Sunday, June 28, 2009

Gaborone planning (2)

So ok, I only took a brief walk this morning, what with work pressure - but I was thinking about that planning blog. And ok, also, I just walked round the bit near my hotel, for about an hour, and it was the Presidential/embassy area, so hardly representative of the whole of Gaborone.

There were lots of large houses, most single-story, all behind high walls, often topped by electric fencing. In one I saw probably a domestic worker emerge from a brick shack at the end of the garden (hope that was not her living quarters). Otherwise you could not really look in. I counted three small park-like areas (so much for 'no green spaces in Gaborone'); the roads were deserted, barely a soul to be seen - presumably in this neighbourhood no-one would set a foot on the road if they could drive. Crossed two or three dual carriage-ways, also fairly empty (at between 10 and 11 am in the morning). All the gardens had trees and things, so it was quite a green neighbourhood. Did not see any vegetable plots, mainly there was just bare earth (the joys of a dry country, where weeds may not grow much).  Probably again these people just buy their food....But it was a very pleasant, liveable neighbourhood, though totally without shops (unlike in Georgia, where every cellar is a shop).  Not sure about community facilities either; did not see any, but would this type of people do 'community'?

I was a bit alarmed to see that my entry yesterday was in the Gabarone Google News Alert. Bit of a low-news country, no?


A bit at a loose end...

I'm still in my hotel, have done all the work I needed to do over the weekend, it's 7.50 pm, and so I switch on the TV. Not sure that Sky News is the best that is on offer....it's looking grim for the next 6 months.....

Anyway, I'm appalled at the amount of coverage of Michael Jackson's death, with Sky not half stoking the flames, having live coverage from 'outside the Jackson home', asking people why they are coming there ('I haven't stopped crying since I heard') and talking about every frigging car that enters or leaves the place. Seems to be another Diana situation. Whether he was a great artist or not, I could not really comment upon, but the poor guy has led a rather tortured life - let's let him rest in peace.


Saturday, June 27, 2009

Gaborone Planning?

Here a guy (of the planning variety, presumably) writes about the layout of Gaborone, described as unsustainable. He suggests that the none-too wide roads, hemmed in on all sides by houses in more or less large gardens cause lots of problems, eg traffic snarl-ups (which might explain my 40 minute wait for taxis the other day). 

Gabarone as a capital was only built in 1966 and later, and there are plot numbers rather than street numbers; now it is getting a bit crammed, but it still feels nice and spacious.  Everyone has a house and a garden, with greenery in it. Which probably explains why they did not think of parks as open spaces when they first planned it - everyone has their own little park, and a tree to sit under.

Of course what Gaborone needs to build new wide roads is a war. That's what sorted the problems in Germany, Britain, and many other European countries.  Is that what he suggests?  So the roads are not so good for cars. I don't see that as much of a problem. There is a (private) public transport system - so far I have tried it only once, but it seems ok. Why should everyone have a car? Ok, your own car can be air-conditioned in hot summers....

I bet he would like to go back to the drawing board and start again. And then what? In another 40-50 years someone else might go along and give out about the planning. In many countries (in places where a war did not rage) people live around the buildings rather than the buildings making way for that God, the motor car.

The comments on his blog are closed, so this is the only way of responding to it.


Friday, June 26, 2009

Sort of a music story...

So Michael Jackson has died, after 50 years of, as it seems, a lot of misery, despite all his money. God rest his soul, at last.

I ask myself, though, was this really the top story of the day? 6 stories in the Times alone?


Sex Education

My employer had put on a 'learning session'. I had just come away from another meeting, the topic appeared to be something about community groups. Important, but not all that critical for me.

Then I got the call to come along, so I did. Rather startled to find myself in a large room, with most of the team, looking at banners proclaiming 'your sex network'. Was I in the right class? It seems I was. It was about HIV and AIDS and how one infected person can infect lots of others, if they are not careful, and each has several partners. I thought that it was good news that in the years between the last HIV survey in Botswana (2003/4) and the most recent one (2008) the prevalence rate had hardly changed (I'm not putting in figures because I am not sure the report has been published) and said so aloud. Sometimes one just does not think and one should keep one's mouth shut. The reason it has remained so relatively stable is because lots of people have died, so in fact this masks quite a few new infections. As it happens, Botswana is pretty damn good at dealing with this - giving all those who need it those anti-AIDS drugs, so people are much more likely to stay alive now, and providing home care for bed-ridden people. Those drugs ain't cheap! We talked about homosexual sex (illegal here) though a significant number of respondents in the survey (male) they had had sex with a man. I then had to explain to a woman how lesbians do sex....she could not quite understand the gesture the lovely lecturer had used.

