blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

A masterclass in conducting

"The National Arts Centre Orchestra have graciously put themselves at our disposal," David Zinman, "renowned international conductor and pedagogue," announced to the audience attending his "workshop for young conductors" in Southam Hall at the NAC this Monday. The audience, including a row of music students at the back, didn't have to buy a ticket for this open rehearsal. As we took our seats, the orchestra was practising like mad, in mufti, most of them wearing jeans, and when the rehearsal got going they played for four hours.

The first turn was taken by the young man from Japan, So Awatsuji of Japan, who brought in the orchestra in dramatic style, using big arm movements. He was good! The maestro was sitting in the orchestra at the back of the 2nd violins, wearing a microphone, advised him on his tempi and told him to relax.

The second participant, Georgios Balatsinos from Greece, conducted the same music but more sedately, using a baton. More criticism from Mr. Zinman here: "Why don't you help the basses a bit? Look at the basses to keep them moving, because they're pulling it back." He complained that Mr. Balatsinos was giving three different tempi, when there was no need for that. "If the modifications are too big, you can get into trouble," he warned him.

The next item, Haydn's Symphony No. 88, has running passages for the double basses that would be easy to lose control of. Vinay Parameswarvan (assistant conductor of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, although he said that he came from San Francisco) whose name Mr. Zinman couldn't quite pronounce, was the conductor on the podium this time. He too used a baton.

"You're still holding the stick up!" his tutor protested. "Give more energy to the upbeat."

Again there were difficulties with tempo. "The problem for me is that you're not quite sure what tempo you want. You're kind of hedging your bets. Make your upbeat crisper. That's what's slowing them down."

He stopped the music again. "What would you tell the strings here?" he asked. "How should they articulate? It's a technical question."

The young man was flummoxed and didn't know what to say.

"Come off the slur sooner!" was the answer.

To me, watching the masterclass, the key component in good conducting seems to be self-confidence, but how can you acquire that until you've become utterly familiar with the music and have mastered the technical skills required? The trouble is, music being a non-verbal art, it's extremely hard to describe what's required for a great performance in words. Therefore Mr. Zinman could only convey an approximation of his ideas. At one point he took the baton from the young man's hand and demonstrated what he wanted.

"There has to be more contrast in what you're doing, otherwise the orchestra just doesn't watch any more."

The last participant in the workshop, Francesco Lecce-Chong, an associate conductor of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, had an elegant style of conducting, making circular rather than straight up and down movements with his hands. But this conductor, too, was encouraged to relax more: "If you have the right tempo, just let it happen, let them play!"

He required "a little more 2nd oboe––just look at her, to say this is important." But later the woodwind section needed to be "less espressivo, so that all the focus goes to the 'cellos."

Difficult parts of the music had to be repeated over and over, but the maestro made encouraging remarks: "They're playing it better every time."

They took a much-needed break half way through the rehearsal and I bought a coffee in the foyer with one of my NAC coupons. Then we watched the promising Japanese conductor again, dancing with his arms through the 3rd movement of the Haydn. Mr. Zinman said that in the trio section the bassoons ought to sound more "like bagpipes. Bring out the raw sound." He was asked to "make it crisper ... do you know what that means? Like rice crispies!" The young man laughed and nodded. "Add spice to the sound!"

Sometimes he wanted the trainees to more explicit to the orchestra about their performance. "They're using too much bow here; they can't stay together." Or, "They're not playing the rests."

"When you start this movement [now the last movement of Haydn's 88th] you must look at the bassoons. They're not quite sure what you're doing, so they do their best, but ..."

"Are you happy with this tempo? The bassoon's not with you ..." The bassoonist was coming in for a lot of attention so Mr. Zinman mollified him by saying, "He's a wonderful player, actually." He explained what he meant about the problem. "The strings are pushing, the bassoon's pulling––split the difference!"

