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.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

An ancient and eternal instinct

We had the good fortune to be invited to a brunch for five couples, last weekend, at which our host and his wife initiated a philosophical discussion over which I'm still brooding.

He is an educator (a Professor of Political Thought and Humanities) who has recently written a book about globalisation, civilisation and the human condition, and Chris, of course, asked questions. If I understood him aright, Dr. R. sees civilisation (civilization, if you prefer that spelling) as the enlightenment of decently governed citizens. Contrary to the conventional notion that civilisation began in ancient Athens, he feels that the ancient Athenians did not get it quite right, because their decencies only involved the elite. Europeans were never truly civilised either, so long as they sought power over others within their various empires. The Chinese, despite their impressive governments and achievements, have not yet allowed their citizens sufficient freedom of thought. Our host made the provocative comment that human beings never became truly civilised until the 20th century, when at last --- in North America! --- the whole of society was engaged in civic responsibility, with shared standards of decency, not just the elite.

Well, that is debatable.

Around the brunch table, none of us being native-born Canadians (we were an Iranian, Lebanese, Egyptian, Dutch, Latvian, German and British mix), we also began to talk about Plato's (i.e. Socrates') concept of Ideal Forms and later, related philosophies, but, as conversations do, the theme wandered, and at one point we were thinking about the "thin red line" that divides a civilised, moral way of life from its opposite. I am not very good on such occasions, full of l'esprit de l'escalier, always imagining after the event what I ought to have contributed to the conversation. Thinking about those borderlines, as I shall do for days, if not weeks, I keep recalling the novel Mr. Sammler's Planet by the Nobel Prize winning writer Saul Bellow (set in 1960s New York), which I am now rereading. Mr. Sammler, who has suffered a great deal from the perversity and brutality of other people, comes to the conclusion that there is after all, within every human being, an instinctive awareness of the border between moral and immoral behaviour, and at the end he exclaims in a prayer for a friend who has died: "For that is the truth of it--that we all know, God, that we know, that we know, we know, we know."

Saul Bellow himself said: "You read the New Testament and the assumption Jesus makes continually is that people know the difference immediately between good and evil... And that is in part what faith means. It doesn't even require discussion. It means that there is an implicit knowledge -- very ancient if not eternal -- which human beings really share and that if they based their relationships on that knowledge existence could be transformed." (My emphasis.)

Monday, October 16, 2017

October 1st - 6th, in Ottawa

The rest of the week was interesting, too. I have been reading Shakespeare's Kings, a history book by John Julius Norwich written with reference to the history plays, after Chris and I had taken part in a play reading of Richard II the other weekend. For reinforcement, and sheer appreciation of the poetry and the top quality British acting, I have also been re-watching our videos of the first four plays in The Hollow Crown production: Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V.

Last Sunday we cycled to Landowne Park's Horticultural Building to be at one of the Canada-in-the-world events in this year's series. Slovakia was on show, with dancers on the stage and costumed young men and women playing an accompaniment at the side, a colourful and friendly occasion. Outside the hall, two professional ice hockey stars from the Slovak Republic were thrilling a crowd of children by playing street hockey with them on the patio.

That same afternoon Chris and I continued up the bike path along the canal to hear a lecture at Carleton University arranged by the Ottawa Friends of the Canadian Institute in Greece (CIG), the Archaeological Institute of America in Canada, the Canadian Institute for Mediterranean Studies (CIMS), the Parnassos Hellenic Cultural Society and Carleton's College of Humanities. A representative from the Greek Embassy was present too. The subject was The Battle of Marathon,the Athenians versus the Persians. The famous story of the Athenian runner Pheidippedes bringing the news of victory across the mountains from Marathon to Athens before dropping dead, the inspiration for the Olympic Games, is probably just a legend. There is no historical evidence for this feat
Monday evening, I went to the talk about outreach work being done by the National Arts Centre Music Education department, as was described in my previous blogpost.

Tuesday was a day for blood tests, a pneumonia innoculation, gardening and shopping.

