Sometime this week, probably today, is the 250th birthday of one of the world’s greatest composers, Ludwig van Beethoven. (I say probably today because there is no record of his birth. All we know for sure is that Beethoven was baptized in Bonn, Germany, on December 17, 1770, and the tradition back then was to baptize babies the day after they were born.)
Happy birthday, Ludwig!
A lifetime ago, I had tickets for concerts on consecutive nights to hear the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. The pair of concerts was advertised as “The Beethoven Experience: A Most Remarkable Night, Part 1 and Part 2.” Two nights of Beethoven. I was so looking forward to it.
Then came along this little thing called a pandemic, and the concerts, scheduled for March 13 and 14, were cancelled. The VSO generously played part of their planned repertoire on March 15 to an empty auditorium and I listened to the live stream online.
It wasn’t the same.
Fast forward to October when I bought a subscription to the VSO’s digital 2020–2021 season. I’ve listened to the concerts when they are posted, and they are delightful. But, alas, also not the same as being there in person.
Who knew I’d miss live music this much?
The glass mural in the above photo is a facsimile of Beethoven’s original score for the chorale Ode to Joy. The mural is on the façade of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s School of Music, located next door to the Orpheum, the VSO’s concert hall.
Knowing I was going to be writing this post, I’ve been thinking a lot this week about that chorale. It’s from the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth (and last) Symphony. Set to words by the German poet Friedrich Schiller, it is probably one of the best-known anthems in the world.
Ode to Joy is all emotion and power. In 1973, Chilean women sang a Spanish version of Ode to Joy while marching in the streets outside Augusto Pinochet’s prisons to let the prisoners inside know they were not alone. In 1989, the students at Tiananmen Square played the chorale over loudspeakers to drown out the speeches by the Chinese Communist Party. And on Christmas Day of that same year, six weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Leonard Bernstein conducted a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with an orchestra and choir made up of both East and West Germans.
It’s too early to say where 2020 will fall in the annals of history, but I think we can all agree that it has been life-changing for everyone living through it. And so I think it’s a happy coincidence that of all the composers we might be celebrating this year, it is Beethoven.
For one, Beethoven lived in turbulent times. So many revolutions. The American one and the French one. Also the Industrial Revolution. And then there was that little man, Napoleon Bonaparte, wreaking havoc across the European continent. The arts reflected the changing times as musicians (including Beethoven), writers, and artists all began to move away from creative works that emphasized elegance and order, hallmarks of the Classical period, to ones that evoked the full range of human emotion, a characteristic of the Romantic period.
For another, Beethoven is the embodiment of the tortured artist. Look up any picture of him — his hair is wildly unkempt and there’s always a scowl on his face. Much of this is likely conjecture, but we do know that Beethoven had a difficult life. He was in his late twenties when he first started having hearing problems. Only a decade later, he had lost the ability to hear speech and music. Although he was able to hear low tones and loud noises until his death at the age of 56, his hearing impairment affected him greatly both professionally and personally.
But back to that chorale. Here’s a line from the lyrics by Schiller: Alle Menschen warden Brüder.
“All people will be brothers. “
If there’s anything we learned this year, it’s that humanity can rally together in times of crisis. That’s particularly evident this week as, defying all expectations, vaccinations to protect against Covid-19 are starting to roll out a mere 11 months after the virus was first identified.
I don’t know if I’ll ever get to hear those concerts I missed out on last March, but you can be sure that as soon as the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra is allowed to perform for the public again, I will be in the audience. Most likely weeping with joy.
I have a thing for pipe organs — I may have mentioned this before. The preeminent organ builders in Canada are the Casavant Frères (Casavant Brothers). They learned their trade in Europe and have been building pipe organs for Canadians since 1879. I’ve played a few of their instruments in my time.
In 1891, they built the organ at Notre-Dame Basilica. That work sealed their reputation as world-class organ builders. This magnificent instrument has 7000 pipes and four keyboards and is my photo choice for today, the Third Sunday of Lent.
