Monday, 15 February 2016

Wizard of Oz: Displacement & Identity 1899/2016

“Wonderment & joy are maintained and the heartaches & nightmares are left out”

 – this is how writer L Frank Baum compared his fairy tale to those of earlier authors such as the brothers Grimm and Andersen.

 Baum´s own account of his intentions in his introduction to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1899 is clear so we should not try to read too much into his fairy story. Even so, as I start to rehearse the RSC version of The Wizard of Oz with my students there are themes which have a curiously topical and serious resonance.

Firstly, because I am teaching at an international school in The Netherlands where there are students from nearly 90 nations. Secondly, because we are living at a time when millions of persons, among them innumerable children, are living in a foreign land, far from their roots. I should say that these notes are my personal thoughts and are not meant to represent the school in any way.

The US government has posted a version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz on line with the lovely illustrations by W W Denslow  

On page 44 Mr Baum puts these words in the mouth of his characters,

“No matter how dreary or grey our homes are, people of flesh and blood would rather live there than in any other country, be it ever so beautiful.  There is no place like home.”

What is home for our students?
 Many of them have lived in several countries already in their short lives. 
Many of them have parents from two different countries and they have never lived long in either of those countries. 
For all of them English is the language they use to study and to communicate with their school friends, while for many of them it is not the language of their country of origin.

What is home for my colleagues? For some it is where they have elderly parents or siblings; for others it is where they have a property for which they are paying a mortgage; for others it is the place where special possessions have been left in safe keeping: a pet, a pony, a piano.

“But now we are all, in all places, strangers and pilgrims, travellers and sojourners …”.

This is not a quote from L Frank Baum in 1900 nor from a United Nations  worker attending the needs of Syrian refugees in 2016. 

Robert Cushman was a pilgrim who fled persecution in England in 1622 and was exiled in Leiden here in The Netherlands, a short train ride from my school.  During their exile, more than 30 family members died and were buried at the Pieterskerk, as shown on the plaque in the photo.

Exclusion can be suffered in many ways, whether its origin is in cultural difference or religion, race or gender.
I cannot help quoting a lovely line from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, delivered by the Scarecrow on page 38,
 “I am stuffed so I have no brains at all”. 

In these days of our so-called  knowledge  economy, far too many young people who have been labelled as stupid by our education system are experiencing this sentence the other way around, ie

 I have no brains at all, so I am stuffed.

I hope we will stay true to Mr Baum´s intentions as we work with our students on his wonderful story full of great and important themes such as friendship, courage and the imagination. I trust that our production at the end of June will avoid the nightmares and the heartaches and that our students and their audience will experience wonderment and joy. 

At least during two hours each evening for 3 days we will all know where home is: it will be what is conjured up in our hearts and minds by the wonder of Mr Baum´s imagination in the dark rows of theatre seats, each seat filled by a person with their own experience of displacement and identity in 2016.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Guadalupe Álvarez in a Tribute to Joni Mitchell in Madrid July 2015: review

It was my friend Michael who first alerted me to Joni Mitchell’s   health  problems earlier this year. It is clear from his Facebook page that he has been a devoted fan for many years, I mean of Joni Mitchell, not of me. I confess I have not followed her with the same devotion: for me Joni Mitchell from a distance has been a combination of a thinking person’s Madonna and a Bob Dylan alter ego with a better voice.  I suppose Both Sides Now is the song that I would think of as essentially hers, Joni Mitchell’s, I mean, not Madonna’s. Yes, in part due to the scene in Love Actually, sorry.

So, when I got back to Madrid for the summer I noticed a Tribute to Joni Mitchell concert in the listings. Normally I would run a mile rather than go to a Tribute To … concert as I can live without a bunch of wannabees cynically living of other artistes’ achievements. Still, with Michael’s heartfelt messages in mind, and with the confidence I have in the Café Central,   in Madrid  along I went.

Guadalupe Álvarez is a fantastic   singer  and this concert was wonderful. I had never heard of her before (sorry!) but she is a renowned singer in her native Argentina and has many achievements and recordings to her name: here´s just    one example. She can take a song from a whisper to a 10 force gale in the space of a line, her jazz phrasing is rhythmically excellent, and her pitch control in the many angular phrases of these interesting songs was superb.

On top of all that is her expressive power. There is a myth in show business that you can only be really expressive as a performer if you have suffered in real life, as if the real life suffering were the true inspiration for great performances. I saw this earlier this month in an article by Dan Cairns, who should know better, writing about Cilla Black in the Sunday   Times  (paywall).

I don’t know whether Guadalupe Álvarez has suffered in her life or not: I hope not.  She certainly is able to perform these powerful songs in a way that brought tears to her eyes, and to mine. I think there are other things you need to be able to express deep emotions in music: among them are a well developed technique on your instrument/voice; a careful choice of material/repertoire with arrangements that present the material at its best; and an accompanist or band who present your work in the best light.

On this occasion at the Café Central Guadalupe Álvarez showed that she has all this and more.  Her own technique and performance standards are superb, and she has surrounded herself with excellent musicians who, as far as I can see, have all contributed to the interested and varied jazz arrangements of Joni Mitchell’s songs:

Toni  Brunet, guitar & vocals; Josué Santos, piano & alto sax; José Vera, bass; and Pedro Barceló, drums.

There was a lot of noise, in the best sense of the word, of high energy power music in this concert. One of the most interesting points was a solo by Toni Brunet, accompanying himself on guitar. This was among the quietest few minutes I have heard at the Café Central in more than 20 years of going to concerts there: a wonderful performance.

All the songs were arranged in a very interesting and sensitive way. These were not just copies, they were genuine arrangements with a strong jazz flavor. I would like to hear this same group of musicians play a straight jazz set: something to look forward to.  And in the end, there it was, Both Sides Now, sung with passion, pain and power from the very depths of her being to the most needing points of my heart. Wonderful.

So, thank you, Michael for many things: most recently for jogging my mind so that I saw this concert.
And thanks to Guadalupe Álvarez and musicians, and Café Central, for an excellent evening of music.

