Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Around Nafplio

Two days in a bright Budapest, with unforgettable evening concerts, have happened since, and way too many good London things, but I'm not yet ready to let go of the last of the Mediterranean autumn light. So indulge me in another photojournal to follow the beachcentric idyll, bearing in mind once again that we all need retreats like this to strengthen us for the big fights for democracy ahead.

Memory of what we students did on our Nafplio stopover in 1981 is restricted to a swim and the weird circumstances of an evening meal, and probably we were using the town as a base to explore Mycenae and Tiryns before moving on to Epidavros (where I do remember Prometheus Bound drowned out by a footballish audience and sleeping under pines in the car park). But why on earth didn't we climb the 890-odd steps to the fortress of Palamidhi when we were so young and fit?

Well, it revealed itself in sharp and brilliant light this time, though I confess we didn't do the climb. I was willing, but host Louise drove us up to make the most of the day once we'd idled away a morning on her balcony. We went via the Bavarian Lion, brother of the one in Lucerne (if I remember correctly) and carved into the rock at the orders of Ludwig I to commemorate the soldiers who died in an epidemic in 1833-4.

Near here the National Assembly elected Otho first king of Greece in 1832.

A year earlier, regent Capodistrias had been assassinated on the steps of Ag. Spiridion.The interior is slightly crumbling and mysterious.

Ag. Georgios serves as the cathedral and boasts a fine early 18th century Venetian portal.

The marble statue of Capodistrias in one of the park-squares beneath Palamidhi is overshadowed by the equestrian figure of another freedom-fighter, Theodoros Kolokotronis (1770-1843), victor over the Ottomans in an earlier battle during the Wars for Independence. The sculpture is by Lazaros Sokos, erected in 1901.

Nafplio's extraordinary possibilities for fortification have resulted in various spectacular castle-ruins: the Greek, Frankish and Venetian ones of Akronafplion, and Palamadhi towering above it at 215 metres. Here's a view from the latter down to the former, which forms an attractive green peninsula beyond the town.

Named after Palamedes, mythic descendant of Poseidon's son Nauplios, putative inventor of lighthouses, dice and scales, pioneer of navigation, the Venetian big 'un was constructed in 1711-14, so not as antique as it looks; it was recaptured by the Turks in 1715 and then retaken by Kolokotronis in 1822. Its layout of multiple bastions is very complex to grasp, and we didn't reach the main gate with the Lion of St Mark

until we began our descent. We spent most of our time around the upper bastions 

with the most spectacular views across to the mountains.

Flora and fauna were out in the midday sun: a single crocus,

a Painted Lady butterfly

and this bird - a lapwing, could that be possible?

Slowly and reluctantly we left the peace behind - as on our walks to the beach, total silence apart from the sound of the sea and occasional birdsong - and headed downwards.

If you had to choose between ascent and descent, the latter would win because of the way the old town unfolds as you descend.

Though it's not huge, you can wander for hours. There were very few tourists in November even on the main drags. Louise's Paralos shop

is just as you head out towards the sea, with some very grand buildings beyond.

Some are crumbling, but the swan and dolphin ironwork here is lovely,

and some prime shop territory is lying empty, only sign here of the Greek crisis. There are three attractive Turkish drinking fountains like this

and a lovely triangle with handsome buildings a little higher up the slope.

There are few signs of harbour life, but you get an irresistible seafront view across to Boutrzi, yet another fort, this time on an islet - Castel Pasquaglio was constructed by a Bergamasque architect for the Venetians in 1473 - and with Argos gleaming across the Saronic gulf (I'm told the squalid town belies its legendary name).

The Bastion of the Five Brothers lodges splendidly embossed Venetian cannons, all with the Lion of St Mark on them.

Past the church of Panaghia with a more attractive interior than Ay. Georgios, well cared for, featuring a gleaming iconostasis

and plenty of ex votos (though J resisted buying any this time),

is the handsome Plateia Sindagmatos

where kids kick footballs around the well-placed lumps of ancient masonry. It's dominated by a fine Venetian building of 1713, now home to the Archaeological Museum. As this represents the finds of Tiryns and other archaeological sites around - the main treasures of Mycenae, of course, went to Athens' National Museum - it has some select treasures, many of staggering antiquity. The gem strikes you first: a nearly complete suit of Mycenaean armour from a tomb at Dendhra. 