Some say that no one ever leaves Montreal, for that city, like Canada itself, is designed to preserve the past, a past that happened somewhere else.
— The Favourite Game, Leonard Cohen
I can’t leave Montreal behind without writing a word about Leonard Cohen. Because, even though the man spent much of his life living elsewhere, Leonard Cohen is Montreal.
You can’t avoid him when you are there. Stand on any street corner in the city centre and his face stares down at you. When the news broke of Leonard Cohen’s death in November 2016, an impromptu memorial sprang up on the doorstep of his Montreal home. Vigils took place in the square just opposite. Like a pilgrim, I visited both.
I also read The Favourite Game, his first novel, to prepare for my visit to Montreal last spring. The members of my book club were not happy — none of them enjoyed the thinly disguised autobiography. I thought it was laugh-out-loud hilarious.
I’m still making it up to them.
This was a rough year, on so many levels. Almost everyone I know is counting the hours until 2019 is over. All are hopeful that 2020 will be better. I myself had a pretty good year, more or less. But I find it tough to feel joy and gratitude when everyone around me is hurting and weary and sick. Some people call that empathy.
I call it exhausting.
And that’s before we even bring up the news cycle.
In times like these, some of us turn to prayer, some of us turn to poetry, and some of us turn to music. Leonard Cohen — poet, novelist, songwriter, chanteur — gives us all three.
To close out 2019 as well as my series of posts on Montreal, I’m going to finish with these words:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
May we all see more of the light in 2020.
Today is the Fourth Sunday of Lent. I’m posting this photo from inside Kampen’s Bovenkerk for a couple of reasons.
Reason # 1 is because it was inside this church, listening to this organ, where I first fell in love with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.
And Reason # 2? Because today is one of Bach’s birthdays. I say “one of” because apparently the man had two depending on whether you are looking at a calendar in the Old (Julian) Style or the New (Gregorian) Style.
This organ is one of three in the Bovenkerk. It has four manuals and 3200 pipes, the oldest of which date back to the early seventeenth century.
There was a music lesson was going on just before I took this photo. The student was up above at the console behind the pipes, while the teacher was down below, chowing down on a sandwich as he hollered out his feedback. I felt sorry for the student, but was so happy I got to hear the music.
I went to a birthday party today. And oh, what a party. The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra hosted 100 free musical performances to mark 100 years since its first-ever concert on January 26, 1919. For 12 hours today, 1000 musicians performed across 10 stages, including several at the Orpheum Theatre, the symphony’s home since 1977.
That’s where my friend and I headed early this morning. We wanted to catch the orchestra during its last rehearsal before tonight’s concert. I was thrilled — despite the occasional flashback to my sometimes tedious high-school band practices — to watch the symphony’s new (as of July 2018) Music Director Otto Tausk lead his musicians through a dress rehearsal of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and Grieg’s Peer Gynt.
After a leisurely lunch, my friend and I returned for the afternoon and I was taken aback by how the crowds had grown since the morning. The lobby and auditorium were now filled to capacity. The most heart-warming sight were the dozens of strollers parked outside the box office; scores of parents had brought their toddlers to the Orpheum to introduce them to symphonic music. (Although we didn’t check out it out, there was also an Instrument Petting Zoo for the children.)
Vancouver is world famous for its natural beauty — which is a good enough reason to visit, no doubt. But culture? Not so much. That’s not what attracts the millions of tourists who visit Vancouver every year.
Even so, I personally think that the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra is the cultural jewel of this city and it is the arts organization I frequent the most.
Happy birthday, VSO!
It’s the first day of summer! Finally!!
This week also marks the start of Vancouver’s outdoor music festival season. The big ones are the Vancouver International Jazz Festival, which starts this weekend, and the Vancouver Folk Music Festival at Jericho Beach in July.
Vancouver is not that different from other Canadian cities in having great outdoor music festivals, but what we do have that is uniquely West Coast are some pretty spectacular settings.
