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.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Back to Gaspé after 13 years

This afternoon we landed at Gaspé. It is hard to believe, but the last time we spent a night here (at the other motel) was in 2005, on our way to visit Halifax. Not much has changed since then, although Jacques Cartier's memorial cross has been moved down, to the new waterside cultural interpretation area, and the cost of accommodation in the town has gone up. We are paying $149 for tonight's sleep at the Hotel Plante; admittedly, it is a palatially large room, a "suite" no less, with two desks, a bathtub, and a panoramic view of the wide, blue bay; this is because, when I made the booking from Mont Joli airport this morning, all the cheaper rooms had been taken.

We came to Gaspé today because our first choice of destination, Bonaventure, also had fully booked hotels. It is just as well. Had we flown there from Mont Joli, we would have encountered problems at altitude, because clouds were building over the Chic Choc mountains and those clouds would have put ice on the wings. The freezing level was as low as 5000 feet.

I was anticipating a turbulent flight all the way in the strong wind, but to my delight the only turbulence came in the final 20 minutes of our 1.7 hours of airtime, when we headed away from the coast direct to Gaspé airport over the tip of the Gaspé Peninsula. The rest of the way, following the spectacular coastline northeast from Mont-Joli, over Matane, Ste-Anne-des-Monts and beyond, was in fast flowing but smooth air above and below stretches of thin, white or pale grey stratus or white cumulostratus, with the Gulf of the St. Lawrence widening to our left, large ships on it, and the forested hills getting steeper and steeper and more and more covered with wind turbines, facing into the northwest wind, to our right. Some of these appeared to be glaciated valleys with silvery rivers winding through them.

On our descent, the winds became very gusty, reported as gusting to 22 knots at the surface, and at right-angles to our runway too, more or less. Chris seemed to rely on his experience, making the requisite adjustments on the rudder pedal automatically, so he tells me, when a particularly strong gust (or wind shear?) tipped us sideways at only about 100 ft from the ground. He corrected our angle of attack and did an excellent landing on the centre line, although the oleo juddered like mad as we rolled to a halt. Pulling onto the apron and climbing out near the fuel tanks we were asked to move PTN elsewhere quickly, because a Jazz plane, a Dash 8 turboprop, was about to land too and would need fuelling first, with passengers waiting to board. Chris observed its landing and saw that that one too was affected by the turbulence.

The views we had during our approach to Gaspé were worth any amount of fear (on my part): so beautiful were the cloud shadows on the hills, with such clarity and blueness of sky and water in the two bays.

I'd hoped to find a car rental at the airport. There were two rental desks but both were closed, so we had to wait half an hour for a taxi into town instead. To my delight the Café des Artistes near the two motels is still in business and is still well worth the visit, being packed full of quirky sculptures, hanging stained glass artworks, and with original paintings, by different artists, all over the walls. The café displays a menu des artistes as well as a food menu there. The waiters, waitresses and clientele, even, all seem to be romantically inclined people: typically being young, long haired, unconventionally dressed. The table tops are mosaics, featuring ducks. The wifi password is artistes.

I omitted to mention, above, that we had made the acquaintance of an interesting gentleman during breakfast at our Auberge in Ste.-Flavie, called Tim Cole, from British Columbia. He too flies a Cessna 172 (his was parked next to ours up the hill), but had also flown larger aircraft professionally, chairs the western branch of COPA and knows many famous members of the Canadian aviation community including Chris' friend Kathy Fox. Like all these people, he has a wealth of stories to tell.

For the rest of this afternoon we walked through the town, aka the Berceau du Canada, Birthplace of Canada (because of Jacques Cartier, the first French explorer of the New World, landing here and laying claim to the land in 1534), getting our bearings, finding the Musée de Gaspé on the hill, the boardwalk along the shore and by the river and the Information Centre across the bridge where the VIA-Rail station used to be situated, but was closed five years ago, due to an un-maintainable railway line. The new centre is an attractively modern, wood and glass building, with a birch-bark teepee inside---Do Not Touch---displaying a wolf and a beever pelt, reminding visitors of Gaspé's Micmac (Mi'kmaq) heritage. Tomorrow we might see some latter day Micmac people arriving by boat to put on a show at the docks, if I understood the lady at the information desk correctly. The marina is there too, only one yacht on the water this evening. The sky has become very clear during the last few hours. The sun sets 45 minutes earlier in Gaspé than in Ottawa, quite a noticeable difference!

Rockcliffe to Mont-Joli

I'd suffered a sleepless night and didn't feel well, but yesterday (Friday, 7th Sept) was determined we'd set off anyway. Chris did all the work. We were off the ground at 10:34 for our one-and-a-half flight to Trois-Rivieres, Chris exclaiming, "We're going on holiday!" as we rolled along the runway for take-off.

The Ottawa air controller was busy with other traffic, so it was hard to interrupt him with our request to get the IFR clearance for our flight-plan; eventually he allowed us to fly via the TAKOL and AGLUK waypoints, climbing to 7000 ft on our planned route. It was a beautiful morning with smooth air, great! A thin layer of cumulus between four- and five-thousand feet, that was all. Above that was some haze apparently (according to Serge at the Club who knows about these things) formed of particles of smoke from forest fires thousands of miles away to the west.

We know the route so well that on a fine day such as this we hardly needed the map, and landed (an easy visual landing) at Trois-Rivieres into quite a strong wind, parked on the apron and ordered lunch from Le Pilote, a procedure with which we're also familiar. Chris had a choice of routes from there onwards to Mont-Joli, and the controller gave him the second option to follow, direct PESAC, Victor 316, YQB, Victor 98 to Fleur, thence over YRI to EPMAL and finally YYY: a beautiful route following the southern bank of the St. Lawrence with the islands on our left. Towards the end of the journey we could hear the radio transmissions from pilots approaching the airport of Wabush---Waa-boosh the male pilot pronounced it. The female pilot, flying a passenger plane, "Provincial 921", sounded very competent and confident in her communications with Montreal Centre. She didn't seem at all fazed by the report of moderate to severe turbulence on the way down to Wabush and didn't mention it on her own descent. Our own approach (to Mont-Joli) was a "contact approach" with the circuit flown out to sea which gave me good photo opportunities.

We spent the night at the Gaspesiana motel, in the Auberge annex, where, after supper in the main part of the hotel, we spent 12 hours in bed. That cured me!

Monday, August 13, 2018

Another day in Vienna

This describes the Saturday we spent with Judith, my Viennese friend. (Photos to be added later.)

We arranged to meet at our hotel and did so. We had seen the nearby Naschmarkt before, but Judith took us there again, to start with, knowing (as we did not) that a flea market opens there on Saturdays. Judith discovered a coral pink vintage bead necklace of some value, haggling for it. Chris was taken with the antique postcards and old books for sale, but didn't buy any. These stalls were a collector's dream, with antique cameras for sale, toys, machinery parts, porcelain ornaments, glass vases, shaving brushes, musical instruments, hats, collectable dinnerware sets, old books, model cars, LPs, you name it. It was noisy and crowded and doubtless we could have spent hours here. Judith drew our attention to the Jugendstil facades of the buildings around the market square along the Linke- und Rechte Wienzeile, such as Otto Wagner's fin de siècle Majolikahaus with its colourfully patterned tiles between the windows. We learned a good deal about Wagner's architectural legacy:
For the [Viennese] transport system he designed the Stadtbahn pavilions, the stations, several bridges and the railings, all of which are still preserved in their original state.  (
Judith pointed out several examples of these features during our tour of the city that day. Her area of professional expertise is the Gemeindebau: long term affordable community housing in Vienna, which, (like the creation of British council house estates, "homes for heroes") began shortly after the 1st World War and still continues, earning the admiration of the world and appreciation of the Viennese people. The entrances to apartment blocks erected after the 2nd World War are often decorated with concrete or terracotta reliefs from those days. (Made aware, we noticed more of these on the Sunday morning, after Judith had left us.) Residences near the Donaukanal are desirable and the right to live there can be transferred from one generation of a family to the next.