I was meant to be at the Mosaicanada garden in Gatineau for a guided tour in a group on Wednesday morning, but I overslept and went to the midday concert at the NAC instead, swimming afterwards. Thursday I cycled to an apartment block standing across the street from Mosaicanada to take part in a German conversation, our topic being the history of seaside holidays --- Urlaub am Strand, and in particular the Strandkörbe (wicker beach chairs) which adorn the Baltic coast of northern Germany. Thomas Mann sat in one to write his novels. That evening, Barbara and I went to the Sibelius concert.
The next day, Friday afternoon, after that girls' choir concert at the NAC mentioned in the last blogpost, I called at the Horticultural Building again to see what China had to offer. It was "Beijing Week" which meant that most of the exhibition featured images and artifacts that I recognised from my happy visits to that city, which made me feel nostalgic. On the podium, a series of Chinese VIPs were holding forth in Chinese about China's Cultural Financing Platform and so on, the audience valiantly trying to follow, but even more valiant to my mind was the girl with a microphone who was giving a simultaneous translation into English. I know her! it was my Chinese tutor Jingnan Xue, wearing a smart black dress with golden necklace that suited her.

I missed seeing the masked Chinese acrobats who were to follow the speakers, warming up outside, because from there, I had to pedal back downtown in order to get to the Westin Hotel where I and my friends from the German conversation group had been invited to part of the World Tulip Summit to see the excellent, hour-long documentary, Tulip: Light of the East, explaining how tulip bulbs had travelled the world and how these flowers had at one time or another have represented invincibility, wealth and  In Arabic script, the word Allah looks rather like a tulip and indeed, the Arabic word for tulip (laleh) has the same characters as the word for God. A Turkish-Canadian member of our German group has been on the Canada Tulip Festival committee for the last 25 years. It was she who had invited us to see the film.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

More northern music, and then some percussion, too

At the NAC the hugely successful Ideas of North festival lasted for 11 days. Chris and I went to another free concert in the series at midday last Friday, five members of the Lapland Chamber Orchestra playing wind instruments at the bottom of The Staircase on which we sat, next to a four year old boy who behaved attentively throughout. His young mother was Asian and the child's solemnity and intense concentration reminded me of our grandson Eddie. After the concert I saw his mother showing him the instruments at close quarters, left beside the performers' music stands. What excellent parenting!

The music we heard was all Finnish and unfortunately I didn't manage to record the composers or titles of the pieces that we heard. The first was "new" music with strange, certainly northern, sound effects, made by the performers doing strange things with their instruments, tapping and blowing through them in unconventional ways, also making vocal noises with their mouths and throats and hands, concentrating very hard on the sheet music in front of them. Some of it ressembled Inuit throat singing; perhaps the natives of Lapland do something similar. Then followed two four-movement, dissonant quintets by modern composers which was impressive, and sometimes beautiful, though anything but easy-listening, and for an encore, they played a short piece by Sibelius which came across as quite old-fashioned, after all this.

On Wednesday (Oct. 11th) I also attended an unusual half hour concert in the DOMS series by a pair of percussionists, Andrew Harris and Zac Pulak, who have also performed at the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival. They took turns to introduce what they were playing. We were told that the drum set and marimba were not as old as some other instruments, therefore not so much music has been written for them.

They began with a South American danza for the snare and the tom-tom drum. "Next up", as one of them said, was an arrangement for marimbas of a Bagpipe by Bela Bartok, originally composed for two violins, therefore more melodic! We heard that marimbas can be played using hard or soft sticks, and that the softer kind gave a more lyrical effect, as in the following duet, by Tom Gauger. Even JS Bach's harpsichord music was possible on this instrument (pause, while the right sticks were searched for). Then we returned to the un-pitched percussion, hearing a syncopated number by Joe Tompkins, called In the Pocket, in which the snare drum was beaten with wrapped drumsticks, for a more muted effect.

Sitting near the front gave me a good view of what the performers were doing. From the back of the church it wouldn't have been half so interesting.

The next item, Triplets, by George Green, was a fast piece, ragtime style, incorporating bells, blowers, rattles, blocks, cymbals, etc. Great fun. They followed it with a Xylophone Polka, with both players on one marimba, using a variety of (five) sticks. Then came another duet that added some other "accessory percussion" --- a tambourine and castanets, banged against the knee.

