Thursday, April 24, 2014

Liberace on the Blue Danube

I don’t think I have been to a solo piano concert since I was at school. Julius Katchen. Lili Kraus. But, since I seem to be doing all sorts of things this season that I haven’t done for a long time: why not! Johannes and Luisa were going, Paulie said the pianist was grand, the programme was deliciously NOT Bach, Beethoven and Buononcini … and the concert was at the Piano Salon Christophoroi, where I had such a grand time last year. Go for it!

It was perhaps not the ideal evening to choose: straight after my introduction to Lily and her knuckles (see previous article) … but after a spinach and chickpeas supper, and a walk (another one) to the Pankufer … I was ready.

The first act was made up of pieces by Rameau, Bizet, Granados and Schultz-Evler, two composers whom I know only from their operas and Schultz-WHO? Arabesques on Strauss’s ‘Blue Danube’? Are they serious?

Well, serious was the last thing this selection was. Mr Kotaro Fukuma had chosen the perfect programme for me. The Rameau was an utter surprise. Nothing like his gloomy monumental operas. Crisp and tinkly, quite lovely. Then Bizet. Well, I’m no German linguist, but these six pieces were born as ‘Chants du Rhin’ which I don’t think is the same as ‘Bilder von Rhein’, and songs – without words – were exactly what they were, with their solo voice careering along above the twiddles. I have to admit that I was irresistibly reminded of ‘The Dream of Olwen’ and ‘The Glass Mountain’ of my childhood piano days! And jolly good fun too.
A little bit of Goyescas was predictably enjoyable, and then came Herr Schultz-Evler. Well! I don’t think I’ve had such pianistic fun in years! It was pure Thalberg: little bits of the stated theme drowned in gallons of trills, twiddles, arpeggios, scales, flourishes, the more extravagant the better, all concocted simply to show off the pianist’s technique.  And Mr Fukuma kept a straight face throughout. The audience loved it and so did I. I laughed right out loud.

At the interval, things changed. First, the star came back with a change of costume. Secondly, the funnies were gone and we were into the more serious stuff. Ravel, Debussy and Liszt. The trouble was … well, the costume replaced the modest black, with .. with .. well, the most Liberace outfit you can imagine. White scarf and shawl attached at the elbows … it looked totally impracticable and unsuitable for playing anything but Schultz-Evler. But play he did. The lovely sounds of Ravel and Debussy swept indiscriminately around the room (well, they can sound rather similar), and we finished on two Liszt ‘legends’.
I suppose Liszt worked on the same principle as Thalberg and co. Terribly technical stuff to show of the composer’s ability for getting as many notes into a second as possible. But where the ‘Blue Danube’ drew great fun from the idea, Liszt … well, I don’t think I care deeply for his music.

I know Mr Fukuma is a widely-known and successful artist, and I guess it would be a bit lese-majestical to expect him to play music like that of part one to the exclusion of more substantial pieces, but … I did so enjoy the first half … I was a little sorry when it turned into Liszt.

But all in all, another first-class night out at the Piano Salon. I must get there again before they close their season ..

PS I find that Mr S-E’s ‘Blue Danube’ piece has remained popular with pianists for more than a century. Well, it was new to all of us …!

A Guinea Kiwi in Potsdamer Platz

It’s three years now since my fall from health. My friend Judy had a stroke at about the same time, and she’s worked like mad to get her mobility back. Quite successfully. I’ve done nothing, except take regular acupuncture and massage. I, who used to be ‘Mr Walky-Walky’ in the Pacific Islands – 20 or 30km at a time – now go along, when on unfamiliar ground – with a stick.

I look fair enough for 68. But my right arm and hand are pretty useless (and covered in blood scars), and my right leg is not to be trusted. My speech sometimes slurs too. So for three years I’ve largely sat inside, writing my magnum opus, and going physically to pot.

All this to say, I’ve finally and tentatively done something about it. Paulie says it was my idea, insidiously planted by him. So. Yesterday I went to a ‘Wellness’ institution: the local branch of the Holmes Place Health Club and Spa near Potsdamer Platz. On Paulie’s arm, and with my stick! I don’t think ‘Wellness’ places do damaged folk (except for sports injuries) and elderly folk: the clientele seemed to be mostly strappingly fit young blokes, and I got one or two sideways glances. But they are going to give me a go. A sort of guinea pig. Or guinea Kiwi.