We took an U-Bahn train from Kettenbrückengasse across the Danube, to see the Hundertwasserhaus (finished in 1985) on the Löwengasse, which happened to be near the district where Judith grew up and went to school. Friedensreich Hundertwasser, aka Friedrich Stowasser, was an eccentric and prolific artist of the same ilk as Gaudi, in Barcelona. In a leaflet advertising the Hundertwasser cafe, the English translation reads:
This is the house where for the first time in history human beings and nature live together with equal rights [...] a place where millions of people from around the world become aware of their longing for a life in harmony with oneself and nature. From here they take new hope back to their homes in their countries.
A rather over-the-top claim perhaps, but the colourful buildings entwined with plants and with a waterfall cascading from the roof of one do leave a favourable impression! As a tourist, you are not allowed to enter these buildings because they are people's homes.

I was even more interested when Judith took us to the Real-Gymnasium on Kundmanngasse where she was educated; the Wittgensteins' residence (the original family house, or palace, was near the Karlskirche though) was visible from the classroom windows at the back, she told us; she also showed us the school's pillars and balcony outside her final classroom there. We had a Viennese lunch out of doors at the pub Zum Goldenen Löwen. Judith chose Kartoffelpuffer and I tried the Eiernockerl, tasty and satisfying. Then we hopped on a bus to the Rotundenbrücke over the Donaukanal, stood on that bridge and saw a jetboat (express catamaran) whooshing by on its way to Bratislava.

Later we took a ride on another boat down this canal from the docks, tickets for which had been booked before we left Ottawa, boarding at Schwedenplatz where Chris and I had stood the day before. There's another boat nearby, Vienna's Badeschiff, with an on board public swimming pool and "football cage" on the deck above. On our canal cruise, we noticed more of Otto Wagner's Jugendstil railings, bridges and original city railway. The colourfully painted waste incineration tower, the Fernwärmewerk building, overlooking the canal in Spittelau, was designed by Hundertwasser and so resembled the house we'd seen earlier.

Off the boat, with Judith to guide us, we strolled back into the old town, passing an old Jewish synagogue (the Stadttempel, inscribed in Hebrew characters) on the Seitenstettengasse, on the way to one of Vienna's old catholic churches, a not too lavishly decorated, narrow building above a pretty square, steps up to it, Maria am Gestade. The name means Mary-On-The-Shore because, originally, this mostly 14th and 15th century, Gothic building was closer to the river (which got diverted in the 16th century when the canal was made), a place of worship for sailors. This church was associated with a good man, the patron saint of Vienna, no less, Clement Maria Hofbauer, a baker who at the end of the 18th century became a hermit and then a Redemptorist priest, whom the authorities persecuted but whom his congregations loved, as did the poverty stricken people whom he fed.

The solemn atmosphere in this church made seemed to complement my other friend's (Barbara's) Lutheran protestant church in Luneburg, still fresh in my mind.

Then on the underground again back to the Karlsplatz district near our hotel, where we walked to the Dritte Mann Museum on Preßgasse (Chris' choice of museum but it fascinated all three of us). Judith had not visited this before but had seen the movie when young. We were the last visitors of the day and lucky to get in because it is only open on Saturdays. This was a marvellous museum, divided into three sections, each of which has its own tour guide who needs to let you in with a key. The first set of rooms was dedicated to the people concerned with the making of The Third Man, the actors (Orson Wells and Joseph Cotten had previously starred together in Citizen Kane), the director (Carol Reed) and of course, the famous author of the screenplay, Graham Greene. The film was a tremendous example of purposeful artistic co-operation, as was the museum, for that matter, its well over 2000 exhibits having been collected and put together by a team of only two people, Gerhard Strassgschwandtner and Karin Höfler ...
Alles aus einem Guss, kein Outsourcing, viel Herzblut. Das spurt man.
In the second section, we saw the original zither that  Anton Karas, the composer of the Harry Lime theme, had played. You can see cigarette burns on it, as he was a heavy smoker. This area also displayed an original Zeiss projector, made in 1938, such as was used when the film first appeared. The curator actually used it, lowering a heavy screen from the ceiling, to show us a clip from the end of the film—the chase into the sewers—so gripping that we were oblivious to the primitive technology while watching it. The third part of the exhibition dealt with Viennese history just before, during and after the war, when the city had become an occupied territory, divided into American, British, French and Soviet zones, only connected of course by those sewers that play such an important part in the plot of The Third Man. We were so absorbed by the exhibits here that, at closing time, we had to be asked to leave.

We ate a tasty supper at the Thai Kitchen on Schönbrunner Strasse before Judith said goodbye.

I ought to add that before leaving Vienna altogether, we spent some of the Sunday morning exploring the part of the city near the Hauptbahnhof. Before we caught our train to Bratislava, we took a walk around the 18th century Belvedere Palace, just a short walk from the station, where we left our luggage in a locker.

My friend Sue commented on a photo of the Belvedere Gardens, that I posted on Facebook:
Hitler had a bunker built here, right under this pond. It was completed in 1944, and was to be used in case Berlin fell. It was to be one of he possible structures of command for a government in exile. The central air raid police command post of Vienna moved in. The Belvedere became a military target and was bombed by the allies. By this time the paintings had long since gone. They were hidden in convents, and salt mines. After the war, the bunker was sealed up. I did not find this information while we visited the Belvedere. Instead it appeared in the book The Lady in Gold about the returning of Klimt's famous painting to its rightful Jewish owners. In the book there are photos of the bunker being built in 1943. Quite the story!
On our last walk in Vienna we passed the colourful row of houses on the Wiedner Gürtel, the ringroad near the station, one of which now belongs to Huawei. The creator of these facades, Marcus Geiger, chose colours that mimic Euro banknotes of different denominations.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

In Bratislava

Staying at the Mercure hotel near the station, we had a less than half hour walk to the centre of the city. The first time we did this walk, we paused at the Grassalkovich Palace (Grasalkovičov palác) gardens on Hodžovo Square, the palace, built in 1760, now the Slovak President's residence, being a place where Haydn once performed his music, and on the Michalska, the narrow street below the tower known as St. Michael's Gate, for a ginger and mint lemonade made from the raw ingredients, which was life-savingly refreshing. I shall remember this recipe. I had a slice of poppy-seed strudel with it. We walked along the Promenade on the Danube's northern banks that afternoon, difficult in the full heat of the day, but worthwhile. Many cruise ships, long boats, are moored there, disgorging crowds of tourists into Bratislava's streets and squares. On both sides of the river are artificial sandy "beaches" with deckchairs, a pleasant amenity for children and adults alike. We went as far as the Eurovea, a modern shopping mall exactly like shopping malls the world over, with American shops, just beyond the Stary Most (most means bridge, in this case for pedestrians and trams), buying a necessary bottle of water.

Slovak words I learned in Bratislava:
ulica = street
namestie = square
hlavne = central
hrad = castle
garáž = garage
stanica = station
Dunaj = Danube
pivo = beer
voda = water
Ďakujem (pronounced jackoo-yem) = thank you!