Finally we heard a clever arrangement by the men on stage of familiar military field music from 18th century America (such as Yankee Doodle Dandy), originally meant for a fife and drum combination, the drummer here sometimes hitting his sticks together as well as banging his drums.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Out of the privileged bubble

Genevieve Cimon, director of "Music Education and Community Engagement", has been with the National Arts Centre for the last 15 years; she spoke to a gathering of CFUW women in Ottawa last week. Her boss Peter Herrndorf (President and CEO of the NAC and a Companion of the Order of Canada) has "put the national back into the National Arts Centre", she said. He it was who encouraged the National Arts Centre Orchestra to tour the remoter parts of Canada for the sake of educational projects such as its Music Alive Program in the prairies, Nunavut and (most recently) the Atlantic provinces.

What follows in this blogpost is a report of what Ms. Cimon told us and not necessarily an expression of my own views. I'll leave the value-judgements to you.

The touring NACO's initial mandate was to introduce children of elementary school age to classical music and modern composers, preparing teaching guides for the local teachers. This program has recently undergone some "rethinking", so as to pay more attention to the music of regional artists. Ms Cimon said that the experience for the NACO itself has been "transformative" --- a fundamental shift in the way that they see themselves. Previously, she told us, they had been living "in a privileged bubble". The role of a professional Canadian musician today, she said, is "to be an agent of change". The NACO has been working with youth at risk, which means first creating trust, recognising and showing one's own vulnerability and nurturing a common humanity. She compared it to the Sistema programs* in S. America and elsewhere.

In the past, "white composers" had been commissioned to write, for example, an "Inuit piece". Such an endeavour is no longer deemed respectful, condescending rather, and in any case, said Ms. Cimon, the northern audience's reaction to such compositions is "bad". It is traditional in such communities --- more appropriate, she implied --- to play one's own instruments and pass on traditional dances from generation to generation, some of which were taught by visiting whalers in the old days.

I felt that this rather contradicted what she was trying to say. She also mentioned the fiddlers of northern Manitoba who surely acquired their skills from Europeans, as well.

Alexander Shelley (from the UK) made a determined effort to learn about Canada when he took the post of the NACO's music director, and that includes the latest thinking about Canada's indigenous peoples: "reparation comes before reconciliation." Last year, the NACO and their associates created an experimental, collaborative, multimedia show called Life Reflected, about the life and thoughts of four Canadian women, one of whom was from the First Nations. Furthermore, through the Rita Joe Song Project, youth from the reserves and northern communities have composed their own responses to Rita Joe's poem about a Mi'kmaq girl in a residential school, "I lost my talk" ...

"We are building resilient communities by means of the arts!" exclaimed Ms. Cimon.

250 NAC events, this year (Canada's 150th) have put the spotlight on indigenous artists and often on female artists.

Not all of Ms. Cimon's talk was about outreach to Canada's rural or native communitites. She reminded us that, each summer at the NAC in Ottawa, there is an international Young Artists' program: a summer school for promising artists which, apparently, is becoming increasingly collaborative rather than competitive, the participants learning empathy and compassion. She says that this is a generation that wants to volunteer.

The new wing of the NAC is "Ottawa's new living room". More free programming is being planned, such as yoga and meditation sessions, on Mondays!

* This, I feel, is a misleading comparison, because as I understand it, El Sistema's mission is to bring classical music to the slums, a guiding principle being "the ambitious pursuit of musical excellence", rather than encouraging children to explore the familiar music of their own communities.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Northern music

The new "Staircase" at the NAC
It has been a good season for concerts; all those I've attended have had something to do with The North. The first was the Doors Open For Music concert at Southminster church on September 27th: A Salute to Finland, a celebration of Nordic culture featuring songs and instrumentals by Alfvén, Grieg, Merikanto, Sibelius and Sjöberg, honouring Finland's 100th anniversary.  The tenor Trygve John Ringereide (formerly the principal of a secondary school and music teacher / lecturer) sang solos by those Scandinavian composers, with Cecilia Ignatieff at the piano, and Jan Jarvlepp playing the cello.

This week, I was at three more, exceptional concerts, all of them held at the newly renovated National Arts Centre downtown. Two of these events were free, taking place at noon by the "Staircase" where an impromptu audience can sit on the stairs --- as on a bleacher at a sports field --- watching and listening to the performance on the floor below.