I had a chat with Nik, the personal trainer, and explained what I’d been, what I’d lost … and what I’d like to try to regain. Specifically, the ability to handwrite, strength in right arm and leg, balance … it’s a rehab job. So we’ve got a date for next Wednesday, when I ‘audition’ for him, and then (presuming I’m not irreparable) start the course.

While Paulie had his session – chucking 12 kilo weights around – I went downstairs and met Lily Shi. Lily is one of those slight young ladies who can pack a real punch: she gave me 45 minutes of super-strong massage, and found sore bits I didn’t even know I had! No wonder they call her the ‘treasure hunter’. We didn’t get through all my twisted bits, so I’m back … on Monday. I’m glad I got a season S-Bahn ticket!

On from the massage to be initiated into the mysteries of the sauna. Phew. I must have sweated out a gallon of red wine in five minutes! Shower down in a cubicle which sings bird-songs to you while it rains. More sauna. More bird song. Then relax in a comfy chair with delicious fennel tea. Why didn’t I find this sort of thing years ago?  Work? You mean I’ve got to WORK next time I come?

Can’t wait. Watch this space! And keep your fingers crossed …

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Easter: and my very first visit to Mr Vega

Easter Saturday. And the sky looks promising. I’d thought I might linger under the duvet, after a very jolly night out with the irrepressible Paul GB and the lovely Birgit Simmler, sipping cocktails and devouring delicious vension at … where else? … my favourite  Katz Orange in the Bergstrasse, but …

Tinkle. Come on, get up, it’s a lovely day for a walk and you need some shopping, and we’ve got to arrange our train tickets to Magdeburg, and I’ve got the concert listings if you want to go to something tomorrow…

An hour later, Paulie (as opposed to Paul) turned up, and we started on the list. Train booked, concert listings scanned in vain, sun now shining gently and welcomingly. Time for the walk. At 12.30? Well, logical then that the walk should lead us to LUNCH.

Well, it just so happened that, on our way back from the movie and meal in the Hackeschermarkt the other day, we had passed an attractive looking restaurant. Kopps. It’s what? Vegan? What’s that? Omigod, it’s not what Keith Michell went, and ended up looking like a ghost?

I was assured that Vegan would be to my tastes (Paulie knows about these things), so what better for a sunny Saturday than to give it a go. Off we set: a nice 15-20 minute stroll through Mitte and there we were. Lots of lovely little tables outside, but a wee breeze and oh no! steps up to the interior and the food! I don’t do steps with a plate of goodies in my hand, so indoors it had to be.

A nice table in the window and the filtered sun, looking out on a pretty park, horse-drawn buggies, expensive, parked motor bikes, and the occasional pedalling-person … mmmm ..

Then: lunch. Kopps charges a mere 12.50 for what they call brunch. It’s a buffet full of delicious looking bits and pieces, hot and cold, and, if you didn’t know, you wouldn’t even think of it being no-animal, no-dairy …

We hogged in. Iced tea with orange and cranberry juice, instead of my usual cocktail. Delicious. Soup. OK, this soup was a triumph. Carrot and ginger. And I don’t know what else. Coconut milk, I suppose. Anyway it was a triumph. If they sell it by the litre I will bring some home. Then all the little veggie-salady things. Yes I went ‘cold’ rather than ‘hot’. All delicious: beans, lentils, mushrooms, celery (what! no chick peas?), something tasty approximating cheese, something not-so-tasty made to look like sausage ... and, of course, it’s Spargel-saison, so lovely lush, soft white asparagus, perfectly cooked. Then, for heaven’s sake: pudding! I had the pureed apple (OK, baby food, but yummy) and – how did they make it within the rules – chocolate mousse, which is way outside my repertoire in the ‘real’ world …

We both enjoyed our lunch enormously, and I am now largely convinced about ‘Vegan’. In spite of Keith Michell. So were the nicely plumpish, healthy girls next us, who got a thorough 12.50s worth by going back to the buffet five times …  We shall go back soon. Nice one, Kopps!