The following day, after walking to the castle on the hill, and then down into the city, we followed much the same route, but crossed the river too, staying a long while on the shady far side, me lying on a park bench under a beautiful lime tree, gazing up at the sky. We had to take things slowly in that heat. In the Hviezdoslavovo Square were rows of water features with chlorine scented fountains where I, like many other people, took off my shoes to let my feet soak in a cool bath. At the theatre end of the square as well as in the older, central square, the municipality has provided a water spraying arch that cools passers-by with a fine spray, a considerate gesture. Everybody made a beeline for this, the little children in particular. I watched two toddlers go through, of different nationalities. One little boy said "Voda!" and the other one said "Kalt!" In the evening a group of young Japanese girls in school uniform went discovered the spray and didn't want to leave it.

I mentioned Bratislava's castle, above. The Slovak Parliament is adjacent to it. The history of the castle (and country itself) is terribly complex. We did some internet research, but are not much the wiser. The overwhelming point seems to be that its regime kept changing hands. The Celts were here from about 450 BC till the 5th century AD, with about 300 years of Roman rule during that time. In the forecourt to the castle today is a statue of Svatopluk the Great of the 9th century, on his rearing horse, brandishing his sword. In 805, a fortress was built by this Moravian king, recycling Roman bricks. Stephen the 1st of Hungary used the place as protection from Czech-German attacks in the 11th century, and in the following century a stone palace was built, where the Crusaders under Barbarossa were housed. In 1241 came an attack from Mongol invaders, but the Hungarians beat them off! Then followed some complications involving King Sigismund and the Holy Roman Empire. In 1536, Turkish invaders threatened the stronghold, whereat the Hungarians fled to Buda. In the century after that, a Baroque palace was constructed on the hill; we took a look at the very recent reconstruction of its formal garden. Queen Maria Theresa, ruler of the Austro-Hungarian empire, chose to live here in 1740, but the 19th century saw her palace fall into ruins, after it had been used as barracks for some 1500 soldiers. It was the 1960s before the building was restored. The intellectual elite of Czechoslovakia had been sent into exile by the Nazis, while Bratislava / Pressburg became German. On May 9th, 1945, the Red Army marched into Prague, after which everything changed again; they were ruled by the Soviets. You can still see Soviet-style concrete architecture here and there and as in Wien they have coloured the fronts of some buildings to mitigate the stark, utilitarian look. Slovakia, the Slovak Republic, didn't become an independent state until 1993, the treaty being signed in Bratislava Castle.

The old part of Bratislava is postcard pretty; because of that, it's packed with summer visitors: people on package tours following their guide, backpacking students abroad. It has cobbled streets and squares, handicapping the cyclists, but they ride through even so. On the corner of Panska Street near the central square is a comical bronze sculpture that tourists flock to see, called Man at Work, his head and shoulders emerging from a manhole: Čumil in Slovak, meaning "the watcher"---he's looking up at passers-by who might well trip over him, certainly not working. Bratislava girls seem to be fashion conscious, slim and pretty, so they may well be the ones who are making him grin.

For our full day in the city I took the precaution of going back to the hotel for a nap and change of clothes before setting out again in the evening to meet Marina, a lady I'd befriended in Ottawa about 10 years ago, from the diplomatic corps. She and her husband are currently posted in Moscow, but she happened to be visiting her twin sister Bety, who lives in Bratislava. The sister's husband, Dr. Svaetopluk Zeman, is a native of Bratislava and very knowledgeable about its history, which Chris was interested to hear, as they walked ahead of us women from our rendezvous (the fountain in front of the National Theatre) towards the restaurant on a side-street where we were to have a tasty Slovakian supper. I ate pirohy (perogies) with a vegetarian filling, very tasty, and we drank beer. Before saying goodbye to our friends we also stopped for dessert at another restaurant, in both places sitting out of doors, the summer evening very pleasant as the heat began to diminish. The historic buildings are floodlit.

I feel I haven't done justice to Bratislava in my description of it; it would require a longer visit to take everything in, of course. In the distance across the Danube you can see its industrial side, flames spurting from the tall chimneys of the oil refinery there.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Hannover to Vienna

(Pictures to be added later!)

On July 26th we were up before 6am at our hotel, taking a taxi to Hannover airport (HAJ) for breakfast, and to catch the 08:20 Eurowings / Austrian Airlines flight t ho Vienna. We were just over an hour in the air, pulling into the gate at Vienna airport (VIE) by 9:45. Chris' colleague was sitting in the row behind ours; we'd seen him the evening before, at his Richtfest (completion of new house construction party), sharing barbecued sausages and drinks on his building site at a village called Isernhagen. When we landed in Vienna the three of us shared a taxi into the city. The men left me with our luggage at the Holiday Inn Vienna City on Margaretenstraße, and went away to work.

It was still too early to access a room there, so I asked for a street map, left the luggage at the reception desk, and after exploring the few blocks around the hotel walked in the direction of the city centre (half an hour's walk away), buying a classic Viennese coffee at the Opera House en route. I had to cross the Karlsplatz and the inner ring road (Kärntnerring) before reaching the pedestrian zone. Kärntnerstraße is the main thoroughfare for tourists in the city, far too many of them if you ask me, although I am one and behave like one. My lunch was breaded plaice that looked like Schnitzel, with vinegary, yellow potato salad at the Wienerwald restaurant. In these crowds, I was left unmoved by the interior of the Stephansdom, even though I have heard Schubert's Mass in G performed there in the past (in 1991). The spire is impressive. I ought to have realised, but didn't, that the cathedral was all but destroyed in World War II and rebuilt afterwards, so what I was seeing was effectively a fake cathedral. Horse-drawn coaches were waiting for hire round the back. Baroque residences line the narrow streets, the Gassen, and the squares.

Having got my bearings I returned to the hotel to check in and take a rest in our room. Before Chris was due "home" from work, I had time to visit Schubert's Sterbehaus (the place where he died) on the Kettenbruckengasse, just round the corner from our hotel. It is only open on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and even then only for a few hours, so I was lucky to get in. I paid 4 euros; except for the receptionist (with whom I had a long conversation in German) I had the whole place to myself. Schubert lived in this small apartment, in what might now be called a bed-sit, for the last three months of his life, when he was already seriously ill, and perhaps knew it. His room was the only bedroom in his brother's place. Ferdinand Schubert, his wife and four young children shared the other, larger room. Imagine the noise and the squalor. There was no piano there, although Ferdinand acquired one later, having sold some of his brother's posthumous compositions, publishing a Requiem in his own name, for example, which ressembles Mozart's history. Franz Schubert worked on some of his best known works during his three months of suffering, the sublimely profound B-flat piano sonata, for example, and the astonishingly cheerful songs Hirt auf dem Felsen (for which I saw a scribbled sketch of the clarinet part in the middle section) and Taubenpost. Most touching for me was the thought that he also revised Part II of Winterreise here, which Chris and I have been studying for 16 years now. I imagined Schubert trying to concentrate on this work, or gazing out of the third floor window into the street, or seeing the sky from his narrow bed in this narrow room. For the last week of his life he could not eat without vomiting, typhus finally finishing him off, and I saw a letter he'd written to a friend, asking him to please send a few books to read to take his mind off it; he had been enjoying a translation of The Last of the Mohicans, by Fenimore Cooper. He was 31. After his death, his father, an immigrant from Moravia, hoped that Franz and Beethoven could be buried side by side, as they had been friends.

Unfortunately, Chris returned from work too late to see that museum. I also discovered the nearby Naschmarkt before his return and we were both there later, and on the following two mornings. It's a very long street market, with stalls selling fruit and vegetables, nuts, spices, cheap clothing, souvenirs, hot snacks ... not unlike a Chinese street market, in fact. On Saturdays a large area of the market sells "antiques"---becomes a flea market, with an awesome variety of jumble for sale, very old cameras and 100 year old postcards, for instance. The Naschmarkt is surrounded on both long sides by prestigious Viennese buildings with Jugendstil-decorated facades. On Friday night we stood here, after the market stalls had closed and been locked up, with a small crowd of other hopefuls (making friends with someone's little dog), to see if we could view the moon eclipse, but distant thunderclouds got in the way.

