Monday 29 May 2017

The frogs of Göttingen - and Seeburger See

Anyone who's hung around this blog for a long time may remember my account of first acquaintance with the more unexpected choruses of the Göttingen International Handel Festival, when I fell in love with the symphony of brekekekexes in the University of Göttingen's magical Botanical Gardens. On two subsequent visits, their stridency was rather muted - last year's epiphany with a mallard and his drake made amends - but not this past week. It meant a fair bit of hanging around, though, until I finally saw the above fella on one of the lilypads and, in following his progress, got the full sonic works. There's a lot of jumping, but blink and you'll miss the bubble-gum inflating to make the noise early on.

As I explained in last year's blog, the time of the Festival depends on where in the calendar the Germans' Ascension Day holiday falls. This time we were back to the end of May, when the aquilegias are flourishing

and providing a major source of nectar for the bees.

I actually got a double dose of ranine activity on the first full day of my visit to the Festival this year. Not ideal, sleepwise, since I'd got up at 5.30am on Wednesday morning for an early flight and had to do so at 3.30am on Thursday for the GIHF's second 'sunrise concert'. Still, it had to be done: my all-day Messiaenic birdsong experience at Aldeburgh last year taught me that. So after a stunning performance of  a work which came as a revelation to me, Handel's early (and pre-Bach St Matthew and John) Brockes-Passion on Wednesday evening, I decided it made sense to skip Continuum's late-night event and get something approaching four hours' sleep (by the way, all the events I did attend I'll be writing up on The Arts Desk next weekend).

As at Aldeburgh, the dawn chorus was one attraction. It seemed to be starting up in the tree-lined streets of Göttingen as I walked through the near-darkness at 4am to get the coach to our destination. But on arrival at the Seeburger See 45 minutes later, with the red glow of pre-sunrise across the lake,

the full thing was definitely in full spate. You may not see much of what I could, as  I walked through the woods near the lakeside in this short film, but you'll hear what you need to. Of course, our ranine friends soon come into earshot by a small pond.

Then I joined the few other concertgoers who hadn't gone straight into the warm on arrival

seeing this to the left

and some old boathouses to the right.

The one-hour concert began at 5am on the first floor of the Restaurant Graf Isang (est. 1925), with candles lighting our way upstairs and strategically placed in front of the surprise instrument - a clavichord, no less, the first time I've ever heard one live in concert.

Although the actual programme is the territory of my Arts Desk piece, we must just see young Avinoam Shalev, one of the already more than promising prizewinners in which the GIHF has placed justified faith. Israeli by birth, Hanover trained and now living in The Hague, he led us into a mesmerising meditation on the sounds and colours possible within the quieter end of the dynamic range the instrument inhabits. The sun actually rose behind the willows to our left at about 5.25am, as he was in to the first movement of Haydn's G minor Sonata Hob. XVI: 44. I took this picture, of course, in a break between movements, not during, as no official photographer was present.

A bow to a wildly enthusiastic if necessarily small and select audience: note the bird of prey in the first complete window pane on the left behind our clavichordist.

The sun went behind early morning clouds - by 9am a clear blue sky would emerge - but that didn't deter me from taking my breakfast out on to the terrace.

This turned out to be a good idea, or maybe it was just a case of attracting kindred spirits, because first our coach driver, a very interesting and friendly guy called Jan who'd stood for the whole recital, asked if he could join me. Then Avinoam appeared (pictured left), followed by our chaperone Enno (who said he had to stay out of this picture so as not to block the lake view) and Lisa Kraemer from the GIHF Artists' Office.

So we had a happy time - and there was plenty of it, the coach not due to leave until an hour and a half after the concert - mainly fulminating about Brexit and Trump (the legs you may see in the background belong to a bizarre dummy who had an unfortunate resemblance to the latter). This wasn't the only occasion at Göttingen this year where I have cause to invoke the suitable observation of Kurt Vonnegut's uncle on blessed gatherings in lovely places, 'if this isn't nice, what is?'

