Saturday 30 July 2011

Reykjavík – Rotterdam European cinema in Madrid

The other day I had a great time watching a film I had never heard of, directed by someone I had never heard of, and starring actors I had never heard of. This was all thanks to the European institutions in Madrid, that is to say the offices of the European Parliament and European Commission. 

For the fifth year, during the summer, they fill the ground floor outdoor space behind their offices in central Madrid with plastic chairs, a huge screen and a mobile projector, and offer a once a week open air film session. It’s all free, and on top of that you get a bag of popcorn and a bottle of water.
This week’s film was Reykjavík – Rotterdam, a thriller based on smuggling between Holland and Iceland, populated by lots of people you’d be happy to keep away from on a dark night.
Reykjavík – Rotterdam is a  film by Oskar Jonasson, with screenplay by Arnaldur Indridason and Oskar Jonasson and starring Baltasar Kormákur and Ingvar E. Sigurdsson.
It’s great fun, a really tight rhythm, a gripping story and full of nasty people, some of them pushed to the limit by life’s bad luck, some pushed to the limit by plain greed. I went to Iceland a few years ago and all the people I met were lovely and very kind, including Karen S and her husband, and the coach tour I took on my free day gave me a look at  active geysers, non active volcanoes, continental plates – yes you can stand with one foot on each of two continents – and the site of the West’s most ancient parliament. I’m glad to say I didn’t come across anybody remotely like the baddies of this exciting film.

Anyway, it’s great to see a film you would never see in the cinema, and to enjoy a film not a movie – translation, art made in Europe and not in Hollywood.  
If you want all the details, here they are:

Thanks to the European institutions in Madrid: very nice to be at this building to relax instead of leading groups of students as I have on so many previous visits.

Tuesday 19 July 2011

Kike Perdomo Quintet at Café Central, Madrid

Kike Perdomo: saxophones
Audun Waage: trumpet
David Quevedo: piano
Martin Leiton: bass
Borja Barrueta: drums
This is the line up of a recent concert I saw at the Café Central jazz bar in Madrid, led by Kike Perdomo who  was born in Tenerife in the Canary Islands.

Kike Perdomo’s style now is a bold funky and jazz rock fusion. I read the programme half way through the  show and was not surprised to see a reference to fellow saxophonist Bill Evans. Bill Evans has been in Spain several times in the last few years, and his bright, brash style, I mean that in a positive sense, was certainly reflected at this concert. According to the notes, the American played on Kike Perdomo’s 2003 cd Transición.
I really enjoyed this concert: the music was mainly original compositions as far as I could tell. I confess I couldn’t hear the announcements too well: never mind, Kike Perdomo  is a musician and not a radio announcer.

On this occasion he featured Norwegian trumpeter Audun Waage who has a lovely sound and uses the whole range from low to high very effectively.
Thank you Kike Perdomo and band for a great evening’s music.
To find more about Café Central, one of Europe’s leading jazz bars, visit:

Debt free university degree: utopia or reality?

I made a simple mention on Twitter recently that it was possible, not so long ago, to complete a university education debt free. I was asked to explain whether this was a joke or a serious comment.
Here is my story, and one that was shared by thousands of people in my generation. In the 1970's I took a 3 year Bachelor of Arts with Honours course at a university in the north of, England. At that time the bill for the course fees never even came to the student: the bill for all government approved degree courses went straight from the university administration to the treasury office of the student’s home town, and was paid without question, automatically.  So long as the student was accepted to continue year by year, the arrangement continued: it was not expected that a student would fail the course, or have to repeat any part of it, but I know there were provisions for these eventualities. The same level of support continued one year later when I followed an approved teacher training course.
It has to be said that the course fees in UK were never anywhere near US levels: currently, the real cost of a first degree, excluding laboratory costs, is less than 10,000 pounds per year. Even so, the policy represented a major financial commitment by succeeding governments of both political parties. This is not the place to give statistics or quote the laws which made this possible, it’s all available at reliable research sites.
In fact, it gets even better: the course fees were paid automatically from central government funds. In addition, the student’s home city administration could provide money for living expenses and the cost of study materials. This additional money was not automatic, it was means-tested, meaning that it depended on the student’s family circumstances. There were many young people who received this additional funding even though their parents were both working and earned professional salaries. For instance, an important part of the calculation of entitlement to the additional funding included the number of siblings in full time education.
So, no, my reference to a debt free university education was not a joke, it was a genuine reflection of my own experience. I feel almost guilty now, in the light of current circumstances. As you may know, in UK part of the fees, around 3,500 pounds, are paid by the student and his/her parents, and the provision offered by government is in the form of a loan which has to be repaid later. On top of that, fees in UK universities are set to triple within the next 2 years, which is likely to cause anxiety for many students and their parents.
If you have been doubting me up to now, wait for the next part: in the 1980's, after I had been working for the local government as a teacher I applied to study for a part-time Masters at another university. The local administration approved this course as being directly related to my work, and the course fees were paid in full by my employer.
Did the government pay my course fees and those of my contemporaries because it was awash with money and could not think of anything else to spend it on? Certainly not: the governments of those years recognized the need for a highly trained and qualified work force that would provide the innovations that would lead the country to prosperity, and placed a high value on the equality of opportunity regardless of the student’s own financial means. Education as a motor of social change was the watchword.
As you can see in an earlier post, at age 53 I have just completed an on-line MBA with the private ESERP Business School here in Spain. I signed up for the course out of my own personal interest, and I have been able to pay for it thanks to the career I have developed as a result of the university degrees I passed 30 years ago. I am a privileged person, together with many others of my generation, in that I benefitted from a high quality university education which was made available to me debt free.