A heavy thunderstorm prevented us from meeting Marcus in town on our first evening in Wien. As it eased off we scurried to the Bamboo restaurant a couple of doors down the street, for an Asian buffet supper.

On Friday, Chris was mostly free, so we could explore the city together. On the edge of the Karlsplatz, a big traffic and public transport hub near the opera house, is the Secession building dating from 1898 with its fancy golden dome, a fin de siecle art nouveau (aka Jugendstil) exhibition hall. The artists' credo of those days was freedom of expression --- Der Kunst ihre Freiheit! --- and Wien's most famous artist, Gustav Klimt, was their first president. Nowadays the building is mostly used to showcase contemporary art---we viewed a series of 40 photocopies of a box of tissues, a knot symbolically made of glass and a computer mining for bitcoins!---but in the basement you can still see the Beethovenfries by Klimt, a tribute to Beethoven's 9th Symphony, apparently, although what it had to do with Beethoven I couldn't tell. Beethoven as interpreted by Wagner, actually. I found it peculiar in the extreme. All the figures represented something: suffering humanity (naked), a knight in golden armour, Ambition, Compassion, a Choir of Angels, and on the other wall the feindliche Gewalten, hostile forces, represented by the giant Typhoeus with his staring eyes and his provocatively naked daughters the Gorgons, flanked by Sickness, Madness, Death, Lasciviousness, Wantonness and Intemperance, all female ... I felt it was a rather sexist view, and couldn't take the monster seriously because he looked so like the Gruffalo. We sent a 3-D postcard of his part of the frieze to our grandson Thomas.

Over an outdoor lunch, I rang Mum to wish her a happy 99th birthday the following day. Then to the Mozarthaus, a cut above poor Schubert's bedsit; the Mozarts lived in such style for less than three years, though (1784 to 87). It had a flamboyant ceiling in what was probably the bedroom and we saw the rooms where Mozart had possibly played billiards and had probably held impromptu chamber music performances, but no one can be quite sure. The Marriage of Figaro was composed here. Again, I imagined a composer who gazed out of the windows down the cobbled Gasse with its tall houses, near the cathedral, doubtless a smellier and less tidy street in those days.

We walked as far as the bank of the Donaukanal, passing the Urania planetarium and a permanently moored boat with a public swimming pool and football court on board. Then a long walk back in the blazing sun, through the old Stadtpark with its Joseph Strauß statue and ponds, and recovered from that walk at a table in a cafe near the Karlsplatz. The Baroque Karlskirche, which Sue in Ottawa had recommended I see, was unapproachable with a stage being constructed on its front steps for some sort of amplified evening entertainment.

On Saturday, we spent the day with a real present day resident of Wien, my friend Judith, born and bred here, and I think this had better be the subject of another blogpost.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Bratislava to Dresden

I'm writing this on Intercity Train Number 172, the "Hungaria", on its way from Budapest to Hamburg. Our destination for today is Dresden. We're in the front coach, in First Class seats, just having crossed the Austrian-Slovak border once again (starting in Bratislava, we re-entered Austria briefly travelling towards Wien at the start of the journey, but are now heading north). It's going to be a ride through flat landscapes for most of the way *, as we could see when we flew south from Hannover to Wien, last Thursday. An Australian couple sitting behind me is going from Budapest to Prague (Praha). The coach is empty enough for us to choose where to sit, even though we had reservations in Seats 53 and 55. Each seat has a small table and electrical sockets, which is nice, and best of all, there's air-conditioning. Outside, another scorching day in the mid-30s C. We have just had to get used to this weather, lately. Ever since Sweden, in fact, two months ago.

* This prediction turned out to be wrong.

First stop, Kúty. Never heard of it. The new passengers are boarding the train from the rail level, as in mid-20th century Europe. The driver has turned off the engine, lights and air-conditioning (they came on again after a few minutes, after the driver announced something incomprehensible). The Slovak Republic, so we now realise, is bordered by Austria, the Czech Republic, Poland, Ukraine and Hungary: all those influences upon one little country. Its history is complex in the extreme. Chris learned a lot of it, yesterday, from Marina's brother-in-law, a lifelong inhabitant of Bratislava. My diplomat friend Marina, from Macedonia, posted in Ottawa about 10 years ago and at that time a member of my German conversation group, has been following our Facebook posts and knew she'd be able to meet me in Bratislava, where she happened to be visiting her sister here. As she is currently resident in Moscow (after a stint in New Delhi), this was a wonderful, unforeseen opportunity to get together. Chris and I met her at the fountain in the long central square called Hviezdoslavovo Namestie, at the National Theatre (opera house) end. Actually it was her twin sister I greeted first, thinking it was her, they look so alike. I had been deliberately teased. The three of them treated us to a wonderful evening sitting out of doors in a quiet side street at a traditional Slovak restaurant, with checked red and white tablecloths over long tables inside, and the waitresses in traditionally embroidered aprons. I had vegetarian pierogies (pirohy) with a mushroom sauce, and beer (pivo); Chris ordered a Viennese Schnitzel since most of the Slovak dishes seemed to contain cheese, which he won't touch. He did have a slice of cheesecake for dessert around the corner, at a different restaurant, but that's sweet, therefore different. This evening was a sort of celebration of our 45th wedding anniversary!

We're now approaching Břeclav in the Czech Republic, and as we meander back and forth across the border, across the Dyje River, the Internet connection on the train comes and goes. The ticket man has just distributed bottles of water to all the 1st Class passengers. Water is voda in all the local languages, an important word to know in this climate. I'm glad I paid the extra 10 euros each (not much extra!) to travel 1st Class on this nearly 7 hour journey. We're now riding through sunflower fields with a steep hill on the horizon.

Nearly midday, and we are pulling into Brno. Brno considers itself the capital of Moravia, originally (a very long time ago) settled by Celts, so that some of the local language apparently ressembles Welsh (c.f. bryn)! It has a two-spired cathedral perched on a rock near its rather ornate, neo-Baroque central railway station (hlavni nadrazi), and a castle on a hill besides.

I have just received a Facebook message from our friend Vladimir in Prague, who'd like to have to seen us and taken us flying in his plane; there just wasn't time. He was in Brno yesterday! ... An hour later, my Facebook update posted between Brno and Prague was immediately "liked" by a friend in Australia. How interconnected we all are!

And now we have had a satisfying cooked lunch in the Bordrestaurant coach, with a glass of Hungarian Chardonnay for me. The land becomes more hilly from time to time, with little towns or villages including churches with onion domes. We are only about 20 km from the Polish border.

"Ladies and gentlemen, our train is now about 20 minutes delayed." No worries, from my point of view, I am enjoying this ride so much. Now stopping at Kolín, getting closer to Praha, Prague.

With several miles of outskirts, Praha looks like a big city, with extensive marshalling yards for the trains. Most other passengers are preparing to leave the train here. Chris and I are starting on the box of chocolates Marina gave us, a gift from Moscow! They're very sweet marshmallows coated with chocolate, so I had better not eat too many. A cleaning lady has come on board to tidy up the train. On the next leg, between here and Dresden, we shall be re-entering Germany. We're pulling out of the station in the opposite direction, having lost the engine at our end of the train. The ticket collector (a different man, this time) is preparing to come round again to check our tickets and distribute the water bottles. Prague looks hot, hazy and hilly, out there. I caught a glimpse of the Vltava, with barges on it, as we crossed it just now.

