Saturday, November 14, 2009

Happy Birthday!

In Munich, I'm renting a room in a terrific location near the Prinzregententheater from a warm, brilliant scholar who speaks at least 6 languages--fluently--and probably more that I don't know about. Her English is well-nigh impeccable.

Today is her birthday! So if you happen upon this blog, C., happy birthday!!!

Twenty years after the fall of the wall

I've spent the last 2-3 weeks in Deutschland again, mostly in Munich. It's lovely to be back again! This year is colder than last, but the weather has turned a bit nicer while I've been here. Still, I'm glad I brought both umbrella and down coat.

On Nov. 9--really an accident of timing--I found myself on a train to Berlin, where it was 20 years to the day that the Berlin wall had come down. Finding a hotel room at a decent price had been challenging, but I had to be there on the 10th. So find one I did.

The atmosphere in Berlin was electric and festive. I arrived around 3, and there was a certain feeling that the day was special, even though it wasn't an official holiday and all the businesses and shops were open (As an aside, this is not the first time I've been in Berlin, although I never seem to get to spend more than a day or two there. Someday I'll actually go as a tourist and stay for at least 3 or 4 days. I really like Berlin immensely: it is like New York City in spirit, in the very best way. You can see the link from last year ( where I blogged a bit about it.)

Back to the present. When I took the S-Bahn to Potsdammerplatz, it was so crowded that one could barely fit on. I had thought about getting off there or perhaps Brandenburgtor, but decided there was no way. I dislike being smushed by crowds, and it was rainy and cold anyway. So I went to Friedrichstrasse and Unter den Linden. Even though it was less crowded on the S-Bahn after that first stop or so, it was still super-crowded getting off at Friedrichstrasse and going through the station. It was only a few hours before the Berlin Wall ceremony, and the S-Bahn was packed: an Englishwoman who was visiting for the festivities said she'd never seen the S-Bahn in Berlin so full.

There were college kids and tourists. There were British, Americans, and Europeans who had been in Berlin before the Wall fell. And as I said, there was an excited feeling of celebration in the air, despite the dampening mood of the weather.

They had set up an immense row of huge styrofoam planks (decorated by youths) that were lined up like dominos, all set up to fall as a symbol of the wall, of the Mauerfall. At 9 p.m., roughly, the dominos went. It was a very moving thing to watch, even though--being a prudent singer--I watched this on TV. But I'm told that people had been in place for hours. Being not just a prudent singer, but also a short one, I would never have been able to see a thing in person anyway.

On to the more mundane.

My second night in Berlin, I had raclette for dinner. How could I resist raclette (even though I'm trying to eat less cheese to help get rid of the remnants of a heavy cold that lingered and lingered)? I'd remembered the spot from the last time, when I hadn't had the opportunity. And I visited the marvelous book/ CD store, Dussmann Kulturhaus. There I arrived just too late for a concert by soprano Simone Kermes (to promote her new CD, Lava-Opera Arias). By the sounds of the thunderous applause that echoed into the bookstore from the concert area, she must have been marvelous. Will have to check out her CD when I get a chance. Ah, to have been born a dramatic coloratura and sing the Queen of the Night!...but the stratsophere is not where I live and that's that.

The counterpart to Dussmann in Munich is Hugenduebel. They have one store, which my friend C. tells me is the spot of the original, first branch, devoted to English-language books. (It's over near Salvatorplatz.) They have another branch at the Karlsplatz/ Stachaus SBahn stop, and yet another--a huge one--on the Marienplatz. This last one is great: you can go to the cafe on the 6th floor and watch the Glockenspiel through the glass windows.

Back in Munich, I feel my time here ticking away. It does look like before I go, I will get the opportunity to go into the new Jewish Synagogue in the Jakobsplatz with a friend of a friend, a wonderful Parisian woman who has lived in Munich for 8-10 years. My first Sunday here, I had gone to the Jewish Center in the Jakobsplatz, where the Synagogue and the Jewish Museum can be found. The Museum is a modern square building, with glass walls for the entire first floor. I walked around the building, reading the windows, which were covered in writing in German and English, mostly about a person coming to terms with their own Nazi heritage. Before going in, I got cold and went home, as it was a blustery day and I'd only worn my leather jacket (silly me).

