One night in Salzburg there was a little train that took us aboard and climbed up the hill, all the way to the top. Strong fortress walls welcomed us (or perhaps rather said “keep out, strangers to the city!”). There was a simple Austrian dinner in a simple wooden restaurant with a view. There was a waitress who was happy it was her last shift as she confused the orders and languages needed (her job cannot be easy on her mind).
And there was a magnificent wooden state hall, simple but tastefully decorated (and probably awfully cold in the winter!). With views over the city. And finally, there were violins and a cello; Strauss and Mozart.
As the joyful music drifted out from the open window over the city below, just like it has done for centuries, I thought of the castle lords’ best rewards: after months of chilly days and nights with no heating, after years of worry about defences and politics and threats for the safety of one’s head, disregarding the lice and cockroaches; a couple of soft, warm summer nights with good food and music must be very soothing for the soul.(Salzburg, Austria; July 2019)
Today I learned that Mozart’s father was a tour manager for his two young child prodigies Wolfgang Amadeus and Nannerl. No school, no normal life, and years of touring around playing concerts in European courts. Wolfgang Amadeus was five years old when they started. I mentioned this to a friend who immediately retorted, “just like Michael Jackson’s father managing the Jackson Five.” Indeed, Mozart’s family was a Jackson Five of the 18th century. Perhaps father Leopold was a parent prodigy, too? How else do you have unwavering faith in your four-year-old to even think of teaching him minuets, and the basics of composing sheet music. Surely there must be potential in any child who is able to scrabble a composition down in scrawny hand with ink blobs galore at the age of five, when most children still learn how to write single letters. And surely there were hundreds of hours spent at the piano and with ink quill in hand, as even child prodigies need practice.
But what did little Wolfgang think of kids his own age who, growing up in a household with certain means, surely had time to play? What was it like to tour European courts and have to become popular with kids of royalty and servants, over and over again? How long and strange would little Wolfgang’s Facebook friends list have been, had he had one? The Cook’s son from a summer castle in Tuscany; the youngest prince of France, with lots of likes from his jealous friends who didn’t get to do a concert tour of three years before the age of ten.
(Salzburg, Austria; July 2019)
I have a bucket list that contains 101 goals in 1001 days. A so-called Day Zero Project. While chasing items on this list I have dipped myself into various experiences. Seeing Verdi’s opera Aida live has been one of the most elusive ones; surprisingly, as it is a classic. But suddenly there were a few performances at the English National Opera in London.
I convinced a colleague to come along. He took me up on the challenge and flew over to London carrying a tuxedo, which he duly put on for the occasion. After Aida and her misfortunate lover Radamés had been buried alive in a tomb forever, I reminded him that this was probably the most tragic opera every written, and that he should not make up his mind unless he saw another opera where people did not take quite as long a while to die as these two.
It turns out that the translation of this production was quite different: the famous line uttered by Aida’s lover upon his discover of her (“in this tomb!”) was missing. And instead of dying a slow long death in the tomb, Aida and her Radamés are apparently seeing the light, “a new day”.
Such an admirable attitude. The glass is half full even when one is buried alive forever in an Egyptian burial tomb. Quite the benchmark.
(ENO, London, United Kingdom; November 2017)
O lux beatissima,
Reple cordis intima
Sine tuo numine
Nihil est in homnie,
Nihil est innoxium.
Nothing is more stately than a choral piece in Latin, sung by candlelight. And Lux Aeterna is all about light. The words themselves mean eternal light. Perhaps in a bout of late-night inspiration, composer Morten Lauridsen searched through sacred Christian texts to find those infused with light, and piled them all after each other to a lovely, nearly half-hour choral piece.
Perhaps for some it is a reminder of a chance for salvation. Perhaps for others it is a reminder of undying, unconditional love. For me it is perhaps the most beautiful blend of words and music ever created. Which ever the reason for each one of us, the church was full tonight.
(Helsinki, Finland; November 2017)
The Book of Mormon made me laugh so I shed tears. Yes, it is insulting, intelligent, and vulgar. My colleague in London told me she saw it when it was new, and one-quarter of the audience walked out during intermission and never returned to their seats. But what most people miss (perhaps?) is the sweetness in the second half: how people try so very much their best to live in a harsh world seemingly filled with limitations. The deep lessons in the ending: how another’s culture is always understood through the filter our own culture, programmed in our minds when we grew up. How, in the end, the characters on stage were all trying their very best to help each other live as good lives as possible, all in their own ways.