Quartet Mezza Voce in Denia: review. Classical music in an original performing space

One of the nice surprises in  Denia  this year was to hear a concert of string quartet music in a relaxed atmosphere with views overlooking the historic castle. Young talent and ancient views combined in a very enjoyable occasion on 6 August at the  Jauja Port   venue.

Sadly I missed the first part of the concert because this area was new to me even though I have been holidaying in Denia in Spain for more than 20 years. It was certainly worth the effort required to find the concert.

The Quartet Mezza Voce performed Mendelssohn’s Quartet Op 13 no 2 in A minor. Of course the playing was excellent, after all these young players are students at the Conservatorio Superior de Música de Aragón. (I missed the Haydn Op 76 no 3 in the first half of the concert.)

Yes but … the moving thing for me was to see a string quartet whose players have rehearsed painstakingly throughout the year and who have been able to arrange a tour which takes them so far musically and geographically. Denia is more than 400 km from   the conservatoire in    Zaragoza, where they are based. Much more important is the musical journey they have undertaken together. It was clear from the standard of playing and from the quality of their ensemble technique that they have performed this repertoire in several concerts.

The history of music is full of quartets which have started with great promise and yet have faded away. The point is that there are so many difficulties involved in maintaining a quartet: from the logistics of having a rehearsal venue to rehearse together for several hours a day in addition to the hours of individual  practice the players need to keep up their technique; the financial demands; adjusting to each member’s taste in choice of repertoire, and finding venues to play which will keep the quartet alive.

Many of these problems are explored in the fictional story of a string quartet based in New York City: an entertaining film,  A Late Quartet   starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, among others.
Thankfully, the young players of the Quartet Mezza Voce are young enough not to face the pressures of those fictional musicians, and, more importantly, have had the benefit of coaching  from the members of one of the leading string quartets active today, the Cuarteto  Quiroga .

The debate about getting music out of the strict formalities of the concert hall is alive and well: some musicians are exploring alternative venues including car parks. There are advantages in using venues which are not formal concert halls, even though we have to put up with little children running around and the clink of wine glasses being collected by the bar staff while the musicians are playing. On this occasion, the disadvantages were outweighed by the pleasure of listening to this lovely music.

According to the programme, The Quartet Mezza Voce are Eva Laliena Sanz & Eva Ortells Pecheco, violins; Carolina Úriz Malón, viola; and Violeta Mur Minguell, ‘cello.

A concert in this venue would have been impossible just a handful of years ago. The Balearia shipping company have made substantial improvements to the port facilities to provide docking for larger vessels, including an entirely new dock area for their ferries, and there are many improvements in hand which are making Denia a more attractive place every year.

Thanks to the Balearia company for making this concert possible, and thanks to the wonderful young players of the Quartet Mezza Voce for their lovely playing. I hope to hear you all playing together in 20 years time.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Fairy Tales & Nightmares at the Korzo Theatre: review

The show Fairy Tales & Nightmares started before it began: the playback tango music set the scene while the 5 actor/dancer/musicians were already on stage as the audience took their seats.
I had read in the programme notes that this show is made up of modern dance set to the music of Prokofiev. The first music we heard after the lights went down was a scratchy war time rendition of a patriotic Russian song so I wondered whether the show was going to be a portrayal of that composer´s treatment at the hands of Stalin and his henchmen. In fact there were moments when the dancers mimed an attack on the violinist and this even included pelting him with missiles, some of them hitting the wall behind him, some of them hitting his body or his violin.

This theme was not developed as the show went on but that does not mean it lost interest. In fact I suppose this show is more of a divertissement, an entertainment which features movement and music, not always at the same time. The show was devised by the pianist   Shuann Chai , whose incredible playing of the difficult Prokofiev pieces deserved a better instrument than the  one used last night. Still, the piano was part of the show: moving it around the stage marked the different scenes in the show. Shuann Chai  was also story teller: her telling of the Baba Yaga tale reminds us that fairy tales were not always the saccharin product Disney likes to pretend.     Shunske Sato  is a wonderful violinist and all round artist: how many violinists you know would allow someone to throw missiles at their violin, be used as a foil for comedy routines, partner a dancer in over and under movements while playing perfectly in tune, and be smothered into “unconsciousness”, only to be revived in time to play a duet with a film of himself playing the other part?

The choreography was created by dancers    Ederson Rodrigues Xavier   and    Masahiro Yanagimoto and included extended solos and duets and action which involved the pianist and violinist. A scene like a wrestling match to grasp control of a gas mask included drama and comedy. Movements involved mainly floor work with angular poses. There were moments when the dancers joined the audience as spectators to the music interludes.
These four performers filled the stage with humour, drama and skillful interpretations of the choreography and music and they moved between each others´ roles as the dancers played the piano and the musicians danced.
The fifth member of the cast is in fact a life size, dismembered latex puppet created by   Duda Paiva . He, sorry it, is manipulated with such skill by Ederson Rodrigues Xavier that he, sorry it, takes on the role of a character and is movingly expressive.
This was an enjoyable and entertaining show.  If I had to split hairs I would say that I would prefer to hear less of the phrase happy ever after: it never sounds in my nightmares and in my fairytales it only comes once, when all else is said and done.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Is culture crashing? Scott Timberg: Part 2 review

I often tell my students that if they enjoy my lessons they should thank the rulers of the former Soviet Union. When they start to laugh I tell them that the story goes that the launch of the first Sputnik rocket in 1957 sent shock waves through the intellectual class of the USA. How could the world´s greatest country have been beaten into space by the USSR? The missing link, it was decided, was original thinking, so a new generation of bright sparks needed to be produced in no time at all. But how?  Creativity was the answer. 

Thanks to those lawmakers in the USA who expanded arts provision, the more genteel but equally ambitious rulers in London followed obediently and introduced music and drama courses at all levels of education  in a way that was unthinkable a short time before.