The expert was clearly fond of Haydn's music and wanted perfection. "This has to be furioso, so keep them furious!" ... "Haydn would shoot you for that! It doesn't make sense to slow down!"... "The strings could play twice as loud––get them to play their guts out! Bring the house down!" And finally, at an easier passage, the music was allowed to happen by itself: "When you get there, don't beat at all, just let them play, like kids let out of school."

Monday, January 26, 2015

Triumphant Afghans

The first few Afghan girls whom our Ottawa-CFUW's "study and interest group" (University Women Helping Afghan Women) helped and encouraged have just graduated from the Gawharshad Institute of Higher Education in Kabul, founded five years ago by the indomitable Dr. Sima Samar. Young Afghan women have to overcome what seemed like insuperable obstacles to get to this point––I have been reading Sally Armstrong's* Veiled Threat with horror––but, inspired by people like Dr. Simar, there will be more to follow.

UWHAW has just been sent this picture of the ten girls at their graduation ceremony, holding their certificates, and letters of congratulation from Ottawa. I have just posted it on UWHAW's Facebook page, but for the record I'd also like it to appear here:

Gawharshad has the highest percentage of female students in institutes of higher education in Afghanistan, and its classes are mixed. 

The hat throw! Both photos were sent to UWHAW by Farah Malik

* I heard today that Sally Armstrong has promised to come and meet UWHAW and friends at the group's garden party in June. That will be another occasion worth reporting.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Young Canadian musicians thinking of Cambodia

For the 9th year in a row young musicians of Ottawa teamed up to present a concert in aid of homes for orphaned, homeless children in Cambodia. This concert took place at the MacKay United Church in New Edinburgh today and the local city councillor and neighbourhood businesses supported it. I found the advert for the concert yesterday while we were lunching at Da Bombe on Beechwood. When the owner saw me looking at the advert he said, "Here's a complimentary ticket we can't use. Would you like it?"

So I went to the concert for free this afternoon (leaving a donation). Some members of the Cambodian community of Ottawa––there's a Cambodian Association of the Ottawa Valley––were there too. The young man who introduced the concert said that the first wave of Cambodian immigrants settled here after the horrors of the Khmer Rouge régime in which 2 million people were wiped out.

The first musical item on the programme was an astonishing performance of the first movement (the orchestral parts transcribed for piano) of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto by a 13 year old, Maria Krstic. She couldn't half play, from memory too, but was shy about acknowledging the audience's applause and making eye contact with us. The rest of the performers, a few of them seeming rather scared of the audience too, were older, either undergraduates or very recent graduates from Ottawa University and McGill. Six of them were violinists and there were three violists (Tobi Nussbaum the councillor said that he had once played the viola), three pianists, two cellists and Kristina Slodki, a harpist, introducing us to a piano piece transcribed for the harp by her teacher, who had apparently "fallen in love with it"––an Impromptu by Hugo Reinhold.

The violinist Christina Deauville owned a resonant instrument and played a long movement from Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto which I don't remember hearing before and would like to hear again.

We listened to three items for chamber ensembles: the first movement of Schumann's E-flat major piano quartet, a couple of movements from Beethoven's Opus 95 and finally an original composition for string quartet by another of the violinists, Kyle Burghout, who had written these Tunes from the Blue Ridge during his stay in North Carolina last summer.

Celebrating winter with the Europeans

Yesterday in Ottawa was a great day for Canadian-European integration when in the grounds of Rideau Hall, the Governor General's residence, a celebration of winter took place. It was also a great day to be out there, with the temperature not too cold for once, although not above 0º. The Canadians and the European diplomats had got together to set up a whole range of activities for families to enjoy for free; no money changed hands, but there were horse drawn wagon rides up and down the driveway, giant Norwegian skis for teams of people to race on, kick-sleds and mini curling for the children, and best of all, dog-sled rides. At the entrance to the grounds by the visitors' centre the German Embassy had a "mini Brandenburger Tor" erected, made entirely out of ice, as the German Ambassador told me when I met him and his wife at the Kartoffelpuffer and Glühwein stall. The Swiss Embassy had conjured up an amazingly versatile Alphorn player, complete with a set of cowbells, and the Swedes were in charge of games of Bandy on Rideau Hall's 19th century ice rink. Carol and I were served to a cup of blueberry soup there, Blåbärssoppa, very warming.

