Monday, 2 September 2019

31 today

Meaning the he-I, only partly revealed in the above photograph in the grounds of the modern-art-rich Gunton Arms, North Norfolk, where we had a superb lunch to celebrate a birthday early last month in the middle of the equally flavoursome Southrepps Music Festival. We may have between us two feet in the grave, but I don't really buy in to Webster's cynicism. Anyway, the stunt is a good substitute for the fact that The Other won't allow full-frontals or facials other than this one (wedding photo 2015) on the blog.

Since 1988 we've been civilly partnered and married, to celebrate our rights, but our relationship began in Edinburgh while we were there performing Puccini's Gianni Schicchi on the Fringe with City Opera and the Rehearsal Orchestra. Edinburgh was, is and I hope always will be my city of love - unrequited over four years as a student (what pain that was), redeemed another four years later.

'Our' opera is either Schicchi or Nixon in China, the UK premiere of which we went to see around that time, other backgrounds being a visit to see university friend Eleanor Zeal's play that year, The Tainted Honey of the Homicidal Bees, based on the Greek myth of Erysichthon (Eric in her version), which won her another fringe first, after which we had J's sadly now erstwhile friend the Houri dancing up the stairs of the Annandale Street flat where I was lodging bawling 'I'm in love with a wonderful guy', and the Edinburgh Botanic Gardens, where a pledge was made. The above programme was signed by the great man some years later, when I got to interview him in a pre-performance event before he conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a Barbican concert of his music.

Friends who were recently together back in 1988, my hosts in Annandale Street, are separated now but on good terms, and their lovely children are still partly ours (at least in my mind, anyway; we put in many intensive days of work entertaining them on visits to Scotland): Alexander first, chronologically, among godchildren, Kitty nominally J's goddaughter now.  Mother Julie has this heartstopping view of Arthur's Seat, complete with figures on top, from her kitchen window,

while Christopher still lives on the other side of this amazing valley in Broughton, between Peebles and Biggar in the borders, where we went for the first time in some years after our Edinburgh sojourn this year.

'Our' boy, Alexander, is now a hard-working twentysomething who's just bought his first modest property in Biggar with girfriend Kirsty. I hope he won't mind being the only face up for close inspection here, unconsciously but hilariously reflecting darling dog Lily's head-up with the ball at our picnic by Stobo Reservoir on our glorious four-hour walk from Broughton along the Buchan Way.

And here is said dog acting as substitute for the one I want, along with a garden, to complete our more or less contented life, outwardly ruffled at the moment by what happens to J's work should the European Commission Representation in London finally close on 31 October (but I'm still hopeful that it won't, probably a little more so after the first public response to democracy under threat this past week). We're both heading out of the confluence of the Tweed and Biggar Water on a gloriously warm weekend.

And here, continuing the tradition of anonymity for J, are my more feline companion and I heart-shadowing at Kew on Sunday

with blissful Mediterranean pine and sky directly above.

UPDATE: our evening should really have been dinner for two, but how could I miss Gardiner's Berlioz at the Proms?

I blush to say I applied relentless pressure on J, who hates the Albert Hall audiences but loves good singing and all-round excellence in opera, and he got both, having amusingly pointed out that our anniversary night subject was, in real life but not in Berlioz's romantic portrait, a brawling bugger who constantly faced arrest for both the stabbing and the sodomy. Anyway, a more joyous occasion couldn't be imagined.

It was a giant bottle of champagne to Haitink's farewell concert last night, a wine of very rich vintage.

You can read about both concerts (five stars, natch) on The Arts Desk: Benvenuto Cellini here and the Vienna Phil special here. With thanks to the doyen of action photographers, Chris Christodoulou, for the photos. 

Sunday, 1 September 2019

Rosy in Ravenna and Comacchio

Those lovely people at the Ravenna Festival always make sure there are fringe benefits to a visit, as if eight monuments with World Heritage status (which I described and pictured at maybe excessive length in a 2018 entry) and the starry events of the Festival itself weren't enough. This year they'd arranged a cookery lesson with the magnificent Rosella Mengozzi

and another trip to the lagoon at Comacchio - I requested a return after 2018 - including the boat trip we'd missed last time. Thousands of flamingos were to hand: not as pink as they might be, so presumably prawns aren't big on the diet here, but still beautiful creatures.

Rosella runs her immaculate kitchen, so full of good things, and her eating space in the Darsena pop-up site down at the docks, a popular place to hang out of an evening.