They are both so different, Munich and Berlin, and I do so love them both. Just as I love San Francisco, New York, and Paris--not to mention Yosemite, San Diego, Maui, and so many other spots. The world is a wonderful place: we had best try not to ruin it for each other.

Next up: Karlsruhe. Still to come: my travails with the internet (but Vodafone still rocks.)

What I'm reading: just finished Asterix and the Golden Sickle (auf Deutsch...immer liebe ich Asterix so!), "Gwydion: Der Weg nach Camelot," a kid's book in German about the Arthurian legend (I persist in trying to improve my German reading ability, although it is sooo slow for me--I'm only to about the fifth page), and Marian Keyes' Sushi for Beginners plus her Rachel's Story. I admit to having fallen for her addictive brand of romantic chick lit. How embarassing. Never thought it would happen to me, but these light books are incredibly entertaining while traveling. Sort of like potato chips. Hard to stop with one or two pages.

What I'm listening to: Tried to get to a performance of the St. John Passion before I left for Berlin. Unfortunately I never could find the church where it was purportedly being sung. The address on the fliers...had no church. After an hour of traipsing around, I and my very sore feet--have I mentioned that my feet have been a real pain this trip?--dragged ourselves home in the drizzle. I've wanted to go to Don Giovanni, but it was ausverkauft (sold out). So really, I'm mostly listening to the music in my own head. Luckily there's a lot there.

What I'm working on: my audition arias, natch. Printed out a copy of William Ludtke's Christmas Cantata at Movimento (more on that some other time, but it's a great place, run by the kind Christian Juttendock), so that I could start working on it again. (I travel with my music for study on a USB stick. Very compact and practical for being on the go, but it's super hard to play it from the screen on my netbook.)

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The rain in the Bronx is mainly over the stadium...sigh

Game 6 of the ALCS (see previous post) has been--appropriately--postponed. Apparently the skies opened up over Yankee Stadium today and so we won't see an evening of slush-ball. It's the right call, but boy am I in post-season baseball withdrawal! I'd so looked forward to today's game and can only hope for a game tomorrow.

But that has given me time to pick up...and now, put down Neil Stephenson's Anathem. Again. It's the second time I've picked it up and tried to read it. First attempt: I got to page 5. This time: page 90. I wouldn't have stuck so long, had I not read other Stephenson books (see below), and had the initial premise not been somewhat intriguing. (Other than a tiny explanation of the title, there are no spoilers here, though. You can try the 930-page tome on your own.)

Now, I really enjoyed Stephenson's early books, the brilliant cyberpunk Snowcrash and steampunk Diamond Age. I vaguely think I read Crytonomicon, although I don't really remember the book (and no, that's not a comment on the book, but rather on my memory. I can re-read a mystery book and not remember whodunit until a moment or two before s/he is unmasked.). I couldn't really get into the Baroque trilogy, but thought I'd try this one. It's a cornucopia of coined words, most of them quite clever, in terms of linguistic and sociological drift, but there are paragraphs after paragraphs of page-filling-ness (to coin my own not-so-clever word), following the best, Dickensian model (and I don't mean A Tale of Two Cities, either). The title is, itself, a play on words, combining "anthem" and "anathema." But the book is soooo slowwww, and it's really hard to care for or feel engaged with the protagonist or the characters. I got as far as I got, mostly hoping that we'd get some forward motion, and we slowwwwly did. When I find I'm skimming out of boredom and not excitement to find out what happens, and I'm not engaged by nearly the 100th page, I generally cut a book loose. So, I'm sorry, but basta cosi.

But that's okay: I've got a number of library books on my nightstand beckoning to me in the forlorn hope that I might open their pages before I leave on a jet plane (where I'll only have my Kindle, my latest Analog magazines, beloved Asus netbook, and work for company. Anything else is too heavy--but that seems like a lot already, especially the work!).

What I'm listening to: William Ludtke's Christmas Cantata. To be premiered in Berkeley in mid-December this year. My husband is an especial fan of the opening movement. ;).

