I Love Vienna

Wien Staatsoper

On the way back to the States from Ukraine, I had a 48 hour layover in Vienna.  Now, layovers are always gross, but 48 hours in a city where Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Mahler & Strauss all lived and worked?  How can I pass that up?

I got a hotel near the airport and took the train into town.  First off, if you ever go to Vienna stay close to a railway station if you’re outside of town.  It’s not like the underground in London, I walked (through a refinery) for quite some time before I reached one.  It’s also very confusing for someone who doesn’t speak English.  It’s probably the same in London for those who don’t speak English.

Vienna is quite the city.  I’m not sure if this is the right way to say this, but for a European town, Vienna seems remarkably intact.  You can always tell how extensive a town was damaged during the war by how many modern buildings there are.  There are a lot in London and Frankfurt.  Vienna however, is quite old still.  There are modern buildings, but they are the minority.  The result provides an atmosphere of glory still present.  The old is still with us.

I walked down to the opera house (somehow) put on by the Staatsoper and caught Tannhäuser by Wagner.  Now, I’m not much a fan of Wagner, but I enjoyed The Flying Dutchman and the music for Tristan und Isolde and Die Walküre.  I decided to give it a try.  Why not?  Big mistake.  Standing room + Wagner = Misery.  A long time standing while listening to Wagner’s excruciatingly slow drama to develop (or not) is way harder than I thought.  The acting was extremely wooden and contrived as well, but I guess that’s typical of all opera.  I also found the staging to be strange and the blocking very dull.  The staging might have worked if you knew the opera already, but it wasn’t easy to follow for a first timer.  The blocking however is unforgivable.  When you have people standing around not doing any sort of action for long periods of time it becomes a staged oratorio, not an opera.  The singing wasn’t good enough to make up for all the letdowns.  I must confess, I did the unthinkable: I left after the 2nd act.

I spent the rest of the evening walking around Vienna and admiring all it had to offer before catching a train back to my hotel.  Despite the really poor experience at the opera, I highly recommend Vienna.  The people are hospitable and generous.  The architecture is amazing.  I definitely want to come back here.

In honor of a great town, here’s some great music: “I Love Vienna,” by Dave Brubeck.

“Dnepr” for short

Yesturday, I arrived with my parents in Dnepropetrovsk (Днепропетровск), or “Dnepr” for short, after a long drive from Crimea.  This is where my parents actually live.  It’s great because it actually feels like a home rather than bouncing from hotel rooms.

Crimea is a beautiful part of Ukraine with mountains, forests and coastlines, whereas the rest of the country feels like a farm (very much like their flag).  Dnepr happens to sit right on the river Dniepr (it’s name sake) which is HUGE.  It’s pretty much the Mississippi of Ukraine.  I like the city so far.  We live in the left of the two towers pictured above with a killer view of the river.

I must say, I still feel quite culture shocked, especially when we encounter soviet monuments or architecture.  It seems to me to be designs that have a feeling of exposure, insignificance, and vulnerability.  It’s not built for the human scale at all, it’s meant to be big and grand.  To me, it feels unwelcoming and uncomfortable.  The rest of the city is fine, especially the religious architecture.

We took a walk through Shevchenko Park on the way to Monastery Island.  It’s a little string of land just off the south bank of the river with a monastery, among other things.  Really gorgeous place.  On the way across the bridge we found a lot of locks on the bridge railing.  It’s a tradition that when a couple get married that put a lock on the bridge to represent their marriage.

Well, I’ll be back in America this Monday after a 48 hour layover in Vienna.  I’ll be doing a lot of composing once I get back.  I’m about ready to explode with music.

Meanwhile, in Ukraine . . .

Stop

After a week in Germany, I’m now in Ukraine to see my parents.  It’s been a wild ride here.  I was warned that it was nothing like Western Europe.  I believed them, but didn’t quite know to what extent they meant.  It really is NOTHING like Western Europe.  If I could make any comparison, it’s actually a lot like Mexico, but with a lot more trees.

