Showing posts with label travel. Show all posts
Showing posts with label travel. Show all posts

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Ah, Vienna...

Just about recovered from a thrilling New Year in the city of waltzes... Appropriately enough, since 2007 is the 50th anniversary of Korngold's death and the 110th of his birth, we spent New Year's Eve dancing the night away outside the Rathaus, where Korngold and Luzi von Sonnenthal got married.

Oh boy, do the Viennese know how to party. The city centre turns into one big celebration, with different music going on in various squares and pedestrian areas until 2am, and all the sausages, langos, gluhwein and schnapps you could wish for, not to mention strudel, with fireworks zooming about overhead constantly - none of that wait-for-midnight nonsense here, thanks... Apparently Vienna entertained about 700,000 people that night, double the number who risked chaos in central London (where organising so much as a p***-up in a brewery seems to defeat even the most well-intentioned). A few firecrackers to dodge along the way, and it's best to avoid the most crowded areas like the Karntnerstrasse, but otherwise the atmosphere was simply wonderful.

One learns some startling things about one's partner in these circumstances. Good old Tomcat turns out to be an unreconstructed old rocker! After the operetta crew finished The Blue Danube after midnight (yes, we waltzed, or tried to), on came a band called Remembering Elvis. Tom doesn't have much hair, but a few bars of Blue Suede Shoes and what's left came down in spectacular fashion. After that, along came a band called Montevideo and Tom discovered that I'm a frustrated South American at heart, itching to learn salsa and samba (our tango classes tragically having ended in abandonment of all hope). 2007 resolution: learn to waltz and go back next time - maybe even to a ball...???

The next morning, we watched the New Year's Day concert on a big screen in the Rathausplatz. The Vienna Philharmonic sound as glorious as ever. BUT it's still very odd only to see one woman in their ranks. Read some interesting info about this here (thanks to Ionarts for the link). How do they get away with it? I interviewed two of them for Classical Music Magazine about 15 years ago when the orchestra played in London, and asked them why they don't employ more women. They told me it was because of maternity leave laws: apparently they'd have to keep the job open for three years (or was it five?). I can't say I was convinced. It's tempting to wonder why other Austrian orchestras seem to manage fine, or why some fabulous female musician who doesn't intend to have children should be excluded. In Britain, there'd be no rest from the negative media over something like this. At least on this occasion they had an Indian conductor...

Vienna's an odd place. What was once the capital city of the biggest empire in Europe now feels like a small, isolated town with a lot of beautiful cafes and some very good music. It always takes me a day or two to stop thinking about the Korngold family and those like them fleeing the Anschluss, Hitler waving to the cheering crowds from the hotel balcony, and all that followed. But once I've got past that and started drinking in the Klimts in the Belvedere, the shades of Mozart at Schonbrunn, and on this occasion one of the best Chagall exhibitions I've seen, not to mention coffee with liqueur and schlagobers, it's impossible not to enjoy it.

Stars in the pavement of the Kartnerstrasse and Graben pay tribute to the likes of Weber, Haydn, Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, Kreisler, Rubinstein, Chopin, Schumann and Clara Schumann and more (though I couldn't find Korngold or Schoenberg). Two youngsters from Ankara asked us the way to the Figarohaus, where Mozart lived; for my part, I was sorry to leave without paying tribute to Schubert's spectacles in the house where he was born. And during our last coffee-stop we chatted to a Viennese couple at the next table who knew all the gossip about the New Year's Day concert reviews (catty indeed!). But the strangest thing is that you can spend a happy holiday in Vienna without setting eyes on that famous river even once. If you want to see the Beautiful Blue Danube at its finest, go to Budapest.

Most important, this is Korngold year. There'll be plenty going on all over the world and I'll try to keep posting about the most interesting events to come my way. For starters, watch out for a major exhibition about the composer opening in late October in Vienna, and a very special concert series right here in London in the autumn.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Rio by the Sea-oh

My new computer is up and running and is deliciously compatible with Blogger. So here we go: a taste of Rio de Janeiro... From top left: the view from Corcovado; Jess & Tom join the Copacabana Beach Samba Band; and the girl from Ipanema...

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

j'adore la France...