The date is c.1400 BC and there's pottery with clear designs on it from as far back as 5800 BC. Tiryns has yielded some beautiful frescoes and these Seventh Century BC terracotta ceremonial masks which the priests would wear as they did the rounds of local houses. 

The pig/boar theme is clearly tied up with Tiryns ritual: there's a selection of votive female figures bearing piglets from the Fifth Century BC.

For the first time I almost found myself admiring the geometric pottery more than the much later red and black vase painting, but of course couldn't resist this red-figure hydria of 440BC showing Orestes and Clytemnestra

while, though not of huge antiquity, the sketchy quality of the Odysseus and Circe on this Boeotian skyphos adds to the suggestive magic of the scene.

Our tour of the two beautifully-laid out floors over, we met up in the square with our next hosts who were to drive us to the ferry over to their dream island of Spetses, which will be the last instalment of this self-indulgent travelogue. Before we leave the mainland, though, here's an antiquity of sorts which our driver host spotted as we reached the pass of the last mountain before descending to the coast. 

He was heading for the road from a layby (where Nikos saw him), so I hope I turned him in a more promising direction.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

One-offs: El Niño and The Nose

I'm actually referring to one-off classes from the past two weeks of my Opera in Depth course, but Adams' Christmas oratorio/opera and Shostakovich's Gogol extravaganza are both unique even in their composers' outputs (top images: Mujer de Mucha Enagua, PA'TI XICANA, 1999, as it appears on the cover of El Niño's indispensible first recording, and the 2012 tapestry The Nose, with Strawberries, executed by the Stephens Tapestry Studio, Diepsloot, Johannesburg, to a design by William Kentridge - part of the wonderful exhibition Thick Time at the Whitechapel Gallery, which I have yet to write about).

Adams was to go on and enrich the biblical-mythic aspect of his music in an even more complex work, The Gospel According to the Other Mary, while Shostakovich had another shot at Gogol in the 1940s, trying to set his play The Gamblers word for word, but gave up (there are Gogolian touches in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, too). Before I pass over what we talked about Shostakovich-wise the week before last - the Adams experience has rather eclipsed it - I must at least put up one more image taken by Bill Cooper of the best thing about Barrie Kosky's Royal Opera production, the multiple dancing noses.

Curiously I felt that the single class on The Nose was actually enough - I'd started by intending three - while I wanted at least another two-hour session on El Niño. All the students who spoke up seemed to fall in love with Adams' piece on the spot.  None had seen the overloaded UK premiere with Sellars overegging an already elaborate pudding with a film that hadn't been timed to fit the music; Adams admits the many shortcomings of that first production when it opened at the Chatelet in his indispensible autobiography Hallelujah Junction, which I wrote about on the blog back here). 

I started where Adams does in Chapter 12 of that beautifully written confessional, with what he calls 'the ecstatic shuddering and quivering of violins and jubilantly exclaiming voices' of Handel's 'For unto us a son is born' from Messiah. He goes on to write about the WASPy images of Christ and his disciples from his childhood, his mother's move from the Episcopalian to the Unitarian Church, and how its 'moral and intellectual training', though fine, seemed too close to Plato, Voltaire and Bertrand Russell and didn't feed his need for the 'spiritual truths' of religious mystery and miracles (the latter my own sticking-point with the New Testament). Elsewhere, to Michael Steinberg he confided 'I envy people with strong religious backgrounds. Mine is shaky and unformed. I don't know what I'm saying, and one reason for writing El Niño was to find out.'

It almost goes without saying that, as in so many of Adams' works, the light and the dark are in constant tension. That's best summed up, perhaps, in Mary's response from the St James Gospel when Joseph asks why she is weeping one moment, laughing the next, and she replies: 'It is because I see two peoples with my eyes,  the one weeping and mourning, the other rejoicing and glad'. Only the simplicity of the final children's chorus, a setting of Rosario Castellanos' A Palm Tree, offers any kind of resolution to the two-edged use of the title, 'El Niño' as both 'the child' and that phenomenon of capricious weather - though this too, one feels, is provisional: the naive leading us back towards innocence and away from the sentimental. 