Later went off to do shopping. I had intended to get a pair of glasses for driving; I see pretty well enough in most environments, but might not pass a driving sight test. Took only 40 minutes for the taxi to arrive at the hotel, and the journey to the shopping centre cost almost 10 times as much as the minibus on the way back. Having sat in the far corner at the rear, when I got out it meant other people had to get out as well. But a good experience to make, and my seat neighbour was very nice and helpful. I still have not worked out the money - need to take a closer peek at the coins.

Did not get the glasses - paying 100 Euros for those few occasions on which I need them seems a bit much (though they might be useful in opera houses, too - whenever I get back to be near one). Also I had gone to the shopping centre because I saw no opticians in the main street; as soon as the taxi hit the road I saw three within 100 m of my hotel. Might check them out a bit more. But at least I have seen the shopping centre. It seems to have a cinema, too; the supermarket sells some wine, none to cheap, though I got a carton of claret for about 6 Euros for 2 litres (the same make of carton that my luxury hotel uses, with probably a reasonable profit margin)......Just had a near catastrophe; the opening for the wine is quite different from the openings the Chileans use for their wine, sold in Vilnius; thank Christ something had made me try it out in the bathroom and not on the beige bedroom carpet. Not sure what the chambermaid will say about the red spots all over one of the toilet rolls....

Work is building up nicely now; there seem to be a few things potentially on the boil and it is nice to be a bit under work pressure. Still finishing another bit of work; had hoped to have more of it to do over the weekend, but nothing more has appeared. Oh well....


Thursday, June 25, 2009

Winter in Botswana

Lovely story here about winter in Botswana.

Not sure what the temperature actually was - seemed a bit cool yesterday morning, maybe 15 degrees or so, but perhaps in that place, not that far from here, it was much colder? And some of the children described were barefoot....


Tuesday, June 23, 2009


Botswana – First Impression

It has a lovely temperature – it’s mid-winter, and some colleagues have the heating on….I walk around in short-sleeved shirts.

Gabarone is like a large village – all low-rise buildings, apart from a few in the centre, large open spaces, large gardens everywhere.

The malls are not like the ‘Mall of America’, but rather small, low-level affairs.

The Batswana (people of Botswana) seem to be very law-abiding. When the plane landed, everyone stayed sitting until long after the engines stopped running – until they were told they could disembark (yes, I was told off). A scandal in some other part of the country involves people drinking alcohol and INSULTING other people. Insulting people is a serious no-no. They are also very polite - they greet you with 'how are you?'.

Another case in the news involved a family of 10 persons who lived in terrible conditions, with a house that was far from weather-proof. So the local community gave them 2 tents, but also found that the mother was quite able-bodied and able to work – so she find herself working shortly. Some might think that with 10 people to take care of she might be working hard enough already…

Botswanan names are very difficult; long, complicated and seemingly not connected to any names I know. I will really have to memorise my colleagues’ names.


Friday, June 19, 2009

Not viola, not Vilnius

This viola player will be out of Vilnius for some time - he's going to work in Botswana for the rest of the year, and the viola will stay in Vilnius. The nature of the blog will therefore change somewhat.....


Love and Other Demons

This opera by Peter Eötvös is based on Gabriel Garcia Marquez' book on the same name. It was first performed in Vilnius last October (original premiere in Glyndebourne; it's our co-production with them) - I missed it - but last night formed part of the Vilnius International Opera Festival.

Not having read anything about it, and being too mean to buy a programme, I thought the story was about a girl who was sexually abused by her father, then became rather sexually precocious (not acceptable in 18th century Colombia) and for that was meant to be exorcised (they were singing in English, but a lot of words were lost), made love to Satan, and then was exorcised. The fact that the guy who I thought was Satan was played by the guy (Vytautas Juozapaitis) who was Don Giovanni added a certain piquancy for me.