Here are some of the pictures I took:

China comes first

It is no accident that the Chinese word for China is 中国: Zhong guo, the Middle Kingdom, i.e. centre of the world. That is how they still see themselves, and another significant word in the language is 家人: jia ren, the household, family people. They are the ones that matter most.

This week I attended a lecture in the Canada China Friendship Society series by Howard Balloch, Canada's longest serving (former) Ambassador, his subject being Xi Jinping As Helmsman: Course Changes For China. He has given this talk before and knows how to enthral his audience.

He said that Xi Jinping is the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao. He is popular and likely to remain in power until 2022. He consolidated his position very quickly, and has amassed strong men around him. The Vice President Li Yuanchou, for example, is a "tremendous reformer" and "irreversible and transformative" changes are certainly coming soon, but they will be "quiet" and "gradual." Xi's anti-corruption drive goes deeper than just getting rid of his opponents. There is a new sense of urgency: 38,000 cases of corruption were investigated last year. No longer can an ambitious man aspire to a high status if he has family members living abroad or in the entertainment business.

What we are starting to see is an "imperial China redux," said Mr. Balloch. Xi Jinping won't be willing to attack other nations but nor will he be pushed around. The dialogue between China and the USA is no longer so crucial to China's interests. What is more important is China's relationship with its immediate neighbours. There's talk of a New Silk Road these days and of a plan to build railways from China to Europe. Chinese companies (in which the state will continue to be a major shareholder) are making huge investments in the extraction of oil and minerals from the former Soviet states in the southeast where Russian influence is dwindling because of China's rise. In the race against Russia, "China has won," he said, and now it is making its presence felt in Africa too (for the sake of Africa's resources") and is "getting better at it." It is as well to remember, though, that China's leadership is not internationalist in its outlook. China's own economic interests always come first.

They have now relaxed the one child per family policy, although local authorities are still applying the policy in "reprehensible ways" and, interestingly, upwardly mobile professionals often do not want more than one child these days. English is now the second language used in China, particularly by the younger generation, and this is encouraged. It will be interesting to see if Chinese script survives or whether it will be superseded by Pinyin. Up to 18 million people per year are moving into the cities––this is encouraged. The buildings that went up in the 80s and 90s are of such poor quality that they need to be torn down and replaced, but house prices are presently coming down. For the present leaders of China, the improvement of the environment is a high priority, the citizens being particularly aware of the dangers of air pollution, and expressing their opinions in demonstrations, to which the government is responding. There's a feeling that they "must get it right" and again, Mr. Bulloch used the phrase "a deep sense of urgency."

He said a good deal about the Chinese economy: its growth is being kept to 7% and a "rebalancing" of the economy is taking place. In the financial sector private banks are forming, although in general the bias is towards state owned enterprises. Up till 1978, only 0.05% of the world population were poorer than the average Chinese citizen, based on per capita income. Now, the percentage is 50%, and China contributes 25% of global growth. In the not so distant future the RMB (renminbi) will become "fully convertible."

Social reform is a fragile process but it "really is happening," as is land reform, farmers now starting to own their own properties. A more western style of taxation is being introduced (VAT, property tax, etc.). In the late 1990s CIDA initiated a major program for the training of Chinese judges from China’s Senior Judges College, which has borne fruit, and from now on there'll be a more vertical (less local) structure to the Chinese legal system with circuit courts and appeal courts, and the public reporting of judgements––all new concepts. But Mr. Bulloch kept stressing that China's well established infrastructure and culture takes a long time to change, that there is resistance at first and that the final results of the drive to reform things are likely to be compromises. The law is still subservient to the Party.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Ancient wisdom from the far east

For Christmas, my sister sent me a signed copy of a book called The Philosopher Cat by a painter and writer called Kwong Kuen Shan, whom she met; my sister and she both live in Wales. It is a contemplative little book interspersing charming images of cats with thoughts and sayings, some anonymous, from the Chinese sages of ancient times.

