Saturday, 7 September 2013

Old Europe, and all that's wonderful about it.

I have to get this off my chest before I forget it. Every now and then, someone asks me why I love Europe so much. Due to maybe being three-quarters of the way through an excellent bottle of Bordeaux I'm not always able to give a coherent answer, but on this occasion I'll just tell you a story and leave you to ponder the rest.

I've been working at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany for ten years, now. I know it's ten years because I was awarded a little trophy by the town of Bayreuth this summer for my services to the music of Richard Wagner. OK. Next. Every year, I and my ilk are sent a very friendly letter by Udo Steingraeber of Steingraeber Pianos of Bayreuth, informing us of events we may find interesting taking place in his factory that summer. This year, I was invited to come and try out the newly-reconditioned Gralsglocke - the 'Grail Bell' - that his great-great uncle had made for Richard Wagner himself for the première of Parsifal in Bayreuth in 1882. Steingraeber set up a factory in Bayreuth in 1852, a full twenty years before Wagner moved to Bayreuth and twenty-four before the festival proper got under way. The fact that you can just turn up to a building bearing the same name as it did around 160 years ago and ask if someone of the same family and name is available is awe-inspiring in itself, but what followed just blew my mind.

Udo Steingraeber came out to meet us. I'd asked him if the Fingernails could come and play the Grail Bell too, to which he'd replied via e-mail that children were almost more welcome than adults, so I knew this bloke had a sense of whimsy I could relate to. He grabbed a key and led us off  to his workshop.

We went over the road and he unlocked the workshop where all Steingraeber hand-made pianos are created. No computers are used in the process; every instrument is created with human hand and hearing, natural judgement, sweat and tears. That's why they're bloody expensive, but hey…Anyway, he showed us the Grail Bell, handed us beaters and explained how to strike the strings. It's basically a piano with four notes, each note consisting of around fifteen strings, twelve to strike and three to vibrate sympathetically. Boulez and Solti both used it for their Parsifal recordings. Mrs. F, the Fingernails and I beat the strings, C - G - A - E - and I, at least, imagined what had happened in the Festspielhaus back in 1882 as this work was being rehearsed for the first time.

Udo showed us around the rest of his studio, pointing out where Wagner and Liszt had been, then ushered us back to the main building in the Friedrichstrasse. It was then that my head began to spin.

Knowing I was a pianist, he said "Come with me; this might interest you". He led us up the grand central staircase and showed us into a room called the Barocksaal, the Baroque Room. "Try this grand, it's rather fun". I sat down. There were three grands in the room, but I started to tinkle the ivories of the one where I was sat. "That was Liszt's piano; we built it for him. He gave many concerts and lessons on it. Let your children play it, too". The Fingernails had a go. "The other two are ones he just used when he was here, but you can play all of them if you want".  Udo Steingraeber left the room and just let a family of perfect strangers play a trio of pianos that had been played by Franz Liszt. I was speechless. As a homage to his generosity, I played the Liebestraum N°3 (Who wouldn't?), but I have to say: at no point in recent history was I more in contact with what it means to be a classical performing artist in Europe in the early twenty-first century as I was that afternoon. We're so surrounded by names and dates that you become rather blasé about the whole thing. Until, it is, that history steps up and grabs you by the bollocks and says: "Right, get this. Understand, now?". And all you can do is nod meekly and say "Yes".

A word to anyone even remotely interested in what I've just written: get yourselves over here and grab it while it's still around.

That's the Gralsglocke on the left. It was supported by four enormous barrel drums, each one corresponding to a note in the Parsifal C - G - A - E sequence.

And that's Udo Steingraeber. Great bloke.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Nigella Lawson talks dirty

I realise I'm probably a hundred years behind with this discovery, but I don't care. For those who don't know her, Nigella Lawson is the daughter of former Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson (clearly not a modest man, judging by his daughter's name) a TV celebrity chef/person famous for being famous. Her first husband, journalist John Diamond, died of cancer. Her current husband is Charles Saatchi, but that doesn't seem to be valid for much longer. Still, she has some tips for being a domestic goddess:

Tuesday, 25 June 2013


I've come to the conclusion that, apart from journalists, those who continually publish blog posts have much too much time on their hands. Either that or their private lives are in tatters and they're desperately seeking contact with a supposed better world outside. Why have I reached this possibly controversial and provocative point of view? Because when I posted a lot I had too much time on my hands and was basically neglecting my nearest and dearest. I'm basing my evidence for this on the fact I currently have an awful lot of work to deal with and, consequently, have no interest in posting my vacuous witterings on French Fingers. My nearest and dearest are a long way away in darkest Toulouse and that's no fun, particularly as I've not seen or spoken to the Fingernails for about two weeks, mostly due to my workload here in Northern Bavaria but partly due to Mrs. F's computer developing tummy ache and needing a bit of TLC. At least, that's what she told me…If they'd been available and I'd have had half an hour spare you can be sure I'd have spent it skyping with them and not posting pictures of Denise Milani's tits on my blog.