In fact she was bitten by a rabid dog, then went mad, my 'Satan' was the exorcist who fell in love with her and so on. 

It was a very busy opera; a great change from those static performances of the Mariinsky theatre, with an ever changing set, a river of (live!) fire on the stage, contrasts between the apparently mad girl (Marisol Montalvo?) and the nuns constantly fluttering around, who later, themselves, threw off their togs (to dresses underneath). Unlike the girl who in the process of exorcism was stripped down to her briefs and covered in ... blood...(red paint). And then she sang, wearing nothing but briefs.....(With her figure she could get away with it!)

The music? Eötvös' music is not the kind you would go home whistling, not much in the way of tunes; it's very modern and intellectual. I felt the opera was more about the story, with the music playing a role like in film music, emphasizing or explaining what happened on the stage, and adding information, eg with the nuns singing in the background. There were moments when it reminded me of 'Peter Grimes', but perhaps only because of the very high tenor voice, and the music accompanying it.

After the first half I was not sure if I would stay, but I am glad I did - after I while I stopped worrying about 'having to enjoy the music' and just enjoyed the spectacle. So go if you want to see something exciting, but not if you want to go home whistling a tune.


Monday, June 15, 2009

The boy in the Striped Pyjamas

This film finally made it to Vilnius. It's an English film (in cooperation with the BBC) and it sure shows! The music (lush, Ronnie Hazlehurst type style), the very middle-class English conversation....

It's a variation on the Auschwitz theme; about a guy who is promoted to be commander of Auschwitz and moves there with his family. It's told from the viewpoint of his 8-year-old son, who himself feels in a bit of a prison, in the commander's house - a dull, grey, building outside the camp, which also seems to serve as the commander's office. Finally Bruno manages to find a secret way out of the enclosed house and garden, and, exploring the surroundings, ends up outside the fence of Auschwitz, on the other side of which just happens to sit 8-year-old Shmuel, an inmate. They become friends.....

The commander's mother does not approve of the Nazis, and, once his wife finds out what happens in the camp, neither does she. But it's too late....

There are some historical inaccuracies - I am sure the camps were surrounded by double fences, at least of one was electrified. Therefore the story could not have happened the way it was told, if at all.  I am not sure, also, that at a Nazi party someone would have sung in English.

About the end - I'm afraid I thought 'serves them right'...

The Lithuanian subtitles and the English talk did seem to have a bit of a gap; it was rather freely translated.


Sunday, June 14, 2009

How perceptions change!

I was at home, idly musing into another blog, having just made a coffee and looking forward to a bite of pre-concert dinner, when suddenly I looked at the clock of my computer and found it was 18.28. Performance at the opera house starting at 18.30 - I was wearing my shorts and a t-shirt I had bought secondhand.

I have never changed so fast, and run so fast, as I did to the opera house today, to see, for the second time, Robert Wilson's production of the St John Passion by Bach. Made it in time for the first chorus - impressive or what?

Last time I reviewed it I was quite down on it, what with the sort of slow and symbolic movements on the stage. This time, after the very static performances by the Mariinsky Theatre, I found it quite lively! (I heard a couple of days ago that after the Parsifal there was no standing ovation, and the primadonna apparently was in tears....).

I had meant, obviously, to come on time and find a nice seat in the front row. As a latecomer, I was lucky to be let in at all but had to go to the balcony. Went to the first balcony instead of the second I had been told to go to, and found a wonderful seat! Ok, it was at the side of the theatre, but quite close to the stage and I had a great view of the orchestra - that's a seat worth checking out in future.

The performance was fine; the orchestra was struggling in places (a rather rough obligato for two violins), but with the very fine cellist of Musica Humana who was playing non-stop (more than anyone else apart from the organist) it was held together well; they tried to play in the historically correct style, too. Some of the singers had some intonation problems; the counter-tenor (Charles Humphries) singing a tenor role (seems a bit over the top, using a countertenor for this) in his second aria produced some melismas which reminded me of the histrionic singer in the original version of La Cage Aux Folles (film) - it's the most politically correct way of saying this.... But the diction was great and it was easy, in general, to understand the words (I've been in a choir of this myself, and I know the piece well, maybe that helped, too). The evangelist (Kestutis Alcauskas?) was wonderful!