Kopps is situated on the korner of Linienstrasse and Ackerstrasse. My Rewe supermarket is on Ackerstrasse! So, we even shopped for my frig on the way home. Lots of chickpeas, cucumber, avocado .. and I’m sorry Mr Vega, I can’t do with out my chicken-liver pâté … and my smoked salmon .. there are limits, you know!

The energetic Paulie got my groceries home, then zoomed off to the gym, while I sit here listening to my new CD of the Quatuor Ebene, sipping a wee whisky and thinking of that carrot soup. I can’t cook, but I wonder if I could try to make that…..

PS I think Keith was macro-biotic, so I'll probably be OK

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

An Evening at the Grand Budapest Hotel

In my first fortnight in Berlin, I’ve been to an oratorio, a chamber music concert, a musical … tomorrow its an opera … and today it was, wait for it a movie!  Yes, my fourth movie this decade. And how was it, Kurt? Yeah, it was fine. Rather imperfect, but fine. And frustrating, because it could have been so much better.

Paul (who knows about movies) has sussed my taste now. Funny is good. Clever and witty funny is better. So we strolled down to the Hackeschermarkt, and up endless stairs, to a nice little cinema playing Grand Budapest Hotel. Sounded like fun, looked gorgeous, started well. The superb Tilda Swinton as a fated German zillionairess makes you unsure whether to laugh or cry. But that was a little the film’s problem: it seemed not to be able to make up its mind whether to be slapstick-burlesque, real comedy, or sometimes a little serious. The best humorous set-pieces were really good (the gondola to the monastery, the mafia of concierges), even the slapstick ski-chase and the burlesque gun battle on the hotel top floor were fair enough fun, if hardly original … but the flavour kept changing – chocolate, vanilla, lime – and when the few characters who weren’t two dimensional parodies got real … well, you waited for the punch line, which didn’t come. No joey-joey.
I think – no I’m sure – that another problem was the casting. Monsieur Georges, the irresistible concierge of the hotel – a Cowardesque Sebastian from Nude with Violin – should dominate the film. He gets plenty of chances. Ralph Fiennes was very competent in the part, very enjoyable: but he didn’t shine forth as magnetically as I wanted and needed him to.
The other ‘real’ characters really rather outshone him: the wonderful Tony Revolori as Georges’s protégé Zero was for me the star of the show, with his understated comedy and real warmth, aided by the charming Saoirse Ronan as his Agatha. Their escape scene with the all-important picture and will was a really delightful section of the film.
And a word here for Giselda Volodi who was terrifyingly touching as ‘Serge’s sister’, until she lost her head in what seemed to me like a parody of Tarantino.

I love burlesque. Love it. So why did I like the comedy scenes best. Why did I find the portrayal of the matricide Dimitri so terribly coarse-acting. I suppose 'faggot' and 'candy-ass' didn't help. Nor a vile accent. I’m told the actor has won an Oscar. Not for comedy, surely. (And by the way, he just vanishes from the story, what happened to him?). Why did I find his hit-man such a boring James-Bond-pilfered piece of non-acting? I was so glad when he went over the cliff. I’d have much rather kept the murdered Jewish lawyer (Jeff Goldblum), and I hoped like hell they were Jopling’s fingers that got severed in the door and another Tarantino burlesque. Alas, for me… bye, bye, Goldblum!

Was it the writing, was it the ‘obvious’ casting of the minor characters (THREE casting directors for heaven’s sake) … the whole thing didn’t, for me, quite fit together comfortably. But, like the curate’s egg, the best bits were really good: I only feel that with the material and money that were involved, the film could have been a classic.
As it was, it was a jolly afternoon in the cinema (with popcorn and red wine) which just left me feeling a wee bit frustrated at what could have been.
But that’s my fault. Once a critic and a caster … you analyse everything, watch the acting happen, instead of just sitting back and enjoying. Well, here’s the nitty gritty. After Inglorious Whatsits I promised myself I’d spare myself the cinema for the remainder of my years. After Grand Budapest Hotel … yes, I’ll go to a film again. If Paul chooses carefully!