Like the stage at Jack Poole Plaza with the North Shore Mountains as its backdrop. This photo is of Spirit of the West performing on Canada Day a few years ago.
Canadians are known for playing hard in the summers. We like to spend as much time outdoors as we can, which is easy, because the days are long, and necessary, because the season is short.
Also, for the most part, the weather is awesome. Not too hot, not too humid.
One of the ways we play hard is by going to outdoor festivals. We’ve got a few, ranging from the traditional fairs and exhibitions and rodeos to theatre (from Shakespeare to fringe) to music of all sorts, including jazz, blues, and folk.
One of the best festival cities in the country, in my opinion, is Edmonton. And one of the best outdoor music festivals in the country, in my opinion, is the four-day Edmonton Folk Music Festival held every August at Gallagher Park. The park is a ski club in the winter, but in the summer, its hill serves as a natural amphitheatre with spectacular views of the city’s skyline.
The Edmonton Folk Fest is one of the largest and best-attended folk music festivals in North America, and attracts musicians from around the world who, once they’ve played the Folk Fest, are always eager to come back. Celtic, country, blues, gospel, soul, and world music — you name it, they’ve got it. It sells out every year, typically within minutes.
If you’ve never been, you don’t know what you’re missing. Seriously.
One of the reasons I wanted to spend a long weekend in New York last December was so I could strike one off my bucket list.
That one would be attending the Metropolitan Opera at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
Here’s a pro-tip: If you’re going to go see the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center, take along a native New Yorker. And here’s another: If you’re going to go see Nabucco by Verdi, take along an Italian.
I was lucky enough to get to do both.
My New Yorker friend and I made plans to meet for dinner across the street from Lincoln Center. And so, after a long day of sight-seeing, I made my way uptown, making sure to leave myself plenty of time to pick up our tickets from the Will Call window, and so I could take some photos. But I was taken aback when I saw the playbills outside Lincoln Center.
“Plácido Domingo is singing tonight,” I told my friend when she arrived at the restaurant. I had paid absolutely no attention to who was performing when I had purchased the tickets online some months before.
“He’s directing,” she told me. “He doesn’t sing anymore.”
“Oh,” I said. Well, that made sense. Slightly deflated, I gave myself a shake. What did it matter who was performing? I was in New York City and I going to the opera.
But after we made our way across the street to Lincoln Center, walked up the grand staircase, found our seats, and opened our programs, we soon realized our mistake. Plácido Domingo was performing, in the title role. And conducting was the legendary James Levine. We were in for a memorable, you might even say, historic evening.
Over dinner, my friend had told me about the political significance of Nabucco for Italians. Composed in 1841, it was Giuseppe Verdi’s third opera and his first big hit. But he almost never wrote it.
While Verdi was composing his second opera, his wife died, only a few years after their two young children had died. The opera bombed. Devastated, Verdi declared he was done composing.
But a friend persisted in showing Verdi a libretto he thought was worth a look. It was about the Jews after they were conquered and subjugated by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II (in Italian, Nabucco). Verdi’s attention was caught by a single line of text in the libretto, “Va pensiero, sull’ ali dorate” (“Fly, thought, on golden wings”). This line, inspired by Psalm 137 (“By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept”), became the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves.
And that chorus, my friend told me, became a rallying call for the oppressed Italians during the unification of Italy. Many consider the chorus to be an unofficial Italian anthem that lamented how the Italian people were occupied by other forces (namely, the Austrians) on Italian land. The Italian audiences would cheer and holler until the opera companies repeated the chorus as an encore.
Which is also what happened that night not four weeks ago when my friend and I heard Nabucco performed live by the Metropolitan Opera. In post-election America, the significance of the encore was not lost on us.
Nabucco was first performed by the Metropolitan Opera in 1960. The performance we saw was the 329th time that James Levine and Plácido Domingo had performed together, over a period 45 years. (And here’s a fun bit of trivia: none of the other soloists performing that night had been born when those two began their professional relationship.)
