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.

Friday, April 11, 2014



 In my half a century of musical life, I have really not been very eclectic. I became a ‘singing’ man in my teens, and my career has been entirely spent around vocal music of all kinds.  Singing it and then (and now) writing about it.

But it’s never too late.

Four years ago, I came to Berlin and I met Paul Hankinson, pianist and mega-musician. I hauled him off to the opera and musicals, and in return he led me, like Dante, into the world of instrumental music and concerts. I didn’t know quite nothing (brother John used to play fiddle and chamber music and I was a fair pianist) but to all intents and purposes I was a novice. And a novice with opinions. Often uninformed … I like this composer, don’t like that one. Poppycock.

Well, the experiment has been a rousing success. We have attended some splendid concerts (some with just a leetle vocal music) in the past couple of seasons, but last night was an acid test. A whole evening – yes, a whole evening -- of a string quartet. For the first time ever. Mozart, Bartok, Schumann. Will I get bored in the tenth movement? Start coughing in the quiet bits?

This tale has no suspense. I had what can only be described as ‘a beautiful evening’ at the Kammermusik Salon of the Philharmonie, a delightful intimate space, in the hands of the Quatuor Ébène. These four young Frenchmen are already celebrated in their field – so I was shocked to find the room not full – but they give the most wonderfully un-starry performance. Warm personalities, no posing … I felt that if I were a zillionaire they could come and play in my living room. They led me in confidentially to this unfamiliar music, and then gave me a treat …

The Mozart was a joy. The team played so tenderly. The instruments were so warm. Never showy-loud or strident. So much wonderful, gentle playing. The second movement was glorious, perhaps my favourite section of the whole evening.

I got a shock when the Bartok started. Ouch! The dramatic, super-vigorous opening movement left me rather stranded and lost. It was so different to what I’d just heard. But I picked up my breath in the second part, and the third movement simply blew me away. A rather camp pizzicato portion led to a finale which rather returned to the style of the opening and left me thinking, ‘this piece needs more than one hearing’.

And then came the Schumann. Well, all I can say is my mind didn’t wander for an instant throughout the whole lovely piece. And it gave me my nirvana of the night in its third movement when the viola sang forth with ... well, Paul says it went A.. B.. C A... G G .. or did he say A B C A G F# E E D# ..

And then it was over. Well, not quite. The boys gave, as an encore, a sweet arrangement of the old Johnny Mathis ‘Misty’ (which by the way, fellers, has nothing to do with Broadway) to send us all – even the man who kept yelling ‘bravi’ punctiliously in my ear – all away in the relaxed and enjoyful mood in which they’d kept us all night.

So, now I know. Chamber music and string quartets don’t have to be four-square, super-classical, mechanical, dull …  it’s all in the way you play it. I’ll go back to this friendly, warm, tender group any day. I’m a convert.

Lead me to the next one!