We followed the Vltava downstream for about an hour, the scenery increasingly interesting. We're now beyond Usti nad Labem, on the Elbe, which is still in the Czech Republic, but approaching the German border, with strange rock formations around us. At Děčín, further down, about to enter a steeper sided valley, the hills covered with trees, we had a longer stop ... and here I had to break off writing my blogpost because we were suddenly told, "This train ends here!" The Hungaria had broken down, or its computer had (I noticed repeated vain attempts to reset the seat number displays), therefore we were obliged to grab our luggage and get out onto the platform, where chaos reigned, nobody knowing what to do next or where to go. I thought I'd heard a garbled announcement that a train to Bad Schönau was waiting on Platform 1 which would connect with an S-Bahn to Dresden, but when we hurried there, down and up all the steps, there was no such train, or it had already left. The departure boards in the concourse were in German and Czech, listing places we'd never heard of, no mention of Bad Schönau. All other notices were only in Czech. Back to Platform 3 to try asking an official, except that Platform 3 turned out to be Platform 2 and we had to repeat the luggage lifting exercise on the steps. The helpless passengers, using various foreign languages, were still milling around getting nowhere. We decided to go back to the concourse, I now literally dripping with sweat because of the heat. Chris told me to stop panicking, so I joined a queue at the information centre, wondering if we'd need new tickets. Apparently not, but we would need to wait a couple of hours. I was given a timetable printout giving the time of our next train to Dresden as 18:05. It was the Berlin train, 30 minutes delayed, so we actually boarded it at 18:40 after waiting on the concourse with the crowd of backpacker students, Chinese families seeing the world and other unfortunates. The little snack shop accepted Visa cards, so that helped (we only had euros in cash, which was not the right currency). I went outside the station to take pictures, during our wait, and we found somewhere to sit.

Wikipedia photo
Děčín, had we had the opportunity to get rid of our luggage and stay the night there, would have been worth exploring, an attractive town in splendid scenery on a curve of the Elbe: the posters calling it České Švýcarsko, the Czech Switzerland. Only 6 km downstream, beyond the German border, the countryside is known as die Sächsische Schweiz (of which I'd already heard). My daughter Emma did this journey with two friends in 1994 when she was a backpacker and tells me these were the most beautiful views from a train she has ever had.

Our 1st Class tickets allowed us into a comfortable part of the Berlin train; the remainder of the journey was only a 45 minute ride, with the splendid views Emma promised us. Our hotel in Dresden is visible from the station so we were checked in by 8 pm, and then set out for supper in the Altmarkt and for a sunset walk around the city centre.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Hannover / Hanover

It is spelled with two Ns here, in Niedersachsen, and is the capital of that state. On our first day in Hannover, we saw both the Landtag (state parliament) and "New" City Hall building, both impressive edifices. The old part of town (that dated back to the 12th century) no longer exists. During the 2nd World War, Hanover was hit by 88 bombing raids, by the British RAF, mostly; more than 90% of the city centre was destroyed and more than 6000 civilians killed. The worst of the raids was in October, 1943. Therefore most of what Chris and I are seeing has been reconstructed since those days, the churches laboriously rebuilt with red bricks.

They seem to venerate Martin Luther and the 17th century philosopher-mathematician Leibniz, who was born here. We walked along the Leibniz-Ufer after finding a branch of the River Leine (on the Hohen Ufer near the market square were antiques stalls. The Leibniz-Ufer passes the back of the Landtag (state parliament buildings) and has shady trees and benches. Later on our walk we found a Leibniz memorial with a diagram of the binary numbering system he used. There are Leibniz butter biscuits too, nothing to do with maths. The Bahlsen Leibniz-Keks factory, built in 1910 in the Jugendstil, stands next to our hotel on Podbielskistraße; in fact the hotel is in its grounds.

We are just beyond Listerplatz, at the end of the Listermeile, a pleasant, traffic free, shopping zone. Cyclists and small children in a variety of conveyances or on their own wheels share the street with the pedestrians and in spite of the many human voices, it is a quiet place to be. You can buy flowers, fruit, baked goods and coffee, bespoke furniture, books and clothes here. Chris had his hair cut and beard trimmed at one of several Friseurs on the Listermeile. Posters on the poles advertise concerts and tatoo-removal treatments: you don't have to keep the evidence of your youthful indiscretions or sins, Jugendsünde. Get rid of your Scheißtatu, one said. There's a library at the city end, and, half way down yesterday morning, we were able to buy ourselves a good breakfast with Italian coffee. Today, walking in the other direction up Podbielskistraße we found a more elaborate, and more expensive, breakfast (with caviar, even!) at a cafe near one of the tram stations, the Vier Grenzen. Why there are four borders there we didn't discover. Chris has to go back in that direction for work for the next three days because his QNX office in Hannover is on the street called Am Listholze, which starts at Vier Grenzen. We walked to the office after breakfast; it is near a river bridge from which we saw a barge moored and unsurfaced bike paths on both banks. The QNX place is opposite a wide area of land full of neatly planted allotments belonging to a Kleingartenverein, several of these flying the German flag and incorporating small cottages.

A large recreation area in this part of Hannover is the Eilenriede park, actually an extensive forest of beech and chestnut trees, etc., crisscrossed with bike paths. In a corner of it is the Erlebnis-Zoo; "Zoo Experience", that means, although the only experiences Chris and I had there were to sit on a bench near the entrance and watch the young families coming and going and the guinea pig family scuttling around a toy village, because we had decided that the cost of seeing more exotic animals was too exorbitant (entrance fee 27.50 euros each) and in any case our legs were too tired by that stage of the day.

We ended the day, still too jet-lagged to function normally, at a Pakistani "Indian Tandoori" round the corner from the Novotel, having a filling supper at an outdoor table. We noticed that the cleaner's and clothing repair shop on the other side of the street, in business since 1833, nowadays offers a "gefinished" service. What kind of language is that?

Today we discovered that most commercial outlets are closed on Sunday mornings. We took a tram / train into the city and sat subdued for a while in the remains of the Aegidienkirche, which the Hannoverians left in ruins after it was bombed, for a memorial, open to the sky. Beneath its bell tower hangs a bell given as a significant gift from the city of Hiroshima, Japan. Thence we walked to the Sprengel art museum, passing a few Eiscafes, already crowded with customers, on the way. We ate a light lunch of bruschetta slices at the museum cafe, out of doors on the upper terrace which gave us a view of Hannover's artificial lake, the Maschsee, about 4km long. It had been dug out of a swamp by manual labourers between 1933 and 1936, the Nazis giving these otherwise unemployed people something to do during the Depression era. Today the lake was full of little yachts, pleasure boats, motorboats for tourists and paddle-boats in the shape of Volkswagen "beetles" which somehow reminded me of the lakes in the Beijing parks. We fell asleep exhausted on a bench by the lake, after an hour or so in the art museum, which boasted a phenomenal permanent collection, its exhibits all from the 20th and 21st centuries. I had better devote a separate blogpost to this visit.

Before returning to the Listerplatz by U-Bahn, we also stopped for a long time at a Bavarian cafe selling different drafts of beer in long glasses. For fear of falling asleep again, we ordered alkoholfreies Bier at an outdoor table there. Our third al-fresco meal of today was a tasty supper at an Italian restaurant on the Listermeile.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Two Swedish cathedrals

Uppsala's cathedraldomkyrka, approximately pronounced Dohm-ch-yeerkadominated the city, being the tallest cathedral in Scandinavia. I was impressed by it, especially by its interior which had an atmosphere of serenity, even though an ancient king (Erik IX) had once been assassinated on its premises; that was a long time ago.The cathedral's ceiling, especially at the east end where there was a blue extension of it into the Lady Chapel, was very high (27m) and very fine. At this end of the building, beyond the choir, a wax figure stood, created by Anders Widoff in 2005, a dignified middle-eastern, middle-aged lady, wearing a hijab-like headscarf. For a moment I thought she was a real person. It was called "Maria (The Return)."