I’ve written before about how my love of opera intersects with my love of travel. What I had forgotten until I started writing this post was how it had been my mother who had introduced me to opera. She had an album of opera choruses and would play it, full volume, on our brand new component stereo. That album was my introduction to “Va pensiero, sull’ ali dorate,” and the tune has stuck in my head ever since.
Long before I began attending live opera performances, I used to listen to CBC Radio Two’s Saturday Afternoon at the Opera, which is a live broadcast of the Saturday matinee performances at Lincoln Center. I don’t know why I stopped listening to them, but today I made a point of tuning in.
This afternoon’s broadcast was Nabucco. Live from the Met. I closed my eyes as I listened to “Va pensiero, sull’ ali dorate” and was instantly transported back to New York. Not in body, obviously, but certainly in spirit.
I expect it will be that way every time I hear the chorus from now on. As I told a friend after I got back from New York, seeing Nabucco live at the Met was pretty much a religious experience for me. I don’t want that feeling to ever go away.
I’ve had Vienna on my mind for much of the past few months ― and not only because I recently posted about Salzburg.
It all began with Frederic Morton’s A Nervous Splendor: Vienna, 1888–1889. The book was required reading for my Modern Europe history course a couple of decades ago, and I enjoyed it so much that I later bought Morton’s other book about Vienna: Thunder at Twilight: Vienna 1913–1914.
And then promptly packed both books in a box for one of my (many) moves.
This winter I finally got around to pulling both books off the shelf. I reread A Nervous Splendor and then, for the first time, I read Thunder at Twilight. (I’m about three-quarters of the way through the latter at the moment.) A Nervous Splendor tells the story of the last few months of Crown Prince Rudolph’s life and his suicide, while Thunder at Twilight tells the story of the last few months of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s life and his murder. Both men were heirs to the Austrian-Hungarian throne until their untimely deaths. The suicide of Rudolph was the beginning of the end for the Austrian-Hungarian empire, and the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 ― we all know what happened after that ― was the nail in the empire’s coffin.
Both non-fiction books read like novels, and both are useful if you want to learn something about the waning decades of nineteenth-century Vienna and the city’s role in the build-up to World War I.
(Coincidentally, I found out just a few days ago that Frederic Morton, an Austrian-American writer, died two weeks ago in Vienna.)
In addition to my Viennese reading, I recently enjoyed Vancouver Opera’s performance of Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus, which transported me to 1870s Vienna, if only for a few hours.
And a couple of weekends ago, I saw Woman in Gold, a Hollywood film that far surpassed my expectations, which tells the story of an Austrian-Jew who took the Austrian government to court to get back the paintings stolen from her family by the Nazis.
All of this adds up to an awful lot of Viennese armchair travel. And, except for my reading of the Morton books, all of it was unintentional.
But unintentional armchair travel is a good excuse for posting about Vienna.
Vienna was one of the cities I hit on my first European walkabout by Eurail. Initially I found it rather overwhelming; my travelling companion was ready to leave almost as soon as we arrived.
But there is a spectacular majesty to Vienna that I came to respect before we moved on a few days later and I now think the city is too often overlooked. The seventh largest city in the European Union, sandwiched between Bucharest and Budapest, it gets far less attention from tourists than London, Berlin, Madrid, Rome, and Paris (aka Europe’s Big Five).
At the heart of Vienna’s majesty is the Ringstrasse ― a 5 km ring of boulevards that forms a semicircle through the heart of Vienna. Emperor Franz Joseph I, father of the above-mentioned Crown Prince Rudolph and uncle of the above-mentioned Franz Ferdinand, was much influenced by Napoleon III’s demand that Paris be transformed by Baron Haussmann. In 1857, Franz Joseph ordered that Vienna’s decaying walls be torn down and replaced with a series of grand new buildings.
