Friday, 27 July 2012

Carlos Kleiber - Legend.

I'm currently reading a biography of my favourite conductor, Carlos Kleiber, who died in 2004. Anyone familiar with the name will be familiar with the main points of his history: son of the great conductor Erich Kleiber who went on to be considered by many the greatest exponent of his craft who ever lived. Kleiber's performed repertoire was comparatively small but his knowledge immense. A controversial and seemingly contradictory man, he never gave interviews and even rarely answered the phone, facts which makes Alexander Werner's remarkable book of his life even more astounding: he had practically nothing to go on save testimonies from former friends and colleagues.

Ever since I started getting interested in Carlos Kleibers achievements (and personal philosophy) I regretted never having experienced him live. Until today, when I reached page 412 in the German hardback edition and realised that I had, in fact, attended one of his performances. I was a 24 year-old student at the Royal College of Music in London when our Opera Department received a clutch of dress rehearsal tickets to Verdi's Otello at The Royal Opera, Covent Garden. Naturally, I wanted to go. After all, Placido Domingo was singing the title role, Desdemona was to be sung by Katia Ricciarelli and Iago by Justino Diaz. Someone mentioned who was conducting but I didn't retain the name. After all, it was a dress, so there were no programmes.

The performance was electrifying. I don't know why, but it just was. I talked about it soon after with Felix Aprahamian and said 'Domingo's first entrance was spectacular'. He replied that Verdi had a hand in that, too. Fair dibs; I wasn't going to argue with Felix Aprahamian. I do remember an incredible ovation greeting the conductor when he came out but, seeing as this was my first time at Covent Garden, thought that all conducting geniuses were so received.

This afternoon, I found out that the special reception had, in fact, been reserved for Carlos Kleiber. People had stood in the January cold for three days to get tickets to this series of performances, and our dress rehearsal tickets had just sat on the Opera Department Secretary's desk for any old Tom, Dick or Harry to pick up. I've maybe never made such a good decision in complete ignorance, and probably never will, again.

There's not enough time nor space, here, to go into why Carlos Kleiber was so amazing, so I can just heartily recommend Alexander Werner's astonishing biography. It'll probably remain the premier literary document on Kleiber's life and work for ever; his former collaborators are disappearing by the year and his recordings are sadly not numerous. Always conscious of his abilities and market value he never did anything for purely financial gain. His appearances, compared with the jet-set 'maestros' of today, were few and far between and he would cancel even the most lucrative and expensive project at a moment's notice if he felt the music was not being served. He must have been infuriating to deal with, but for us, who just lapped up what music he did release, he was God incarnate.

So now, when I ever get into a conversation about Carlos Kleiber, I'll be able to say: "I was there".

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Drive, shmive…

I've been driving for over thirty years, but I've never had to deal with a car pouting on me, before. Yesterday morning I left northern Spain, somewhere between Tarragona and Barcelona, to return to Bayreuth, leaving Mrs. F and the Fingernails behind to enjoy a bit of Iberian beach and sun before jumping on a plane to join me in the Land of the Teutons, beit Bavaria or Austria.

Anyway, as I was sitting in a traffic jam outside Barcelona yesterday morning, a mere 45 minutes after setting off, I realised my engine fan had packed up on me. That meant that, if you were sitting in traffic, your engine temperature would rise so high and so quickly, that you'd soon look like something out of a Buster Keaton film if you either 1) Didn't get moving again quickly or 2) Turn the engine off, sharpish. Fortunately for me on this occcasion, the Keystone Cops-scenario was averted by the traffic suddenly clearing, but I didn't need anyone to remind me that not only did I not have a mobile phone on me, I also had another 1000 miles to go through three different countries.

Unbelievably, I was able to dodge the bullets until Karlsruhe, 600 miles later in south-west Germany, despite most of my trip that far having been on coastal motorways over a holiday weekend. Right after Lyon, the clear, sunny skies gave way to rain squalls akin to sitting in a particularly violent and aggressive car wash and this continued right up to the point where I was greeted by a four-mile tailback around which pushed my poor little Audi just too far. It peeped authoritatively at me, and I duly obeyed, pulled over onto the hard shoulder, set up my warning triangle and waited for the engine to cool down. As 'luck' would have it, other cars were dropping like flies this morning and I was able to speak to an ADAC (German Automibile Club) technician as he came to grips with an elderly lady's 20-year-old Mercedes, which was belching smoke like there was no tomorrow. He offered me his mobile phone to contact my insurance company in France, which I duly accepted. The only thing was that he had to leave before the company phoned back. He spoke excellent French, though, and told me he'd get them to send me a tow truck. I went back to my car and waited.