In the cathedral is also a stone memorial to Dag Hammarskjöld, 1905 – 1961, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, who was posthumously awarded the Nobel Peace Prize; it is inscribed: Icke jag utan Gud i mig meaning "Not I, but God in me."

Chapel of Prayer, Uppsala cathedral
Though originally catholic, in the middle ages, this cathedral like many others in northern Europe is Lutheran. A couple of tapestries that hang in a side chapel near the entrance depict its history. At the other end of the nave, in the "Sture Chapel", a small service was being held during my visit, with the worshippers quietly singing an earnest hymn in unison, a harmonium accompanying; it sounded like a scene from Babette's Feast. On the other side of the cathedral was another small side chapel featuring an icon, with seats on either side assigned for meditation, with a live green vine growing beautifully over its wrought-iron framed entrance.

As in earlier centuries, I'm sure, food and souvenirs were on sale in and around the cathedral premises. There's a "language café" downstairs at the back that offers a series of Swedish lessons and other help for new immigrants. Outside, just below the church, a row of snack wagons stood, offering falafals, kebabs, curries ... I bought a biryani at one of them for my lunch, that I ate on a bench in the rose garden beside an artificially constructed salmon leap, jackdaws begging for scraps at my feet.

In Uppsala
A few days later I was in Linköping, the location of another huge and majestic Swedish cathedral. Linköping's domkyrka stood more or less opposite the hotel (Best Western) where we were spending the night, beyond the yellow walled former grammar school, now the town hall. The gardens round about include a hooped alley way hung with laburnum and wisteria, irresistible, with the afternoon sun shining through flowers and leaves.

Linköping Domkyrka
Again, the church was full of history (dating back to the 13th century) and art, modern art too: a "Tree of Life", Livets träd, made of glass, silver and gold, installed in 1997, is by three artists, Carl-Gustav Jansson, Jan Ostwald and Torbjorn Vog. The spiritual fruits hanging from its branches are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility and self-control.

In the nave, a 14th century wooden crucifix hangs from a stone arch. The stairs up to the 18th century pulpit in the centre of an unusually wide nave are decorated with a representation of the angels that climbed Jacob's ladder.

Pilgrim, by Charlotte Gullenhammar
At the far end of the church is the huge, engraved glass "Mary Window", by Lisa Bauer and Lars Börnesson, showing the face and hand of a woman, the rest of her cloaked by all the flowers and trees that allude to Christ's mother in legends, wild roses and rosehips in a crown above her face, and so on. Nearby I found a life-sized sculpture by another female artist, Charlotte Gullenhammar, of a down-and-out man, a soldier perhaps, lying either dead or exhausted on the floor beside the tombs of great and famous ancient Swedes; this figure was startlingly entitled: "Pilgrim."

The altarpiece is an image of a Swedish-looking Christ rising from the tomb with outstretched arms, painted in situ in 1935; then on the south side of the church there's another, Dutch altarpiece in oils: a massive 16th century triptych from Alkmaar by Maarten van Heemskerck, showing the stages of the crucifixion, with expressive faces everywhere, a masterpiece.

I walked around this cathedral in a state of awe.

Tree of Life

The wide nave at Linköping

Angels on the pulpit stairway

Side panel at the altar by Henrik Sörensen, painted in place in 1935

A Swedish Christ with blonde hair and blue eyes
by Henrik Sörensen

Detail from the Dutch triptych, 1530s

Thursday, July 12, 2018

In and out of the water

One of the best things about summer where we live is the chance to go swimming in the Ottawa River. Recently, on a very warm morning, we cycled to Westboro beach after breakfast and I swam from there in the designated swimming area, while Chris sat under a tree with three friendly ducks at his feet.

Last weekend with other friends we visited Francine and Roger at their house in Wendover which skirts the water, further downstream, to the east of Rockland. Their wide and grassy lawn slopes right down to the shore and they have a boat that seats about a dozen people. Roger took nine of us for a ride on it after we had smeared enough sunblock over our exposed skin and after Carol and Francine had made some emergency sewing repairs to Chris' swimming trunks (during which process I stayed well clear). Roger made for a quiet part of the river the far side of a long island, turning into wind, and then Tracey, Carol and I got off the boat into the water and swam around in it for ages. Once he had finished complaining that the water was "too cold", Chris stepped backwards off the ladder at the stern and joined in. There was a shallow area over a spit of sand at the end of the island where we could wade around or jump into the waves from other watercraft passing by. Great fun, except that Roger drew up too close and got his boat stuck in the sand. It took some help from another boatload of people (three muscular young men) to push her out and get her floating again.

Roger has a float plane tethered at his home dock as well, but he didn't use it, this time.

We all had good appetites for the shared supper.

Other people have been in other water. The whole world has been watching the long drawn-out display of selfless heroism, humility and international co-operation in the Tham Luang Nang Non cave rescue in Thailand, when suddenly, because it was so imaginable, everyone became emotionally involved in the fate of a few foreign children in trouble and the people trying to help them. For a while it looked as if the mission might end tragically and, for one man, it did. I was not the only one who lay awake worrying about them; it seems that millions of us did the same.

Then, right across the world, there was relief and joy when the news came that all the rest were safe after their 18 days in acute danger. The last man to out was Richard Harris, the Australian doctor who had kept the children calm and as healthy as possible during their final week in the cave: "Many have called for him to be made Australian of the Year." (BBC) The cave divers from England, who volunteered to risk their lives to help, made me feel proud to be British, and I felt overawed watching the video footage of them struggling along through the pools of water in the caves; I noticed small fish swimming past in the other direction. I was touched to read about the boys' Buddhist coach, Ekapol Chantawong, 25, said to be the weakest of the group when they were found, who had reportedly refused to eat any of the food and gave it instead to the boys, and about Adul, the 14-year old who acted as interpreter for the British divers and had the gumption to ask the rescuers, "What day is it?"

"Stateless children have a fighting spirit that makes them want to excel, Adul is the best of the best.” reported the Sydney Morning Herald. Adul is top of his class at school. His parents brought him across the border from Myanmar 8 years ago. He has no citizenship papers.

This whole symbolic story has reminded us that we're all connected: a very important lesson indeed!

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The pianist is just as important

The programme for yesterday morning's concert (in the Music and Beyond Festival) was headed

Yolanda Bruno

and indeed she was well worth advertising. However, I'd have preferred to see both names

Yolanda Bruno and Isabelle David

at the top of the page, because the piano accompanist seemed to be an equal at this event. The two young women became friends at McGill University's music school and have often performed together since.

The concert began with Alla Fantasia, a piece for solo violin composed in 18th century London by an musician from Naples, Nicola Matteis, a contemporary of Corelli. Yolanda plays an instrument that was made in in 1700.

The rest was more modern. Alexina Louie is a Canadian composer whose Beyond Time is a piece in three movements for violin and piano, paradoxically "capturing a moment that lasts for ever", although what kind of moment was not specified. It began with some high harmonics on the violin which were repeated later. Some sections sounded rather frantic, so perhaps the composer was struggling to capture or recapture the experience she had in mind, but there were also some beautifully rendered glissandi on both instruments that suggested a more harmonious mood.