From it I am beginning to discover the basics of this school of philosophy. I am learning that, according to such a way thinking, the qualities of the wise are as follows:

They do not compare themselves with other people.
They are tolerant.
They are not interested in the status of fame or wealth.
They are non-competitive, non-intimidating, not easily provoked, not vindictive.
They are not greedy.
They do not rush, but are cautious in their actions.
They are modest, kind, frugal and honest.
They keep calm, not dwelling on anxieties or the attempt to achieve a certain goal.
They are pensive and observant.
They value their solitude.
They live a tranquil life, immersing themselves in nature (the observation of animals, plants, landscapes and the sky).
They accept their mortality and the transience of things, appreciating what's here and now.

My husband, who is an architypal westerner, says this is a philosophy for old men: "really old men."

This month I have also read a novel––The Sound of the Mountain––by the Nobel prizewinner, Yasunari Kawabata, a Japanese writer. Here is a link to the speech he made when accepting his prize for Literature in 1968. It seems to echo much of the above; the novel I read is the story of a reserved but affectionate, long-suffering businessman trying to come to terms with aging, who finds great comfort in his encounters with flowers, trees and birds ... and poetry. It is not a soft book, however, including frequent references to drunkenness, infidelities, abortion and suicide. The main character has to come to terms with all that, too.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Flattery will get you nowhere!

Like all obscure bloggers (although my "pageviews all time history" number is 79,602 to date, I don't kid myself), I receive plenty of spam comments, none of which actually comment on the content of my blogposts, all of which serve their own purposes, advertising some other website. I routinely delete them unread, especially the ones written in Kanji or Cyrillic, but occasionally I'm amused by the computer-generated gibberish in the message that's been left, or the "comments" that have obviously been processed through Google Translate:
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Friday, January 16, 2015

What to do on a cold day in Ottawa

The Smithvale Stables on Carling Avenue offers horse-drawn wagon rides through their woods and fields, the wagon being fitted with sleigh runners. This morning the weight of the wagon, loaded with diplomats and their friends and children, broke the icy crust that had formed on top of the snow, blown into drifts. Some of us walked in its wake on snowshoes.

Uschi on the right was borrowing my husband's snowshoes

Coming back to the barn into wind, the windchill was a bitter -24º: I had my tubular scarf over my face again, right up to my eyes, plus a hat, plus the hood of my padded coat. It was still cold. The inside of the barn (aka "Banquet Hall") warmed us up though, with the usual hot chocolate and chilli beef to go with the other food we'd brought, and a trio of musicians––co-incidentally called "The Diplomats"––kept us entertained and got us dancing, especially the three young sisters who'd come along with their grandmother on this school-free (PD) day.

Sisters inventing a dance to the music in the barn

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Raising chickens in Afghanistan

Last Thursday Leah Soroka told CFUW Ottawa's University Women Helping Afghan Women about her recent development work in Afghanistan.

Leah (on the right) at the UWHAW meeting,
photo by Jill Moll
“You are never the same when you come back from Afghanistan!” she began. Her boss in Afghanistan was killed by a suicide bomber. 

While developing agricultural supply chains as director of a counter narcotics strategy for regional stability in rural Afghanistan, she advanced the role of Afghan women in agriculture. Her project provided the poor with a means of livelihood (so they would not have time or inclination to participate in “illegal activities”) keeping kitchen gardens, raising chickens and selling over 90% of their produce in the markets. They were instructed in food security and nutrition. Their menfolk appreciated the returns when they took the eggs and vegetables to market and thus saw the point of the women’s endeavours. Literacy and numeracy levels are extremely low, and saving and investing were foreign concepts in this “pocket economy.” Leah described the creative methods used to educate these women. For example, to teach them how to manage their finances, they put eggs into three jars: the first was the “happy jar” containing money for immediate spending on themselves and their families, the contents of the second jar represented the money needed to replace chickens that had died, the third jar represented the amount to be kept aside for chicken feed and other such expenses.