Nothing happened, so I eventually wandered off down to the orange emergency phone. I explained the problem and the lady told me to wait another half an hour, and to come back then if nothing had happened. While I was waiting in my car, I heard a screeching of tyres and saw a small Opel - going at about 100 mph, skid and career into the side of a BMW estate not twenty yards fom where I was sitting. The little car stopped and the driver pulled off the motorway into the central reservation. Nobody from either vehicle moved for about another five minutes. Eventually, a girl in her mid-twenties climbed out of the trashed passenger door of the little Opel and started shouting at the ocupants of the BMW. Showing incredible composure, she put on her high-visibility jacket and set up her warning triangle. I took this as my cue to go back and phone the emergency services, again.

I got another lady on the phone, to whom I patiently explained what had happened. She expressed according horror when I told her I'd been there for three hours and promised to get on to the ADAC immediately to send out a pick-up van as a matter of urgency. Just at that moment, an ADAC pick-up van came roaring down the road. 'It's OK, he's here' I cried; 'Cancel everything!'. I spoke too soon, the truck was not for me at all; it was for the BMW, whose driver had presumably got the whole operation moving from his mobile phone just after the collision. Hats off, really; not sure whether I would have had that presence of mind and composure after being rammed at 100mph. Anyhow, I ran back to the emergency phone, got someone else on the line and asked them to forget that cancellation from Herrn Fingers. The man on the other end, seeing where the call was from, surmised that I was an accident victim and was, understandably, hysterical, waffling on about French insurance and that other lady who was going to send me an ADAC truck. At this point, another breakdown man showed up and informed me that 'He was there to help me, too', so I bid my farewell to the emergency man and walked back to the car, explaining my story as we went. After it became apparent that he thought I was an accident victim and was not going to tow me away and fix my engine fan I decided I'd had enough of this little game and made up my mind to leave. After all, I hadn't actually broken down and the ADAC man had given me a useful tip: if your engine is overheating, turn the heating up full. It's not a solution I would have dreamt up, but I resolved to try it out. Double or quits.

Back at the car, the police asked me to make a statement about the accident. I described what I saw, climbed into my Audi and set off. The traffic jam had dissipated a little but I decided it wasn't worth staying put and risking sitting there for another three hours while nothing happened, particularly as my car still ran and the fact that I had a trick up my sleeve to keep the engine cool. Whether or not it worked was a moot point, but any port in a storm, eh?

Well, blow me down, it worked like a dream. Fortunately, I only had to use it once, but it kept the temperature at 90° and I was able to sail on through up to Bayreuth without any further mishaps. The only thing about driving in Germany is that roadworks are legion and you never know if you're going to get a free run or not. Their motorways have two other selling points that attract drivers from other countries: 1) They are free, and: 2) There's no speed limit. So you can imagine how many people choose to cruise through the centre of Europe…I saw at least five people doing 150+mph today, though quite why they bother is beyond me; you always have to brake within a couple of minutes, such is the volume of traffic on the roads.

So, my next task is to find someone to fix my fan. After spending the last 48 hours recreating Sandra Bullock's role in 'Speed' I'm going to have a good sleep. After all, I had to keep it up for 1000 miles…

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Enforced obsolescence

This really gets on my nerves. OK, I bought my Mac laptop in 2005, but I'm running 10.5.8 even if I do still have a Power PC processor. I know I can't update to 10.6 unless I upgrade to an Intel processor, but that will entail changing computer, something I don't want to do as there is absolutely nothing wrong with this one. However, every time I log into some Google product like Gmail or Blogger I get all these warnings that Google can't support my browser any more and that I should update or just get the hell out of town. Or better still, change to Google Chrome. Well, I can't. You need an Intel processor for that. And I can't update my Firefox either, because - guess what - yes, you need an Intel processor for that, too.

So, I'm running Firefox 3.-something and Skype 2.-something and the geek world is peeing itself laughing at me. Gradually, everything I've been able to do perfectly well until now will be denied me, purely because I've not respected the computer world's right to get even richer at our unwitting expense, even if all I ever do is write e-mails, check a few websites and write Word documents. I don't download films, nor do I play online games. In short, I do nothing which requires state-of-the-art technology, but I'm eventually going to have to be able to because if I don't, I won't even be allowed to write e-mails. There is something gravely wrong with this picture.

It's a shame there's not a slow-track internet community, one which just wants basic functions and is happy to use technology which can do just that. But no. Well, I'm not changing until there's no choice. There'll have to take this computer out of here IN A BOX!