That generation of creative minds was meant to restore prominence to The West not in the arts themselves but in what really counted: geopolitical dominance. Of course it was not called that then: lots of things changed their names over the years and the decades.

Scott Timberg nails it in his   Culture Crash , The Killing of the creative class. In Chapter 6 he describes how those early days when the creatives were to save The Free World gave way to the view of those same persons as Idle Dreamers: the curse of the creative class. He cites Dan Quayle, intellectual giant as he is, VP that other man renowned for deep thought and er … well, maybe not. Anyway, he cites Quayle as using the expression cultural elite as an insult in a speech in 1992 in California. I am not going to quote the passage, better you buy the book for yourself, it´s worth it just to have yet another laugh at the mighty thinking power of Messrs Q & B.

Mr Timberg details how, while snide comments from people who know nothing like to describe those in the creative industries as cosseted and privileged, the real statistics show that  earnings in this field are lower than average incomes and working conditions are arduous and precarious.

I enjoyed Chapter 7: The end of print. It is a sad story that has been told many times and it has to do not only with the technological revolution. More profoundly it has to do with greed among business leaders and failure of governments to regulate properly.

Yes the digital dawn has played its part. Mr Timberg refers to the Guardian, a British newspaper founded in 1821. Here´s a thing, my beloved father bought it even when it was still called The Manchester Guardian. In 1959 they dropped the local tag as it aspired to be a national newspaper, and so it was and so my father bought it every day probably for 40 years even as the price rose from a shilling to I suppose 60 pence. Now I read the Guardian and I dip into it several times a day and find new stories constantly appearing, excellent graphics and high quality writing and beautiful photographs. Yet not only am I paying less in 2015 than my dear father paid in 1965, I am paying nothing at all. No wonder its owners are losing money daily: as Mr Timberg remarks, the Guardian continues to operate thanks to its almost unique support from the trust which owns it.

Today,  Will Hutton  writes in the Guardian/Observer about  different levels of internet connectivity available in different parts of Britain. What is the good of having all the world´s knowledge at your fingertips if the rate of download is so slow as to be ineffective? How is there a broadening of democracy and an increase of freedom if you access to information depends on the profit your neighbourhood provides to the cable provider? These are big questions and not all newspapers are prepared to ask, much less answer them.  

Mr Timberg makes an insightful comment about the loss of theatre and music critics in many newspapers in recent years. He points out that specialist bloggers may well write about local plays or concerts so apparently the loss of coverage in the press is not significant. Yet, he says, the danger is that the arts “become a tiny subculture, losing their connection to a mass middle-class public, surrendering their ability to be discovered accidentally.”

I agree totally, and I think the “ability to be discovered accidentally” is similar to the effect of large numbers of school students taking musical instruments to and from school daily. When it is seen as a natural thing to do to carry that strange long box  with a trombone, or that short flat almost weightless case holding a violin, other students are much more likely to adopt playing an instrument into their life than if selected students attend  specialist courses out of the normal school routine.

 Mr Timberg concludes that the artist and the journalist, two groups of workers who are suffering, are committed to uncovering the truth, be it of the human condition or of institutions. Truth, no matter what the cost “is something we cannot live without.”

Looking forward to reading the next chapters. Thank you Mr Timberg.  

Music, culture & politics: Somaliland at the Korzo in The Hague

Last night´s concert by the Sahra Halgan Trio at the  Korzo   Theatre in The Hague raises lots of questions.  It all added up to a fascinating evening of music, culture and politics, sponsored by the   Alliance Française  in The Hague.

First the music:  Sahra Halgan   was accompanied by 2 French musicians, Maël Salétes on guitars and Aymeric Krol on  percussion and kamala ngoni. Sahra has a wonderful voice which ranges from jubilation to powerful protest. Her fellow musicians are excellent: technically virtuoso and totally assured in this musical style. This was basically a presentation of their cd Faransiskiyo Somaliland, recorded recently in France. By the end of the concert the audience were on their feet, joining in the dance to the African rhythms and singing along to the call and response melodies.

I recognized the music as being very much in the style of other African music I have heard so my question was whether these songs were traditional or original? When I asked M Krol after the show as I bought the cd he said that all the music was original to the trio. I remembered that in the documentary Sahra Halgan pays tribute to a Somaliland elder musician called Abdul Nasir, saying that when she was young he taught her all the songs she knows. So I asked M Krol and he said no, some of the lyrics are traditional but others, and the melodies, are original to the trio. I am not sure how Mdme Halgan learnt the traditional songs as lyrics only and how she would have remembered them over 20 years in France, but if that´s how she sees it it´s fine by me. I suppose it is not important to get hung up on the matter of authorship in what is fundamentally an oral tradition of  music.

In the Q & A session after the concert one question was whether Mdme Halgan was influenced by English (I think the questioner meant American) blues or by French music. She replied that definitely not English, but yes, by the French musicians she worked with all those years away from home. She was very emphatic that when it came to singing she only sang in her own African language. 
Sahra Halgan describes herself  as a cultural ambassador for her home country, Somaliland. She has been resident in France for many years and recently decided to return to Somaliland. This is no small matter as the country is not officially recognized as an independent state by the world community: in 1991 it broke away from Somalia and declared its independence. Is Somaliland a country or a region?

Before the concert there was a showing of the informative and moving   documentary  made by   Cris Ubermann . He details Sahra Halgan´s difficult life in France and the challenges of returning to her home country. The documentary includes interviews with her 16 year old daughter, first in France, a European teenager full of admiration for Sahra Halgan as mother, singer and cultural ambassador; later we see her in Somaliland as a student of the American school, quite frank about the difficulties of adapting to boarding school and to dressing to fit the local codes.

Sahra Halgan describes her life in Somaliland in the documentary. She describes her achievements as an entrepreneur setting up a restaurant which employs 19 local people. Added to the normal difficulties of setting up a new business are the restrictions on women as owners and as bank account holders. She blames these restrictions on the international community´s refusal to recognize her country. Are these problems as a woman to do with the international community or more to do with the country´s own decisions on how it is to be run?