Friday, October 23, 2009

Baseball in October

Just a tiny post today, but for all you baseball lovers out there (like me): has this been an exciting ALCS (American League Championship Series) to watch or what?

Yankees and Angels. Two extra-inning games, one in the rain (I missed the 11-inning Angels win, due to misreading the schedule (sigh).) Game 6 coming up on Saturday, back at Yankee stadium. Yankees up 3-2, momentum with the underdog Angels, history on the Yankees side... my, oh my, oh my!

(Quickie explanation for those who need to know: the championship series has to be won by 4 games. The location is split 2-3-2. First two games were in the Bronx, and the following third in Anaheim. Thus the Angels need 2 games to win and the Yankees 1. The Angels were down 3-1 before yesterday.)

Can this year's World Series beat these thrills?

(As another footnote, there are many ways to watch this postseason, including the ALCS, even a reasonable ($10) Post-Season TV on a laptop...)

October baseball: the weather is all wrong, but the competition can be riveting at its best.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Chicago, a summer of moving house...and more

I had such good resolutions this summer about writing my blog on a regular basis. Ah, well. That idea bit the dust...shall we say, the dust of packing boxes, as my family shook the dust off its collective feet to move and move and move again.

Because--you see--this was the summer of the move for me. Forget the summer of love. First to a hotel, then to a sublet (long story), then to a stay-cation that somehow involved moving, nonetheless, and then into our newest address in the Bay Area. It sounds simple on e-paper, but combined with other family moves, etc., we changed housing for ourselves or our kid nearly a half a dozen times in a six period--after which I collapsed with a bout of swine flu (no joke, but I got over it, thank goodness).

U-Haul loves us: they'd offer us a frequent flier account if they had one.

I generally like to move, but after this summer, I think I'll have to remember that move is a four-letter word.

Now I'm getting ready to go back to Deutschland in less than a week. I'm looking forward to being there again and hope against hope that my German hasn't faded from minimal to insubstantial or even a ghastly AWOL.

But in the meantime, I'd like to catch up a tiny bit on the Memorial to post-Labor Day belated blog.

First, Chicago: I went to the Classical Singer Convention that took place in Chicago this past May. Nicely put together: good presenters and guests. Here's a link of a tiny moment in the opening session: an early-morning rendition by some 200 or so unwarmed-up but trained singers: Danny Boy, with Sara Thomas and Mark Stoddard conducting, and Eric Trudel at the piano. Yes, my blurry and bleary face is in there somewhere, but it's hard to spot.

In between sessions, I played hooky with an old friend (who shall remain nameless unless she doesn't mind my putting her name here) and her boyfriend. I had a blast: walked through part of Millenium Park and saw Crown Fountain and the Bean (a.k.a. Cloud Gate). We went to the Jill and Julia show (Julia McSweeney and Jill Sobule): kind-spirited, autobiographical, gentle, curse-free and still-superb comedy and songs at the Lakeshore Theater. The next night we heard the very cool Tony Monaco Trio on the B-3 Hammond organ--and ate some fabulously fattening food. Wonderful. I even got to ride the famed Red Line. What a great town: what a great time (thank you, my friend)! I was only there a few days, but I definitely want to visit Chicago again.

Right before heading off to Chicago, I sang with Cabaret Opera in their Fresh Voices Festival. Much fun, lots of new and interesting music.

In June, I saw a terrific production at SF Opera of Porgy and Bess. It clicked on every level, great singing and acting; everyone did a wonderful job. Eric Owens inhabited the part of Porgy magnificently, both vocally and dramatically, depicting Porgy's growth as a character through the arc of the opera. Audiences in the Bay Area have seen him before in several pieces, including John Adams' Dr. Atomic and A Flowering Tree--both of which he did very well. But this...this was a breakthrough, a career performance by a very gifted singer.

Skipping mercifully over the rest of the summer (we all know what I did during most of it), we arrive at September and SFOpera's performance of Il Trittico (Puccini). It's a tryptich (hence the title), that moves from the dark and brooding melodrama of Il Tabarro (The Cloak) to the multiple-hanky tragedy of Suor Angelica (an opera beloved of every female-heavy opera school every built, as it has so many roles for women, much like Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmelites) and finally the manic Gianni Schicchi, the plot of which is based on a moment of Dante.