We were there early in the morning, and after several shots of espresso, Rosella provided more virtual caffeine with her wonderful vivacity and responsiveness. The wife of an Italian music critic resident in Ravenna, she came to cookery teaching late in life, having been told by a chef in Rome that she has a talent, and she uses it for good causes; in the winter, there's a sharing with the immigrant communities of Ravenna, who tend to be in this area. They teach her and others their cuisine, and she returns the compliment with la bella cucina d'Italia. On my last full day, having seen J off on the train, I gravitated back to Darsena and found a group of teenage Italians of Tunisian origin packing up after their last lunch chez Rosella.

She'd been feeding them (they paid, but not a lot) and they'd been camping in the sands of the site prior to taking off in their bus around Europe. 'They' are Radioimmaginaria, 'la radio degli adolescenti', which seems to broadcast first and foremost about the climate emergency, and I kept in touch with the girl I spoke to the most, the charming Ludovica, about their visit to London. It turned out in the end that we didn't coincide; they were next off to Stockholm to catch Greta Thunberg before her big transatlantic sail. Inspiring youth! This generation is our biggest hope, but we need to do much more before they can take over the reins.

My notes for Rosella's lesson - above, she's fine-chopping carrot, celery and un poco di prezzomolo - are scribbled in the back of my Ravenna monuments guide, and don't make a lot of sense. Nor shall I bore you with most of the basics here. Suffice it to say that we learned about making the perfect ragù di pesce alongside some very sound advice on risotto, which needs a separate brodo. We also got to taste pasta made with berries (though to be honest I couldn't detect the latter in the eating).

J was gratified that in her commands to use fresh and best ingredients, Rosella recommended top extra virgin olive oil in the cooking - we're often told that basic standard is enough. Always keep a high heat for the first ten minutes of frying. Don't remove the skin from onions if small - choose well (in this case tropea) - and garlic. And did you know that the thread on mussels is used for the garments of popes?

Once ready, we took the food downstairs to eat with Rosella's cooking partner Rosetta (pictured on the left above; on the right below is Anna, mentioned further on).

An elderly gentleman dropped by and told us about his work teaching local children to play old street games - charming, vital - and Francesco from the ice-cream bar Sbrino round the back let us taste the last of the gelato made specially with gorgonzola for a local festival the previous day. It sounds peculiar, but I loved it.

That was a perfect morning. So was this year's excursion to Comacchio, the mini-Venice I wanted J to see along with the lagoon. Last year we'd been trapped in traffic on the main road up to Venice and missed our boat trip. This time we took one from the Bettolino di Foce, an old fishing station converted into an unpretentious restaurant absolutely in the middle of nowhere, where festival doyenne Anna Bonazza had taken me and colleague Ruud to eat last year. It's approached via a sheaf-lined canal

and some of the traditional huts with projecting fishing nets.

Of course we returned from the trip to have lunch at the Bettolino; this time I took courage - as a hater of the jellied variety - to order a local eel for two with polenta on the side

and it was sensational: very fleshy, jellyish in a good sense. In 2018 I intended, but - I see, or rather don't see - failed, to write about Comacchio as the historic centre of the eel industry.

It was a hard life, the locals catching what they could in the storms of November-December (Anna comes from one such family, and memories are fresh with her grandmother). Our excursion took us up a canal at the edge of the lagoon to one of the outposts where the eel fishers lived and worked for weeks on end.

It looked like a fun hangout in the height of summer, but imagine the cold and wet; tuberculosis was rife. In the main kitchen (used to cook smaller fish, mostly), provisions were hung on racks to stop the rats and mice getting at them.

Over the lagoon was an old guardhouse with watch tower, called Donna Bona because ladies would visit with fresh water and offers of personal favours (economic necessity).

In the foreground below is one of the few plants that can thrive here, Salicornia perennans. The fronds absorb the toxic salt so that it doesn't get to the roots.

Our guide was a nature warden in the Parco Regionale del Delta del Po, based at the Bettolino, and he was of course a mine of useful information (though in Italian only, since there were only two of us Brits on board.

Incredible statistic: 70 per cent of the bird population of Europe is to be found here, This part of Italy is a bridge for migrating birds, a halfway house between Algeria and Iran.

Many of the birds are ringed, including a flamingo born 42 years ago in Comacchio they named Olga. She was traced in Sardinia, Tunisia and Algeria. She didn't appear here for eight years but last year she came back. This isn't her, but I love the shot of flamingo takeoff.