It seems that most viewers remember the phrase “hasa diga eebowai”. “F*ck you God”. This is also the reason many people leave the musical in the middle of the show. But what many do not seem to remember is that it was used as an expression of survival and strength in a world where individuals are targeted with numerous inexplicable sufferings: AIDS, poverty, natural disaster. “If you don’t like what we say, try living here a couple days. Watch all your friends and family die; hasa diga eebowai!”.
There is strength in words. And sometimes those words are terrible. Because the world is sometimes terrible.
(London, United Kingdom; September 2017)
After 10 years, it was still there. In the vaults of an old building at Placa Reial. Of course it was, since it’s been there since the 60s. Still as fresh and interesting – and a little freshened up as well.
But this time there was not only baile (dancing) but also cante flamenco, singing. And oh, what singing! It was grief, longing, and despair vocalized. Intense pain and saudade shoved through a microphone into the speakers and making the air in the club vibrate and my hair stand on end.
Before we left, the crying turned into an impromptu party: the stage was invaded by a bunch of visitors, kicking off their shoes and joining the show in jeans with bare feet. It turns out one does not need the step-shoes or the frills-dress to put on the airs of flamenco passion.
(Barcelona, Spain; March 2017)
Who cares that Vienna was twice sieged by the Ottoman Turks, had its shares of plagues and epidemics, and was taken by Napoleon twice. What is remembered of Vienna today is the art, the Habsburg dynasty, the horses, the cakes, the waltzes; and the good, slightly decadent, living. And of course the music: Haydn, Schubert, Strauss, Mozart, and the rest.
Unfortunately, businessy people know how well tourists remember. And so we toured a quite stripped-down apartment of Schubert, where the receptionist spoke little English and knew little of the person whose life was on display. And at night we went to the most beautiful, little, fresco-decorated music chamber, where the Mozart played was barely tolerable. I guess we have now been there, done that, and gotten the T-shirt.
But a little mystery was discovered: why did Schubert write his sheet music notes on the higher end of the staff as mirror image to what is published? If you look at the “upside down” notes they face left, not right. Was he left-handed or just lazy?(Vienna, Austria; February 2017)
“Occupation is essential. And now with some pleasure I find that it’s seven; and I must cook dinner. Haddock and sausage meat. I think it is true that one gains a certain hold on sausage and haddock by writing them down”
(Virginia Woolf’s last diary entry before her suicide)
Somewhere between poetry and insanity tonight. Alice Coote sang Virginia Woolf’s diary entries, and letters from 19th century patients locked up at a mental illness asylum. “Strange Productions” was the aptly named title of the insanely poetic letters, commissioned by Wigmore Hall from Nico Muhly.
Wigmore Hall is a constant favorite. Not because of the (also insanely) beautiful venue, but because of the director and his creative team who commission modern classical pieces with a flair. Never bored here, although sometimes mindlessly enthralled.
(London, United Kingdom; January 2017)
Lovely ones, please rewind to mid-August with me. We are about 11 kilometers up in the air, flying over Nizhny Novgorod, skirting past thunder clouds scattered on both sides. Thunderbolts light up the dark above Russia. The time is 1.30 am. I am sipping a glass of ice wine and thinking about my flight out to Bali one year ago. I was in a low mood, pondering about pain and loss and the hardships of staying alive.
This year I indulged by upgrading to business class and stepping out in Singapore for a night. I am probably not going to need to mix melatonin with a martini like I did last year. And at least today I will not write about pain and losses and the hardships of living. Because life is so hard, I have become selfish. Because we all must put our own health and wellbeing first, we must also consider our own happiness first. There are few people in this world who put our own happiness first, so better not take the chance they are going to do it forever. So I do as I choose. I do as I please. I have been forced to trade off a huge chunk of my life, which definitely justifies some indulgence. And so I allow myself, without shame, to fly business to Bali to practise yoga, eat delicious raw food, spend time with myself and friends, and to be pampered by a luxurious spa in the jungle. And I will begin with having a Singapore Sling in the Raffles Long Bar with a couple of long-lost friends.
You should try it some time, too.
(Above Russia and in Singapore; August 2016)
Lazy Sunday afternoon sunlight drizzled through a window and hit gold: her golden hair, golden violin strings, and golden decorations on the grand piano. There was lovely music in the air, and fluttering sleeves and rustling taffeta skirts. Lady Georgiana Cavendish was alive again just for this day – and she had brought her talented friends. And meringues. And tea cakes. And much humor.
Slowly sipping a fresh cup of darjeeling we enjoyed this parenthesis of a Sunday, an afternoon when time stood still. Where music and meringue towers were most important to all those present.(Helsinki, Finland; October 2015)