Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Detox Diary: two months in...


It’s the first of July. Not the fourth or the fourteenth. My fête nationale is the first. It’s the end of the second month of my Personal Improvement Project. My second month in the hands of Holmes Place, Potsdamer Place, Berlin, and all who work there.

So, what have I done, and what is the result feeling and looking like?

Well, I’ve worked pretty hard, in much the same manner as I did in month one. Nik has introduced me to a heap more exercises, some of which have become part of my daily routine, some of which have been consigned to the ‘too hard’ box. I don’t mean ‘too hard’ as in work ‘hard’, but I don’t feel comfortable or safe doing prone barbell work alone, or floor roller exercises without supervision, and oh! having to re-learn the rules of a lifetime! No fourth position, don’t point your feet, don’t over-extend and, worst of all, ‘arch your back’. I’ve been trying to NOT arch my back for 60 years! That’s worse than ‘stomach in, butt in’! But the lurking lads in red shirts will always tell you if you are doing it wrongly.

Anyway, I promise, I really am trying. I trot down to Holmes Place nearly every day, I do my forty-ish minute full-on routine (a bit more these last days), with increasing weights, then my water exercises, and finally I take my dip-n-sauna. Paul was with his Aussie family, over in Europe for a holiday, for ten days, and my stickability was tested. But I did the voyage alone (one rainy day missed), did my stuff and enjoyed it, had a plate of yummy soup in the wee canteen, and felt quite a cavalier. Especially when, one day, just for one day, the scales announced: 77.4kg. Mostly now its just over 78.0kg.

That’s six kilos gone. Six kilos. That’s the weight of the dumbbell which I still can’t manage to stand-press five times consecutively with the bad arm. My body has lost THAT!

Of course, size, or rather weight, isn’t everything. Shape is what I’m after. Balance. Steadiness. And, needless to say, general fitness. I’d like to be able to walk freely and surely. And, here, I’ve made a discovery…

I’ve been back to Sascha the masseur. This time I told him, ‘hit it’. ‘It’ being the right hip and groin which have given me trouble off and on for forty years, and wholly ‘trouble on’ since the stroke. Well, not everyone wants to massage that area of a chap, but Sascha is a pro, and he ‘hit it’. Bloody Hell. ‘Hasn’t anybody dealt with this?’, he asked. I had to admit ‘no’. Not because of MY modesty (I haven’t any), but because of theirs.

Sascha has been on holiday since then. He’s back this week and I’m booked in. I’m walking better than I have for years, and with almost no pain, since his ministrations. Zeus bless him.

This weekend, Paul returned, having tasted the delights of the Parisian Disneyland and Berlin in the company of Ella (9), James (7) and Josie (4).

He said: ‘your belly’s shrunk’? Hmmm … the mirror tells me that a lot of it is still there! We did another photo session. I don’t know. Is it better? The belly, I mean. All that weight must have gone from somewhere. Well, I’ll just carry on! I’ve got aches and pains in places where muscles (?) are being awakened from their Sleeping Beauty hundred years’ sleep, though the bags under my eyes and down-creases from my mouth (ugh!) haven’t budged (they are difficult to exercise) … but folks still say ‘you look a different man’…. I only notice that spare flaps of flesh under my arms seems to have gone …

So, on into month three …

And we’ll see.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Piano Salon Christophori: Raves for Ravel!

There was a question mark in my diary for last night. Piano salon? One of the ‘possibles’ that I’d marked in back in April, I guess …  Morgenstern Trio: piano, fiddle and ‘cello … Ravel, Mendelssohn, Boulanger (Nadia or Pierre?) … better ask Paul.
Paul said an enthusiastic ‘yes’. I would really love the Ravel, he assured me. Well, he should know. He played it himself, in concert, a year or three back. So, book us in. A night at the Piano salon Christophori is always enjoyable. And sometimes special.

Tonight was one of the special ones.