And so began one of the largest construction projects ever completed in Viennese history: neo-Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, and Neoclassical buildings sprouted up along on the Ringstrasse over the next several decades. These include the Vienna State Opera, or Wiener Staatsoper (1869), the Votive Church, or Votivkirche (1879), the Palace of Justice (1881), the Austrian Parliament (1883), the Town Hall, or Rathaus (1883), the University of Vienna (1884), the Imperial Court Theatre, or Burgtheater (1888), and the twin museums of Natural History, or Naturhistorisches Museum (1889) and Fine Arts, or Kunsthistoriches Museum (1891). Only the imperial palace, the Hofburg, is older than the Ringstrasse.
I initially started writing this post about Vienna because of all the recent happy coincidences I described above, but while doing my research, I discovered another happy coincidence: it was 150 years ago today, in 1865, that Emperor Franz Joseph I officially opened the Ringstrasse. Hence, the title of this post.
I think Franz Joseph was perhaps a tad premature in opening the Ringstrasse ― it would be some years before the construction of all those grand buildings would be complete and who wants to promenade past a noisy, dusty construction site? Not me and I speak from personal experience. But eventually the “Ring” was to become an enjoyable city promenade for Viennese and tourist alike ― as I learned during my first visit to the city ― and has remained so for 150 years.
All of the world’s large cities have ring roads, but only Vienna has a Ringstrasse.
Fifty years ago last month, The Sound of Music had its cinematic release ― and “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?” has been an earworm plaguing moviegoers ever since. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve watched the film, but I have strong memories about a handful of viewings.
My first memorable viewing was, of course, the first one. It was on our small colour TV in our small family living room with my not-so-small family. I had to be coaxed into watching it ― for some reason, a movie about a not-so-small family in 1930s Austria did not interest me in the least.
My dad promised me I would love it.
Of course, I became an instant fan, besotted, as most kids are, by all those children in funny clothes and by all those catchy tunes.
Another memorable viewing of The Sound of Music was just last fall, when I had the privilege of introducing the film to my then three-year-old niece. She was captivated (if a bit confused) by the sight and sound of Mary Poppins singing “Do-Re-Mi” and her response when the last “So-Do” sounded was instantaneous.
“Again!” she commanded from her perch on my couch. I dutifully obeyed and rewound the film to the start of the song. When it was finished, she again called out, “again!”
You get the picture.
It took my sister, who arrived halfway through the movie, to do what I wasn’t able to ― convince my niece to continue watching past “Do-Re-Mi.” (Note that, being responsible aunts, we turned the TV off after the wedding scene and told her that was the end of the movie ― no need to traumatize a young child with scenes of goose-stepping Nazis.)
“The Lonely Goatherd” and “So Long, Farewell” proved to be big hits as well and that afternoon made me realize how timeless The Sound of Music is. My niece was just as enthralled with the film as I had been all those decades earlier.
My most recent viewing of The Sound of Music was a couple of weeks ago when I saw it for the first time ever on the big screen. I was shocked at the packed movie theatre ― as full as if the film were a new release ― and at how compelling I found the nearly three-hour film ― as if I were watching it for the first time. The entire audience burst into applause at the end.
But my most memorable viewing was in the city of Salzburg, where much of The Sound of Music was filmed. My friend and I were backpacking around Europe, making all the usual stops ― including Salzburg ― and doing all the usual touristy things ― including the obligatory “Sound of Music” tour of the filming locations. After the tour, we were dropped off at the youth hostel that hosted a daily screening of the film and we watched and laughed along with the rest of our tour group when all of the Salzburg locations we had just visited showed up on screen.
I live in Vancouver (aka Hollywood North) and am used to seeing my town turned upside down by film crews. For the past two weeks, one of the main routes out of the downtown core was closed to vehicle traffic during business hours to allow for the shooting of a scene from Ryan Reynold’s next action flick. Vancouverites put up with this kind of nonsense because we know how lucrative a successful film industry can be.
I suspect that the residents of Salzburg are just as OK with the tourist dollars that The Sound of Music has brought them. But my best guess is that none of them had any idea that the film would turn out to be one most commercially successful motion pictures of all time ― or that the hoards of pop-culture tourists such as myself would still be beating a path to their door some 50 years later.