Nowadays, Schicchi and Suor get done a lot--often paired with other operas or occasionally with each other--but Tabarro, less so, as it's clearly the weak link. All three operas were very well done, but Schicchi was, in my opinion, the best. (I have a soft spot for Schicchi, having sung two of the roles in it. It's a comic gem, and despite the deservedly famous soprano chestnut, O mio babbino caro, quite modern in much of its writing, all things considering.) The set and costumes were excellent, all done up in black-and-white in a very successful visual concept. Every moment and character was comically chiseled, from the very opening notes and a strategically placed--or,should one say, held?--pillow. Paolo Gavanelli made a terrific Gianni Schicchi, Catherine Cook was--as always-- marvelous (in all three) and even the super who played the corpse of povero Buoso got applause at the end. The tour de force, though, was Patricia Racette, who sang all three parts--even rarer than a performance of all three operas in one evening--and was wonderful in all three. She seemed to have her tongue firmly in cheek as Lauretta who, in this performance, was a sweet young airhead--and as blonde as blonde can be.

Finally, I attended the opening of the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra's 2009/2010 season. Until recently, the BSO was conducted by Kent Nagano, who stayed connected with the symphony for some 30 years, despite his jetsetting international career. When he finally decided to step down, the symphony mounted an extensive, two year search for his replacement and chose the talented young Portuguese conductor Joana Carneiro. The BSO had offered a great price to new subscribers--both a savvy marketing strategy and a kind gesture in a bad economy--who were welcomed with an apricot rose and a note at their seats. The BSO played three pieces: John Adam's ingratiating The Chairman Dances, Gabriela Lena Frank's Peregrinos (which I was alone among most of my friends colleagues in really liking--I especially enjoyed the textural and timbral aspects of the piece), for the first half, and Bartok's beloved Concerto for Orchestra for the seond half. The Bartok is one of my many favorite 20th century pieces and it was well-played, in general, although it had its moments of mushiness and imprecision, and occasionally lacked the complete power and bite that I like to hear in certain parts of the piece. The Adams felt suitably dance-like and the Frank was nicely played. Carneiros was great: a crisp and expressive conductor who is also fun to watch.

And she wears a skirt! As an aside, it gave me such a warm feeling to watch and hear yet another talented woman conductor on the podium. The Bay Area has been gifted with a number of them over the years: JoAnn Falletta, Sara Jobin, J. Karla Lemon, and Martha Stoddard, to name just a few that I've known and heard.

All in all, the opening was a bit of a love-fest between a knowledgable Berkeley audience, Joana Carneiros, and the BSO, with Frank,their new creative director, and local treasure, Adams , on hand. An auspicious start to what will hopefully be a great partnership.

What I'm working on: audition repertory for Germany, natch. Although getting over a nasty cold.

What I'm reading: Mercedes Lackey's Phoenix series (a sequel to her Obsidian trilogy). Re-reading David Weber space novels on my Kindle (thanks, Mom!).

Thursday, May 14, 2009

After a bit of a hiatus

It's been a busy time for me since I came back from Deutschland at the end of January...and I've been a totally delinquent blogger, mea culpa, folks.

I've had lots of rehearsing, auditioning, and performing, including Micaela in Carmen, concerts with the Athena Trio (of arias and duets) and Vinaccesi Ensemble (of great 17th century music). Next up: new music, hot off the twenty-first century press. In the midst of all this: decisions about downsizing...dealing with the economy, mono in the family, etc., etc., and so forth.

What prompted my return, other than guilt? (Never underestimate the siren call of guilt...) Over the past month, I've heard, read, and seen pieces so good that I feel compelled to write about them.

What I saw: StarTrek (2009). Oh my! This is a feast for Trekkies and the unitiated few alike. What was a cultural phenomenon is now a warm, feel-good return, with all sorts of sly, prequel-ish comments. Besides the overused cliche of a de rigeur, post-Matrix, multi-opening metal-clawed villain ship, there are very few missteps in this marvelous film. I have to see it again, so that I can relish more of the references and repartee.