In fact that was also true of a last meeting yesterday (Sunday) morning at our favourite haunt in Göttingen, the Cafe Botanik. Pictured here, our wonderful co-ordinator, now a friend, Victoria Viebahn, critic Luca and his friend Christian.

You may also have read on this blog before about the Botanik, still run by an Iranian whose menu is small but perfect. On a hot afternoon I had a refreshing glass of sharbat as well as a hummus plate, and yesterday saffron cake was the only option in the absence of croissants - but delicious.

Inevitably, with less than an hour to go before my train back to Hanover Airport, I had to make a last homage to the frogs, taking Victoria with me, and the inhabitants of the noisiest pond were still to be found.

Their neighbours several blocks to the south set up quite a racket, too, and this time the birds were obliging, both aurally and visually.

So I said this farewell to another inhabitant,

found another bee nectar-sipping, this time in a peony

and noted various positive signs of Germany today - funny, isn't it, how its chancellor is now officially the Leader of the Free World - including this sign in the rather deracinated part of the garden (it's now in need of more finances, and too dependent on volunteers)

and these papers and magazines on a rack inside the Cafe Botanik, snapshotting Obama's meeting with Merkel in Berlin as well as Macron, 'dear friend'*,

 and made my way back to the station via the lovely town museum, currently housing a neat little exhibition on Lutheranism arriving in Göttingen (relatively late, in 1529, with predictably disastrous consequences). Maybe more on that in a future entry, but the ensemble is irresistible.

*It actually turns out to need taking in its other meaning of 'expensive', as two folk have pointed out to me; the subheading is how Macron will cost Germany. But the leader actually ends with the conclusion that togetherness for European countries is the only way ahead.


Susan Scheid said...

One of the earliest posts of yours I read featured the most amazing photographs of frogs in water "in the act" of propagating themselves. And, yes, indeed, a tip of the hat goes to Merkel, who now is indeed the Leader of the Free World.

David said...

Oh yes, the gangbang in the Scottish Borders. Nothing visible of that here. But the noise is beyond anything I've heard in the UK...

I wonder if Macron is further rejuvenating Merkel in getting her to be even more blunt in her statements. I love it the way these two are pushing diplomacy to its limits in the knowledge that their enemies - we can afford to be even more blunt about Trump and Putin - won't play by their previous rules. It was so exhilarating to be in Germany when Obama was in Berlin with Merkel - some folk at the festival had been to the event and come back euphoric. A new dawn indeed! Who'd have thought it this time last year?

Susan Scheid said...

I am so heartened by your news from Germany! There does seem to be strong synergy between Macron and Merkel. They'll encounter plenty of pitfalls, but at the least they've got their wits about them and their eyes on the prize.

David said...

They are surely both too intelligent to think that there's any such thing as a prize. Politicians never end up winning prizes; though to that adage that every political career ends in failure Obama would so far seem to be an exception.

By the way, could you see the films? A friend has emailed to say 'some pictures are not showing up', and I think he means the embedded videos. I fancy they don't work on iPads, but it would be interesting to know. They work fine here.

Susan Scheid said...

Ah, I realize that perhaps "eyes on the prize" doesn't translate. It was the name of a series on the US Civil Rights Movement, so the "prize" I'm referring to has naught to do with personal ambition or glory, but on achieving a larger vision, as did the movement in the US led by Martin Luther King, Jr.

Susan said...

Yes, I could see the films, BTW.

David said...

Thanks for the clarification - there's so much which doesn't translate 'across the pond' unless one knows one's American history well. One could, I suppose, say it's all part of the American concept of achievement and winning, though in this case in a just cause. I look at my comment and it comes over a bit snitty, sorry, that wasn't intended.

Catriona said...

I visited the frogs the previous Sunday after the service at the Evangelische Reformierte Kirche, which is just down the road from the Botanic Gardens. They were the noisiest I had ever heard and there were so many people there to see them, all with smiling faces.
I also saw a young couple (Japanese? Chinese?)having wedding photos taken in the rock garden area. The bride was in a bright white full-length dress. I was so disappointed that the photographer was posing them for one of these tedious 'leaping for joy' pics so beloved of tabloid coverage of A level results.

David said...