As I can't really reveal anything about the project I'm working on I feel a bit hamstrung. I suppose I could go on about all the other exciting, X-rated things I do when not in rehearsal, like, er, getting up early to go the bakery, doing half an hour of yoga every morning or religiously packing a thermos of yerba maté in my rucksack every day, but I think you'd all rather be drooling over Denise Milani's tits, wouldn't you? And there's my dilemma. I can't comment sardonically on Bayreuth as it does what it says on the tin and my sense of humour has worn thin with the centre of Toulouse, which is just a rather attractive, selfish open sewer. Our bijou rat cage is back on the market, so if anybody wants to get up close and dirty with our delightful neighbours just tip me the wink and it's yours for three hundred grand. The real estate prices in French cities are utterly ridiculous: a friend of mine bought a 300 sqm house in Bad Berneck, here in Oberfranken  - in need of renovation, admittedly - with two acres of land for €36000 two years ago. The house next door to him is on sale as we speak. It has a garden and passarelles and is about 250 sqm. Yours for €25000. Needs work, but still…Incredible to think our 66sqm will probably go for between €270000 - 290000. We're keeping the little studio in the same building and paying through the nose for a new window, a new door and new God knows what else. It's one square foot too small to be let officially so it'll all have to be informal stuff. Possibly a blessing in a land seemingly exclusively populated by non-paying tenants.

I'm off to bed. Not content with boring you rigid I've managed to do it to myself.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Biblical weather in Bayreuth

This place is full of extremes: if it's not Wagner-related scandal it's either incredibly cold (rumoured to be the coldest place in Germany in the winter) or eye-meltingly hot. It was freezing when I got here nearly three weeks ago and the last few days have been up in the 30°s Centigrade (does anyone say 'Centigrade' any more? Thought not). The high pressure won out this afternoon and Noah sailed back past my house in his Arc after making his outbound journey a couple of weeks ago. It started around 3pm and there's still rain, thunder and lightning now, at nearly ten o'clock in the evening. Hailstones the size of gobstoppers fell out of the sky. I filmed a bit of it and will send it off to the Fingernails. God bless technology, even if I'm practically illiterate in that regard.

I'd love to write about the production I'm doing but we're all sworn to secrecy. Suffice to say that musically and visually it could make history. The sets are the most remarkable constructions I've ever seen on any stage, anywhere, and our conductor is exceptional. The orchestra responds exremely well to him and that's never a bad sign. The cast is of a very high standard and that's all I can really say. No sneaky, behind-the-scenes photos, no names, no nothing. Sorry, I'm pretty hopeless, I know.

So here's a totally gratuitous picture of Denise Milani just to make amends:

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Seeing as I'm back in Germany…

After a couple of weeks back with Mrs. F and the Fingernails I'm now back in northern Bavaria. The weather, as it was in Toulouse, is absolutely appalling and I've just thrown a handful of peanuts to the chimpanzees hanging over the side of Noah's Ark as it sailed down the road a few minutes ago. Who could have predicted such dreadful weather over an entire continent when at least half of it is used to something a lot more clement? Certainly not the giraffes, even though they did stick their necks out.

For the first time ever, I've left Toulouse in the same clothes I'd usually get changed into when I arrived in Bayreuth. I should have started work here on April 22nd but negotiated a deal whereby I came later. Long story and of no interest to anyone except me, so there. Seeing as the region has seen no change in the weather for weeks I'm glad I did as I did. The canteen isn't even open here, yet, so I dread to think what it was like back in April when I was swanning it up and down Cerro San Cristobal. At least I'd have breathed better, though…

I saw something in The Independent yesterday which would have made me howl with laughter even if I'd been sober: JC Penney are selling a kettle which, if you either squint or consume a half-way decent bottle of Chilean red, looks like Adolf Hitler. A few years ago, someone took a picture of a house which also 'looked like Adolf Hitler' which also got published in the 'serious' press. It's unbelievable how a contemporary dictator who committed suicide nearly seventy years ago is still so present in people's collective consciousness, in the same way that Marilyn Monroe, who died over fifty years ago, is still trotted out as the non plus ultra in female beauty.

Apparently, it even made an appearance on Have I Got News For You last night (It's a funny English current events panel show, for those unfortunate enough to live in the real world).