What I heard: Donato Cabrero and the SF Symphony performing Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (in the familiar Ravel orchestration). Cabrero stepped in at the last minute--with very limited rehearsal time, according to what I heard--to replace the ailing Alistair McNeal, who had himself been a replacement for Oliver Knussen, also due to illness. The Mussorgsky is one of my favorite warhorses, and Cabrera made Davies Hall rock with it. Textures, voicings, and timbres were particularly illuminating: I heard a clarity of detail and interpretation that has generally gotten lost in a muddy wash in past performances. Tempi were nice, too. Cabrera got a standing O for good measure--deservedly so.

What I read: Rupert Kingfisher's Madame Pamplemousse and her Incredible Edibles. A delightful--and quick--MG read about a young Parisian girl who can cook. The villain of the piece is her dreadful Uncle Lard...and I'll leave the rest to you to read. Beyond my personal dismay at the heroine's name, Madeleine (which is enshrined in my memory--any French protagonist named Madeleine, no matter the spelling will forever be Ludwig Betelmans'), I loved this old-fashioned tale.

I also read Nation, by Terry Pratchett. I'm a big Pratchett fan: I've devoured most of his Discworld books, the Unseen Academicals, Wintersmith, etc. So when I first started Nation, I knew I was in for a good read. ButI put it down after some pages, finding the opening slow somehow. It had won the L.A. Book Prize... It was by Terry Pratchett, and yet... Skip a few weeks here. Finally I picked the book back up and loved it: the book gets better and better as it picks up steam and winds up with a wonderfully moving ending. Along the way, Pratchett deals with life, the universe, and everything.

And last but oh-so-not least: Neil Gaimon's Newbery-winning Graveyard Book: a briliant, poignant, moving book about growing up, moving on, living and caring. 'Nuff said. Go read it!

What I'm working on right now: music by Bay Area composers: Jean Ahn's song cycle Open (2005) and Mark Alburger's Sex and Delilah (2009, part of his larger Bible opera).

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Wozzeck, Leaving Munich, and the Name of the Wind

Once again, I'm behind in my posting...a perpetual situation, sad to say...

I left Munich on the morning of Jan. 26, heading northward to Oldenburg (near Hamburg) for an agent audition, and then Avignon, for a house audition.

It's always hard leaving Munich, as I do so love the city. There was much to do that I didn't or couldn't get to--next time perhaps. Most importantly, I had hoped to see the Bavarian State Opera's production of Wozzeck (Berg) a second time (I saw it in November, shortly after it opened). But despite the recessioin--which doesn't seem to have hit Bavaria quite as hard as it has affected some parts of the world, and certainly not as hard as the U.S.--the performances were sold out, as were the Bavarian State Orch. concerts this weekend, which is a wonderful thing in these and any times.

Why see an opera a second time in only a few months? In this case, because it was a marvelous production of a well-played and well-conducted (Kent Nagano) 20th century masterwork. The staging concept was brilliant: the stage itself was covered with a layer of water, and the action alternated between there, with the singers slogging along the soggy stage, and a large, raised open box, i.e. a room with the fourth wall missing. All sorts of metaphors come to mind that fit both Wozzeck and the staging as a commentary on society, its cluelessness, and its complicity in Wozzeck's fate. As I said, it was brilliant and it worked. Yet, somehow, the personal pathos of the opera's ending was missing for me. I find that so often when a stage director chooses to go for social commentary in a sort of large-scale, abstract way, the immediacy of the intimate, personal drama can drop out for me. But again, this is me; I'm not sure everyone reacts this way. In any case, the piece was very well played and conducted, and dramatically sung. Afterwards, Nagano gamely waded out in galoshes for his curtain call, which made most of the audience smile and applaud even more loudly.

My morning before the 10:30 train was a whirlwind of winding-up activity of the mundane kind.

The train ride to Oldenburg was pleasant. Everything you've heard about German trains is accurate: it's a punctual pleasure to ride the Deutschebahn system!

Oldenburg has a beautiful, compact old-town center, with Rathaus, church, etc. Boy, was it cold, too: I gratefully went into a tea shop for a hot cup of chamomile tea to warm myself up after spending an hour or so wandering around the city center. No subway, but an efficient bus system makes getting around the town quite reasonable.