Was I the only one in the audience who was ignorant about Somaliland and its bid for international recognition? I notice on youtube there are numerous films about the diaspora returning to Somalia and the surrounding region, not just from France but also other European countries. There is also a UN mission to Somalia which, according to local reports,  is regarded as a threat to the continuance of Somaliland as an independent state.
Clearly there is a need for cultural ambassadors like Sahra Halgan to explain her view to the world.

Thanks to the Alliance Française in The Hague for this fascinating evening:  many questions were raised and some were answered, about Somaliland and its music, culture and politics.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Culture Crash by Scott Timberg: Review part one

First off: I bought a paper copy of this book in a specialist book shop because I was browsing through the Philosophy section and it jumped out at me. Yes, yet another great thing about living in   The Hague   is that there are quality bookshops which stock a wide range of new work in English.

The Killing of the Creative Class is the subtitle to this fascinating book. I have only read the first five chapters but the author has already made a big impression.

Scott Timberg   is one of the many victims of the first years of this millennium: you could say he was careless enough to be born at the wrong time. He explains how he was brought up to believe that hard work plus talent equals a middle class life style. In a few short years he found himself without a job and losing his home and at risk of living without medical insurance.

Quite apart from his professional  disappointments, he is angry at the way his bank foreclosed on his mortgage instead of working out an alternative solution. Yet his anger is dignified and contained. There are many  around who, by good fortune, were not so cruelly affected by the crash of 2008 but who share the despair of people like Scott Timberg and who are waiting for individual citizens who were responsible for bad decisions to be brought to justice: wrong things were done and the wrong doers should be held to account. Sadly, governments around the world, in the USA and in Europe, have failed, and failed miserably, they have failed the citizens who elect them and they have failed to live up to the standards that can rightfully be expected of the holders of high office.

Scott Timberg sets out his plan in the Introduction: that new technology, globalization and deregulation have changed the game in a few short years, with tragic consequences for a  whole swathe of people, including the citizens he calls the Creative Class. He includes in the creative class workers in recorded music and book stores, and I was struck this week by news of the closing of a renowned shop selling printed music in New York. After 80 years in business,   the shop   is closing down this month. Free downloads of often inferior quality prints have killed this supplier of high quality music scores.

One of the many things I like about Mr Timberg´s book is that he does not get stuck in distinguishing between art for art´s sake and commercial use of the arts: to him, the arts and creative artists are all one, whether they be clerks in a book store or musicians on the road.

Mr Timberg writes about how remuneration for creative work has been driven down over a decade. This strikes a chord. I know of musicians in Spain who in 1992 were paid 40,000 pesetas for a performance and who, in 2010 were offered 100 euros for the same type of gig. That sounds fine until you do the conversion: 40,000 pesetas is equivalent to 240 euros.  So a job that was paid 240 euros has been driven down to 100. This is one of many examples that bear out Mr Timberg´s  thesis.

I look forward to reading the rest of this interesting book over the weekend. Of course, not all of the creative class are penniless and homeless. Mr Timberg points out that the heavy hitters of the entertainment industry can still pocket huge amounts of money, but he rightly points out that  they are the exceptions. Recent  reports  of the court case brought by the family of Marvin Gaye claiming their share of the success of a recent hit tune by Pharrell Williams talk of receipts of 17 million dollars in sales of a single song. Clearly  the majority of the workers in the creative class will never come anywhere close to this kind of money.

To be continued … 

Extreme graffiti or ghost tram in The Hague?

There I was, huffing and puffing my way along the luxury 2 metre wide cycle path  (Boris please take note, that´s how it should be done!) and I was overtaken by a ghost. I mean,  I am used to  being overtaken by The Hague´s swish blue-liveried super-luxury trams travelling at 15 km per hour, yes a bit pathetic, but  I do it to get fit not because I am fit. And there it was, the silver lightening vision, gliding along, windowless and totally different. Lots of locals turned their heads at the vision, but only I had the inspiration, or the time to waste, to jump/fall off my bike and take some photos.

Monday, 9 March 2015

How to treat our heroes? Hoorn has the answer

All countries have heroes. I suppose we all want to have people to look up to: those larger than life figures who have conquered far away lands or who have won unwinnable battles at some time, usually in the dim and distant past.
What happens when objective historical research shines its light on these heroes? In many cases, in the cruel light of day our heroes turn out to be human beings and their imperfections are all too obvious.
I remember when I was a t school in Liverpool in the 60´s I learned how Sir Francis Drake  was a hero who brought riches and honour to the court of the English queen Elisabeth I. Thirty years later I visited the maritime museum in Tenerife in the Spanish Canary Islands and found myself reading an inscription beneath a portrait of the same Sir Francis: “the English pirate who stole from defenceless traders as they sailed the high seas”. At what point did my history teacher´s hero become a Spanish museum curator´s villain?
In Spain the issue of the civil war which ravaged the country from 1936 – 39 is still very much alive.  In recent years numerous statues have been demolished or removed to hidden destinations and street names have been changed to respect current sense of right and wrong.

In Liverpool, England, there has been a vigorous debate about a proposal to re-name streets which were originally named after respected civic leaders who later were regarded as pariahs because they made their fortunes on the misery of their fellow humans who were bought and sold in the most miserable conditions and called slaves as they passed through the port of Liverpool as merchandise in much the same way as bales of cotton and sacks of corn. Some said we should take down the street signs bearing the names of the slave traders, as if re-naming the streets we all know and have walked along would somehow right a dreadful wrong in the city´s history.

Last weekend I was in the Dutch port city of Hoorn and I saw yet another example of the Dutch ability to put things in perspective. In the town square of Hoorn there is a monument to one its sons and heroes: Jan Pieterszoon Coen, born there in 1587. He was a founder of the incredibly successful and world-defining Dutch East India Company (VOC), which not only inspired the English to copy their working model, but opened trade routes which were previously unimaginable. At first sight Pieter
szoon Coen must be an indisputable hero, a model for all wannabe entrepreneurs who have never had it so good.