The most weighty piece on the programme was George Enescu's Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 3 in A minor, Op. 25. Here is an old recording --- with Enescu himself playing the violin part! --- that shows its complexity:

Apparently Enescu's first violin teacher, in Romania, could not read music; as young child he therefore learned to play the folk music of his country by imitation. The music we heard obviously still had folk elements in it, but also shades of French impressionist music and what sounded to me like wailing Arabic song with quarter tones, in the second movement. We were forewarned that this section would sound like a storm ... with a rainbow at the end. I couldn't really identify the rainbow but the repeated high B-natural on the piano at the beginning of this movement (andante sostenuto e misterioso) did sound like oncoming rain. The pace accelerated in the gathering storm and before long the pianist was using the whole piano.

"Challenging!" I wrote in the margin.

The last movement was folk-dance-like again.

We had 10 minutes to go before the hour was up, and the young women finished their bravura show with something more familiar, the six Romanian Folk Dances by Bela Bartok, which they played with great verve. I remember seeing Bartok's bust in a park in Timișoara dedicated to famous people from Romania, although he is usually identified as Hungarian. I have just discovered from the Wikipedia that
...The original name for the piece was titled Romanian Folk Dances from Hungary (Magyarországi román népi táncok) but was later changed by Bartók when Romania annexed Transylvania in 1918-1920.
So that perhaps explains it.

(David Oistrakh playing in this recording.)

Saturday, July 7, 2018

A heated performance

Day 2 of the Music and Beyond Festival was an excessively warm one, 35 degrees, with a "feels like" temperature in the mid-forties. It felt even warmer than that indoors, in the non air-conditioned Southminster United Church, which explains why the featured musician, Marc Djokic, was wearing a red sports shirt and short jeans.

"We're dressed like the Beach Boys, today," he admitted, and nobody could blame him.

Mr. Djokic is concert-master of the Montreal Chamber Orchestra. At this concert in Ottawa he played his violin in five different ways, to a variety of accompaniments provided by his friends, also informally attired.

The first item was three movements from a Porgy and Bess Suite, arrangements for violin and piano, by Jascha Heifetz: Summertime, including jazzy variations on that familiar theme, It Ain't Necessarily So, ditto, and the less often heard Tempo di Blues which had the violinist whistling the tune. His pianist was Julien LeBlanc.

In the second item, Marc played "three sketches" composed by a Brazilian woman who is also a scat singer and jazz pianist, Clarice Assad: Ad lib, Anima and Electrified. The Anima was soft and slow. For this, two guitars joined in with the violin.

Matthias Maute, composer of the next piece (a "Noncerto" composition for solo violin) had named the musical sections after places he knew: a barber's shop called Chopin and a local restaurant, Casareccia-Ciacona. He was Marc Djokic's neighbour in Montreal.

Legal Highs, by David Jones, followed, this one for violin plus marimba, played by Beverley Johnston who despite the heat danced around as she struck the bars of her instrument with four mallets at a time. It looked difficult, but both performers obviously knew this music well and enjoyed it. Marc hardly cast any glances at his sheet music and played the first part of Mr. Coffee pizzicato, holding his instrument like a ukulele. The other sections were called Menthology and Sweet Thing.

What odd names all this music had!

Finally came a violin piece by Nico Muhly with a pre-recorded track for the accompaniment: Honest Music. Marc said he had played this during last summer's evening of music at the National Gallery, which I'd attended, but I hadn't remembered it.

Drawing elephants, to music

The famous French children's book Histoire de Babar, a fantasy about a young elephant who ventures away from his usual surroundings and is rescued by an old lady in the citywas written and illustrated by Jean de Brunhoff in 1930 and is still in print and popular. The composer Francis Poulenc completed his accompanied version of it, for piano and narrator, in 1945. In 1940, apparently the composer had been on holiday with children in the house who'd put their story book on the music stand, saying ‘‘Play it for us!’’ Poulenc then improvised at the piano, and that's how the composition originated.

This week, at the Freiman Hall (Perez Hall) at the University of Ottawa, I witnessed a performance of this by a dedicated and multi-talented young pianist, Damien Luce, from France, who also did the narration, while an impromptu illustrator, Federico Mozzi, an all too modest young man from Argentina, simultaneously drew appropriate pictures on his tablet, which then appeared on a screen for the audience to enjoy. The name of this 'Music and Beyond' event was Draw Me Some Music. "Stories, music and drawing are blended live," as the programme notes put it.

The remainder of the concert "became interactive", with the three children from the audience encouraged to come up and sit on the stage floor, next to the piano, drawing what they felt like drawing in pencil, on the sheets of paper provided. As they were doing this, the pianist gave us some more French music for children, extracts from the Mother Goose Suite by Ravel and from Debussy's Children's Corner.

A charming idea altogether. It was a shame that not more people were there.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Dido and Aeneas ... etc!

Introducing the first event in this year's Music and Beyond Festival, Laurence Wall called it "The Little Festival That Could" --- now in its ninth year. The main part of this concert was a semi-staged performance (at the Dominion Chalmers Church) of the 17th century, baroque opera Dido and Aeneas by Purcell, but before that began, a row of scarlet and black sentries marched on stage, wearing their fur busbies, and played a fanfare on brass instruments. I try not to use the word "juxtaposition(s)" too often in this blog, or it would get repetitive, but here was a good example of what catches my attention or amuses me, and what's more, the second half of the concert featured a string quartet playing with a banjo and two electric guitars. More of that later.

I know Purcell's tragic opera quite well, having studied it during my A-Level music lessons at school, having tried to master the famous aria, Dido's Lament, for a Grade VIII singing exam, and having once been involved in a performance with my father as conductor, at the Scarborough Girls' High School in Yorkshire, in 1965 or thereabouts. Once learned, never forgotten. Purcell did originally write the opera for a girls' school so our performance of it may have been more authentic than what I saw and heard in Ottawa this week, with the male parts --- Aeneas, the bawdy sailors, Jove's etherial messenger (up on the balcony) and the lower chorus parts --- performed by men. This performance by the Theatre of Early Music was directed by the internationally-known countertenor Daniel Taylor, who untied his long hair a couple of times to double as The Sorceress, singing in an extraordinarily high and loud falsetto register: had I not had my eyes open I'd have sworn it was a woman's voice. The instruments were of the period (lute, harpsichord, strings), played by seven musicians sitting on one side of the stage. Two scantily clad dancers with painted skins, one male (Bill Coleman), one female (Carol Prieur), also took part, who I believe were meant to represent the main characters' alter egos. Anyway they expressed in their fluid movements around the stage the emotions we were hearing in the arias and accompaniments.

The dramatis personae were not entirely static either, Dido (sung by the well cast Wallis Giunta) making some forceful hand and arm gestures. When, in the penultimate scene of this production, Aeneas (Geoffrey Sirett) comes towards her to proclaim that he is, after all, willing to renounce his destiny (as the founder of Rome / new Troy) to stay with her, she comes at him with a dagger she has concealed somewhere in her flowing robes, a most dramatic moment.

"By all that's good...!" Aeneas pleads.

"No more!" she interrupts, brandishing the dagger. "All that's good thou hast foresworn! To thy promised Empire fly, and let forsaken Dido die! ... Away! Away!"

And he goes. She then stabs herself with the dagger she has to hand and a silky red ribbon of blood cascades down the front of her white dress.

I was startled by this, as I knew she still had a long, breath-consuming aria to sing before expiring. (In our school production Dido had stabbed herself after the Lament.) "Thy hand, Belinda! Darkness shades me. On thy bosom let me rest. More I would, but Death invades me. Death is now a welcome guest."

I was interested and thrilled by the ornamentation Ms. Giunta added to her long phrases.