Like Steinberg. I'm indebted to Adams for introducing me to the poetry of Castellanos (1925-74), one of the world's greats, it would seem - and which of us, in the UK at least, knew her work before? On the original recording, it's the incandescent Lorraine Hunt Lieberson who intones the sinuous, Spanish-faithful setting of Castellanos's childbirth chronicle,  'The Annunciation'. The interplay of poems by Castellanos and other Spanish-language writers with Biblical texts and their curious offshoots is as masterly as Britten's interweaving of the Latin mass for the dead with Wilfred Owen in War Requiem, and sometimes more ambivalent. The choruses are shattering, the writing for Dawn Upshaw stunning - more than the pure-voiced Mary of Part One, it's her anguished delivery of 'Memorial for Tlatelolco', the most hard-hitting of the Castellanos poems included, which packs the biggest punch, along with music of breathtaking complexity. This, of course, is the work's 'massacre of the innocents', the flipside of the radiant birth. More on the 1968 horror here.

But Adams also has the gift to be simple: I prefaced it with the mixture of St James' and the Latin Infancy Gospel depicting Joseph's amazement at how the whole scene stands still for the birth, sustained strings and pinprick piccolos backing up Willard White's superb natural declamation. And of course we had to end where Adams does, with the finale genius interweaving of the Pseudo-Matthew narrative where the Holy Family is fed and watered by a palm tree obedient to the Christ Child alongside the final Castellanos poem. And naturally the Flight into Egypt becomes the part of the Christmas tale which perhaps has most resonance today given the plight of those millions of refugees fleeing death and destruction.

All this makes us anticipate Adams' own performance with the LSO on Sunday all the more, even though it's only two years since I was blown away by the first performance I heard to present the music in its unadorned glory. Meanwhile, only a couple of hours after I'd finished Monday's class, quite a few of us had moved on to the Barbican for something completely different - the European premiere of Gerald Barry's Alice's Adventures Under Ground. Read all about it on The Arts Desk. The magnificent seven singers are pictured below with Thomas
Adès conducting the Britten Sinfonia; image by Mark Allan.

Gerald had promised to follow up his first visit to the class earlier this year with another, but a final rehearsal yesterday afternoon meant that wasn't possible. Never mind, he'll be back soon, not least - I'm certain - for the first UK staging of his new opera.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Team BBC Music: the champions

Yessiree, and by quite a margin, let's not be modest. Here we are above with three bottles of champagne to split between us: left to right, myself, Daniel Jaffé, deputy editor of the BBC Music Magazine Jeremy Pound, editor Olly Condy and Helen Wallace. We were pitted against at least a dozen other teams from the world of recordings, agents and magazines 'Downstairs in the Phoenix', Cavendish Square, for the annual Nordoff-Robbins Classical Music Quiz.

The charity it's in aid of does wonderful work in the field of music therapy - read all about it here - so it was all in fun and fundraising and not about the winning. Hell, no, of course it was, since we won...and can we gloat just a moment to say that the Gramophone team came somewhere in the middle (and it's rotten being mediocre, as I knew from a more general, if essentially EU-based quiz at Europe House where we'd drafted in a chap to cover pop, media and sports questions who got NONE of them...these things smart).

It has to be said that quiz-setter James Jolly and I have quite similar tastes, and there were a LOT of opera questions. Got us off to a good start, too, that the 'mystery voice' we heard snippets of across all the rounds happened to be Anne-Sofie von Otter, whom both James and I had interviewed a week or so earlier. But I did recognise the voice before I twigged the connection. I don't suppose anyone else would have done so for at least a couple of rounds since there was little hint of Swedishness in her deep and beautiful tones, and since early references were to cooking and guinea pigs - not connected, I hasten to add. The subject's closer-to-home interests were not cited.

We had to commiserate gamely with our delightful neighbours, Gimell, clearly in a rare moment of getting something right behind Jeremy, Olly and Helen above, since there were hardly any early-music questions, and next to none on the contemporary. My chums, all with editorial experience including regular perusal of images, were good at getting the parts-of-faces pictures and matching couples (at both of which I was next to useless), and I surprised myself by working out the diva anagrams. It was a delicious bonding experience, anyway, though I was surprised at how few other people I knew in the room. And it took all our minds off current non-musical affairs for a couple of hours, which had to be a good thing after the American election. The first time I found myself in a room full of people after that horrible day, we all exploded with pent-up fury.