The evening at the Piano salon doesn’t start till 8.30, so we had time for a visit to the gym, some shopping, a photo-session (my latest slimming pix), and we even got to miss France scoring two goals, sometime during our walk from Humboldthaim to the Uferstrasse. But at least they scored them!

Arrive at the concert room, half empty (oh! the football), a nice glass of red wine in my hand (‘vive la France!’), and I’m ready for a first half of suitably French music.

The warm-up act at the Piano Salon is traditionally a gentleman with a grey ponytail tuning the pianoforte. Tonight he was tuning two. Steinway and Erard. Interesting. But the tuning sounded like Mr Reich again. Bring on Ravel, I thought. However, when you have two pianos, they have to be moved, and when the elderly Erard was asked to budge … its back wheel fell off. So it had to play its part sitting on a block of wood! Maybe talking to the wobbly violin-stool. But hey, they couldn’t be in a better place: right in the middle of a piano workshop!

The Morgenstern Trio are Catherine Klipfel (piano), Stefan Hempel (violin) and Emanuel Wehse (‘cello) … aided by a valiant if under-dressed young page turner … and all I can say of them is ‘I love you, guys’. I’m not going to try to be analytic, for I don’t have the technical expertise (that’s Paul’s department): I just say ‘I love you’. The three players all performed with the most amazing warmth, feeling and, in turn, tenderness and temperament. The piano flowed. Even in the most voluminous passages, it was strong and firm rather than loud and showy. Just the sort of playing I prefer. The fiddle never cried out: it sang. Mezzo-soprano. Some of the time, I felt I was listening to a viola. Beautiful. And the ‘cello! Such glorious soft playing – actually, that goes for the trio as a whole (for it’s very much a whole) – the pianissimo bits of the Ravel, the delicate bits of the Mendelssohn … a true treat.

I have but one complaint. The shaping of the programme. Well, it wasn’t shaped. Is it wise to start the evening with … well, I think, one of the most amazing bits of chamber music I have ever heard?  Yes, Ravel’s trio, discovered by yours truly this very night, is very, very special. The first movement was my favourite, but that may have just been the joy of discovery and the pianissimi. Anyway, whatever, it was one of my best (go on, THE best?) chamber music moments ever.

The Boulanger (which turned out to be Lili), which followed, was a pleasant, lightweight filler, but it meant we came to half-time on a frivolous note rather than floating on Ravel. Pity.

Part two, the Mendelssohn second trio. Another lovely work, played beautifully. Interesting to hear it with the taste of the Ravel still around. A demonstration of how musical styles changed in those 19th-to-20th century years. In Mendelssohn’s time, I guess, the ‘Thalberg-style’ of virtuosity was more in favour than it was in 1914: and there was plenty of florid playing to go with the flowing, tuneful and skittish melody. The skittish bits were great fun (watching the ‘cellist was almost as good as listening to him!) … and the whole was utterly enjoyable.

The ‘encore’ of the night was one movement of a Schumann trio. I actually have to admit to liking it even more than the Mendelssohn, but, really, it wasn’t a traditional ‘encore’, and it rather destablised the evening. Lili Boulanger would have made a good encore. But a whole movement of a major work?

Well, who cares? Stable or unstable, conventional or unconventional, every bit of the evening was a joy. Players and music. I happily emptied my wallet into the tube at the door – held this time by the agreeable, hands-on boss of the lieux – and walked out into the night, and the … rain. The pub screens showed us that it was Germany 0 Algeria 0, as my espadrilles sank uncaringly into irretrievable ruin in the sludge on the road to Humboldthaim.

Back at the Piano salon, I guess they were re-shoeing Monsieur Erard for the next night’s concert. Me, I didn’t even make it to Germany’s and Algeria’s goals. I had to get up at 2am to find out who had won. For I was very soon sleeping happily on my bed of beautiful music.


PS The 14 euro minimum ‘donation’ does seem to have become policy. So maybe it wasn’t only the football which shrank last night’s audience.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Maria von Trapp meets Billy Fud


OK. I said Werther was to be my last operatic outing for the season. OK. I said that I needed time off from ‘modern’ music after suffering the minimalist agonies of Steve Reich at Radialsystem. But … last year I added just one more outing to my intended schedule, a wee half-hearted trip to the Tischlerei, and I was there rewarded with the best fun night and the best performance I’d seen all year. So, it seemed silly not to try again: especially as ‘the Queen of the Tischlerei’, Miss Alexandra Hutton, was again on display. So off I headed, in the company of two active composers, for the studio of the Deutsche Oper to see Love Affairs: four new one-act operas.

New? Well, they were being performed for the first time. I’m not an expert in quasi-modern music and, for a while, the music of the night flowed past me not disagreeably if rather unmemorably: but alas! The four operas were by just two composers, so we had more and more of the same, and ten minutes into the second half I had my chin in my hands. It was the only way to sit, really, my buttocks were painfully perched on a rocky cardboard box. Does ‘modern’ = ‘uncomfortable’?

Number one was a (very) lengthy solo scena sung by the Nightingale of Wilde’s The Rose and the Nightingale, to dance decoration representing the rest of the story. How do you stage the soloist’s role in such a thing? Poor Gideon Poppe who sang the music of the Nightingale quite beautifully was left to run from one corner of the stage to another ... I wish he had just sat on his swing and sung, with his tasty quartette backing-group …

Number two was entitled ‘Musical Land’ and was based on the delicious premise of Cataclysm in the Land of the favourite characters of familiar musicals. ‘Mary Poppins is dead’ is a grand opening announcement!  We had Maria von Trapp (Alexandra Hutton), Evita (Laila Salome Fischer) and Orphan Annie (Christina Sidak) escaping from the wreckage into … a storyline that only fulfilled some of its promises. But the piece provoked some real laughs – in particular when direct parodies of Julie Andrews (hilarious!) and Elaine Paige and their material were on show – and I liked the opening trio, too, when the three women actually got to sing together.

At half time, my two composers were seriously glum. I, who had sat through the Radialsystem stuff so recently, less so. I’d enjoyed the singing. But my backside hurt. Maybe the second half would be more musically original... more, well, something. Interesting?

Number three was an operatic piece based on – oh no! – Querelle de Brest. First Wilde now Genet? Querelle de Brest was a ‘naughty book’ in a brown paper cover when I was young. Now it’s feeble stuff (well, it always was). Recently, my brother and I were asked to become the new English translators of Genet: we started the exercise, we shuddered and we withdrew.
Querelle is little more than a voyeur’s Billy Fud, homosexual ‘thrills’ in pretentious language for the over 70s. What Billy Budd implies (or might imply), Querelle blurts all over.
So, built on this unpromising material, we have an opera: with all the sailors cast with women. Yeah. Shades of Billee Taylor (1880).

The only redeeming graces of this seemingly never-ending piece were the singing of those young women – in particular, the richly vocal Katarina Bradic – and the display of technical skill, by many more people than appeared on the stage, in synchronising the two video screens with which the singers interacted. Broadway be damned: here was a show where you went out singing the scenery!  Well, I couldn’t find much else to sing. I cordially disliked the 'opera'.

For number four we had another old-fashioned gimmick: the piece with movable musical parts. I’d been pulverised into a state of catatonic gloom by number three, so I didn’t take much trouble to follow the text. I just took in the disastrous scene-change, shifted uncomfortably on my bony box, and peeked at my watch. Goat? Donkey? What was that about? Well, I survived Fall thanks to a star performance by Jörg Schörner as a burlesque Queen, yodelling out his music from behind a gruesome make-up, like something out of Bombastes Furioso. I don’t think a man exists alive who could have done the rôle as well.

His partner, Bini Lee, sang her frills and trills like an escapee from Le Coq d’or charmingly … but I regretted that the pair of them played from a high balcony which caused me to add a crick in the neck to my other sore bits.

It was a long night. An uncomfortable night, in more ways than one. I was saved from despair (most of the time) by the grand voices and splendid performances of the young singers. Well, singing is my thing. My two composer companions (one flown in from Paris) were much less happy. They had come for something ‘new’ and had mostly got what sounded like eighty-year-old material. To such elderly texts as Wilde and ex-trendy Genet.

Oh well, we came. We saw it. I suspect we may be three of the few who will ever be able to say that.

But oh! In the end ... my heart goes out to Miss Bradic and her companions who spent so much time and energy learning that Querelle piece …

Monday, June 16, 2014

Werther, or don't hush dear Charlotte!


Tonight was the last night of my grand Berlin opera season. The opera was Massenet’s Werther, and it was given in a concert performance at the Philharmonie with the forces of the Deutsche Oper. Plus two guests.

I had never seen Werther. Somehow, it had never come my way. But I read the novella at age about 14, and thought it a bit of a bore. Just another love-me-or-I’ll-kill-myself rant, such as those introspective 20th century novelists used to wallow in. Not a lot of action, so – I thought – not a promising stage piece.

Well, I was right. But … then there was Monsieur Massenet.

As played and sung tonight, the opera fell into two pieces. The first half was as uninvolving as I had feared. In fact, the already sparse house got sparser in the interval. The folk on either side of me, and the four in front of me, were among the considerable numbers who didn’t return for part two. They were wrong. Because Act three suddenly catches fire …

I think you would only do Werther if you wanted to showcase a particular tenor in the title-role. That certainly seemed to be the idea tonight. Vittorio Grigolo was heavily advertised by his recording company (oh dear, easy listening) in the programme and the foyer. Well, if that’s how they want to market him …  but I think he’s worth a touch better than to be sold on a sort of French-language Bocelli sales-pitch.

I am a Raymond Amade devotee from way back, so you’ve got to treat music such as Massenet’s rather specially for me. And little Mr Grigolo, I must say, did pretty well. He got through the self-indulgent graunches and grinds of Act I and act II with great earnestness, power … and he worked so hard! He put everything he had into the excessive emotions of the hero, soaring lustily and clearly up to the high notes.

But in Act III he was a different man. Why? Oh, easy. Act III is the leading lady’s act. And here the evening burst into flower. Werther’s beloved Charlotte – hardly given a chance in the first half -- has the first section of this act all to herself, and Charlotte, tonight, was magnificently played by mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova. Her rich, glorious voice and her don’t-move-a-muscle emotional power shifted the whole ball-game up a notch, and when the hero finally joined in, he had something grand to play with and against.

It’s the librettists fault that Werther takes ‘an unconsciable time a-dying’ and when he does it’s ‘Oh I’m dead’ (him) and ‘Ahhhh’ (her), but before that there are moments of real sentiment, and both performers played them finely. She naturally, and he rather ‘taught’. Yes, well Sony Records, maybe you’ve got it right: he’s a wee bit Robert Goulet/cabaret.

The rest of the characters are also-sangs in this opera. Markus Brück (Amtmann) being beyond criticism by anyone, my decided favourite was Siobhan Stagg as 15 year-old Sophie. A fresh, clear, soubrette-soprano and a delightful personality: she managed better than anyone the hideous exits and entrances of the concert performance. Question: why couldn’t she leave her score on the lectern to which she returned repeatedly.

Jörg Schörner gave another of his delightful character tenor sketches as Schmidt, but John Chest – so admirable as Billy Budd – was rather underpowered and throaty as Albert.

The orchestra, under Donald Runnicles, had a grand time with the beautiful music of Massenet, and the Kinderchor (a speciality of the house) sang in truly lovely fashion.

So, you dozens (or more) who left in the interval, you were foolish. You missed a wondrous performance by Ms Gubanova and the best of Massenet’s score …

But I’m still glad I saw this opera in concert, rather than staged. It is all about two people … anything else is trivial decoration. Anyway, now I’ve ‘seen’, or at least heard it, and I can say ‘whatever the story, Act III is great stuff’. Especially as sung by Ms Gubanova.