In a recent poll only 20% of women in Afghanistan defined themselves as working people. Leah interviewed 300 women while in the country, finding out what were felt to be their obstacles to work. She asked the UWHAW group what we thought those obstacles might be. Together with Leah we came up with …
  • Lack of acceptance by the men.
  • Limited access to education and job opportunities.
  • The need for security at the workplace.
  • A requirement for “cultural conformity”––menfolk sometimes being ashamed of having a working woman in their family.
  • In a “country without newspapers,” limited access to information.
  • Lack of financial or legal advice.
If a woman becomes widowed and remarries, her children are repossessed by her previous in-laws. Therefore, depending on their permission, or how rich or liberal they are, a young widow cannot remarry without losing access to her children, but she can go to work! The Red Crescent offers such women crafts, livelihoods and places to work.

Practically speaking, all-women initiatives in Afghanistan are harder to establish than when men are involved, although a bid for international funds stands a better chance if women are on the payroll, so all male ventures are not a good idea either. 

We outsiders must take notice of the men of Afghanistan. Many are “tormented, coerced and depressed” because of their traumatic experiences. Some are “pure of heart”. This is a “whole nation suffering from battered-wife syndrome!” but there are multiple truths. Sometimes, for example, corruption itself can lead to good things, such as the establishment of laws for the protection of wealth, even if it is ill-gotten wealth.

Leah thinks that a change in women’s rights in Afghanistan has to be gradual. She reminded us that it has taken a long time for women to achieve equal status with men in Canada, although by now, Canada is a global leader in this regard. If the Afghan men lose face by too much hasty change, that gives a “potential for retribution” in the future. She described a business meeting in conservative Jalalabad where the men sat (on the floor) taking part with vigour and all the women at the meeting stood apart at one side of the room huddled in their shawls, merely observing. In the city of Kabul, though, it is quite different these days, with men and women making equal contributions. 

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Expressionists

We took the train to Montreal on January 1st, in the evening, eating a tasty meal on board. I enjoyed every minute of that ride.

Kandinsky's expressionist painting of an "Arabian cemetery"
The next morning, Chris and I were among the first visitors of the day to the Musée des Beaux Arts on Sherbrooke Street, to visit the Van Gogh to Kandinsky exhibition there. We did very well to arrive early because an hour or so later the queue for tickets had extended outside the building and the queue to hand in coats at the cloakroom snaked right across the foyer too. It is one of the best art exhibitions I've ever seen; its last day will be Sunday, January 25th, and I'm wondering whether I'll have the chance to go again before it closes. I've no objection to the impressionists––Monet is my favourite––but the subsequent painters' reaction against that style, expressionism, excites me more; it seems to me this was a sturdier art form and had more to say. It certainly used brighter colours!

Paris in 1900 was known by artists as the ville lumière, and there, at the Café du Dôme on the Boulevard du Montparnasse more often than not, French and German painters (and some Americans and Russians) would gather to inspire one another and live their risqué lives. They called themselves the dômiers.

Girl with Flower Vases by Modersohn-Becker
Van Gogh (who painted 25 self-portraits), Georges Seurat (who died young), Gauguin and Cézanne were the painters who influenced the expressionist movement. As young men, Signac, Veuillard, Luce, Cross, van Rysselberghe of Belgium and Amiet of Swizterland all imitated the "dotty" paintings of Seurat. In the 1890s, Gauguin was trying to develop his distinctive style and experimenting with juxtapositions of colour in his depiction of landscapes in the Pont-Aven area of Brittany, but then he announced his determination to live and die in Tahiti instead and set off for the South Seas, never to return. There were some paintings from his self-imposed exile in the exhibition and a note on how he chose to align orange with blue, red with green, yellow with violet, in his work. An aspirant artist named Paula Modersohn-Becker who'd grown up in Bremen moved to Dresden and thence to Paris. Her Girl with Flower Vases was very like a Gauguin. She too died young. The German artists Max Pechstein and Emil Nolde followed Gauguin to the South Seas.