Audition was fine; I sang well and then zoomed out to the train station.

What I'm listening to: beyond my memories of Wozzeck, the role of Micaela from Carmen, as I've been re-working her for performances in CA in March.

What I'm reading: The Name of the Wind. This is an excellent--and long--fantasy debut by Patrick Rothfuss. Perfect for lots of traveling. It has entertained me on the train ride to and from Oldenburg, and I'm eagerly awaiting the sequel.

Monday, January 26, 2009

New Music from Greece & Dentistry (both in Munich)

(Still catching up...)

Ah, the joys of a dental emergency (temporarily-attached crown fell out). And yet, my dentist back home assured me that dentistry in Germany was very good. And he was right. Although I'd say the German dentist's touch was very, very heavy and rough, the assistant had a light hand that made up for it. It took a morning to locate them, get there, and get the thing repaired, but they did a great job; the whole thing could have been a whole lot worse and taken a good deal longer...And they gave me some spare dental cement, in case this should happen again before I get back home.

In the meantime, I'm waiting for my agent to get back to me about whether there will be auditions at the Theater he's thinking might have a place I could audition for. I had another audition scheduled (in northern Deutschland) yesterday, but the agent asked to move it to next week. Note: it is normal in Germany to have more than one agent.

So I'm enjoying a bit of Munich and learning my music with the electronic keyboard software (open source) thatI installed on my laptop. Very useful.

I spent the afternoon visiting a wonderful, intelligent and intellectual woman who runs a guesthouse in Munich. I met her the last time I was in Munich. We had tea and talked, while she put up with my German, correcting me--politely but firmly--all the way. We spoke of history, politics, families, Berlin before and after reunification, Munich, the U.S., the world, long-term global trends, you name it. We talked for 3 hours, and I would have gladly stayed longer, but had to leave for an appoinment.

That night, we went to a concert together, along with one of her tenants, a very nice PR person from Barcelona. It was a chamber concert of new music by Greek composers, at the Black Box theater in the Gasteig, sponsored by the Volkshochschule and the Greek ambassador. There are apparently very strong historical ties between Germanyand Greece (and no, it's not just because the names of both countries start with the letter "G" in English ;)...)

My friend doesn't get out much, due to debilitating arthritis, but a former tenant of hers, a brilliant Japanese marimba player, was playing the first piece and had begged her to come listen.

It was a superb concert:
Anastasio Mitropoulos "Get it Right" for solo marimba (2008)
Aristides Strongylis "Das Orakel" for harp and clarinet (2000-1)
Dmitri Terzakis "Le soleil des eaux" for solo piano (2008)
Georgia Spiropoulos "Ephemerals & Drones" for harp, double bass and drums (2006/7)
Dimitri Terzakis "Studieueber den Rubin" for clarinet and piano (2007)
Minas Borboudakis, "Unisono" for two percussionists (2003)

Now, I like new music: I like hearing it and I like performing it.Yet without tonality and traditional forms, often new music can be a challenging listen, sometimes even lacking any kind of raison d'etre. Why put those notes there and these rhythms here? Why this shape or that structure? Why this silence and that barrage of sound? Why end now? Why not?
Beginnings are the easiest to understand, endings often hard and unclear, and the middle--much like in an unsatisfactory novel--messy. When a piece works well, one loses sense of time passing: once the piece ends, one feels a combined sense of "Over so soon?" and "Yes, that felt just right." But it's hard to achieve: so often a piece of new music will end arbitrarily, signaled by the musician laying down her instrument instead of by the piece feeling like it has ended. Pauses in the middle of the piece--if they go on a split second too long--make the audience wonder if the end has (sometimes mercifully) arrived.

Having said all that, new music is still worth it. There's the exciting newness of it and a sense of discovery. When it works, it really can work incredibly well.

Overall, most of these pieces were very, very satisfying. The sonic universe was varied and appealing, with interesting timbres and modal harmonies.The outer pieces showcased percussive athleticism and virtuosity and were performed with vigor and verve. (Indeed all the pieces struck me as decidedly difficult to play--kudos to the performers).