Sunday 17 July 2011

ESERP Business School Graduation ceremony in Barcelona

It is widely recognised that life-long learning and professional development are important keys to creating healthy businesses and an effective work-force. The ESERP  Business School celebrated its 2011 Graduation Ceremony earlier this month at the Palacio de Congresos in Barcelona, and it was clear that the school is making a great contribution to the cause of life-long learning. Around 200 students from the school’s centres in Barcelona, Madrid, Palma de Mallorca and Seville were joined by fellow graduates from Chile.
Different qualifications were marked by the different colour neck bands, including the Bachelor degrees, and Masters in Marketing and Publicity, and the MBA.

The ceremony was presided by the school’s General Director, Dr. José Daniel Barquero, and he was joined by senior figures from education including the maximum authority for Higher Education in Catalonia, which gave the required gravitas to the occasion. Speeches were made in responses to special awards given to individuals from a number of leading companies, including the Eroski retail cooperative group, the BBVA bank, and Harley Davidson, yes the bike  makers. The Rector of Staffordshire University represented the many foreign institutions with which ESERP has contacts, and demonstrated yet again how little importance we Brits attach to speaking languages other than English.
A representative from the Ministry of Education delivered a message on behalf of the Minister, Sr Gabilondo,  in response to a special award from ESERP.
I don’t expect the speakers had been told what to say, so it was significant that a common theme emerged as the evening passed. One after another the speakers emphasized the importance of persons and the special contribution that each individual can make in an organization.
I was grateful that the numerous Catalan speakers opted to speak in Castillian Spanish out of deference to the many non-Catalan speakers present. As Catalan is an official language in Barcelona, they could have insisted on using it throughout, so this concession was gracious of them, and much appreciated. This was especially important, as many of the graduates are drawn from outside Spain, including Italy, UK, Ecuador and Chile.  
I felt the occasion ran very well. 
The one thing that really surprised me was to count the persons on the platform party. I know, it’s a curious habit but I always count everyone almost wherever I am. Yes, on stage there were 20 persons and 19 of them were men with only 1 woman. ESERP has many female students among its graduates,  maybe the organizers could aim for a more balanced representation.
The average age of the graduates was mid to late 20’s, but I am glad to say there was a group of persons also receiving certificates in their 50’s. I looked out for these persons especially, just to make sure I was not the only one.

Thank you, ESERP, for inviting me to Barcelona to celebrate the completion of my MBA. The on-line course has been very flexible and stimulating, and I enjoyed the ceremony very much.

Saturday 16 July 2011

Schweppes: delivering the message

Here’s an example of how a drinks distributor in Denia, Spain, is delivering the Schweppes message…  

Or you could say they are driving home their point ...

Chasing bulls into the sea in Spain

This is not Hemingway; not high drama with death, courage and honour in a heady cocktail.
Today I say the local fiestas in Denia, Alicante, Spain, which include the traditional sport of chasing bulls so that they fall into the sea. Yes this is today, July 2011 and yes this still happens… more of the argument later.