On Wednesday the performers were members of the New Orford String Quartet. First, the two violinists Andrew Wan and Jonathan Crow gave us Prokofiev's Sonata for two violins written in 1932, with its lovely Commodo third movement. (Apparently Prokofiev had heard a similar work by another composer and decided he could do better.) Then the violist came in with a substitute cellist from the Montreal Symphony Orchestra; all four musicians had been learning a challenging work, Glenn Gould's String Quartet (No. 1, he called it, but there was never a No. 2), which, when they played it to us, turned out to be absolutely tremendous music. Mr. Crow said that the musicians had detected strains of JS Bach, Beethoven (the Groe Fuge) and Schönberg in it. To me, it did sound like another version of Schönberg's Verklärte Nacht, but fancy this being composed by a Canadian! Extraordinary! Why don't we hear this work more often? I didn't even know it existed. All the people sitting on the stairs were bowled over by it.

The other free lunchtime event I caught was yesterday, a concert by the Cantiamo Girls' Choir of Ottawa conducted by their competent director, Jackie Hawley. She told us something about the choir's recent exchange trip to Iqaluit* where the choir girls had stayed with, performed with and made friends with their Inuit counterparts, two of whom had now come to Ottawa to join in the performance. During the programme they demonstrated their throat-singing skills and one of them later played the drum, but what touched me most was that they joined in the singing of the choir, having learned some of the repertoire along with the Ottawa girls. We heard them perform an arrangement of Qaujimavunga Kinaummangaarma, all singing in Inuktitut, and we as audience were encouraged to join in the mournful refrain "Ay-ay-ay-a" which was easier to pronounce and remember.

* The Gryphon Trio was also part of this collaboration.

The last concert I want to mention in this post also happened to be a free one because I had picked up vouchers for two complimentary tickets for it, at a talk about the NAC which I'll describe in a separate blogpost. Chris couldn't make it, so Barbara came with me; we found we had quite good seats, near the front. The NACO's director Alexander Shelley was sitting near us on the same row; the auditorium was packed. The music was Finnish and Canadian, since this was part of Mr. Shelley's Ideas of North Festival that's happening just now; this performance was being conducted by an energetic Finn, Hannu Lintu. We heard The Oceanides by Sibelius (which I didn't know), an impressionist piece of music that lasted 10 minutes, Sibelius' answer to Debussy's La Mer, perhaps, with its evocation of the surging high seas, and, after the intermission, his 2nd Symphony (which I did know, very well, having wallowed in it in my youth), such exciting stuff, especially where he goes triumphantly into the major in the Finale, trumpets, trombones and tuba blazing away and all the string sections swaying along.

However, the most interesting part of the concert was the long piece for piano and orchestra premièred just before the intermission, by a Canadian composer who admittedly lives in Finland, a musician called Matthew Whittall. He and the conductor are both close associates of Ottawa's most famous pianist, Angela Hewitt, who has written a "Reflection" about the première we attended:
I went [to Kittilä in Lapland, north of the Arctic Circle] not just to [...] see this remarkable landscape, but also to learn the new piano concerto of Matthew Whittall, "Nameless Seas". 
The wooden house where I was staying was built especially for the small Fazioli grand piano that sits in its very centre, surrounded by glass windows through which you can see nothing but trees and undergrowth. A magnificent lake is only a few steps away. There is nobody else around for miles. The setting is perfect for the concentration needed; the inspiration from the surroundings similar to that which has inspired its composer. 
Although Matthew was born and raised here in Canada, he has made Finland his home for the past sixteen years. When I realised that Canada and Finland were both celebrating significant anniversaries in 2017, and that Finnish Radio already had the idea of asking him to write a piano concerto, it seemed the logical thing to have it also performed here. I am thrilled that it has finally come to fruition and that our mutual friend, Hannu Lintu, is conducting.
The music was experimental and amazingly evocative of waves breaking against rocks or the sparkle of the water and the wind on the shores. The percussion section had the use of a wind machine; the woodwind produced special glissando effects on their instruments like bird cries dying away. The piano often played a single line of notes, echoed by notes at the same pitch on steel drums or the xylophone. In the last section "...the piano is progressively engulfed by a series of ever-taller waves, ultimately dissolving into a tolling, rippling continuum of sound."