I well remember that last year you heard the full chorus, and the rest of us didn't. Very few people around on the two occasions I went. One chatty guy (I didn't completely understand him) with a big camera hung around for a few minutes then walked away with no sonic results - and up they started.

The rock garden area is spruce enough for wedding photos. The rest badly needs attention now - they have volunteers but they need money. Wealthy Goettingers needs something else other than the festival to spend their money on.

As for the leap, it wasn't so popular when I first photographed friends leaping in the sea in Italy. We called it 'the Vieste leap' and repeated it quite a bit, but it's had its day.

Susan Scheid said...

The phrase "Eyes on the Prize" comes from a civil rights era song by Mavis Staples. You can hear a great rendition of the song, accompanied by photographs from the civil rights movement here. Here are some of the lyrics:

Well, the only chains that we can stand
Are the chains of hand in hand
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on
Got my hand on the freedom plow
Wouldn't take nothing for my journey now
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on!

I can almost hear your frogs rising up in a chorus behind her.

Susan said...

Correction (sorry to fill up your comments): In the version noted, Staples sings the song. Its origins are older, and the writer isn't definitively known.

David said...

Terrific song, arrangement, performer. Thanks so much for enriching my life by drawing my attention to it. As one commenter puts it, hard to believe some of the violent events pictured happened in his lifetime. And now they're happening again. Hold on indeed.

Hedgehog said...

Dear David,

Please forgive this total irrelevance in terms of your beautiful frogs, but, having read your wonderful recent obituary in the Guardian for our hugely-lamented Jiří, I wondered whether you might be up to writing for us a longer, more personal piece in this private and welcoming space to which other sympathetic souls might also make their contributions. He has not yet been honoured enough. Frankly, I'm broken-hearted, and listening today to the Martinů 3rd & 6th Symphonies and the Dvořák Slavonic Dances has made me deeply grateful for what I did hear him conduct, but also profoundly sad at what is now lost to us. Those who attended the recent Dvořák Requiem will know exactly how grievous the loss will be. It is so hard to bear amidst all the other devastating grief under which we are currently suffering. Do, of course, feel free to ignore this intrusion into what is your own domain, but I'm sure you will understand completely what I'm getting at.

David said...

Good to hear from you, Hedgehog, and yes, what a loss - but also what a consolation, as with any great musician, that we have so much to listen to.

I'm hoping for a compilation on The Arts Desk - several BBCSO players and Jakub Hrusa have so far written something, but I was hoping for a few more (if you are in direct contact with any such, please let me know). Then anyone can add by way of comments in a kind of visitors' book.

Needless to say in the print edition of The Guardian the obit was shorter because two thirds of the page had to be devoted to Roy Barraclough of Coronation Street fame...

Hedgehog said...

Dear David,

Thank you so much for responding. It's a splendid idea to have a kind of visitors' book on The Arts Desk with contributions from people who knew him well and worked with him, supplemented by others who would like to comment. That would be a worthy memorial, and I look forward to it. As for Barraclough (Corrie) versus Bělohlávek (Czech musical culture) battling it out for space in the obits, I can hardly say I'm surprised.

David said...

Nearly there now - I was aiming for a balance of the sexes in the comments, and we almost have it. Should send live some time tomorrow.

Sorry to learn (rather belatedly, I was away) that Jeffrey Tate followed suit. There's one recording of his I treasure - his far from standard selection of orchestral music from the Strauss operas, chiefly for the Intermezzo Symphonic Interludes.

David said...

Just to let you know, Hedgehog, that four of the six tributes are now up on The Arts Desk, so do encourage comments as a kind of further book of condolences:

Hedgehog said...

Dear David,

Thank you so much! You've done a lovely thing with this excellent piece. The tributes are really touching through their personal authenticity, and you've got an excellent selection of photos to go with them. Superb! I will certainly be adding my own contribution in a few days, and I'll definitely encourage others to do the same.

David said...

Glad you liked it. I'm so pleased and touched by what we got - especially the enchanting chapter and verse from the British and Czech orchestral players. Response has been good so far, even if it's not yet taken the form of further comments...