That was at a lunch to augur the forthcoming year of Cello Unwrapped at Kings Place, where I was delighted to meet Nicolas Altstaedt, Ayanna Witter-Johnson and Natalie Clein, among others. Above, Natalie with fellow cellist and now programmer Helen.

Finally, with a tenuous link to competitions, I haven't been following Strictly Come Dancing, though I know that Ed Balls finally left the show last night, having given the UK the biggest laugh and best entertainment this autumn (and this is a man I didn't think had a sense of humour). I can't resist posting as an aide memoire the 'Gangnam Style' sequence as a magnificent token of concentration over aptitude, with the glorious Katya Jones adding high style.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Two paths to a Greek beach

We all need a breather from the 'real world' at the moment, whatever that actually means: retrench so that you can return refreshed to face the most important struggle people of my age and younger have ever known. Otherwise we'll all just crumble and be of no use to anyone. So before I overload on Greek culture ancient and modern, I'm going to start the Nafplio/Spetses travelogue stretch of the blog with two golden afternoons and evenings less than a month ago (hard as that is to believe).

My old university friend Louise lives in Nafplio (Nauplion), where she carries on running the Paralos Gallery, formerly of Athens, selling antique prints, maps and books, which she set up with her beloved husband Panagiotis (he died far too young last year). Nafplio is a place the beauty of which can't have struck me when I came here in 1983 as part of a picaresque adventure and road journey masquerading as an Edinburgh University research project (we in the Greek department each had to write a report on a visit to a place of historical or literary significance - I chose Pylos and Sphacteria, better known long since the days of Thucydides Book 4 as Navarino bay in the south-west of the Peloponnese). Apart from memories of two dogs stuck together in the headlights when we emerged from a restaurant, having argued over an item added to the bill we'd never ordered, the only thing I recall is swimming here and hearing another tourist howling with agony having trodden on a sea-urchin (which I'd done as soon as we drove into Greece and stopped for a dip).

I'd certainly forgotten how the beaches seem a million miles away from the modest bustle of the old town, in what amounts to a national park with the great Venetian fortress (more of that in future) overshadowing the cliff path.

On our first afternoon we walked from that end, past the tempting strand just below the lower fortifications to look back on them

and on past thoughtfully planted bougainvillea

and sandy-striated rockfaces

with the only sounds the sea - there weren't even any motorised boats - and surprisingly plentiful birdsong to a modest beach with a few folk on it that day (there was nobody else the following day, when we arrived a bit later).

Yes, the water was delicious in early November and amenable to long-term bobbing. This shot is actually from the next swim, as the light would suggest, but no harm in introducing it prematurely.

Louise and I apres-swim

and the other two at the distance J prefers.

The sun was setting as we began the walk back, now more populated by walkers and joggers from the town,

and the rocks took on an orange glow

while sound led us to the inhabitants of the holes in them. Anyone identify this little fella?

Just before we got back the car park,

the sunset was good for silhouettes of the plants and shrubs that have either self-seeded or been carefully selected by the municipality to enhance the delight of its citizens.

Second full day in Nafplio, and more elaborate examination of the sights plus a late leisurely lunch meant that Louise drove us to the beach at the other end of the walk rather later than we'd set off on the Wednesday.

This time we had the beach to ourselves (again, if you can identify this thrift-like plant, I'd be grateful),

and the bliss of observing the full sunset, including the colour-change of the atomic-looking cloud straight ahead, while resting after the swim.

A crescent moon appeared on poetic cue

and Venus beneath it, eventually (almost impossible to see at this distance).

I had the mystical sensation of floating rather than walking back, all the while looking at this. What does Newman's Gerontius say of his post-death experience? 'And gentle pressure tells me I am not/Self-moving, but borne forward on my way'.

Thus we reached the car on the beach in the last glimmers of light. Life stripped down to its most delicious essentials. Followed, of course, by elaborate meals chez Louise and at a fine fish restaurant on successive evenings.