 Basically there is a bull ring constructed so that the fourth side is the harbour. There are stands where I was joined by about 4,000 more spectators, paying the magnificent sum of I euro to watch the spectacle. Others chose to watch from the water, basking in the sun on a luxury motor boat or simply relaxing in the water on a float.

Another group watched from ground level, protected by iron bars a couple of palm widths apart: these turn out not to be 100% safe, as a teenager found to his peril when he was gorged by the third bull and  had to be taken way in an ambulance.
Those who are really keen don’t sit on a boat or up in a safe seat, like me: the really keen ones stand in the arena and wait for the bulls to be released from their pen, one at a time. The object is then to chase and taunt the bull so that it falls into the water, where a boat recovers it and returns it safely to dry land. Right, you’re asking: if that’s the point, what’s the point?

If you ask that, you also expect the whole thing to be called off when someone gets injured, right? Wrong.  When the teenager was carried away to the ambulance, the whole thing resumed as if nothing had happened. Health and Safety is a concept that has yet to invade these traditional fiestas, so the young men, and a tiny number of young women, take part wearing mostly just shorts and sneakers. Their bare torsos make them very vulnerable to the sudden twists and turns of the bulls, but they seem to enjoy the excitement of chasing and taunting the bull. Truth is, 90% of the “mozos”, the men who chase really do nothing but stand next to the water, and jump in as soon as the bull gets anywhere near. I expect this does not stop them telling great tales of bravura to their friends over a few beers later in the day.. and the next day …. And many days after, until next year’s fiesta.
On 15 July I wrote about a ground breaking design shop in the super-cool Barcelona. I have written other posts about events in Madrid, including concerts and opera shows. How can you reconcile the sophistication of Spain’s leading cities with these traditional fiestas?
On a positive side, I suppose you could say that Spanish creativity grew out of its traditions, the bravura and risk taking that is played out year by year in village after village and town after town around the country. On a negative side… well it’s fiesta time, let’s not be negative.
It is very significant that when the regional government of Catalonia passed a law banning bull fights, they stopped short of banning these typical fiesta events, like chasing bulls through the streets and the seaside version like the one I saw today. In the rest of Spain both bullfights and these typical events are here to stay. There is an almost 100% chance that I will be able to see the same scene acted out in July 2012 here in Denia, Alicante, Spain
…. Hemingway did not eat here….
I have written about the Easter procession in Denia:
Here are some links to tourist info about Denia:

Friday 15 July 2011

Live painting by Yoshi Sislay at Vinçon in Barcelona

Vinçon is an amazing shop the Eixample district of Barcelona, the golden mile of style and chic in one of Europe’s coolest destinations.

 The building itself is amazing, running as it does through long corridors which connect  streets on several sides of the block, though with the main entrance on Passeig de Grácia, the street lined with fascinating and original architectural wonders.
At Vinçon you can buy everything from a child’s toy to a spoon to a Kenwood Chef mixer, and upstairs there is a furniture and decoration section which must be among the most striking in Europe. Truth is that almost all the people who work at this shop are artists, as seen by the originality of just everything, but there is one nominated artist, Yoshi Sislay, who has been handed an empty room with bare white walls and given two weeks to paint it. Hmmm, not bad, and he even has time to chat to customers who wander in to follow his progress.

Yoshi Sislay was born in Osaka in 1974 and has now settled in Barcelona. He calls the exhibition Ambitious and Natural and the spiraling, intertwining figures were taking beautiful shape the day I was there. 

So far it was mainly black and white, but some colour had started to appear: not sure whether at the painter’s hands or generated by the magical figures he has created.
Well, take a look for yourself, go there or go here:

OperaStudio Concert Review: “Gala Lírica OperaStudio”

For the background to this concert, please read my earlier post:

In that post I wrote about the  World class opera course: Opera Studio 2011 which was planned to take place in the historic city of Alcalá de Henares, near Madrid.

I was very glad to be invited the closing concert of OperaStudio  earlier this month. I have to say that the singers were all of an extremely high standard, and they had everything going for them: a balmy summer evening, an audience of more than 1,000 enthusiasts, and a performance area with a really cristal clear acoustic. 

The concert was made possible due to inspiring work by producer Lourdes Pérez Sierra, and the musical direction was at the hands of pianist Borja Mariño. Lourdes Pérez has arranged simple but effective stage settings: for a few moments we really worried who was going to get hurt with that dagger, and the embraces of two stage lovers were, well, convincing. Simple stage movements were added to a by a child bearing flowers to fill in a few bars’ introduction and to add more colour.  