Hi folks, back to business as usual after long-awaited week on summer hols in the south of France. Coming back to London after basking on the Cote d'Azur is a bit like Dorothy going back into Kansas from Munchkinland - in many respects! - but mainly in terms of the weather. There is something very, very GREY about England. All the colours are pastel, muted, mild, and just that little bit nondescript. Mediterranean colours are truly colourful...We saw Nice, St Tropez, the Ile de Porquerolles, Aix-en-Provence, Grasse (where they make all the perfumes) and several adorable little towns with markets to die for. What is better, in life, than feasting on freshly baked olive bread, a selection of French cheese, locally grown tomatoes, marinated olives a la provencal, fresh melon and white nectarines and a delicious bottle of local plonk that would probably sell for 12 quid in Waitrose??!? Even arguments in the car couldn't dampen things (I belong to the "I think it was that one" school of navigation...).

Will pick up the musical pieces very soon. In Provence we listened to Ravel, Canteloube, Poulenc, Faure, Berlioz and, um, Brahms. (Who wasn't French. But imagine if he had been..........)

Meanwhile I have October issue cover features in not only BBC Music Mag and About the House, but also The Strad - interview with the truly gorgeous Nikolaj Znaider.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Rome, sweet Rome

There's been a good reason for my blogland silence this week. I've been in Rome. Almost didn't come back.

When Dorothy taps her ruby slippers together and says the magic words, I reckon we all misheard her. What she should be saying is "there's no place like Rome..." That city has an atmosphere like nowhere else on earth. Part of it is the climate, part the history, part sheer beauty. Yes, the traffic is crazy - basically anarchy - and you take your life in your hands whenever you cross a road. But after dark, you're in another world, entirely gold and black and floodlit and shining. Who wants to go to sleep when you can be out in warm, fresh air, gazing at gleaming Roman ruins, enjoying the finest Italian food and sipping Chianti with friends? Not many Romans, it would seem, because the place buzzes until the wee hours.

I somehow associate Rome with freedom, revival, renewal and some kind of inner release that, when I was last there years & years ago, allowed me to get on the back of a Vespa with a strange Italian man and ride through the city's cobbled roads past the floodlit Colosseum at 1am...those were the days...

I went to the Eternal City this time to interview Signora Bartoli about her new album of Italian baroque arias, Opera Probita. The launch event began with a concert in an extraordinary church in the Forum; later, dinner on a roof terrace by candlelight. We did the interview in a building that looks out across the ruins of the Forum, knowing that Handel could have stood on the same spot, drinking in the same sight, nearly 300 years ago.

The album will be out at the end of next month & Cecilia will be giving a concert of this repertoire in London, at the Barbican, in December, for which I recommend begging, borrowing or even buying a ticket at your first possible opportunity. Before then, she'll be in the States, so I urge everyone across the Pond to run to hear her as well. There's a touch of genius about this woman. What a voice. What a personality. What musicianship.

There'd probably be a touch of genius about anyone who could make me rave about an evening of Italian baroque opera accompanied by period instruments. Normally I run a mile from such things, probably because I had it rammed down my throat ad nauseam at university. The other night, however, I was on the edge of my seat all the way through and afterwards was almost ready to go and hug Marc Minkowski and all his Musiciens du Louvre as well. I even elected, later on, to listen to a recording of a counter-tenor (Scholl, naturally), and liked it when I did. This is getting serious!

But would it sound the same away from Rome? South West London is a bit short of ruins and even the antipasti in our local supermarket ain't quite the same......

Friday, August 26, 2005


This is the indomitable Norman Lebrecht's inspiring account of how he found himself performing the recitation in Schoenberg's 'A Survivor from Warsaw' at Dartington last week.

Every music commentator should take part in a performance now and then and Norman's article helps to show why.

Speaking of stressful performances, we hear this morning that one of Leonidas Kavakos's strings broke during the Berg at the Prom last night and he finished the concerto on the leader's violin. It must take nerves of diamond, never mind steel, to switch fiddles in that piece, of all pieces, in the middle of the Royal Albert Hall, live on BBC Radio. What's more, Andrew Davis had dropped out and Joseph Swensen was drafted in to conduct instead, somewhat late in the day. Tom and I were down at Glyndebourne and missed the fun...

If I feel stressed out by proofreading my novel and trying to catch last-minute inconsistencies - of which there've been plenty - all I have to do is think 'I will never have to recite Schoenberg, or break a string in a Prom' and I feel better INSTANTLY.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Return to the old country

Oldest church
Originally uploaded by Duchenj.

It's a little like meeting people: it can take two encounters to make the penny drop, a double dose to take in the full measure of somebody special. So it was with Vilnius.