I felt sorry for the choir who in every appearance had to stand there, holding the right hand up as if they were holding a glass of wine - some of those appearances were so long that I wondered if someone had given them false arms to make it easier, but it seems not. What if someone's nose had started to itch? And then there was the woman dancer who, it seems, was representing something akin to inner conflicts, and was rushing about all over the place, in the same stylised kind of way that all other movements were, by everyone.

The penultimate chorus, 'Ruht wohl', was too fast (Rolf Beck conducting; seems to do a lot of it in Vilnius these days). I don't know what it is that makes these so fast (it was the same in the St Matthew's passion in the Filharmonija last year) - if a guy has just died, and maybe his soul is still in his body, he wants to 'ruhen' (rest), not take off at a sprint!


Thursday, June 11, 2009

'The Enchanted Wanderer' - what about the audience?

Second night of the International Opera Festival in Vilnius, and we had Shchedrin's opera 'The Enchanted Wanderer', again produced by the Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg, with Gergiev conducting.  That funny little American was around again, he who was sleeping with next to me the previous evening. Seems he is a serious fan possibly of the band - before the show started he was crawling round the artist's entrance, where the musicians were still enjoying a smoke; the look on his face was a picture - like a five-year-old who was meeting Father Christmas for the first time.

What would you think about hearing the title? Maybe the 'Wizard of Oz'? Or 'Die schöne Müllerin'? Well, das Wandern was definitely not this guy's Lust.  It seemed to be more of a Faustian/Soldier's Tale type story, where a guy sells his soul to the devil, then loses his money to the gypsies (well-done, Mr Shchedrin, another triumph for political correctness - I just hope it was an old story you used; couldn't he have misspent his money in a brothel or something), then it seems his wife dies and he becomes a monk (says the reviewer, using the visual clues).   Have to say that Stravinsky told that tale vastly more amusingly, and briefly.  Not sure if 'enchanted' is the best translation - maybe more like 'bewitched'...

So here we had a stage covered in reeds; a huge choir sitting at the back of it, using sheet music (I later realised that they were probably representing nuns and monks), and some young men taking various roles as land labourers and so on - to add a bit of movement to a very staid direction. There were 3 singing parts, a bass, a tenor and a woman's voice (soprano?, not sure), plus the orchestra. To say that the piece was sparsely orchestrated, at least from where I was sitting (could not see them to assess the amount of playing) is a bit of an understanding. It sounded like large chunks of the band were not playing most of the time.

The music was perfectly pleasant, nothing of 12-tone or other experimental stuff about it - Shchedrin tends to write accessible music - and the singing was good (the tenor was a bit screechy, but a very funny actor, on those rare occasions that he did some). The main singer, the bass, mainly stood around and sang - the woman, who started being an old woman, but then became younger (or was a different character) did some acting and dancing. I am not sure how to bring across the boredom of the piece; it kept being interspersed with the choir singing prayers (not to enough effect, given the story line). What was worse was that I thought it had two parts, and the first part went on and on for 1 hour 50 minutes or so - I began to wonder what else they could possibly tell in the story, but it seems there was only the first part.  Thank god for that.

It did contain some lovely Russian music, sacred-sounding and profane, and would have been nice to listen to at home over a glass of wine, but as a spectacle it was just too slow.  The bass, as he become a monk, ended on a note so low that even I could not reach it (I can just make the C two octaves below middle C...) - if he had held it any longer his guts would have spilled out.  A clear Russian signature note, no? Think of the Don Cossacks' choir.

So nice music, well-played, shame about the spectacle - though that tenor's 'ministry of funny walks' department (deportment?) was amazing!


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

I lasted 3.5 hours....

Well, it was Wagner's Parsifal, in the opening event of the first Vilnius opera festival, with the Marinsky Theatre, Gergiev conducting, and lots of Russian singers. But boy, was it boring.