The warden was excited to see a rare zafferano (Larus fuscus) among the bird on these posts, a seagull usually confined to Scandinavia.

For me, it was enough to see a pygmy cormorant.

Then of course there were the usual little egrets, the sight of which can still thrill the likes of me

and these creatures back at base - so very odd that I thought they were models until they moved, or unfortunates coated in oil; but a white breast revealed in another picture corresponds to an image of a Black Swedish Duck (which would, I think, be quite rare).

And so to lunch, a wander out to see more flamingos closer to shore

and 20 minutes in a nearly deserted Comacchio on a very hot afternoon (but not sticky and humid as it was last year).

Preparations were under way for the Feast of  Saints Peter and Paul (Cassiano is the town's patron saint).

Some of the vessels around the celebrated Trepponti (triple bridge) had a carnivalesque look.

I'd like to have been in Comacchio that evening. But we had another ritual to attend back in the heart of Ravenna, a dramatic adaptation, around which I'd based the visit, of Dante's Purgatorio - last year's Danteana covered on the blog here - as adapted by the wonderful Ermanna Montanari and Marco Martinelli of the city's pioneering Teatro delle Albe.

Here we are at Dante's tomb where the ritual began for Inferno two years ago, too, some holding rushed (giunchi) aloft to accord with Cato's commands to Virgil to cleanse Dante with just such a plant at the foot of Monte Purgatorio. You can read all about it here on The Arts Desk. The delightful footnote is that as we all happened to be in the same pizzeria after the show, I had to go up and tell them how impressed I'd been. And they then wanted to get in touch, so I have a host of fascinating books to read, some in English - the company is well known in America but has never toured to the UK - and the complete Divina Commedia to anticipate in Ravenna in 2021.

Saturday, 17 August 2019

The many faces of Yannick Nézet-Séguin

Was there ever a more perfect array of expressions to match the music than those of the wondrous Canadian? The shaping and body movements are totally eloquent, as they have to be, but the many faces prove that this man lives what he conducts without affectation or excess. BBC Proms hero the photographer Chris Christodoulou caught him in many moods at the first of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra concerts; between us Sebastian Scotney and I managed to put up quite a few shots in our respective reviews (mine is here). Chris wrote to me:' I have just finished editing 264 images of him alone - and only rejected at a push 22!' Thanks to him for supplying a few more here.

Chris also tells me that how people behave backstage is an eye-opener, and that  YNS is really out there, shaking hands and hugging people. Clearly a Mensch as well as a seriously great conductor.

It's a real shame the BBC didn't want shots at the second BRSO concert; the partnership with Gil Shaham, a late replacement for Lisa Batiashvili in Prokofiev's Second Violin Concerto as YNS was for Mariss Jansons in the two concerts, proved another joy to watch and hear. Despite an ineffable lightness of touch, the team got at the essential seriousness I've always maintained is there in all three movements, the finale an increasingly manic danse macabre like Shostakovich's and Lorca's characterisation of the Malagueña in the Fourteenth Symphony ('death moves in and out of the tavern').

My colleague in the pre-Prom talk for that evening, Ariane Todes, didn't agree with me on the heart of darkness, opening apart, even after the performance, but that's fine - all part of Prokofiev's amazing ambiguity. We got on very well, and Martin Handley is a true knowledgeable pro; I didn't actually miss anything in the edited version brought out in time for the interval, so skilfully did he steer us to the main points both about the Russian school of violin playing and the concerto itself. Take a listen while you can on the iPlayer, both to the concert and to the talk (which starts at 46m25s).

I must admit the tempi YNS took in those infuriatingly music-minus-two and -three sequences in the annoying Rosenkavalier Suite could not have been sustained by any singer, but it was worth it to hear the necessarily exaggerated swoon of the waltzes (and the ratchet rattling in the Albert Hall). Brilliant idea, too, to give Sibelius's near-contemporary, couldn't-be-more-different Valse triste as the encore.

That's become an encore speciality of the Estonian Festival Orchestra and Paavo Järvi, who gave their best performance yet, of the ones I've heard, at the end of this year's Pärnu Festival; but YNS and the Bavarians yielded nothing in terms of character. Two very great orchestras and conductors - I wish Mariss Jansons back to full health after his absence, but I wonder if the (relatively) young Canadian could be next in line of succession in Munich.