No singer could ask for a more excellent accompanist than Sr. Mariño:  his playing was technically perfect without a note wrong during the whole evening, he made such a beautiful stylistic difference between the arias, from an exquisite lightness in Mozart to a powerful orchestral sound in the grand opera moments, and he really provided that support that singers need in the fortissimo sections.

The singers, in order of appearance, were María del Mar Humanes (soprano),  Ángel Rodríguez (tenor), Estrella Cuello (soprano), Delia Agúndez (soprano), Igor Peral (tenor), Julia Arellano (mezzosoprano), Francisco Rivero (tenor), María Ruíz (soprano), Liesel Fernández (soprano) and Manuel Alejo (tenor).
The singers were all aspiring young professionals and we should be seeing them on the stage in theatres around the world very soon. At this concert they had their chance to show what they could do with well known opera favourites, from Mozart and Donizetti to Verdi and Puccini, with two items from Spanish zarzuela, by Reveriano Soutullo and Morreno Torroba.
There is always a question as to how to programme evenings like this: on the one hand the audience come along expecting to hear their well known favourites, while on the other hand, the singers are challenged with singing pieces that have been performed so many times by so many great singers that we all have probably several versions of these arias on our shelves at home, if not on our iPods.
I wonder if some of the singers could have been given the challenge of singing lesser well known arias of equal quality, even by the same composers.   The balance of solo and duet items was nicely achieved, offering variety and dramatic contrast.
I am going to be really horrible and nominate my favourite from the evening. I know this is not a talent contest and there was a wonderful sense of companionship and teamwork on stage. Still, I would like to mention Delia Agúndez’s rendition of Deh viene non tardar from Figaro: here is a perfect Mozartian voice, with a purity of timbre, unfailing intonation and perfect breath control, all combined with a stage presence which commands attention and makes it all look so easy.

Thanks to all the singers, to Lourdes Pérez Sierra and D. Borja Mariño for a great evening: I look forward to next year’s OperaSudio and to seeing news of these young singers on stage in opera houses around the world. 

Ara Malikian dazzles – Paganini lives!

Ara Malikian is a brilliant musician and a great showman. His violin technique is so superb that he can afford to jump up while playing without missing a note, and spend a few minutes entertaining the audience about how much he has practised a difficult 30 second section of music just to draw their attention to how easily he is able to play it.

When I saw him at the Clamores jazz bar in Madrid he played with an open waistcoat, baring his hairy torso to the absolute delight of the predominantly female audience. If anyone still knows what the word swoon means, these women were certainly swooning over Ara Malikian.

And there was Fernando Egozcue. He is one of the most beautiful musicians I have ever heard. I don’t mean beautiful physically, I leave that judgment to the women packing the place out, I mean, musically. I have heard this Argentinian guitarist several times over the years, usually fronting the Nuevo Tango Ensamble, faithfully and movingly performing written arrangements of the great master Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992). I have been mesmerized by the Ensemble’s virtuosity and by the passion and emotional power of Piazzolla’s music. Egozcue’s expert guitar playing and deep understanding of the tango style was clearly the heart of the Ensamble, and I have admired his faithfulness to the master and have been grateful that he brought Piazzolla’s tango music to Madrid in all its authenticity. 
Imagine then, the combination of Ara Malikian’s virtuoso violin playing, with Fernando Egozcue’s wonderful guitar playing, and add to that combination original compositions by the guitarist, and you get an explosive cocktail of musical creativity, an emotional rollercoaster and sheer spectacle. This project, which also involves three more  excellent señores, pianist Moíses P. Sánchez, plus string bassman and drummer.
The music we heard at Clamores jazz bar was taken from 2 cd’s, all original compositions based on the tango style, but with arrangements in the live version that far surpass the cd version. The power of this music is in the arrangements, carefully composed to retain the essential character of Egozcue’s personality, and with generous scope for improvisation.

By the way, Nicolo Paganini (1782-1840) was an Italian violinist (dates): the legend says he made a pact with the devil to achieve greatness. I think Ara Malikian and Fernando Egozcue have just made a pact with each other to make great music, entertain their audience and enjoy themselves.    

Thank you, Ara Malikian and Fernando Egozcue for a truly great night. I’m sorry my photos don’t really do you justice, but your fans will soon find better ones on your web pages:
If you are in Madrid and want to hear more great music, here’s the programme at Clamores bar: