Tuesday, August 31, 2010


When I said to Anna, let’s go out together and do something ... see something … one day this week, I wasn’t really thinking of something like FischGrätenMelkStand. Because that sort of thing is way, way outside my experience. Even Ian, who loved modern art, who used to traipse me round the Galerie Maeght, and who once made me stand and look at a vast and ludicrous Jackson Pollock in Venice (he did apologise later) would, I think, have been a bit puzzled in the presence of FischGrätenMelkStand. But, how do you know if you don’t try? So I put on my walking shoes, and headed off through the city – tiens! there’s the Gendarmenmarkt! I am beginning to see how Berlin’s bits fit together – to the Schlosspark and its Temporary Kunsthalle. It is temporary (and due to be demolished this week) because the whole area where the old ‘Schloss’ stood is under reconstruction. It would make a nice park, I thought, but I fear it is going to be a ‘reconstruction’.

The exhibition with the funny name (it means one of those milking parlours where the cattle stand interlocked, head to head) consists of a four-story metal jungle-gym (thus the name), built up with staircases and rooms, in each of which rooms is featured an exhibit of some kind. I’m not sure if there is ‘meaning’ anywhere in there: I didn’t try to find any. Once we were let in (there was a vast queue, as the construction can hold only 40 people), I just clambered up and down and looked. Quite a few of the things seemed to be damaged, or have their video and/or audio components out of order, but I just took what I was seeing for what I was seeing, and … When we emerged, nearly an hour later, and sat down with a quiet beer in the café, I said to myself: well? The answer to ‘well?’ was that, as a whole, the series of ‘rooms’ were just an ‘art gallery’, and the ‘art’ they contained? … twenty-four hours later, as I write this, exactly the same images remain, now as then, remarkably vividly, in my mind. A group of handbags on a wall, ‘magically’ tossing their own shadows – by some filmic process – round and round (and unphotographically) in circles

and a rough wooden room lined with rows of burned pizzas and entitled ‘Mutter Tod mit Pepperoni’ (Martin Kippenberger/Heimo Zobernig). I don’t know what Mrs Death had to do with things, but – in spite of the fact that the exhibit had suffered destructively from knees and shoulderbags -- the dilapidated rows of pizzas were strangely compelling!

There was an cleverly unpleasant-feeling piece, Vinyl Terror and Horror, featuring distressed electronic equipment enclosed in a filthy caravan, and Anna was particularly taken by the ‘Backstage’ which I imagine represented the ‘artist’s’ or ‘caretaker’s room and which enclosed a vast variety of crazed and crumpled and ‘rejected’ bits and pieces, which may or may not have been still where the creator had put them.

There was a good deal more, a great deal more, but those are the bits I remember. And only once did I sneer the sneer that says ‘oh this is just tiresome’: in an item called ‘sexy socks’ (the title already is wearisome) where, sadly, drearily, the creators fell back on juvenile ‘naughty words’ for their ‘cleverness’. Yawn… From the FischGrätenMelkStand we made our way the nearby Friedrichswerdesche Kirche. This C19th, neo-Gothic building was, of course, in considerable contrast to what we had just seen, but there was a surprise. It is now an art gallery, too, and its soaring space contains a selection of (copies of?) classical sculpture. But amongst those sculptures was a well-staged contemporary piece by Yinka Shonibara entitled Colonel Tarleton and Mrs Oswald shooting. I found it very effective and, yes, perfectly comprehensible ... indeed, I was altogether pleased, until I read the heavy-handed publicity blurb, with all its effortful politics and points. I don't want to be told what to see, thank you. If the artist can't make his point in his art...?

This morning, I have also read the hand-out material on the FischGrätenMelkStand. And now I don’t like it nearly so much. So much pompous stuff about ‘spatial situations’ and artworks ‘fusing with space’ and … it is all so pretentious and unreadable, quite the perfect poison with which to eradicate the enjoyment one can get simply by looking at the works in question. I am binning it, as of this moment, wiping it from my brain, and I shall just keep my agreeable images of handbags and pizzas, thank you.

My day ended, in suitably ‘cosmopolitan’ fashion with dinner with Kevin in a Brazilian restaurant down near the Schwules Museum, where his exhibition has been breaking all house records of affluence. And, to end a colourful day on a high, the buffet eat-as-much-as-you-can meal turned out to be stunning – from a first-class fish soup, to a truly wonderful beef (?), black sausage and black bean stew that had me longing for a larger appetite. The Café do Brasil, 72 Mehringdamm, is unchallengeably the best value-for-money feast I have eaten, anywhere, since I set out from New Zealand … And then to bed, to dream of revolving handbags, burned pizzas, and delicious fish soup…

'At Home' in the Krumme Strasse

When you are travelling incessantly, the nicest thing that can happen is to be invited to spend an evening snuggled up in the midst of somebody else’s quiet and comfy ‘home’ atmosphere…
Paul (otherwise PGB, otherwise Paul Graham Brown the musical-theatre writer) and his partner, Uwe, asked me around and ‘in’ for a delicious chick pea stew, imaginative ice-cream, a little vin rouge and, above all, a cosy evening of ‘en famille’ friendship and fun…
It felt soooooo goood …

Sunday, August 29, 2010

A Visit to Sissi

I’d thought, when I returned to Berlin, that I would be carrying on my cavalcade through the restaurants of Europe .. but somehow, one way and another, that hasn’t come to pass. Give or take my Jamaican and Irish adventures, most of my food and drink jollification, over the last month, has happened round the picknick table, right here at no 32 Nollendorfstrasse.

Livia’s win, however, had to be fêted in suitable style, so – after a nice cold apéritif of French bubbly, round my little red table – PGB and I set out in search of a nice place to eat. And we found one. When first I came back to the Nollendorfstrasse, my friend Horst pointed me in the direction of a tiny, Austrian restaurant named – what else – Sissi. There it was, just round the corner in the Motzstrasse. And, goodness me, Horst was right.

Tiny, charming, delightful staff and ... well, I have honestly to say, better food than I have ever eaten, anywhere, in Vienna itself. And at very reasonable prices. I had a consommé with a nice light leberknoedel, followed by what the English menu described as boiled calf carpaccio. The mind boggled. But it was delicious thin slices of cold boiled beef, served with a tiny light salad … delicious, and you come out at the end (as I like to do) thinking you have eaten nothing. Paul had a gulasch. Now I’ve seen all sorts of gulasches in my life and most of them would sink a sailor. Not this one. This is food for enjoying, not for simply swelling your stomach. And that means, of course, that grown-ups have space for pudding: Paul could not resist an apricot dumpling…
Our meal was completed by a nice bottle of Pinot (28 euros, wines in restaurants and bars here are grotesquely expensive – 200 to 400pc markup), served with decided talent by a young waiter who made the single bottle last tidily and precisely through our meal, instead of slurping it forcefully into the glasses in the hope the customer will order a second bottle…
We saved ourselves for the Châteauneuf du Pape (11euros at Kaiser’s Supermarket) waiting for us, nightcappishly, back at the Nollendorfstrasse.
A delightful evening. A delightful restaurant. I am already booked for a return visit Thursday… and that will not certainly be the last during my month-to-go in Berlin. Would it be too much to hope that one of the horses might win again, too?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Oh, Livia!

Back in May – goodness, how long ago was that -- I blogged hopefully, from the northern hemisphere, about the latest addition to the ‘Gerolstein’ stable of racers .. our little Australian filly, Livia Degerolstein.
She had begun her baby two year-old career quite promisingly – four starts for a third and three fourths, which looked as if they could be fairly soon improved on. The idea of a first ever Gerolstein juvenile winner, and of my first harness-racing win in Australia – to add to those already scored in New Zealand and in France -- didn’t look impossible. But it didn’t happen.
Without ever running badly, Livia just didn’t seem to make that extra bit of progress necessary to snare her a race, and, after a couple of nowheres, instead of lining up for the big races we had looked forward to, she instead went out to have a little rest. All our rosy hopes looked doomed: the season was drawing to its end – soon she would no longer be a two year-old.
Then, suddenly, last week, as I scanned the Down Under racing pages from my flatlet in Berlin’s Nollendorfstrasse, I noticed … Livia was back! With a fortnight to go till September 1st. Was there still a smidgin of hope?
It didn’t look like it. She went to Geelong August 16, and finished seventh of nine, she went to Maryborough, just three days later, and got fourth of six. She was, as ever, running on at the end, but why oh why, no matter where drawn, did she always seem to end up at the too-far-back of the pack in the running?
One last chance. Geelong again, today 26 August. And the competition included the two horses, Blissful Kisses and Saunders Girl, that had dead-heated for second when she had been seventh there ten days ago, as well as a filly dropping back from the classic races we had once eyed hopefully for Livia. The public took the obvious view, and Livia, sporting a nice new red nose-roll, went out at odds of 20-1. Sixth fancy out of eight.
The classic filly blew up at the start, an outsider hooned suicidally to the front and .. sure enough, as they got to the bell, Livia had managed to get herself into second last place, maddeningly off the slipstreaming back of the one in front of her. Happily, the one behind her was Saunders Girl, and she was pulled swiftly out to loop the field as they headed into the final section. Livia tagged gappily on to her wheel, followed her around, three wide on the last turn, and as Saunders Girl and Blissful Kisses settled down, it seemed, to battle it out, down the middle of the track came stomping Livia! There was a heart-stopping second as she put in one short stride, but then she stuck her tough little head forward, bullocked on, and several strides before the post she elbowed past her rivals to hit the line with nearly half a length to spare!
Within ten days, she had turned round a distance of ten metres on the two runners-up, in the respectable mile time of 2mins 02.4. That ‘improvement’ we had been waiting for had well and truly happened, and that two year-old win, which had seemed so improbable just days earlier, had actually come to pass!
So, tonight – while Wendy (give or take the time difference) raises a glass to little Livia, and to trainer-driver Graeme Lang, down in Gerolstein, New Zealand – I and my pal PGB will do the same at the Nollendorfstrasse …

Goodness, what a horsey year! Elena wins (in NZ while I’m in Australia), Tenor wins (in France while I’m in Australia again), Seppl wins twice (in NZ while I’m in the Isle of Wight) and now Livia wins .. in Australia while I’m in Germany! I’m not complaining, but hopefully, one day soon, my winners and I may be in the same place at the same time? But as my friend Jack – who last week scored a zinger at Cabourg, France -- says, they never are.


Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Life is a Kabarett

When Hannes told me that Cabaret was playing at TIPI am Kanzleramt – that delightful ‘tent’ venue in the Tiergarten -- I have to say I didn’t rush there. How many times have I seen Cabaret over the last forty years? I can’t count. And Cabaret in German? Ah well, I guess its part of the same ‘good old days’ thing that I recognised in this afternoon’s 'Modernen Zeit’ exhibition. But then other folk, too, told me I ‘should’ see it (why? I wondered) and so last night I strolled up to the grand, green Tiergarten from my home in the Nollendorfstrasse (30 minutes flat, even with the ghastly pedestrian lights), and met up with Hannes and Anna for a night ‘at the musical’. TIPI is, in fact, an ideal venue for this show. It is sufficiently compact, and it has the right ‘Kabarett’ atmosphere. Even more ideal, to my thinking, would be the companion Bar Jeder Vernunft, where this production was originally staged, in a version that has been (sometimes too obviously) now opened out for this larger platform … and, of course, auditorium.

The original stage musical Cabaret was not a huge success, and it owes its continuing life very largely to its film version and the performance therein of Liza Minnelli in the role of Sally Bowles. The filmmakers, alas, in search of youth and beauty, destroyed the show’s two most interesting, central – and ageing -- characters (Herr Schultz and Frln Schneider), so I am always very happy indeed to get back to the original theatre text. Or something like it. The TIPI version – and boy! how many ‘versions’ of Cabaret have there been, tacked together by royalty-chasers and usually involving chunks of the film – seems to me to be sufficiently back-to-basics (I admit to a groan when a yowled chunk of ‘Maybe This Time’ was tacked in), but there were some bits which I didn’t think I recognised. This may simply be because it’s so long since I heard an un-butchered performance of Cabaret. This production’s principal curiosity was to have the text in German, and the lyrics sung in either English or German or, in the disastrous case of ‘Cabaret’, half and half.

The stage production was suitably ‘of today’. The first half was slick, quick-moving, occasionally visually arresting (a practical train outdid Miss Saigon’s helicopter easily), it didn’t seem to run nearly 100 minutes, and it was pretty loud and pretty soulless. But, come half time, the whole thing changed gear. Suddenly the audience (mostly ladies with hair, why?) was no longer giggling at the romantic and emotional Schultz-Schneider scenes, but cooing; suddenly the Sally, who had done little more than shout and flail her way through the first half, started to act; suddenly we had a play. A musical play. Instead of an agreeable but pretty banal heap of lively camping and leaping around. And I cheered inwardly. I guess it depends what you want Cabaret to be. For me the Schultz/Schneider story is the heart of the show. Miss Bowles is a supporting character. But, of course, since Liza Minnelli, the musical and the character are no longer allowed or expected to be like that. We don’t get the silly little English Sally Bowles as written by Isherwood and van Druten, we get Liza Minnelli Bowles. Topbilled. And there aren’t a handful of performers, maybe even a fingerful, in the world who can ‘be’ Liza Minnelli Bowles in such a way as not to suffer horribly in comparison with the lady they are apeing. I was pretty sure I was in trouble as soon as tonight’s Sally (Sophie Berner) walked on. She was wearing a Liza Minnelli wig. Oh, dear, I thought. It is going to be a that sort of production of Cabaret. Well, happily, it didn’t turn out quite that way, and that very largely thanks to some decidedly fine performances elsewhere in the cast. 

Easily my favourite performer of the evening was the Cliff (Guido Kleineidam). How often does that happen? That Cliff is the strongest character in this musical? Almost never, I would say. And, guess what, it gives the piece a great focus. The 'I' who is 'the camera' is important and central, and not just an 'instrument'. Unlike the lady, Kleineidam never forgot to act for a second, and he established a credible, interesting and moving personality right from the start. And in the tiny bit he has to sing, he even turned up with a most agreeably uneffortful baritone. It was thoroughly due to him that the Cliff-Sally relationship developed any shape and any interest at all, and his final departure from Berlin, surrounded by the debris of his Berlin life, was decidedly the most moving moment of an evening which didn’t go in for very many moving moments. A first-class performance. 

Frln Schneider (Regina Lemnitz as replacement for Maren Kroymann) and Herr Schultz (Peter Kock), who turned out, miraculously, both to have wholly agreeable singing voices, played their scenes well – though they were left standing curiously ‘undirected’ in the middle of an open stage during confrontations which cry out for intimacy. They made ‘Heirath’ into the musical hit of the night ... I was humming it in the interval and again after the show. They also both played their characters as pleasantly ‘ordinary’ everyday people: the role of Frln Schneider, often star cast, can easily become overcooked. She is a boarding-house keeper. Here, reality remained, and the show gained greatly. So much for the ‘real’ people of the tale. Except, of course, Sally should be one of these, too. I haven’t enthused over any Sally since I saw her played, with touching naivety (and plenty of voice), by a little blonde ex-chorine at Farnham Repertory Theatre in the 1980s. I guess that lass hadn’t seen the movie, or else she had the sense to know that she wasn’t equipped to compete with the Minnelli image. So much the better for her. And me. Tonight’s shapeless Sally was all over the place. She blasted her way through act one, with nary an ounce of light and shade, and just when – in the second act – one started to feel that there was a real and sympathy-worthy woman hiding under that tacky wig, she came out with shudderworthy, draggy, misshapen versions of ‘Maybe This Time’ and ‘Cabaret’ which seemed to have nothing to do with the rest of the show or the (otherwise very effective) orchestrations. No. As the youth of today say: ‘fail’. 

 The role of the emcee (Eric Rentmeister) was efficiently played – in song, speech and dance – in the established, but now rather uninteresting, Joel Grey style, the four Kit Kat girls (one an extremely clever male, Mogens Eggemann) were choreographed, in the manner we are supposed to believe has something to do with the 1930s, in a most lively, vigorous and enjoyable set of routines, and the small parts were all competently played. Except one. How on earth did the director permit the amateurish, end-of-the-pier portrayal of Frln Kost? Has he (and she) never heard of ‘less is better’? This woman’s pantomimish antics took the edge off the scenes of Frln Schneider’s romance and also off the climactic end of act one. The two key moments of the evening’s drama were almost ruined by an inept clown. 

I realise that my comments here do contain a lot of negatives. But, at the end of the show, I am happy to say that (as the ladies with hair squealed out jolly volleys of hoorays) I really didn’t feel too bad at all. I wasn’t complaining about the sum total of the evening's entertainment. Cliff had been superb, Schultz and Schneider very fine … and that meant that the show’s heart had been sweetly and dramatically solid. Sally? I’d more or less given up on her as soon as I saw the wig, and I simply didn’t let her bother me too much. She was back where she should be: a supporting character. Frln Kost, of course, did bother me .. but then, to make up for her, we had the train! A Cabaret with a solid heart will do me. Especially when it is as vigorously enlivened by its Girls and by its orchestra as this one is, and especially when it is played in such a friendly venue … but I think I may now go for a few years without seeing another version – any version – of this musical. Enough is enough is enough.

Berlin on a roller-coaster

Yes, that means what it sounds like. My budding love affair with this city has not run altogether smoothly.
What went wrong? There was I on a huge high after my Best Concert Night Out probably ever … and the next thing …
Friday. Arrangements awry and suddenly … unreasoning panic. Alone in a big city, where I can’t speak the language, and where this machine is my only contact with an outside world which seems to have vanished… Where is everyone? Anyone? Living their own lives, of course. Off on holidays, away or out on business, other folk to see, but not around ... Probably someone was on the end of a sanity-saving txt, but I don’t have a phone.
The sky clouded over, and the rains came down, and as I sat imprisoned through Saturday and half of Sunday, in my normally beloved no32, listening to the man next-door doing loud repairs, the man downstairs doing ditto ... with no escape to .. where? .. through the storm … uselessly spiralling into a real and wholly untypical tempest of lonesome blues … I could only think: I want to be back at Gerolstein. Have I stayed away too long?
And the realisation punched itself into my brain: how could I ever, ever have imagined that I could make a home base in a city where I don’t speak the language? Where I can’t even go out to a bar or a resto, if I should want to, and chat to some jolly company, on a horrid weekend like this one, because I’m half-deaf and foreign and, anyway, too many places here don’t take credit cards? The Berlin real-estate books, which had, in my imagination, been invitingly half-open since I got back here, closed that weekend with a definitive bang. What was I thinking of? End of dream. End of wonderful but foolish dream.

The mean blue moment passed, of course. Dear PGB arrived back in truly timely fashion from his hiking in Croatia, and we dined out in the Winterfeldstrasse on Sunday, picknicked on floods of bubbly and smoked salmon and a whirl of gossip on Monday, and on Tuesday I went out on the town, for a delicious night out with the boys … Life was back on wheels again, but that wicked wet weekend had left its traces. I was going to have to work at it, to once again feel as wholly comfortable here as I did a fortnight ago. Needless to say, I am winning the war. But I’d rather have not needed to.

My night out with the boys – Thomas H, Thomas Z, Christian and Ollie -- was a treat. We started off at the Soho Club – an up-to-date version of the old English ‘Gentlemen’s Club’ (though they have ladies as well, now) implanted semi-congruously into the heart of Berlin. On the superb ‘roof-terrace’, a delightful rounded bar, a swimming pool, and a view out over the Berlin rooftops, which the rain rendered rather surreal …

From the Soho Club to the Chamaleon, a proper European-style cabaret room – central platform surrounded by tables -- where the entertainment was an act named ‘Versus’ – eight young acrobat-dancers in a very strenuous, skilled, agreeable and sometimes even imaginative modern version of the circus routines we’ve known since circus was invented. My mind flew back to Barnum days. Where were young folk like this when I was casting in the ‘eighties?
From the show, on to a real Berlin gay bar, by the name of ‘Betty F’ (in homage to Mrs Ford) .. and hey! not only could I hear in the small room with its moderate music, but I found I was thoroughly enjoying myself amid our delightful company. Still, elderly gentleman have to take care, and I tip-taxied away at midnight, leaving the lads to their foreseeable long, long night..
Thursday, out to Kreuzberg with Ollie to ... wait for it ... a Jamaican restaurant. Well, why not? Delicious spicy food, a touch of genuine Jamaica rum to finish … thank you Kirk and Troy of the Rosa Caleta, Muskauer Strasse, a grand evening … with a surprising result. Next day, Ollie turned up at no32 bearing the prophylactic for the previous weekend’s blues … a mobile phone! After all these years of saying ‘I can’t’, I have already learned to text! Slowly. Maybe next week I may see if I can hear a call: but I find it quite hard, already, to hear the thing tinkle ... so we shall have to see.

Saturday, a lovely family evening with the Leclair-Clarkes – dining on a real ‘Ulster Fry’ (the children are just back from holiday in Ireland, and brought the stock of the local butcher’s shop with them) and -- this you are never going to believe – watching not only the holiday snaps of beautiful Ireland but … a movie! Kevin and Maxime biked to the store to get the ‘for hearing-impaired English-speakers’ version of Hangover, and I got used to ‘listening’ to it quite quickly. The film was American-silly-funny (and laced with plot incoherencies) but I can see it will be much liked by filmgoers.

Sunday night, a picknick with Kevin – music and bubbly and a whole fortnight’s worth of catch up -- and today, out to the new Nationalgalerie for a very fine and admirable exhibition entitled Modernen Zeit.

The times it dealt with were, happily, not so modern as that: it was an exhibition of art from the first 40 years of the 20th century, a period which this country seems now to have idealised as ‘the good old days’. I don’t know a heap about German 20th century painting – one knows the name of Grosz for not entirely pictorial reasons, Kirschner and Dix ring a bell, but the French artists of the same years, when they were busy inventing cubism and the like and lunching out at St Paul de Vence, are obviously much more familiar to me. So I was rather delighted to see a great deal of strong and often colourful painting in all sorts of styles, which seemed to show that the German painters of the time had perhaps more individualism than their French counterparts. I particularly liked one room of elbow-to-elbow portraits, all from the same years but yet all so contrasting in style … alas, I couldn’t stop my camera flashing, so one photo was all I got … this is only a tiny sample of the collection … but the bug-eyed family in the middle is the star exhibit…

Alongside the exhibition, a multi-part silent film of Berlin in the 1920s was playing. I watched about 20 minutes of it, and could only think .. 1920? those men could be my grandfather, and oh! how different the world was…

Tonight, back to the Tipi .. the tent-theatre .. to see (is this an anomaly?) a German-language version of the musical Cabaret
Oh yes, my Berlin is well and truly back on wheels and, as September looms, my dance card is filling rapidly with opera, with theatre premieres, with coffee dates, lunches and events, the colourful memories of which I shall be able to live on for many a quiet country month ..

I shall enjoy Berlin in the summer, I just sha’n’t get involved.
And next time I come here, I shall, I think, avoid August. I don’t ever want to live another weekend like that one I just lived…

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

ESPANA ... one hundred points!


It is summer in Berlin. Everywhere you look, vast bunches of sunflowers symbolise the fact … and I am riding high on Berlin in summer.
So far, it’s been largely Picknicks at number 32, catching up with those friends who aren’t out of town for the holidays: on Friday Kevin and sister Sandra called by, and nephew Maxime got his first taste of Châteauneuf du Pape (‘its never too early’), and Saturday, my dear friend Ollie came and we chatted and drowned ourselves in bubbly way, way past the witching hour and my usual bedtime. On Saturday Paul returned bearing the almost final cut of the CD he has been working on, and no32 became a sound bowl as we listened to the recording which we hope will take Montmorensy, his name and work, to the millions. I am quite staggered with what he has done and, even though I have heard all the material before, I was overwhelmed by the effect of hearing it en dazzling bloc. God, Gänzl, you most absolutely can spot talent!

Off to Winterfeldplatz market to buy flowers for my room, to order some more of the delicious hand-made visiting cards I discovered here in April, to investigate the charcuterie and the cheeses and all the other goodies. Tragic, that this market is only here one and a half days a week: if it were permanent I’d be moving into this street for good! Which I even may, yet…

Monday 9 August. I’ve been here a week. And – even though PGB and Kevin are away -- the planning of my summer is well under way. It is going to be a summer of music. It is about time that music found its way back into my life, after those years in the sad wilderness, and I have found myself a very darling Dante (or did Virgil do the leading?) to guide me …
As we nibbled our picknick, after the Montmorensy concert, last week, Paul and I began to plan 'summer music in Berlin’. Well, the bollard outside this flat advertises the Young Euro Classic series of orchestral concerts at the Berlin Konzerthaus. Sounded good, so we pulled up the programmes on the web. Lots of fun stuff, lots of new music, but the concert that leaped out at us was the one to be given by the Joven Orquesta Nacional de España. And it just happened to be on Monday night. It also happened – hey! Kurt the Victorian – to be made up entirely of twentieth-century music.
So this evening, off we set. A little visit to the record store for some educational material – four Händel oratorios and a disc of Janácek piano music. Then to the delightful Café Augustiner am Gendarmenmarkt for a pair of delicious boiled white sausages (me) and a heap of mountain cheese (Paul). And, finally, the Konzerthaus.

The Konzerthaus still has the old ‘Tageskasse’ and ‘Abendkasse’ system (2 euros cheaper for ‘standby’ tickets with no 'booking fee'), but I don’t know why they bother. The first thing that is blazingly obvious when, having negotiated the horde of little men in red bowties who infest every corner of the magnificent Konzerthaus, doing nothing but look bored, we entered the top tier of the salle (only seats available, 17 euros), was that there was no money in the house. It was assiduously and utterly papered with other young musicians and with members of the local Spanish community. But, as Paul remarked, if you are going to have paper, have Spanish paper: this audience gave the concert a howlingly enthusiastic reception. Which, I am here to say, it absolutely deserved.
However, when paying customers end up in the slips, gazing down on the tell-tale gaps in the papered stalls, it does give an unfortunate aura of unprofessionalism. Some sponsor is doubtless paying the whole jaunt for the young Spaniards.
The air of unprofessionalism, alas, continued a wee bit longer, for after a wholly splendid opening with a specially-written brass fanfare (my second this year!) by Manfred Trojahn, echoing down on us excitingly from the organ loft, we were obliged to suffer twelve and a half minutes of self-indulgent chatter from a certain Herr Lange of the Komische Oper, 'godfather' for the evening. Having quite destroyed the atmosphere created by the fanfare with his banal football jokes, he finally got off and the music was .. at past 20h15 already .. actually able to start. But it turned out to be worth the waiting for.

The first piece on the programme was Cristóbal Halffter’s Tiento del primer tono y batalla imperial which, as far as I could work out from the programme (1 euro and carelessly misprinted), is based on 15th and 16th-century Spanish music. It is, however, ‘retold’ here in a thoroughly modern style. I fell utterly, enthusiastically and totally for this picture-piece with its screamingly vibrant clashes between ancient and modern. I have never heard a piece of music which portrays the conflict of man with man so searingly. And the young orchestra flung themselves into its strident and violent emotions with the most amazing vigour and with evident enjoyment.
And now, I was delighted to be up in the slips, peering down over the orchestra, able to watch every soloist and section … unable to take my eyes from the young lady on the contra-bassoon, the much-used timpaniste, or the beautiful-toned horn player …
How to follow such an evident success? Why, with Strauss’s Don Juan. And they quite simply did it again. I don’t think I’ve ever heard this piece played with such warmth and vivacity. ‘This is what orchestras were invented for’ ran irreverently through my head… ‘This is the concert of my life’.
It probably is. Though the second part could never hope to equal that dazzling first. A group of songs by Xavier Montsalvatge, sung by an attractive mezzo, Magdalena Llamas, showed up for the first and only time the disadvantage of our seats. The lady played solely to the radio mike and the front rows: we saw little and heard not much more of what seemed to be an unexceptional group of rather ‘film-musik 1945’ songs, of which a pretty lullaby made most effect. The stalls, I need to record, went mad for the singer. The slips, of course, couldn’t.
And so to the final item on the bill: Petruschka. I’m not sure quite why – everything else had had a Spanish connection. Also it was the orchestral suite manufactured from the ballet music, rather than the real thing, so I – who know only the ballet – did get rather confused. The thing seems rather shapeless without its story and its visuals. But maybe this is part of my learning curve. What Petruschka did do, was allow the whole panoply of young principals each to have her or his moment, and in that it was well chosen, for each and every one of them – especially the wind players, and a remarkable set of horns and cornets – took that moment skilfully and gleefully.

Gleefully: that is what made this concert so special. The young players were so evidently having a most wonderful time making music together, and their joy was wholly infectious. Since the programme chosen was (mostly) marvellous, as well, the result was an evening of the most enjoyable music imaginable.
The audience (and the orchestra!) stamped and cheered and applauded fit to bust at the concert’s end, leading to first an encore with a rather common march, and then – o wise judgement – a repeat of the second part of that wonderful ‘klingendes’ Halffter piece. What a note to go out on!

They almost didn’t. In the dreadful habit of this part of the world, the band lingered for just one too many a round of applause, one too many set of bows, and the thrilled atmosphere began to sag as half the audience wandered from the auditorium. But then, in a wonderful finale, the players each hugged his or her neighbour and put a splendid Punkt to the proceedings, a fullstop to a wonderful musical night.
Paul and I proceeded back to the Augustiner for a cold beer, and of course a look to see what other joys this Festival may hold for us – between his music-making and my social and writing schedule – in the days to come…
I wonder if I can make sure that Mr Lange’s peroration isn’t a nightly affair. I wonder if I can get on the ‘paper’ list for Austria or Bulgaria or Azerbaijan. Actually, unless there is a singer, I ... a life long habitué of Row G in the stalls ... might prefer to climb again to the slips ..
Gracious. Music is coming back to me .. I can feel it … I went home on the U2 to Nollendorfplatz singing the tenor aria from the Rossini Stabat Mater! Well, Halffter is a little tricky to hum…
So thank you Spain, thank you Konzerthaus, thank you my Magister Paul ... I think I’m on the road back!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Museums, Musicians and More...

or Protégés and Picknicks

So, my bags are unpacked, my clothes stored away, Kaiser’s supermarket on the Nollendorfplatz has been raided -- my cupboards are stocked, the wine-racks o’erflowing – and the No 32 Picknick Sommer Series is under way!

My first Berlin ‘appointment’, however, was at a Museum. I have related already how Kevin (‘Dr Kevin Clarke’ to the uninitiated) has – under the auspices of the Berlin Schwule Museum (Gay Museum) -- been busy through the spring organising an important exhibition, ‘Glitter and be Gay’ (ah! how Mr Sondheim’s phrase has installed itself in the English language), around the life and career of director Erik Charell and the largely homosexual set of collaborators with whom he worked in revue, Operette and film in the 1920s and 1930s.

Charell, for those of you who don’t know, is internationally celebrated as the original conceiver and director of the exceptionally famous Operette Im weissen Rössl (White Horse Inn) and of the hit musical film Der Kongress tanzt. In Berlin, however, he has a wider claim to fame, having mounted here first a series of spectacular revues, and then another of equally spectacular and sometimes idiosyncratic Operetten, including versions of The Mikado and Die lustige Witwe as well as the Strauss pasticcio Casanova before his apotheosis with White Horse Inn.
Jewish and homosexual, his career was brusquely interrupted by the rise of Nazism, and he left Germany to continue on to London, New York and Hollywood. He did not have the same success there – his trademark, as Kevin explains, had been to introduce the ‘Ziegfeld brand’ of glitz and glamour to the Berlin theatre, and that could scarcely re-export. However, an attempt at a black musical version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with Louis Armstrong starred, on Broadway, proved that he had imagination and enterprise of his own.

I have never been – as I admitted thoroughly in my opening to Kevin’s anthology on homosexuality and Operette, also entitled Glitter and be Gay – a particular fan of spectacular theatre. I’ve always preferred to listen first and look (much) later. In fact, I have quite an aversion to ostrich feathers and spangles, vast chorus lines and vaster scenery. Nor do I care for jazzed-up and remade versions of the great shows of the past. As a result, apart from Im weissen Rössl – now recognised correctly as a masterpiece of the musical theatre – I have never paid too much attention or consideration to the work of Charell and his teams. Kevin has gently berated me, over the years, for my predilections, and today he put forward his most convincing argument yet.

The exhibition.

It is a first-class exhibition. A model of the genre. Done in a wholly scholarly way, yet a feast for the eye as well as for the historian’s brain. The two large rooms of material are laid out in chronological order, the first dealing with Charell’s early career – as a dancer, and then in revue and Operette, mostly notably at the Grosses Schauspielhaus (a wonderful scale model of the famous theatre is on show)

There is a welter of photographs which I have never seen before, there are posters, music sheets and costume designs – all the paraphenialia and ephemera of the theatre and its creators – everything explained (alas! in German! but my tour guide translated) in a series of precise and historically correct pink panels.
Amongst my favourite items, were some delicious costume designs for the Schauspielhaus version of Der liebe Augustin and a splendid portrait of Rössl composer Ralph Benatzky.

Amongst the vast variety of material from various Rössl productions – stage versions from round the world, and the several film versions – I particularly liked this photo of the making of one early black-and-white movie. I’ve no idea who this Giesecke is, but he looks quite marvellous. Alas, trying to photograph glassed photographs is not easy: apologies for the quality, but I love the subject.

The second room carries on the tale to the end of Charell’s career, and a particularly interesting wall features photographs and biographies of his collaborators. How splendid, especially, to see the handsome Hans Müller and his partner .. I had no idea what he looked like, nor anything about him, he has always been just a name on a playscript. The author of Rössl deserves surely to be better know?

In sum, a really outstanding exhibition. I not only enjoyed it, it also taught me – I who am supposed to know everything – and informed me, and helped me understand rather more of the nature of this man and his work. And that, surely, is the double aim of any good exhibition. To please, and at the same time to educate.
Kevin, my dear ex-protégé, now grown great: I congratulate you from the bottom of my heart.


Home I rumbled (in spite of the fact that U-Bahn Line One has been inconsiderately closed for repairs for the summer), to prepare for the evening and the opening of my Picknick season. The No 32 Picknicks are mostly tête-a-tête affairs – and the first five nights are already ‘cast’! – because my hearing problem goes blurringly into overdrive in anything resembling a group. So it’s finger food – salmon, ham, melon, cheeses, salamis, olives, cornichons etc -- and champagne a deux! Chuckle, given that this is Berlin and the Nollendorfstrasse, an eyebrow or two may be raised as a different young gentleman or lady climbs my stairs alone and punctually each evening at six or seven – Paul, Kevin, Ollie, Amélie, Horst, the other Paul …

Now if you go back in this blog to May last year, you will read my stunned review of a concert given at the Bar Jeder Vernunft by a young Australian calling himself Montmorensy. It is what may be called an unmitigated rave. And I guess you could say that I quite simply fell in love (in the nicest possible way) that night with … well, his real name is Paul.

We met again, briefly, when I was in Berlin this April, and I expressed my determination to do anything that I might be able (and I am not quite sure, given my time out of showbiz, just how much that is) to encourage and help him on his way to Real Success. For if there is any justice in the musical world (OK, I know there often isn’t) this young man simply has to make a mark..
And I want to be there in the wings to see it and share it.
Am I soft in the head? I who already escaped from the music world … ?
I can’t help it. I do love a protégé. Folk helped me to get where I have, now, in my ummm 'middle-age', it's my turn to do the helping. Anyway, I now have my protégé (I actually have two, the other will make his entry in due course, when he comes back from tramping through Croatia). A protégé and a purpose. Which is decidedly, I think, healthy.
So Paul and I picknicked, chatted, caught up, planned and flung tales and ideas joyously around for three and a half hours ... before he headed for the U6 (not closed) and I for a weary old man’s pillow! Boy! Keeping up with the young …
So, the Series of 2010 has opened splendidly… and now I’m off to Kaiser’s to re-fill the fridge .. for the next Picknick may be as early as .. this evening!
Hello to Berlin!

Back in Berlin!

Yes, I’m back! I back, and installed once again in my delicious little apartment at the no32 Nollendorfstrasse which, the way things are going, is going to end up as eventful and famous as the ‘Sally Bowles house’ just down the same street, which was the one-time Berlin home of Christopher Isherwood.
Getting to Berlin was a bit of a trial, mainly because, not having done said trip before I left enormous time buffers between the various stages (car-train-ferry-minicab-plane-taxi). So I spent 1 ½ hours awaiting my minicab on the pavement outside Portsmouth Station (where Sean of A1-Sunset Cabs, came valiantly to my rescue) …

I spent five hours at Heathrow, where everything has changed since I was last there, but which was surprisingly less ghastly (going out!) than I feared. Mind you, four of those hours were passed in the pub, getting rid of my English small change. Tegel airport was, as ever, an efficient delight – I shall go into mourning if they close it down! – as was the poor taxidriver who buzzed me to Kevin’s house and gave me – twice! – too much change.
A reunion with most of the Clarke family, a night on Kevin’s couch, and the next afternoon, southwards to the Nollendorfplatz, to meet my ‘landlord’, Andrew, and gather up the keys to my Berlin home. And the sun shone, and it was as lovely as ever and .. well here I am! (No photo until I can shop for flowers!) And into action!

I have a strong feeling -- I do hope I am right! -- that I am going to have a very happy time here!