But take a  look at the inscription on the plinth of his statue and you see that there is a more complex story: the fortune which Pieterszoon Coen made for his investors was not without cost, and the price was paid by the human beings who inhabited the lands he decided were targets for his trade empire, among them were those who were murdered or deported from their own land for contravening his instructions.
So what do the sensible Dutch do? They do not tear down his statue and hide it in a municipal warehouse, neither do they change the name. Their practical, sensible solution is to maintain the statue in situ and to add a plaque in Dutch and English which explains the facts: that on the one hand here is a local hero and on the other hand a human being who was responsible for the terrible suffering of fellow human beings.

Thanks to the good citizens of Hoorn in the Netherlands who have given us all a lesson in how to treat our heroes: undoubtedly persons who have achieved great things, and who in some cases have achieved greatness at the cost of their fellow human beings.    

By the way, Pieterszoon Coen died in 1629 in the city which he called Batavia, now known as Jakarta, half a world away from the picturesque port of Hoorn.

Friday, 6 March 2015

Spaander Art Hotel in Volendam, NL

Last weekend I had the great good  fortune to stay at the Spaander Art Hotel in  Volendam, Netherlands. 

You can find all the information on the hotel´s web site. I understand this lovely hotel was founded in 1881 and the idea was to create a sympathetic environment for painters in the picturesque setting of the Volendam village. Volendam is built behind a huge dam: the town itself is located below sea level and its origin and its future depend on the amazing achievement of the people of the Netherlands and their technical  expertise in  taking over land that was previously below water.
If you want to understand the fascinating story of how these clever people carved out their country step by step, look for the book   Amsterdam  by Russell Shorto. He tells an interesting story  in an un-put-downable way.
Here are a few photos of the art work which artists have left at the Spaander Art Hotel over the last century and more. I understand that many of these paintings were accepted by the owners in exchange for a stay at the hotel: if that´s the case I think the hotel  have made a good deal. In 2006 the current owners decided to revisit the hotel´s origins and invite a group of artists to stay at the hotel cost-free on the condition that they left a work of art for the hotel.
It seems to me that the Spaander Art Hotel is a perfect example of the practical efficiency of the people of the Netherlands which you see daily in this lovely country.
So here is a photo from the room: water, water everywhere....

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Netherlands Chamber Choir in The Hague: Review

It´s always a pleasure to go to the Nieuwe Kerk in The Hague for a concert. The original 17th century architecture has been beautifully restored and acoustic panels designed by Siemens provide a resonant acoustic ideal for concerts.

 Last Sunday´s concert was preceded by a short performance by the Residentie Kamerkoor directed by Jos Vermunt. He chose two excellent pieces, the Vespers on the first  three Psalms by Rachmaninov and three pieces by Schnittke. This was a perfect choice of repertoire for this amateur   choir : the first pieces were accessible and melodic and easily within reach. The Schnittke pieces were in a challenging musical language, with irregular rhythms and dissonant harmonies and the choir sang them very well. This unexpected bonus was a real pleasure.

Then followed the main concert  given by the Nederlands Kamerkoor  chamber choir   directed by Daniel Reuss. The programme´s first half  was made up of the Reincarnations by Barber, O Magnum Mysterium by Morten Lauridsen, the Canción del Alma by Edie Hill and the Agnus Dei, also by Barber. Sometimes when you listen to a concert you feel the repertoire is beyond the performers: in this case my impression was that the performers were beyond the repertoire. 

In the Reincarnations the most striking feature was the repetition of the name Anthony, passed from one voice to another, giving effective support to the following lines: After you there is nothing to do! There is nothing but grief!
Morten Lauridsen (b 1943) is a recognized composer, a National Medal of Arts recipient and “the most frequently performed  American choral composer in modern history”, according to his website. His O magnum mysterium  did not hold much mystery for me and neither was there anything very magnum about it, though it was pleasant enough I suppose. After Edie Hill´s Canción del Alma, the first half ended with Barber´s Agnus Dei. This piece has been done to death as a free standing movement for strings; in this performance for voices it is too fast to maintain the power of the instrumental original, and the high notes become irritating rather than moving. I was hoping for more after the interval.

After the interval 8 singers were taken away and a set up of percussion  instruments were added. I think we lost out on the deal. I read that David Lang won a Pulitzer Prize for the piece we   sat through: The Little Match Girl Passion. Sorry but there was no passion here and his little match girl left me unmoved. There is a really nice musical show called The Matchgirls, composed by British actor Bill Owen and songwriter Tony Russell about the strike of London match factory workers in 1888 which really does have passion and which is worth performing many times: I know because I was involved in a production with school students in 1980 something. Sorry, but Mr Lang´s piece does not match up, if you forgive the expression.
We lost 8 expert singers and were dumped with a set of percussion instruments which the remaining singers had to juggle with as well as singing their parts. Why do some composers think they can tell non percussionists to bash around on percussion instruments and hope we will all have a good time? How would the singers feel if next time they found a bunch of percussion specialists doing their best to sing along while they played their percussion parts or if brass players were given extra notes to play on a random selection of woodwind instruments? I am not saying the singers did not perform at their best with the percussion instruments, just that I think the audience came off worst in the trade off between the 8 lost singers and the added percussion.
This concert was billed as In Amerikaanse Kringen: it´s hard to imagine that what we heard was the most inspiring or imaginative output of contemporary or recent American composers.

So, a pleasant enough afternoon, as always, at the Nieuwe Kerk. Next time I hope the repertoire will be more interesting.  

Monday, 23 February 2015

Rootless Roots: Linda Kapetanea at Korzo Theatre in The Hague

Linda Kapetanea´s incredible solo dance performance at the  Korzo Theatre   in The Hague earlier this month was part of the Cadance modern dance festival. Linda Kapetanea and her partner Jozef Frucek make up Rootless Root and they have created a wonderful piece called W Memorabilia (Phaedra´s Laboratory).