Above, the oldest church in Vilnius, or so it says inside. You can see from this picture the kind of loving care that has been lavished on its restoration. There are around 130 churches in Vilnius and they are all architectural gems (though I can do without the Russian orthodox one that contains a glass casket of three pickled 14th-century saints in white stockings!).

Only one synagogue is left. And it's closed. It appears that the old divide between the mystics and the intellectuals has resurfaced in a rather unexpected way. All very complicated... I hear, however, that there is a long-term project to restore the old Jewish sites of the city and a very long-term hope that perhaps one day the Great Synagogue, destroyed by the Nazis, could be reconstructed. At the moment there is an open basketball court where it once stood.

I'm very, very glad that I went back to Vilnius to re-order my impressions after the vaguely surreal experiences I had there during my first visit last year (see archive for June 04). It was an incredible trip, full of extraordinary music and wonderful people. I met most of my friends from last year and made some new ones too. Tom came with me and was bowled over by the whole experience; we both feel that this place, in one way or another, gets under one's skin. You can't escape the horrors of the past, however much you try to look forward rather than back; but maybe this is why the place has such a sense of soul.

It was once a melting pot; and perhaps it will be again, since during two days we encountered Indian classical music (the incredible Wahajat Khan in collaboration with the Ciurlionis Quartet), a travelling Norwegian choir, a free concert of Lithuanian premieres and Mischa Maisky performing Bruch's Kol Nidrei looking extraordinarily like the Vilna Gaon himself. Whatever the programme notes had managed to dredge up about the lack of Jewishness in this piece of music, I can think of little that would be more moving than listening to it being performed in "Vilne". Several members of the audience around us were in tears too.

The language seems impenetrable at first - it's like nothing you've heard anywhere before (unless you happen to know Latvian). I've managed to remember Labas (hello), Aciu (thank you - sounds like you're sneezing) and I svekata (cheers - memorable not only through quantity of use but because it sounds like "is the cat here?"). As for the food, I'm still not keen on the potato pancakes, but can heartily recommend my favourite soup EVER: Saltibarsciai. Essentially it's cold borscht with hot potatoes. Here's a recipe, which I'll be trying at home shortly...

Vilnius is, in one word, extraordinary. Don't ask how or why, but something tells me that this won't be my last visit.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Eastward ho!

I've been to Estonia this week to do a travel feature for BBC Music Magazine and something for The Strad. The trip was courtesy of Warner Classics, who took me and several other journalists there to meet a very glamorous female conductor named Anu Tali who has her own project orchestra in Tallinn, and a twin sister, Kadri, who is her manager. Live wires, both of them, and easy to see why Warners are so keen to get her on board.

Tallinn is extremely beautiful. As in Vilnius, the outskirts are grey, Soviet and awful, but then you go through an ancient archway into the old city and suddenly you're in fairyland - medieval Hanseatic houses, cobbled streets, pretty churches, a wonderfully restored Russian cathedral towering at the top of the hill...and the restaurants are marvellous. The City Council treated the entire Warner group to lunch at Old Hansa, entirely in medieval style with candlelight, wooden trestle tables, murals, hefty wooden staircases and 14th-century recipes which were fabulous: salmon with hazelnuts, turnips with ginger, liver pate, wild berry preserves etc etc, not to mention honey beer and spiced wine. Estonian for 'cheers' is Terviseks, a word that, predictably, was much mis-quoted by some members of our party...

The concert hall is small and sweet with a pleasing, clear acoustic. The contemporary music that we heard was laden with Sibelian influences. The composer who most impressed me was Tormis, who was featured several times in Anu's concert; I was less thrilled by a 1984 minimalist symphony by the late Sumera; mixed feelings about a dance suite by Tubin. All of it sounded pretty good until the programme suddenly turned up some Tchaikovsky - the letter scene from Onegin - upon which everything else somewhat paled.

Tallinn was altogether easier to be in than Vilnius. No tears, no pain, less seedy, less historically significant, better kept, further advanced in westernisation terms, less religious, less intense and - because of all this - not quite as interesting either.

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

A miserably clean weekend

My birthday is coming up soonish, so Tom and I decided to treat ourselves to a couple of days in Paris. We had some air miles and managed to get a special deal to go first class on Eurostar. They give you a meal on the train and we got the 8.01 from Waterloo so they gave us breakfast, the full works. Tom ate the chicken sausage. I didn't. In Paris we wandered around and Tom started feeling queasy. We had lunch, which he managed to eat, but by dinnertime he was confined to hotel room, turning progressively greener. So instead of lovely romantic French diner a deux with yummy sauces and a bottle of burgandy, I found myself on my own in the cafe across the street having a glorified toasted sandwich and a nice cup of camomile tea. Poor old Tom was extremely sick in the night and then spent most of yesterday asleep.

