Saturday, June 11, 2016


                 (chandelier at the concertgebouw cafe - waiting for 6.15 dinner in the mirror room)

One of the great pleasures of Amsterdam is its Concertgebouw, about which I've made notes before here and here.

There are many others, not least its people whose civility and tolerance is palpable on even short stays although there appears to be cracks appearing, as in the whole European experiment, as those whom tolerance embraced now subvert the very principles that gave them succour.

As in Paris we did the AirBnB thing again (our hostess a classical pianist) in a huge apartment just outside Centrum with the Vondell Park, Museum Area and the Concertgebouw a short tram trip or a comfortable walk away. And as in Paris, it was mostly cool and showery but that suited us, escapees from the bright burning sun of a long summer. With a huge appartment, visitors from Rotterdam, and some business to attend to, we slipped into an easy and comfortable routine and we'd would be back in a heartbeat.

The street leading to the tram line into town was a daily (ex sunday) street market (mostly foods, mostly cheese and fish) and we were half a block from the old tram sheds now converted into a vast food hall, a cinema complex, specialty shops, a library, etc. It's all very cold climate - you could spend days and nights in there.

Back to the Concertgebouw, where we went to three concerts --- with three different Dutch orchestras!

The first was (I know, I know) Gergiev and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra playing the Beethoven Violin Concerto with Nikolaj Znaidier (who is also principal guest conductor at Marinsky) and Prokofiev's Sixth Symphony. We sat close. The Beethoven was confident and brilliantly executed, but I found it cold, unmoving. The Prokofiev (1947) I wasn't familiar with, a dark and jarring work of impossible detail.

                                                    (Nikolaj Zanier receiving the flowers)

Prior, we went to dinner in the Mirror Room, under the concert platform, not for the first time, and it was again a great pleasure.  By the way, drinks - soft, red wine, white wine, juices - are free at intervals in the Concertgebouw, and how civilised is that? Not to mention easy and time sparing.

Second was Osmo Vänakä and the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra in an interesting programme of The Finnish composer Sebastian Fagerlund'Ignite, Bartok's second Violin Concerto with the very charismatic Greek Violinist Leonidas Kavakos, and Sibelius's 4th Symphony. I like Vänskä. Ignite was a short landscape work with apocalyptic tendencies, to my ear, and was really interesting. Mr. Fagerlund came on stage for  acclamation. The Bartok, which I read was premiered in the Concertgebouw (1939) was another new work for me, not that easy the first time, though I was rivetted on Mr Kavakos. The fourth wouldn't have been my first choice of Vanska and Sibelius (that would be the seventh) but I am incredibly grateful to have heard it live, with Vanska: it was, hardly surprisingly, completely absorbing and I felt I was hearing it the right way in the right acoustic, this mysterious introverted and uncertain work from the time of Freud and the Great War, and now will revisit it with heightened awareness.

                                            (concertmaster, Leonidas Kovakos, Osmo Vanska)

And then there was the third concert with Hartmut Haenchen and the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra playing Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks followed by Shostakovich's 8th. Strange programming I thought, although the Handel seems to be one of Haenchmen's fetish pieces, and ultimately the contrast (between the pieces and their execution) was revelatory. It was a brilliant concert of impeccable musicianship led by a master, in the wonderful acoustic, the clarity can be emphasised enough, of this special place. Outstanding.

The Handel (with full orchestra) was forward, bombastic and of course celebratory, if at once pompous and terribly British. The Shostakovich was another thing altogether, and a work I've listened to but now I realise, never heard.

1943 - thats what it's all about. 1943. The pain, the anguish, the brutality, the intolerable cruelty, the idiocy, the determination, the human spirit, the aching hopeful resolution, with just a hint of uncertainty, was delivered with an intensity that was bordering on unbearable. The audience was stunned. Mute. After the applause had started, and slowly crescendoed, till the audience rose in unison, the calls went on and on, and on, and people took to the aisles to head to the stage in acclamation.

                      (Hartmut Haenchen and the Nederlands Philharmonic after Shostakovich 8th)

Saturday, May 28, 2016


Some numbers I heard today, down by the canal.

165 million cups of tea are drunk a day in UK
98% with milk

234 million surgical procedures take place world wide a year
51 mill in USA

Every 13.5 Kg increase in body weight requires an extra 25 miles (40 km) of blood vessels

Friday, May 27, 2016



Our second visit to the Philharmonie was a completely different experience. We were in good stalls seats this time and how I managed that was a stroke - this performance should have sold out the day it was announced.

The concert was Daniel Harding with the Orchestre de Paris - Berg's Violin Concerto in Memory of a Dead Child, with Isabelle Faust, and Mahler's 4th, with Christina Landschamer.

The Berg I find a hard nut to crack. And it keeps on popping up, and I keep on thinking I'm nearly there. And then I hear it again. Faust was very good but I wasn't moved although I wanted to be, perhaps that's the problem.

The Mahler 4 was a benchmark. I don't think I've ever heard anything quite so beautiful. My first Mahler 4 was decades ago, a student buy, the Klemperer with E.S. I've waited till now to hear it and feel I've heard it. I've moved on from my last - the Budapest Festival with Fischer. Harding is amazing. Balletic. There was a total suspension - of the past or the future, in the hall, in the breathing, in the sound, which would sit there, crystalline at times, in the those impeccably timed and potent moments of sudden stillness. What a great orchestra. Christina Landschamer was perfect - a richness infusing innocence. 

It was out last night in Paris.