We had a grand ol’ time in Simferopol, where I got to sing a wee bit, then today we drove down to Sevastopol.  We had a great time spending our summer solstice in THE vacation destination of Russia.  It’s a really lovely place.  We found some gardens and even some ancient Greek ruins.  It’s called the old city of Sevastopol, or Khersones.  It’s pretty amazing.

I do have to say, I am rather culture shocked.  I never expected to find myself in a former Soviet republic with a language I have absolutely no relation to.  In a way, I feel rather exposed and insignificant.  Must be the Soviet architecture.  After all, there are statues of Lenin and other Russian heroes all over the place.

Having said that, the Ukrainians are lovely people and a lot of heart.  I’m excited to get to know more of them.

By the way, I’m loving the World Cup.  I love Football (Soccer) and get so excited every time the cup is around.  I’m cheering on the United States (of course), Brazil, Spain, and Denmark.  Teams that I’m cheering against are Italy (bunch of actors), France (messy and arrogant) and North Korea (human rights and all that), no offense.  I would be cheering on England in any other circumstance, but they’re in the same group as the United States and, well . . . when push comes to shove . . .

I’ve Left London Town

It’s been a while since I checked in, but here I am.  I finished my study abroad in London and had a great time.  I highly recommend visiting London to anyone and everyone.  It’s quite the city.  A couple of things I did before leaving:

– Watched Macbeth at the Globe.  Super intense and well done; I was a groundling on the floor and right up in the action.  A word of warning if you plan on seeing it: there’s lots of blood and gore.

– Saw The Swan Lake performed by the English National Ballet in Royal Albert Hall.

– Watched Tenebrae (famous for performing exclusively by candle light) rehearse Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil (Vespers).  Quite a rush.

– Saw Esa-Pekka Salonen conduct the London Philharmonia performing Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique.  Brilliant conductor!  Why did he ever leave the LA Phil?

– Went to Cambridge to meet John Rutter (hilarious!) and caught Evensong with Kings College and St. John College choir.

Now I’m in Germany visiting my sister, her husband, and their two sons.  We went to Munich to visit one of my sister’s friends and spent the day downtown exploring and sight-seeing.  Most of our sight-seeing though was of really expensive cars.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a high concentration of Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Porsches, Bentleys, and Aston Martins.  I mean, London had a lot of great cars, but not with such a high concentration as this.  In fact, instead of playing “Slug-Bug,” we started playing “Slug-Porsche,” and quickly got bruises on our shoulders and arms.

I haven’t had a lot of time to compose much of anything, but I have done a bit.  I’ve been working on a few pieces here and there, namely “Gloria,” “Prelude in 5ths,” and “Water Lilies.” Now I’m also working on a new setting of “In Paradisum.”  I found just the plainchant a while a go (and serendipitously found out that it’s the same chant that Duruflé used in his Requiem), and was struck again by how much I love this text:

Munich (München)

In paradisum deducant te angeli,
in tuo adventu
suscipiant te martyres,
et perducant te
in civitatem sanctam Jerusalem.
Chorus angelorum te suscipiat,
et cum Lazaro quondam paupere
aeternam habeas requiem.

May the angels lead you into paradise,
may the martyrs receive you
in your coming,
and may they guide you
into the holy city, Jerusalem.
May the chorus of angels receive you
and with Lazarus once poor
may you have eternal rest.

When we met with John Rutter I had the opportunity to ask him a question: “When you don’t have the pressure of a commission and you have the freedom to write for yourself, what inspires you to write?”  His answer was quite enlightening:  He said that he couldn’t compose “in a vacuum,” or writing a piece for the sake of writing it, but that he had to have some sort of purpose or direction.  He usually writes a piece for a friend or loved one, or an ensemble that has some sort of hole in their programming.  He might have a friend call and say, “we have a ten minute gap in this album and we’d like you to fill it.  Our resources are these…”  That’s how many of his pieces are written.