I spent half the morning trying to get our Eurostar tickets changed to go back earlier, but they wouldn't do it. I did manage to undertake a few nice Parisy activities - notably shoe-shopping and buying some unusual bits of Debussy and Saint-Saens in a music shop on the Left Bank that hasn't changed a jot in 25 years (probably longer). Also visited the Cite de la Musique,the site of the Paris Conservatoire and the Musee de la Musique, which I heartily recommend. They have a permanent collection of musical instruments, including the dinosaur-sized Octobass created by Vuillaume for Berlioz (the particular instrument that I was keen to see, however, turned out not to be on display...long this space....). Currently there is a fabulous exhibition about music and the Third Reich, with extracts of film of Furtwangler and Richard Strauss conducting and exhibits including a programme from 'Brundibar' in Terezin, as well as Schoenberg's certificate of reconversion to Judaism, signed by Marc Chagall. Very strongly recommended.

Short version of above - I adore Paris, even if I have to go around on my own, but this wasn't really how I'd hoped to spend the past two days! I shall be writing a strongly worded letter to Eurostar about their noxious chicken sausages.

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Vibrato in Vilnius

Back from Vilnius, reeling a bit. Four incredibly intense days of walking, looking, listening, talking, tasting, paying tribute... I'll be writing about it 'properly', but here are some initial impressions.

I went on the invitation of the Vilnius Festival, thanks (of course) to Philippe Graffin who, with Nobuko Imai, was playing the new Duo Concertante for violin, viola and orchestra by Vytautas Barkauskas. There is a great deal of interest in the place at the moment thanks to Lithuania's accession to the EU, so it seemed a marvellous 'diem' to 'carpe'.

Vilnius is a city divided both physically and mentally. The old town, paradoxically, seems newest. It has been lovingly renovated with WHF grants and is now full of souvenir shops, little restaurants and such like, including my hotel, the Stikliai, which was utterly gorgeous (though we had a day of heavy rain and my ceiling developed 3 leaks!). In a few years' time - not many - there is going to be a tourist boom here. Beyond the old city, however, the town still seems partly immured in 1980s Russia.

The most moving event, among many, was the celebration after the Duo Concertante concert on Sunday evening. 'Vytas' Barkauskas and his wife, Svetlana, invited a number of us back to their flat, where they took enormous pride in gathering and entertaining their friends, far more than most British people generally do. Svetlana prepared masses of food, with sushi in Nobuko's honour and Baron Philippe de Rothschild wine in Philippe's, not to mention an incredible home-made poppyseed cake with DUO written on it in large letters - a recipe, apparently, of 'Vytas's grandmother's. There were toasts, celebrations and conversations in an extraordinary mix of languages (Lithuanian, English, French, German, Russian, Japanese, you name it) until almost 2am. I experienced this kind of warmth and hospitality in Kiev ten years ago. It's a special approach to life: soulful, heartfelt and deeply touching. Barkauskas and I managed to communicate in French, more or less; but when we said goodbye on the last day and I apologised for my lousy vocabulary, he declared that he understands everything with his eyes, head and heart.

On Monday, however, I went to the Jewish Museum. Emerged deeply upset. We've all seen pictures and documents of the Holocaust, but being in a place where it happened - a place very different from Berlin, where memorials and rebuilding have transformed the city - made it feel desperately close. The hotel's immediate vicinity used to be the ghetto. I found the statue of my ancestor the Gaon 20 yards up the road - apparently in the middle of nowhere, but a map in the museum revealed that this open area of ill-kempt grass and Soviet-era offices was where the Great Synagogue once stood. It seated more than 3000 people and was the heart of Jewish life in the town that for so long was a renowned centre of culture, learning and art. The Jerusalem of the North. It was burned down by the Nazis and its ruins were then flattened by the Russians. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were shot in the woods at nearby Ponar.