The blurb talks about Greek heroines, mythology, suffering, desires and so on. As always, what counts is not what they say about the piece but what actually happens on stage. In this case, what happened on stage was powerful and moving and kept you alert because there was at once a sense of unpredictability and a clear purpose.

Each section starts with a change in the music. “Raw sounds produced in real time” the programme says. There is a home made string instrument consisting of one string, more than 2 metres long, across a simple bridge which Ms Kapetanea played with a cello bow. The instrument was amplified and she set off a loop track which meant that the sound kept going to accompany her movement. This was powerful in more ways than one: on the one hand the amplification was very loud and there was a physical impact on the audience; on the other hand this sound was timeless, it could have been a Greek chorus – who really knows what that sounded like anyway? Or I could have been the echoes of a cry of pain that comes to us from any distant past.

For me the least effective part of the music was the short section of pre-recorded  electronic sound. Not that it was not well done, just that it came close to sounding like rock music which threatened to break the powerful spell of timelessness of the rest of the production, as if that type of music was time bound, whereas the rest of the sound scape was free of time, a way into infinite aural space. The most effective part of the music was at the start of the penultimate movement, where Ms Kapetanea took a hammer and started beating  on the double bridge of the string instrument. The volume increased to an almost unbearable point and I thought that she was going to smash the instrument, such was the strength with which she attacked the string. To me this was much more powerful than the playback music, and watching her produce this sound was scary because of her intensity.

This kind of performance art owes a debt to the John Cage and I could not help thinking about a fun performance he made for US tv of Water Walk. He plays all kinds of objects and makes splashy sounds and in the course of his walk he uses several transistor radios – this is the 60’s. He comments before starting that his intention had been to switch on the radios one by one to hear an aleatory mix of radio broadcasts simultaneously but the union rep pointed out that only a padi sound man could operate radio equipment on screen, so instead he threw each transistor radio onto the floor to make a crashing sound .. and to make a point.

Well, in W Memorabilia, Ms Kapetanea does not only create the music, she moves scenery and  even unplugs electric cables. The light board has some 400 light bulbs and is used to create shadow, to separate different parts of the stage, and even to dazzle the performer and he audience: light as contrast and light as power. Together with a couple of screens, that is the whole set.

Ms Kapetanea is actually on stage as the audience walk in. The sense of uncertainty is unsettling. The performer´s head is covered with a white gauze cloth: is it a death shroud, a wedding gown, or even a ballet tutu? Okay stupid, it´s the modern dance festival it really is not likely to be that last one.  Look at those strong, muscled legs: is it a man or a woman? I thought the programme said a one woman show, but  those legs are quite something.  Doubt is there and doubt keeps you on the edge of your seat.
Then you get to the very end and you realize that this piece is structured so that each succeeding event is forecast by what comes before. The screen is much more than a screen, and strong enough to become a climbing wall at the closing scene, but we really know that because when we walked in s/he was not just next to the screen but leaning on it with all her weight. The removal of the half the overall after doing some messy painting was followed by removing half her clothes in a later scene. The early smashing of certain parts of the screen made hand holds for her ascent to the top of the screen for the apotheosis finale, ascending to infinity, fulfillment, or a desperate attempt to escape this world and its troubles and cares?

On top of all this, she dances. Powerful is a word which appears several times in this review, and Ms Kapetanea is a powerful force on stage: her choreography is intense, with changes of tempo and changes  of weight and she covers the breadth and depth of the stage in seconds. The staging, lighting and music are powerful, but the real powerhouse is the dancer herself. She leaves the audience disturbed and drained, but most of all, full of admiration for a superb artist.

This work was brought to The Hague as a coproduction with the Athens Festival, and the production team includes: Vassilis Mantzoukis, music, Sofia Alexiadou, lighting, Manolis Vitsaxakis, Isabelle Lhoas and Martin Kubran.

Saturday, 31 January 2015

Eric Vloeimans & Residentie Orchestra: concert review

Saturday 24 January in The Hague, Netherlands

I have caught odd glimpses of  Eric Vloeimans  on Dutch tv and I looked up a few of his videos before going to the concert and there are 2 things I knew were guaranteed: brightly coloured clothes and superb trumpet playing.

The great man did not disappoint on either count: his flowery shirt would not have been out of place in Carnaby Street in the 60’s but I’m not saying whether that’s a good thing or not. His trumpet playing is the stuff that dreams are made of: a warm sound, incredible technique and an excellent tone even in the very high register.

This concert took place in a live music venue which is more used to being frequented by people less than half my age who go there to get their ears wrecked by over loud dance music and their heads wrecked by chemical substances.  Most of the audience had to strain to get half a glimpse of the stage, and we were standing. All part of a worthy attempt by the city’s symphony orchestra to reach out to the community. A great idea, but if you have a symphony concert with a guest soloist who is heading for his 60s you attract an audience with an average age of 55+ who struggled up the stairs and all looked pretty miffed when we realized the few chairs available had been snapped up by those who had nothing better to do with their Saturdays than bag a seat 45 minutes before curtain up. Well there was no curtain and there wasn’t really room for all the players on stage, they looked really uncomfortable and it was a crush for the conductor and soloist to get to their places. I can’t help thinking we might as well have all been more comfortable in the orchestra’s base, the concert hall a few moments’ bike ride away.

Vloeiman is unusual as a jazz musician in that he tends to avoid playing standards and prefers to mainly play his own music. He’s doubly unusual in that his compositions use a diatonic language with melodies which are reminiscent of folk songs, rather than a jazz vocabulary. As a listener the sensation is of listening to film music which ranged from the plain to he pretty to the exquisitely beautiful, and which is enlivened in its better moments by the soloist’s inspired interjections.

