designed by Gaudi, so its all swirls and no corners, I would hate to have had to plaster the ceiling in the concert room!

It was 6 Euros for 30 minutes; except that my student card, worth its weight in gold in Spain, made it cost 4 Euros and the concert only lasted about 25 minutes. The conert is part of a series of 30 minute concerts in this location, described as ´social work´(obra social) by the Caixa Catalunya, a local bank.

It was quite a young trio, consisting of Ariadna Padro (violin), Laia Besalduch (viola!), and Anna Costa, Cello. Like anyone who wants to get anywhere in the string world in Spain, they had studied abroad.

They played a programme of Boccherini, Haydn and Josep Padro (Ariadna´s relative?). The pieces were ok....The Boccherini sounded a bit messy, but things got together much better in the Haydn. The Padro was fairly conventional, though it had a nice viola solo.

Generally I thought the viola was a bit sad and tired; it did not come out as much as it should have done - lacked in energy. The cellist was good and solid, and the first violin was quite good most of the time (they have actually won a prize). There was much interaction - maybe because they are not so used to each other yet. But occasionally the interaction was more in they eyes than in the hands, where it should have been. Starts were a bit messy at times, and junctions were interrupted. So it was ok, not startling.

We now come to two pieces of fashion advice. Sitting, at the start, immediately behind the cellist, I began to realise how much cellists resemble the form of their instruments, especially if they wear clothes that get wider and wider from the breast down. The cello flows, and so do the clothes.

The ladies might also wish to consider the fabrics used in their beautiful (silk) skirts. When they bowed the daylight was behind them, the skirts became translucent, and to me it looked, at least with the person wearing the yellow skirt, as if she was naked from the waist down (a mistake the young Diana Spencer has also made). Thank goodness I realised this only at the final bow, or the whole concert might have been spent contemplating this.....


Saturday, August 02, 2008

¡Voy a Barcelona!

Hoy voy a Barcelona a aprender español en un curso de lenguas! ¡Serra estupendo!

Voy a vivir en el Universitat (cómo se escribe en catalan) Autonoma, en las afueras de Barcelona, mas o menos 20 km del centro de Barcelona. De lunes hasta viermes voy al curso de español por la mañana; por la tarde ....hoy ne sé que voy hacer.

Por la noche - hoy serra un concierto del réquiem de Mozart, a las 10 de noche - un poco muy tarde para mi. Mañana voy a visitar un grupo muy interesante para mi, pero ahora ne quiero decir qué grupo es, o de qué digamos. Serra una buena oportunidad para hablar español con un vocabulario no muy común.

Martes po la noche voy a un curso para aprender a dar palmas flamencas, y a entender y seguir el compas flamenco. ¡Muy bien!

And if you don't understand this, it's just too bad! (the sharp-eyed of you may have noticed that I have not yet learned the future tense in Spanish...)