The museum evidently runs on a shoestring. You can visit Ponar, but I didn't want to. The Gaon, topical though his memorial may be, is tricky to find. My impression of modern-day Lithuanians is that they don't know much about any of this, aren't interested and don't really see why they should be. After all, goes the argument, they were victims too (they were, of course). Even the Mr Big of the music world there - someone who has initiated a couple of festivals of Jewish music and art - said that to them, that world is something historical. Which, I guess, means something that isn't alive any longer. I met and interviewed Vilnius's one Jewish composer, Anatolijus Senderovas, who is writing a ballet score for next year's festival and is a most delightful man. By that time I felt very glad to see him.

They're missing a trick - for one thing, they could make more of their most famous musical son, one Jascha Heifetz. The stage of the Filharmonja, where Philippe and Nobuko played their new piece, was where little Jascha aged about seven made his debut. The morning before we left, several of us went to find Heifetz's birthplace, which Philippe had tracked down. No marking; no celebration. Behind the house, some ancient stables. Heifetz was not perceived as Lithuanian. Therefore, little credit is given to him - other than by crazy journalists, violinists and record producers on bizarre pilgrimmages to his back yard.

Vilnius is full of churches, packed to the rafters on Sunday morning. There is one synagogue - currently closed, apparently because of infighting in the Jewish community.

Food...Dumplings R Us. Potato pancakes R Us too...effectively latkes. Delicious, but a little goes a long way and sits heavy on the stomach. My favourite local food: cold borscht with hot potatoes. My favourite meal experienced in Vilnius: of all things, a Japanese feast on Saturday night with the Barkauskases, Philippe, Nobuko & Simon Foster. A totally international group of six people, only two of whom shared a first language (Svetlana's is Ukranian), eating Japanese food in Lithuania!

The whole trip was an experience that I will remember vividly for the rest of my life. It was part fairy tale, part nightmare, part glorious, part just all too much... More about it will emerge in due course as I start writing my articles.

Monday, June 14, 2004

Yay for the global village

Just back from a long weekend in Denmark, celebrating our sixth wedding anniversary with friends in Aarhus. Tom's first job was in the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra, back in the early 1980s. He still speaks the language fluently (incredible) and loves going back. It's a delightful place, pretty and friendly, gentle and fun to be in - and the northern light is sharp and silvery and marvellous, especially at this time of year. We spent yesterday celebrating with friends who are respectively a nurse (Danish), a microbiologist (Danish) and a radiologist (originally Canadian) - walking by the sea and enjoying a bottle or two of champagne in the afternoon on a deserted beach.

In this laid-back, international context, it was depressing to hear about the strides made by the UK Independence Party in the elections the other day. The world has become such a small place that you really can't turn the clock back and pretend that it's unnecessary to team up with anybody but your own little island and its island mentality. I feel very sorry for people who can't see past the end of their own noses. They don't know what they're missing.

In the musical sphere, we're better placed than most to appreciate the benefits of the increasingly international society. Tom's orchestra has recently appointed a Hungarian, a Chinese girl, a Spaniard, someone from Holland, a French violinist, a South African and several Russians. There are several Germans already, an Italian or two and a particularly charming and infamous Brazilian cellist who seems to get tickets for the finals of every World Cup. For Glyndebourne, take all of this, add singers and stir well. Everyone is pulling together towards the same end. Everyone has concerns in common and friends are made across every boundary. Hence boundaries cease to exist.

I'm losing track of the number of international couples that we know. My brother is about to marry an Italian. Our friend Paul Lewis, hotshot British pianist, has just married the Norwegian cellist of the Vertavo Quartet, Bjorg Vaernes - many congratulations to them!! We know couples who are French and American, Russian and Canadian, Tartar and Welsh. And countless others. That's one of the best things about the modern western world: this cultural exchange is endlessly stimulating.

As it happens, I love England. I am proud of our heritage in cathedrals, great houses, beautiful gardens, pretty villages, literature, certain kinds of music, cricket on the green etc etc. But, being privileged enough to live among music and musicians, I don't see any sign of the threat that so many people in this country think that Europe poses.

When Tom moved to Aarhus, he'd spent the past few years at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, living in a cramped bedsit where he had to put coins into a meter to get any heating. He practised all the time and lived on peanut butter sandwiches and orange juice. Manchester in those days was a pretty vile place, grimy and depressed and gloomy. Then he got his job in Aarhus and suddenly found himself in a clear-aired, friendly, clean environment with a thriving cafe society, an easy-going population, lots of bicycles and thousands of Danish blondes. He thought he'd died and gone to heaven.

ALSO - ARTICLE IN TODAY'S 'INDEPENDENT' by yrs truly, about Beloved Clara and the increasing spate of music & words projects going on. Link on the sidebar.