On this occasion we heard, among others, Evensong Part 1 and Imaginings. At the end of the programme he played piece called something like Song for Syria which rose to a higher level of intensity, and the encore was a piece called Lex. From what I could understand of his introduction this piece is inspired by the story of a survivor of the concentration camps who was kept alive because he entertained the prison guards with his trumpet music. Vloeiman made use of his lovely range of tone production which includes a breathy effect reminiscent of the sound of a bass flute. At the end of Lex the breathiness becomes total and the sound disappears altogether: a very moving tribute to a war victim and an emotional end to the concert.
In between we heard 2 of Satie’s Gymnopedies. I can’t see the point of making chocolate box ad style arrangements of these pieces which Eric Satie wrote for the piano, but there certainly was an Oooooooh at the end which shows it touched the tickly bits of many of the (older) audience around me. There is no accounting for taste. I kept wishing for some of the jazz energy and power which I heard in Madrid at a concert in 2012 of Satie’s music by the   Afrodisian Orchestra  directed by Miguel Angel Blanco. Now that was jazz!

I felt sorry for the players of the Residentie Orchestra for 2 reasons while I was waiting for the concert to start. Firstly, because they had no room to breathe, and secondly, I felt especially for the 2 trumpeters. How does it feel to share the stage with such a luminary? In the end, from the first orchestral trumpet notes, played with mutes in Evensong Part 1, to the triumphal tones in Song for Syria, the trumpeters in the orchestra were superb, as were the rest of the players.

When I first came to the Netherlands I found the custom of having long speeches to introduce concerts really irritating. Now that I understand more of the language I find the custom even more irritating. On this occasion there was a presenter who had prepared a Prezi that included photos and some music video clips. He came up with some names which took us all the way back to the beginnings of the crossover of jazz to classical and so on, as he thought. The quick review included the Swingle Singers: high on search engines now because of the recent death of their founder. Unfortunately the main point of showing  a clip of their music seemed to be to smirk at their 60’s hair styles and clothes, not to recognize the significance of Swingle’s great achievement in making contemporary arrangements of classical music.

This historical resume took us so far back in history that we got all the way to the 60’s: 1960’s. Sadly, no mention of Scott Joplin, Ragtime pianist who composed an opera in that style, or Duke Ellington, who in 1929 was writing extended jazz pieces in a symphonic style such as Black & Tan Fantasy.  I suppose his presentation was there for entertainment rather than to inform, but still …..

I have shown Mr Vloeiman´s excellent clip with the Holland Baroque Orchestra several times this week and the young students have really enjoyed the music and admired his wonderful playing. It´s a moving connection of contemporary jazz with a simple accompaniment played on Baroque era instruments, plus accordion.  You can find the link on his web site.

Anyway, I was thinking about Joplin and Ellington and the origins of jazz in the USA and my mind went back to a concert in Madrid years ago, 10 years or more, by Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Centre Jazz Orchestra.  What a fascinating night it would be to put together Marsalis and Vloeiman on stage. They are almost the same age, born in 1961 and 1963, both are working in extended forms in a classical sense, and both of course are superb jazz trumpeters. What a tantalizing prospect!

If it ever happens, Mr Vloeiman will have to ditch the flowery shirt: from what I have seen, Mr Marsalis doesn´t play the trumpet better, but he has a much more classy wardrobe.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Mak Wolven & The Insiders: The Lowland Years cd

Youtube brings us new stars every day, Twitter brings new trends every 5 minutes, and new styles seem to disappear almost before anyone knows how to spell them. Isn´t it good to know there are people around who not only know how to hold their instruments, they´ve been playing them so long they´ve become part of their persona.

All this and more went through my mind last weekend in The Hague watching some old friends do what they do best: making music. When I say old friends I wish I could say old in the sense that we´ve known each other for decades. This is not true: I have only know Mak and one of his Insiders, John, for 3 years. So, yes, it´s old in the number of years on the planet sense.  Nothing to complain about there as Mak has spent these long years in many places doing many things, but always playing the music he loves most: Americana and country. The brand new cd, The Lowland Years, is a celebration of Mak´s years in the Netherlands and is also a distillation of his life experience. Mak has this music flowing in his veins, he has stories to tell, and a wonderful team of musicians around him to brings his songs to life.

Mak´s songs are beautiful and simple. Like the best country music, everything is there to tell a story. This means the arrangements have to be clean in their making and in their execution and they have to be detailed so that the most significant moments in the story are pointed up and highlighted.  Like the best country music there is a sense of economy. You don´t need a 50 piece orchestra washing around you and you don´t need a horn section covering up your tracks. Mak & The Insiders have all they need in a compact band who make a tight sound that is clean as a whistle: rhythm guitar, lead, bass and pedal  steel or slide guitar and percussion.

For the launch gig, John played cajón to fit onto the limited stage area of   Foots music bar  and I have heard  him play drum kit enough times to know  that if he had had room for a kit he would have brought endless jewels of detail, interesting fills and rhythmic interest without ever overpowering the voice.
The cover painting, shown here, is from View of The Hague from the Southeast by Jan van Goyen ca. 1650 – 51, from the Haags Historisch Museum in The Hague.

I hope Mak will let me know his Soundcloud tag so that you can hear his music. Watch this space.

Thanks to Mak Wolven & The Insiders for a great cd, a fun afternoon at the bar, and for stimulating my reflections on newness, age and greatness.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Liverpool by Ken Pye: book review

The full title of this 2014 book, published by   Amberley Books , is Liverpool, the rise, fall and renaissance of a world-class city.  

Author   Ken Pye Ken Pye describes himself as:  

“a born-and-bred Liverpudlian: I am deeply proud of this fact, and of my wonderful home and its very diverse people. I have a very happy home, shared with my family and friends, and life is always full and fun. Professionally too, my life is rewarding and joyful:
This is because Liverpool has an outstanding history, and is a dynamic, creative, world-class City that is currently undergoing a major renaissance. I am fortunate in that I am in a position to continually contribute to this wonderful evolution.”

This positive attitude is the overriding characteristic of his book: there is no doubt that we are reading the work of an absolute fan of the city.

This book is useful on many levels: as a general history of England it traces the foundation of Liverpool in 1207 in King John´s reign and even goes further back to the French, Viking and Roman invaders who all contributed to make the city what it is today. It serves as a reminder of the terrible suffering inflicted on Britain during the second world war: you can see fragments of this episode in British history in the new film The Imitation Game. As a social history of the last quarter of the 20th century it is especially valuable as Mr Pye not only lived in Liverpool but was a social worker directly involved in trying to maintain peace in a society driven apart by political dogma on many sides.