I enjoyed the two witches as well, their scene introduced by a foot-stamping chorus, who gleefully join the Sorceress in casting the spell or curse on Dido, whom they call Elissa: "Elissa's ruined, she's ruined! Destruction's our delight, delight our greatest sorrow! ... Our plot has took! The Queen's foresook! ... Elissa bleeds tonight, and Carthage flames tomorrow!"

It is a melodramatic story, great fun for schoolgirls.

Purcell's inspired music was still echoing in my head after the intermission, when the Swiss banjo player Jens and his guitarist brother Uwe, the Kruger Brothers, came in, as the next part of the evening's entertainment. They were accompanied by a Russian Jewish gentleman who played bass guitar, and by a string quartet (familiar Ottawa musicians).

"We're immigrants!" said Jens Kruger, emphatically, to appreciative applause from the audience, immigrants being so much in the news lately. The brothers had emigrated from Switzerland to North Carolina where they now live, and still use elements of Swiss folk music in what they play. Jens, who still speaks with a Swiss accent and has a Swiss sense of humour, is the composer; he says he used to ride a horse to school. He mentioned the wild horses who live in North Carolina too. His music contains all of this: the elements of the different influences and experiences he has absorbed. The Kruger trio began as a traditional bluegrass group, but "in a spirit of going forward" has progressed from this to playing semi-classical music.

Jens Kruger's Appalachian Concerto began with a tremolo from the six accompanying musicians, with the banjo prominent on top. The rest of first movement was fast and energetic, the second movement lyrical and the third rhythmic, with virtuoso flourishes for the banjoist.

The string players' eyes are glued to their music, but the trio plays entirely from memory, making for an interesting contrast. They did two encores as well, one of these jokingly quoting Mozart's Eine kleine Nachtmusik and ending with a bluegrass flourish, thus:

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

The delights of Stockholm

Children's playground in Norrmalm

At the Grand Central hotel
Stockholm is clean, elegant and friendly. As our stay there went by, we discovered ever more pleasant surprises. The city had a sense of fun, too, with playgrounds for children everywhere, and ponds and fountains where they could splash around. We were staying in a themed hotel, the "Grand Central" (referring to the station in New York), 1960s or 70s America being the theme. As you come out of a cubicle in the ladies' ground floor washroom, a crowd of paparazzi confronts you with their cameras from an enlarged photo on the wall. Opposite the hotel entrance was the Oscarsteatern where Så som i himmelen (As it is in Heaven) was showing, as a musical, I assume. I have seen the film so might have been able to follow the play, but didn't take the opportunity. Norrmalm, this commercial-cultural district, has no lack of theatres. The imposing Dramaten, by the Berzelii Park at the waterfront, was putting on Peer Gynt. I'd like to have seen that too.

Makrosbollen fontän
Strindberg Monument
We were on one of the main streets, Kungsgatan. Nearby was the City Conference Centre, on the site of a former school, with an unusual fountain in front of it, the Maskrosbollen fontän. In the evening, the Stockholmers gathered here in outdoor bars, ordering cocktails. In the long summer evenings, everyone stayed out late. Further up Kungsgatan is the "blue building" as one of Chris' colleagues called it, Stockholms Konserthus, on a square used as a farmers' market by day (Hötorget). Another street to remember is the Drottningsgatan, a very long, straight street that descends the hill at the top of Norrmalm, where the playwright Strindberg used to live (I found a sculpture commemorating him in the Tegnérlunden Park), and leads you past many shops all the way to the Riksdag (parliament buildings) and old city (Gamla Stan). Much of this street is free of traffic, like Strøget in Copenhagen.

In the Humlegarden
On the first morning, Sunday, Chris chose to find out where his place of work would be on Monday. We took the wrong train to start with, but worked out that if we got off at the first stop we could take a connecting train to Rådmansgatan where we needed to be. From there it was a few minutes' walk down Rådmansgatan to one of Stockholm's main thoroughfares, Birger Jarlsgatan, where the conference venue (Spårvagnshallarna) is situated. This office workers' / residential district reminded me of Germany, with its tall, early 20th century buildings in pastel shades of stucco. On the last morning of our stay I went back there, on foot all the way on that occasion, and found nearby Humlegården, a old fashioned park with lawns, ornamental ponds and old trees, and parties of school children walking along the paths in file, with a statue of Linnaeus, the famous botanist, at its centre.

At the city centre end of Birger Jarlsgatan, past some posh department stores, is the waterfront. Continuing along Strandvägen past the tour boats we found an almost Parisian boulevard with a path between the plane trees, and bistros along the edge. We had a drink out of doors, at an eco-friendly one. Our lunch too was at an outdoor table, in the Kungsrädgården, the tulip filled park at the next inlet. We had made the happy discovery that we could have an hour's boat ride simply by buying a 30 kroner (senior's) ticket at the nearest bus / tram stop, and using it to board a commuter ferry, using this means of transport for a there-and-back cruise, not getting off the boat. This also saved us a long queue in the hot sun for one of the tourist boats.

Like Sydney Harbour, Chris thought, as we boarded the ferry from Nybrohamnen (i.e. new bridge harbour). Multivarious watercraft filled the inlets, from kayaks, small pleasure boats, tugs and tall ships to full scale cruise ships. Working boats were there too. We sailed past the fun fair, the Aquaria and the Vasamuseet, famous home of a restored wooden fighting ship, on the Djurgården side of the harbour, with a windmill and stately homes on the shore. Our boat sailed down the Saltsjön, to Kvarnholm and back to Nybroplan.

Another serendipitous find was the Medeltidsmuseet, the medieval museum below the Riksdag. In the 1970s they had begun construction of an underground carpark there, only to discover that the excavation site was rich in archeological treasures, a whole city's worth. Entrance to the museum, in a peaceful small park with fountains, flowers, and chestnut trees, is free. Inside are medieval people made of wax, doing the things that were done in those days, in a cleverly realistic setting. We learned of some horrible parts of Stockholm's history mainly to do with the Swedes' resentment of brutal Danish dominance: piles of decapitated heads in squares and other kinds of blodbad. The punishment of various crimes was gruesome too. Nobles had the privilege of being put to death by the sword, whereas the lower orders of criminal were killed by slower means, women sometimes buried alive.

The name Stockholm means stick island, since posts in the water, around the shore, protected the original settlement. A 12th century ruler, a bishop called Erik, buried in Uppsala cathedral, was canonised after his assassination. In later centuries the Royal Palace was accessible through a stone tunnel, now part of the museum.

I more than once wandered round the Gamla Stan during our stay, preferring to linger in the quieter areas and the grände (narrow alleyways) of this inevitably touristy district. On our first look, on the Sunday, we stopped to watch a young busker making music with wine glasses, as Mozart once did, and a couple of girls in Swedish costume walked by. On Tuesday (after visiting the landmark Stadhuset on the other side of the water, site of the annual Novel Prize banquet, with a swarm of other tourists), having remembered a perfect spot for lunch, I ate smoked herring on a patio opposite a fountain and dramatic statue of St. George slaying the dragon (representing Sweden v. Denmark in the old days!). Nearby, I found a small gallery, with me the only customer, where a lady called Ulla Neogard was selling artifacts she had made from birchbark. She answered my questions and sold me a spectacles case for my daughter.

That afternoon I also walked onto the adjacent island of Skeppsholmen, but was becoming exhausted and footsore in the heat by then, so sat down on the far side and waited for a ferry that connected at Djurgården with a tram that took me back to central Berzelii Park.

Chris didn't get so exhausted on Monday and Tuesday, at least not physically, for he was busy all day at his conference; in the evenings he wanted a walk, which meant yet more footsteps for me. We kept finding our way back to benches on the water, the sometimes fast flowing Lilla Värten. The setting sun was reflected in the windows of the Royal Palace and Stockholm's other fine buildings for a long time.