Did not help that I sat between a young American, who had flown over that day, and was asleep in the first act, jerking his head up about every minute, and an elderly Lithuanian, a keen concert goer, but who has a personal hygiene problem (in the downstairs department....).

Everyone who was anyone, was there (again!), including my shrink in a rather nice short black dress (she wears well, given that she is a few minutes older than me). The foyer was set up (again!) for a post-event reception - Gergiev must think that in Vilnius there are receptions after every concert.

But oh, that opera. I had not read the plot before; it's all about holy grails, sacred woodlands, mixed with Christian rituals (a communion service) and so on. Blah! The music is nice, but when the overture started with slow music I thought - that'll go on all evening! And so it did. Seems a very unbalanced opera; one guy does most of the singing in the first act; in the second act this guy is almost mute and Parsifal stands around at the side of the stage most of the time; in the third act Parsifal does most of the singing...and the rest I don't know, I was not there.

The set was standard Russian; first I thought it was the lite set for travelling, but it was quite cleverly put together with lots of different backdrops; but still a standard Russian faux-modern faux-old set. The dresses were fairly standard, too, operatic, total fantasy. Poor Parsifal appeared on his first entry just wearing tights on his legs; later he was allowed some boots and trousers.  In the third act some guy ghosted around with what appeared to be a grey Russian onion-dome on his head - his wig. Seemed to be carrying a spear.  At the beginning and end of that act there was quite a nice scene with lots of girls in very colourful costumes wafting around; it was really a very phallic scene, involving a sword, and I was trying to imagine what a more adventurous producer/designer might have made of this. (Sometimes it is hard watching or reading something with a psychoanalytic gaze).

The orchestra played beautifully; lovely string sound. In the overture I was not sure if the strings and winds were quite together, and certainly, in the ladies' scene, the girls' entries were well apart.  The singers were good, apart from one rather nasal tenor who had a couple of lines to sing.  But it was all standing around and singing.

For me, that's quite enough of Parsifal. Tomorrow it's an opera by Shchedrin....


Saturday, June 06, 2009


Sergey Malov, the winner of the Jascha Heifetz violin competition in Vilnius, has now walked off with the first prize of the Tokyo viola competion!!!!!!!!!!!

Incredible - I wonder if anyone has ever done that before???? Winning both violin and viola competitions....

Mind you, if Malov played spoons, the washboard, or the harp - with his musicianship he would win every competition.



Friday, June 05, 2009

Vilnius is HIP!

Of course we knew that anyway, though sometimes there are aspects ....hmmm.

I'm talking about historically informed performance - in music. At last it is arriving in Vilnius, and it seems, even being taught at the music academy. Welcome to the 21st century!

Seemed like it was Mindaugas Backus' (final?) exam for his doctorate (given the heavy mob loitering at the back of the hall). Backus is of course that wonderful cellist about whom I have written often. Recently he has developed quite an interest in baroque technique, even to the degree of buying a (modern) baroque cello. Not sure if he sparked that interest in the music academy, or vice versa.  Suspect the former is more likely to be the case, after hearing the tone in the voice of a music professor about 'old music' when I had bumped into him the day before.

It was a chamber music exam, so there were lots of other players. All the string players used the baroque bow. Now, call me fussy, but normally I think you would hold the baroque bow a bit higher up, or does that only apply when you use a modern bow to play in the baroque style? Baroque bows perform quite differently. Backus clearly also had gut strings on his instrument - given the amount of tuning he had to do, and the slower response of the strings. Not sure about the other ones - the other two cellists also, like him, bravely held their cellos with their legs. It would be a bit of a job, restringing a cello just for one concert....I also wondered if someone would make concert clothes with a non-slip inside leg? As long as they don't wear skirts or trousers with an elasticated waist....The violinist (Rima Svegdaite, from the St Christopher Chamber Orchestra) had an interesting woman-shaped violin (without corners) and the flautist (Vytenis Giknius, from the Lithuanian state orchestra) used a wooden flute - its sound was so different from the modern metal flutes; so much warmer.  The harpsichord was the usual all-over-Vilnius harpsichord. Really I don't know why composers at that time wrote for it in ensembles; I could not hear it at all (not the player's fault, of course - Vaiva Eidukaite-Storastiene).