Mr Pye and I were both born in Liverpool: he is just  a few years older than me so many of his memories are also mine. Many of his personal experiences ring true with my own. On the other hand, he stayed in the city whereas I left aged 18 and have returned only sporadically for family visits.

Like Mr Pye, I think of Liverpool people as being hardworking and generous: I remember being told how my great grandmother and her neighbours cleaned not just their own home but also scrubbed the pavement in the street in front of their terraced home: I remember that my grandfather opened his newsagents shop at 5.30 in the morning then went to do a day´s work in a factory in Speke and joined my grandmother to lock up the shop at 8 in the evening.

So, like Mr Pye, I wondered why the perception of the city around Britain was so poisoned. I remember going to a job interview in the south of England in the 80’s where the regional manager of a certain retail company was surprised that I turned up on time and dressed in a suit. He said he thought all Liverpool people were just layabouts and trouble makers and what a nice change it was to see someone like me.  I remember one of the few occasions in my life when I felt in danger of physical attack was in the early 80´s when I was with some friends in the south of England and they were infuriated that the “mad and crooked” leaders of the Liverpool city council were sending redundancy notices to council workers by taxi: as if I was responsible for this evil madness.

Those were very dark days indeed.

Mr Pye describes the dark days and is much better qualified than me to attribute blame and identify those responsible. Read his account and weep.

On a lighter note, I almost laughed aloud when I got to page 86 and the quote that Queen Victoria visited Liverpool in 1851 and declared that she had “never before seen together so large a number of well dressed gentlemen”. I am constantly astonished at how seriously the younger Liverpool people today take their appearance and this quote made me realize it is not a new phenomenon.


Mr Pye lists many innovations which were unique to the city of Liverpool. It is impossible to list them here: you should read the book to make the most of them. I can only mention as  examples the world´s first ever commercial wet dock and the introduction of the steam railway engines, tried out in Liverpool in the great age of inventors and entrepreneurs.

 Mr Pye is quite right to highlight the renaissance of Liverpool in the first decade of this century. He traces this back to the impact of the International Garden Festival in 1984, the nomination of Liverpool as European City of Culture in 2008, and the fact that Liverpool was the only English city to be represented at the World Expo in Shanghai in 2010.

In 1984 I was living in south London and I met a retired couple from California who had come to London on their way to Liverpool. Imagine my surprise that anyone would come all the way from the USA to visit Liverpool. Yet it was true: in the end I arranged for them to stay with my parents and they became long lasting friends who went back to California telling everyone what a beautiful city Liverpool was, thanks in large part to the Garden Festival.

In February 2010 I was working in Madrid in Spain and I attended a  conference  on social inclusion in music education. The presentation by Peter Garden, representing the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, was outstanding both in the sheer quantity of actions initiated by his team and by the quality of their results. His presentation stood head and shoulders above every other speaker that day and made it clear to all those present that Liverpool was a city to be listened to. One phrase of his that struck a chord was that the RLPO orchestra “played the soundtrack to the 2008 European Cultural Capital”.   

In 2010 I was in China in the summer to speak at an education   conference   in    Beijing   and was able to visit  the World Expo in Shanghai. When I visited the Liverpool pavilion I was overwhelmed by the upbeat, positive image shown in the video and in the photo presentations. The funny thing was that when I talked to the university students who were manning the stand they said that it was only the old Liverpool people like me who were surprised: to everyone else this vibrant, forward-looking image was just what they expected from modern Liverpool.   

So, thank you, Mr Pye, for this really interesting book. If you asked me what could be added I would ask for more about the  Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra , a jewel in the city´s crown.

 Finally,  here is a question: in the story of Liverpool´s renaissance Mr Pye details how the figure of Michael (Lord) Heseltine plays a crucial role. If Liverpool´s story were to be played out in 2015 who would play the role of Minister for Liverpool?  Who among the current cabinet would be interested enough in a failing city in the north-west of England to spend time, energy and political capital on finding a solution? It´s a chilling thought. 


Here is the site for Liverpool tourist information

Monday, 5 May 2014

Do we compose with the intellect or the heart? John Adams in Madrid

One of the questions posed at a panel discussion in Madrid in February with American composer John Adams as guest speaker was: when you are composing what is the relationship between the cerebral and the emotional aspects?

John Adams answered the question in Spanish and these are the notes I made of his answer:
“Schoenberg is a composer who wrote about how we need both head and heart. In the 60´s and 70´s when I was studying, everything was very cerebral. There were expressions such as Boulez talking of cleaning away the past. Yesterday I was reading Stravinsky´s autobiography and he makes a distinction between youthful works and those from his mature years. My early models were Heinrich Schütz and Renaissance music, which has soul but is also very cerebral.
Then came Minimalism, which includes aspects of modernism but which re-introduced regular pulse and melody. Minimalism was like a new source of inspiration and it attracted audiences back.
Music is an act of communication which is fundamentally about feeling.”

There followed various comments from some of  his fellow panel members along the lines that composers like John Adams and his generation had moved away from the styles of the mid century European composers, and what a relief this was, because composers such as Boulez and Stockhausen used a musical language which was a dead end and which did nothing but alienate the public from contemporary music.

John Adams did not endorse those comments. His views, clearly explained in his autobiography Hallelujah Junction, are that he saw limitations for composers who worked within the strictures of one “method” or another, be it strict serialism or minimalism, but he maintains a respectful attitude towards those composers.

The most moving moment in the evening came when a questioner referred to the different musical languages used by John Adams during his long composing life, and asked how he decided which language he would use as he set out on a new composition.
John Adams answered:
“I do not think that there are different languages in my music. For me it is all joined, one  unity. When I am composing I never think in terms of one style or language or another. When I am composing I try to express what I feel in my heart.”