I’ve thought about this a good deal, because even though I agree with Mr. Rutter for the most part, this is how the majority of my pieces are written.  I write for the sake of writing quite a lot.  I have no idea if I’ll hear the pieces I write, let alone when.  When I wrote “Midnight Clear,” I had no idea at that time that Dr. Staheli would like it enough to put it on his Christmas program.  I got lucky there I guess, and yet, I feel that having a direction would aid me quite a bit in getting things done.

I know I’m working on a bunch of projects right now that I should really focus on finishing first, but when I find a great text, sometimes I just can’t help myself.  I’ve got some good ideas and the whole piece mapped out in my mind pretty well, it’s just a matter of scrounging up some piano time wherever I can.  I’d like to write without piano, but for some of this music, it’s just too much for my poor-atrophying-vacation-focused-mind.  Maybe when I’m older.

St. Paul's Cathedral after the London blitz

Tosca + Warhorse

I recently saw two stage productions here in London.  The first being Tosca from the English National Opera and the second being War Horse by the National Theatre.  Both were brilliant experiences, and worth a visit.

The ENO’s production of Tosca was top notch.  Singers, sets, costumes, lighting and the orchestra were all brilliant.  The staging of everything made sense and it moved along quite well.  What bugged me the most was how it was in English.  I know that’s what the ENO is all about, but it feels like a bad idea in every way to me.  There were some moments that were ruined because of the English translation.  What kills me is that they were singing in English with English supertitles.  If the whole idea of singing in English is for the audience’s understanding, pray tell, why are there supertitles?  It’s either redundant or a necessity.  Let’s just keep the supertitles and do the opera in the language it was written for.

In my group I was pretty much the only person who had seen this opera before or even had an idea of what it was about.  To everyone it was a completely new experience.  I got a lot of requests from people to tell them what the opera was about.  In any other case I usually wax poetic about the whole deal, but in this case I decided against it.  When I first saw Tosca I knew everything and the whole time I kept thinking “I wish I was experiencing this for the first time.”  This opera is based off an Italian melodrama and itself is the epitome of “Verismo” opera.  It’s all about surprise and unexpected twists.  I think that’s one of the reasons why it was so successful at its premiere.  The first audience was just blown out of the water by the drama of it all.  Since I couldn’t have that experience anymore, I wanted to let everyone around me have it instead.  A lot of people expressed gratitude as it helped them enjoy it even more.

Last night I saw War Horse with a few friends.  Now it was my turn.  Unlike Tosca, I had no idea what this play was about.  I had heard great things about it from people I trust so I figured it couldn’t be all that bad.  I was not let down.  It’s incredible.  What a powerfully moving work.  Everything in the production was brilliantly executed.  One of the most incredible parts about the production was the puppetry.  It requires the use of several onstage horses, but of course getting horses to act is virtually impossible.  Instead, the horses were all life size puppets.  Each horse took three puppeteers.  While obviously puppets, there were some moments when I honestly forgot that.

At the end, I got teary-eyed.  I don’t remember the last time a stage production moved me that much.  At the end of Tosca, I was breathless, but not moved like this.  It was quite the experience.  Walking back to the tube stop though, I started to wonder about what I was supposed to learn from this story.  It was a poignant and touching story, very well told, which is enough for me, but I kept wondering what I should do differently now.  There are some obvious ones:  World War I was futile and accomplished nothing.  We’ve got more common loves we should focus on than common hatreds.

I woke up this morning and the thought occurred to me that maybe, unknowingly, it taught that God is real and that he loves us.  World War I bred a great deal of atheism and agnostics.  People felt that God had either abandoned them or didn’t exist.  The thought was “How could God allow this to happen?  Where was God when my sons/brothers/father died?”  The spirituality in England still hasn’t recovered.  I feel that this production taught that God was there, guiding us and helping us.  The story, to me, is nothing less than miraculous.