Anyway. The concert began with Vivaldis Sonata No 5 for cello and basso continuo (played by another cello, possibly Onute Svabauskaite). I am sure I know it. It was very nice - one little portamento slipped in, probably by accident, but otherwise it was great - nicely played in the baroque style. I wondered, though, whether it had been written for cello originally - it was so fast (in the fast movements) that the strings did not have enough time to respond; they were almost meeting themselves coming backwards. I would have put it down more for violin (or maybe flute, if it fits under flute fingerings).

This was followed by Telemann's cantata for flute, soprano (Nora Petrochenko) and cello 'Ew'ge Quelle, milder Strom'; sounds like one you might not wish to sing to someone with a prostrate condition. Beautiful flute solos, and the usual da capo style arias.  Again very nicely performed, though I realised after a while that the singer was singing in German. As she should be, it's Telemann, after all. Then I tried to listen to the words, but had some difficulty. The word is 'ich', not 'isch'.  Bit of a shame.

Finally we had a quartet from the 'New Quartets in Six Suites' - typically baroque, Telemann threw in an inaudible harpsichord as well. I wondered if the flute part might have been a violin part originally. It was a nice conversation between the flute and the three string instruments. I thought the violin did not come through very well (gut strings??), and there were some intonation issues. Was it really written for two upper instruments (flute/violin) and two cellos? Here the second cello was played by Roma Jaraminaite (unless the female cellists were the other way round - you know what I mean...) Anyway, it was fun. Backus was ready to take off - I wondered how different it is to play a cello you have to hold up, rather than one which is pinned to the ground.

Great little concert!


Death and Destruction on the balcony

This year I had decided to do a bit for colour on the balcony. Great timing - looks like I might be off to Africa shortly, for the rest of the year....

So I planted some nasturtiums, to wind themselves round the balcony railing, when they grow up. Last weekend they had shot up and almost reached the edge of the window box.

Yesterday we had at least one hailstorm. The nasturtiums are shredded! Luckily the tiny growing points seem to be all right, so they may recover.  Near miss!


Thursday, June 04, 2009

And who was that leading the viola section of the Scala Milan chamber orchestra?

There I was, in the concert of the chamber orchestra of La Scala, Milan, idly gazing around the band, watching the viola section (I had a really cheap standing ticket, for 5 LT - how come it was so cheap? and there were no real sets left to crowd into), when suddenly I thought, I know the viola leader. You know how it is when you see a person in unexpected places, you don't recognize them, or at least I don't - terrible memory for faces...Was that our own Ula Ulijona Zebriunaite? That dark viola, I recognized it, too - and indeed it was! What's she doing playing in that band? Is it a move away from the Kremerata Baltica? What about the string quartet she is playing in? Seems she is up to all these things - well, congratulations, Ula!

To some degree it was rather a standard concert. The four seasons of Vivaldi interspersed with four seasons of Piazzola. Nowadays one knows both sets of pieces as well as each other. Given that Piazzola is Argentinian one wonders if his seasons should not be played upside down, what with the seasons being in different months of the year in Argentina.  It was also strange about the concert arrangement and applause - there was no interval, and the band breezed through all 8 sets of pieces in one go, apparently not particularly inviting applause between any of them, though occasionally the audience made itself felt - in a rather random sort of way.

The interpretation of the Vivaldi was rather conventional (Cepinskas does a more interesting one), but beautifully played. Oh that cellist! Sitting in the standing room seats I could not see the violins, but I got the impression that the cellist was leading the band. The soloist was great - apart from appearing in a very stylish red shirt (where did he buy that??) and white trousers, he fairly blistered through the fast movements. Was it really possible to play them that fast? Obviously it was.

This kind of concert attracts two kinds of people, or maybe three - those who go to concerts to be seen (and yes, they were there), those who like Vivaldi and suffer Piazzola, and those who like Piazzola and suffer Vivaldi, and yes, ok, there are those who like them both (so four kinds of people).  At the end the band gave two Piazzola encores - when, finally, they launched into Libertango, the Filharmonija briefly converted into a pop concert, with the audience cheering, as the band started to play. I don't really mind, it's nice that people enjoy music - a woman in the front row seemed to be close to orgasm at that point....