But … curtain down and I had a real treat in store. A few doors down from the Kino, nestled in a back courtyard, at 38 Rosenthaler Strasse,  is the restaurant Panasia. A bite to eat before the stroll home?  What we had is worthy of a much greater name than ‘a bite to eat’ … it was marvellous food, and this time I can find nothing to criticise.
I’m not knowledgeable about the ins and outs of Japanese/Thai cuisine (though I know I don’t like sushi), but this was delightful!  We started with Thai margaritas. Only complaint: too small, but they lasted the meal so …  then little crackers with beetroot and trimmings (yum!), steaming won-tons with super-tasty herby sauces, crisp asparagus, spicy chicken boulets, a mint and herb salad … all accompanied by a powerful ginger tea … a real festival of flavours …
Next time I shall go to Hackeschermarkt for the food, and the film will be an incidental!

Home through the puddles and the pretty streets of Berlin, happy people eating, drinking, laughing – a short stop at dear old Bötzow-Privat for a nightcap … and I, who am usually in bed at nine, ended up sitting up, brain and taste-buds ablaze till 1am … oh Lord, and it’s the opera today!

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Bronte Babes in Berlin

Tonight I went to see a student musical. What’s so extraordinary about that? I’ve been attending student shows – good, bad and excruciating - for half a century. But never before one like this.

The school is the well-known UDK (Universität der Künste) of Berlin. The venue was the splendid larger salle at the Neuköllner Oper, and the musical was Schwestern im Geiste (‘Sisters in Spirit’). Never heard of it, have you?

No one has, for this is a brand new musical, written by the very well-known team of Peter Lund and Thomas Zaufke, writer and composer of a string of successful shows, together and separately (Babytalk etc etc), especially for this group of students, and expressly tailored to their considerable talents. And numbers: 7f 2m.

The subject? It’s about the Bronte sisters. Whaaat? Not a lot of action there. As it was described to me when I put up the big query, ‘well, in act one they write books, and in act two they die’. Not promising. But, of course, it’s not only about that. As I was to find out.

The title says it all. It parallels the restricted lives of the Bronte girls with those of three women of today, in a most effective fashion. I, of course, missed the fine points of Lund’s German dialogue, but the story and the characters came across clearly, as, of course, did the lushly ensemble-filled (hurrah!) and melodious score.

It is an ideal student or ensemble show: every character is interestingly individual, every player has plenty of opportunity to show her or his talents in rangey solo song and in speech. And how great for these young people to have the opportunity to create a role, work it out for themselves, instead of just giving an impersonation of some known performer in some known part. UDK, the Neuköllner, Lund and Zaufke have earned the thanks of a series of years-worth of students (for this is the latest piece of several on which they have all combined over the years) for a truly artistic and praiseworthy venture.

And the show? The performers? As I sit here, there are two stage pictures fighting for the front of my brain: Branwell Bronte (Andres Esteban) hurling himself in frustration against the scenery, representative of his sisters’ writings, on his way to his sodden death; and the beautiful moment when Ann (Katharina Abt), high up on top of that same excellent scenery, sang so softly and sweetly a darling song ("Erzähl von dir selbst") which would be her farewell to life.

The ancient and the modern Charlotte (Keren Trüger, Teresa Scherhag) were very finely acting and singing ‘rocks’ around which the action swirled, Dalma Viczina was a remarkably striking Emily, Jaqueline Reinhold showed up with the strongest voice as the Turkish girl, Aydin, and Sabrina Reischel-Tabby as a splendid soubrette maid (Petra from A Little Night Music ?) took on the whole responsibility of throwing some uncomplicated merriment (and a Marika Oszwald cartwheel) into the basically rather serious stories.

I hope every casting director and agent in town has been to see this show. Not for the sake of Messrs Lund and Zaufke who have had nothing left to prove for many years, but for the young people to whom they gifted this glorious opportunity to show off their talents. Chuckle: if I were still an agent and a caster I’d be chasing Miss Abt, to start with …..

So thanks everyone—and that includes the designers, band, dance designer et al – for a really interesting and enjoyable night. And the best student performance I have ever seen.