Any lingering quibbles about the cancellation of Anja Harteros (not that much of a surprise) from the current Paris run  of Herbert Wernike's Der Rosenkavalier were soon banished when at the end of the overture, bristling and waltzing and bubbling along with Phillipe Jordan and the Orchestra of the Opera Nationale of Paris, Mohammed appears as a Commedia dell'arte clown in black face and with a sweep of arm and white gloved hand welcomes us and bids us enter ....... the bedroom.

The production dates from Salzburg in 1995 (has been distributed on DVD(*) with a glamorous highly marketable cast and remained till yesterday an unseen bit of operatic legend for me. Thankfully. The evolution of the beauty of it seen the first time live is something pretty special - especially on this big Bastille stage. And in the vastness of it all, whether dealing with large scenes of chorus and endless numbers of extras, or two lovers in a bed, the choreography seemed faultless, impeccably stylish, brilliantly clever and witty, detailed to a inch, and never without old Vienna in focus.

We have stepped into a vast multi-pannelled mirrored early 20th C bedroom glowing under an acre of fractured (lit-from-behind) deco ceiling, a woman motionless on her back while some way from the bed a boxers and shirt clad young man smokes a cigarette. It's a bedroom of importance.

Scene changes move seamlessly with slides, turns and revolves of these panels, broken by (hand-painted I understand) murals evoking the Marie Therese epoch. Everything and everyone is at once on stage in 3D and reflected at any number of angles and pserpectives, or not all all. Reality is a shifting thing and nothing is as it might seem, nor stays the same.

Yet in the midst of this hologram (if you really let yourself go), the characters are as beautifully alive as are the household patterns, the country city divide, the hint of darkness, and the shimmer of love.

And Mohammed will draw the curtains back together several hours later, wiping his black face off, the show's over folks, and bid us farewell. (All three dropped handkerchiefs and Mohammed picked up .... Octavian's!)

It's not fair to get into the voices really; I mean what's to say. They were stunning. Michaela Kaune stepped beautifully up to the plate restricted only by the size of the barn though she'd conquered (or save for) it by the big trio. And she did look a bit young, Countess's wish notwithstanding.

Daniela Sindram's Octavian is outstanding, blitzing the role vocally and dramatically. That she may be leaving the role and moving to bigger heavier stuff is understandable; Countess's loss. No silvered knight this betrothal agent but, in genus at work, he arrives from the depths as the (reproduced in flats) Empire stairs cleave wide, on a big black stair case and with black on black looks breathtakingly suspended in midair immobile in a cream white topcoat and tails, Dietrich -esq. Cross-dreassing cross-dressing.

And it is Erin Morley's lovely girlish (but never silly) and on the cusp Sophie who ascends the stairs, a startling seduction in lieu of the usual descent by the male.

I've seen Peter Rose's Ochs before and it is a wonderfully beguiling performance. And long - he doesn't drop it for a second. Beautifully articulated, his muddied aristocracy is endearing and his bafflement at the ways and mores of the city, rather than the oft over-gauched performance, is very engaging. You need to like Ochs and Mr Rose makes it easy. You needs to like everyone. And there was lots of everyones, and they were perfect.

The other presence still well in my mind is Eve-Maud Hubeaux's Annina. What a fabulous performer - tall and elegant, naughty but nice, and a big voice.

The lighting by Werner Breitenfelder is simply masterful.

We went Sunday May 15 in the afternoon in really good seats - way to go here. S and friends had come from Nuremberg.

Some idea of the numbers on stage:

Phillipe Jordan with principals behind from (our) left to right - Kaune, Morley, Rose (behind PJ's arm) and a very masculine looking Sindram just in frame on the right :

(*) It's impossible to believe for a second that the specialness of the production, the sheer scale and beauty of it, is within the scope of the camera. It's vital that you decide where the eyes go - it's huge - and for how long. Otherwise you miss out on a lot.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016


I hadn't intended visiting the Musée d'Orsay. I've never really liked it actually. Thought it was a bit of a mess to be honest.

But something strange happened. 

The other night at a favourite local restaurant we were crammed into two seats - you know: table to table, cheek by jowl, drizzly rain, the heater on under the green canvas, cigarette smoke everywhere - when a red sweater caught my eye, and then a greying clutch of hair tucked into a bun. Without saying a word I took out my phone, got this up on screen, and showed the man in the red sweater, our elbows already rubbing, this 

from a recent post.

Shocks all round. They were from New York. Anyway, chatter chatter and when the Henri Rousseau (1844 - 1910) retrospective came up, highly recommended, I was there. These things don't just happen. 

It was brilliant. I'm mad about the style - the loss of the third dimension, the brilliance of the colouring, the naivety; the wit; the savagery, and the sadness.

He was quite a character. Several marriages; children dead - two from seven surviving; early rejection by the establishment; fiercely nationalistic; influencing and influenced by his peers - other works inserted to demonstrate ...

Photographs even without flash (which is generally permitted everywhere theses days) were not allowed, as I along with many was gently reminded not long after the first room.

Never mind - there is still this delicious "Footballers" from somewhere on the internet and now in my luggage as a fridge magnet!

And I did discover one particularly interesting corner of the Musée - the little cafe high up behind the old station clock.

Monday, May 23, 2016


(really worth the click)

It's where we stay. It serves the best Tarte Tatin in the world (we should know). And it's changing. There are encroaching more and more designer and repetitive any-where-in-the-universe shops for the tourists, tourists, and tourists (we should know). The street of old is being forced further north up beyond Rue Bretagne and Rue Oberkampf.

But then there's the French - irrepressible, inventive, and endlessly witty.