Schmidt-Rottluff's early paintings were very similar to those by Van Gogh. If there's one thing I learned from this exhibition it is how closely allied were the French and German artists, in those days. The First World War put an end to their collaboration, of course.

My husband was very taken by the paint slapped on the nude by Christian Rohlfs (1911).

Vlaminck, taking a look at Van Gogh, liberated himself from conventional colour schemes and burst out with paintings, for example, of orange, red and blue fields. As a focal point, a farmer in the fields was given a bright green shirt.

The group known as the Fauves (wild ones), formed in 1905––Kandinsky and his lover Gabriele Münter, Braque, Vlaminck, Dufy, Manguin and company, congregated at Murnau in the Alps, where the sky was a deep blue and the houses bright with colour (they painted deep blue or dark green shadows for contrast). Gabriele Münter's Wind and Clouds catches the mountain wind in motion, almost blowing the houses over. Dérain paints pink hills, and back in Paris his vivid boats at Chatou on the Seine are set in white water.

Modjesko's transvestite "soprano"
Dodo, by Kirchner
In 1905 four Bohemian artists in their 20s got together to form Die Brücke, in Dresden. The gallery displaying their work in Montreal this month is a memorable one, with provocative images of a greenish nude by Kirchner and Heckel's yellow 10-year old nude with red hair, clutching a doll. Apparently the study of African masks had influenced the way these artists painted their models' faces. Then there was Kirchner's Dodo with a Feather Hat, strongly outlined with her yellowish face framed with dark greens and blue, black and red. Kees van Dongen obviously wanted to shock the bourgeoisie with his painting of Girlfriends––a lesbian kiss between a fashionably fully clothed woman and a naked girl, very daring for those days––or of Modjesko, a portrait of a "soprano singer" who is actually a man in drag. The Purple Garter (1910) is an image of a girl wearing black stockings and nothing else, surrounded by blue / red shadows, streaks of green on her face. Kirchner's street scene in Berlin features prostitutes and their rich clients, its colours limited to pink, turquoise, purple, indigo and white.

Marquet: Beach Scene
Next to those, the landscapes seem refreshingly innocent, a Beach Scene by Marquet, with its unfinished look and limited range of colours, seeming to anticipate innumerable paintings by the Canadian artist David Milne. 

Matisse was asked to join die Brücke, but declined the invitation. As opposed to the impressionists, he set much store by linearity and form. Like Gauguin he loved experimenting with the juxtaposition of complimentary colours and like the young Germans he created vivid nudes, such as a bright pink one. Cézanne was another post-impressionist painter believing that the essence of things is in their structure. His apples and biscuits (imitated in another painting, by Dufy) seem startlingly 3-dimensional, but his Paysan en blouse bleue is the painting I'll remember best: done in 1897, it's the portrait of a farm worker from Cézanne's family estate in Provence, a dignified, contemplative, solidly real person.

Red Eiffel Tower by Delaunay
Sleeping Woman by Feinzinger
The following generation veered towards abstraction. Kalmweiler opened a gallery in Paris showing work by the fauves and the "cubists"––Delaunay's Red Eiffel Tower, for instance. Picasso (copied by Metzinger), Bracque and Marc created new angles, but the most angular paintings of all seem to have been done by the German-American Feinzinger: an extraordinary Bridge picture of 1913 that I wasn't allowed to photograph, and a sleeping woman with green skin.

Canada's Group of Seven picked up a good many of these styles, but that was later. As a young man Lawren Harris had studied in Berlin, which must have given him ideas.