The rubbish I spew out while alone always makes me think of Montaigne's telling phrase: Un homme seul est en mauvaise compagnie'. At least it goes no further than that.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Getting the most out of Santiago de Chile…

What I've seen in Santiago these last three weeks (aside from working full-time):

Cuestión de principios

Baño Morales

Cerro San Cristóbal

Vitacura, Santiago
Museo de Arte Colonial, Santiago
Museo de Bellas Artes, Santiago
Museo de la Memoria y Derechos Humanos, Santiago
I went to the Violeta Parra museum, La Jardinera, but it wasn't finished.
There's so much to do in this city. I've not even scratched the surface...

Friday, 10 May 2013

Smog-watching on the Cerro San Crístobal, Santiago de Chile

If you ever look up 'Things to do in Santiago de Chile', chances are you'll find the tip 'Go to the top of Cerro San Crístobal' pretty near the top of the list. Having just returned from there, I'm not at all sure why. The level of pollution in Santiago is no secret and the fact is all you can really do once you've taken the cable car (or walked or cycled, yeah, right…) to just below the summit is get a cup of Nescafé and admire what you imagine must be a great view, save for the fact you can see nothing except the buildings nearest to the bottom of the hill.
Here's an artist's impression of what the Santiago Tourist Board would like you to be able to see:

…and here's what you really will see:

Take a deep breath, now…

Still, you can always take pictures of the statue of the Virgin Mary, Santiago's very own Corcovado:

…or try to see the Andes from another vantage point:

No, fine, give up. It's OK. Take the cable car back down and walk back through Bellavista:

Much more entertaining than standing gazing at the muck we breathe every day in this city.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Pablo Neruda and Augusto Pinochet

It's funny. Last time I came to Chile, deposed former president Salvador Allende was exhumed the day I arrived, to see if he really had committed suicide and hadn't been the first high-profile victim of the nascent Pinochet era. This time, they exhume former poet and sometime ambassador Pablo Neruda, widely considered to have been, er, the first high-profile victim of the nascent Pinochet era, who was, apparently suffering from prostate cancer when the military junta took over the country on September 11th, 1973. Neruda's former chauffeur had always insisted his employer's state of health was better than officially considered and finally succeeded in provoking an official autopsy. This morning, the government released the verdict that the great man's cancer was far advanced and that, consequently, his death was due to natural causes. A whitewash? Who knows. It's not as if Chile is averse to mental reconstruction: I'm going to the Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago this morning, a building opened in 2010 by former (and possibly next) president Michelle Bachelet and dedicated to the Pinochet Era, 1973 - 1990, and its attendant atrocities. Should be a fun trip out.

Here's the museum:

God only knows why these collective memory buildings always have to be so ugly.

Friday, 26 April 2013

My luggage

My case did turn up, and only a day late. Seeing as I'd flown to Santiago via Madrid, the MAD code was still on the handle. As with all lost luggage, another was added and the result was quite amusing:

Even more Chilean MILF politicians.

I tell you, this country has a seemingly endless stock of talented, tasty female politicians. Not three days into my stay did we witness the Education portfolio taken over by a certain Carolina Schulz. She's not a babe in the mould of Ximena Rincon or Carolina Goic but certainly more sightly than anyone in the UK. Probably a lot better at her job than anyone who 'served' in the unlucky thirteen years of Labour government.

A Good Idea, brought to you by Santiago de Chile

Ever waited for what seemed like ages to cross the road, not knowing when the light was going to change? Well, have a look at this wonderful device in use in the centre of Santiago de Chile: a traffic light that counts down the seconds until you can cross, or have to stop. The less time you have, the faster that little man runs. I see how the pedestrians deal with the lights, too: they gradually gravitate towards the soonest change, often not breaking step as they step confidently into the road. I find the car drivers more cautious around them, too; they know the pedestrians are just going to go when they have a green light so they hang back a lot more than they did the last time I was here, in 2011.

When will we we see these great devices in Europe?

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Barajas Revisited

It’s been exactly two years since I last sat at this café table in Barajas Airport and watched the sun going down over the cranes, wastelands and office blocks that form Madrid’s skyline. The same man’s working behind the counter, the refrigerated display cabinet enjoining you to Elige tu sandwich recién hecho (Choose your freshly-made sandwich)  is still there, but the sandwiches have moved next door, making way for a selection of euro-yoghurts, overpriced health drinks and apples clothed in cellophane.  The cabinet to its left is full of beer, Scandinavian mineral water (€2.40 for a small can) and unhealthy drinks dressed up to look dynamic. Yup, you could be anywhere.

I’m here because I’m flying back to Santiago de Chile. And I can’t wait. After having to turn down their offer to come in 2012 as well as passing on another trip later this year to a colleague, this is my only chance before 2014 to have a roll in the hay with my beloved mistress – not a person, you understand – with whom I fell in love when our eyes first met in May, 2011. The only drawback to working in Santiago de Chile is that I never have any time to really discover the city. In virtually my only excursion outside the theatre I bought a couple of polo shirts, and those in pretty much the first shirtmaker I found. Socks I bought from a street vendor on the way to work. Apart from a few nocturnal trips to neighbourhood indie cinemas (all within a 200-yard radius of my flat), an afternoon at Los Dominicos Craft Market and a Sunday excursion to Pablo Neruda’s house in Isla Negra, all I saw of Santiago was the inside of my building and that of the Teatro Municipal. To be honest, I don’t know that this time is going to be much different…

On thing that is interesting, at least for me, is the fact we’ll be working with Carlos Kleiber’s alma mater. OK, no-one out there gives one, but I do. When he and his family left Germany in the 1930’s, his father set up home in Buenos Aires, where he was a favourite conductor at the Teatro Colón, but chose to send his son to the recently-founded, English-speaking The Grange School, which modelled itself on the venerable so-called ‘public’ institutions such as Eton, Harrow or Winchester. It’s still there, looking unapologetically old school tie-ish and churning out the next generation of Chile’s elite. I’ll be interested to see what its pupils are like, or at least the ones with whom we’ll be working.

It’s 9pm, now, and the Argentinians will soon be arriving, asking the man behind the counter to fill up their thermos flasks with hot water for their yerba maté. Last time I didn’t sleep a wink between Madrid and Santiago, meaning I was sleepless from Sunday morning at 8am till Tuesday morning at 6am, CET. The Iberia hostesses woke us up at the equivalent of 1am South American time in order to give us breakfast, it being, logically, 7am in Spain…and refused my request to substitute the coffee for a miniature bottle of red wine to help me find oblivion, at least in part. This time I’m armed with sleeping pills and am not afraid to use them.

This terminal develops its own energy between 6pm and the swathe of cross-Atlantic flights which leave at midnight. Many of us are in the same boat : dropped off at Barajas late-afternoon by various European short-haul operators and left to trudge up and down the imaginative, if rather soulless, open spaces of the intercontinental terminal. Some pretend to sleep, some log in to an overpriced wi-fi connection, others just stare blankly out of the window and some just sit for hours in Henry J. Bean’s Grill & Bar, a fast-food outlet by any other name, which uses, as its publicity pictures, iconic line-drawings of prosperous white adolescents in 1950’s America. In our overtly politically correct world where we must be seen to be as demonstratively inclusive, tolerant, yea ankle-grabbing as possible, it’s rather amusing to see a company say ‘This is how we see our product ! Anyone not conforming to this visual image need not tarry round our wares’. And that in an airport, possibly one of the most multicultural places on earth, if only during office hours, sort of thing.

OK, that’s enough. There’s a queue of Germans at the counter, now, so I’ll have to wait for my next miniature bottle of Rioja. I can’t entirely rely on those sleeping pills, after all…

Two days later and I'm in Santiago. My luggage, however, is still in Toulouse. I had to wait over an hour just to drop off my case and even then it seems putting it on a plane was too complicated for the workshy Frogs. It'll be here tomorrow, apparently. Or so I was told…


Saturday, 26 January 2013

Democracy. According to the people who make the rules.

I'm sure I'm far from being the only person in this situation, but I've recently had an internet forum post rejected by the site host. Ooh gah, I hear you cry; how unusual. Call out the National Guard. OK, fine, but there is this: Since then, every comment I've tried to leave, however innocuous, has just magically disappeared into the ether. I've burned my boats, it appears. At least with this particular website. Why?

I responded to an announcement that a certain conductor had been appointed to the post of Music Director of a certain swanky orchestra. I've worked with this bloke before and find him a fraud. I'm not alone, far from it. I implied in my post - not terribly discretely I must admit - that orchestra managers should maybe, just for once, look beyond the usual collection of talentless left-leggers. My submission was never posted and everything I've written since has just disappeared into thin air, despite my having a solid history of contributing to the site. I wrote to the site host personally, asking for his view on this; we'll see if I get a reply.

I appreciate that the host doesn't want any lawsuits provoked by his readership, but why flush everything else I contribute down the loo? Democracy and free speech are all very well as long as you don't say anything stronger than Macdonalds' mustard, it seems i.e. that you effectively say nothing at all. Keep your trap shut and you will have a sparkling future. We know all this, but it's dreadful all the same. As Churchill said: Democracy is all very well as long as you don't give it to the people. Well there you go, Winnny; your wish has come true, not that that's any surprise to anyone still alive in 2013.