The opening marimba piece was flashy, showing off bravura technique (as the title suggests). And "Das Orakel" was marvelous. I was enchanted by the way the clarinet and harp worked together and how well they fit each other as well as the color of the piece. One so often hears flute and harp, but I liked this combination better. (I love the timbre of the clarinet anyway). I wasn't totally convinced that the piece ended when, where, and how my ear wanted, but that's my ear and a single listening.

After the fascinating modalities and colors of the opening two pieces, the sound of a solo piano, with its equal-tempered tuning, was almost too bland in comparison. Once my ears re-tuned, though, it was okay.

Midpoint in the concert came the marvelous "Ephemerals and Drones." Using extended techniques for timpani, double bass, and harp--and conducted by the percussionist--the piece started with otherworldy sonorities that made me think of the bottom of the ocean, or the sounds from inside the hull of a ship--creaking, groaning, low and deep. I lost myself in the flow of this piece: it was that stunning, as was the final percussion duet. "Studie ueber den Rubin" was another wonderful piece, although I wasn't convinced it hung together completely. And the "Unisono" was simply amazing, both in terms of its performers (unison playing by two talented percussionists) and as a piece.

Musicians: Ensemble Oktopus, made up of percussionists Carlos Vera Larrucea, bastien Ricquebourg, and Kana Omori; pianist Anke Blumental; clarinettist, stephanie Faltermeier; harpist Stella Farina; and double bass player Sergej Konyakhyn.

My friend had a great time, and so did I.

What I'm reading: Jenny Nimmo's latest two Charlie Bone stories for middle grade readers. I've finished one (Charlie Bone and the Wilderness Wolf/ Beast--the titles in Europe are slightly different from in America, I think) and will save Charlie Bone and the Shadow of Badlock (the latest) for my next train ride. This is a dark but fun fantasy series about kids who are descended from the Red King, who was himself a good, magical king. Not all his descendants are. Each child has a different magical gift, and there is always a battle between good and evil (among the kids and the adults). I've enjoyed the series immensely, although there are usually sequel-type endings and sometimes questions get begged with authorial sleight of hand.
WARNING to the parent of a tender-hearted younger but skilled MG reader: people, including kids and parents, get hurt and/or die in this series on a regular basis. The first book (Midnight for Charlie Bone) was especially good. These are quick, light reads (despite being dark ;).

What I'm listening to: see above.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Knitting, Phoning, and Ice Skating in Munich (not simultaneously)

Photos of the Karl gate and The Traveller, and then the iceskating rink at Karls Platz along a close-up of the helper skating bears.

Dealing with phones in Europe can be...challenging. And expensive. If you have internet access, Skype video calling is free to another computer with Skype. If you're willing to deal with mixed call quality, you can also use Skpe-Out for a VOIP call at a low price (no subscription required, just $10 pay as yougo.) You can also rent a phone, but I never have, so I can't say anything about it.

If you don't have good/ cheap internet access or if you need a European cell phone number, check out (They are one of many such providers, but I have used them with some success.) There you can buy various phone services, including unlocked phones, international access numbers, and international Pay-as-you go SIM cards for a country or a region. I wouldn't say the phone I bought was all that sturdy--it broke when I dropped it after a year--but it wasn't expensive and did the trick. (You can only use your phone from home if it is a tri or quad band, as Europe, North America, and other continents use differing band widths. Or if your phone company has an international plan--which tends to be pricey.)

Because I wanted a German phone number--for singing in Germany it's helpful--I bought a Vodaphone SIM card from Telestial. Overall I've been pleased with Vodaphone (parent company of Verizon, for you corporate types), although there have been some speed bumps on my telephone ride. I have a Call-Ya (pre-paid/ pay as you go) account. It can be a pain: when you run out of money, it will add 2 euros but once that's used up, it won't let you call or text, or even receive a call or text, even though that is free. Topping up is easy (buy at Tabak store) if you're in Germany; otherwise not. But supposedly I can pick up voicemail out of the country and the number will be mine forever--as long as I keep money on it and use it occasionally. We shall see.
As mentioned, after I killed off my previous cheapie by dropping it, I bought another phone at a Vodaphone store, without a contract. NB: If you do buy a cell phone in Munich (or anywhere else for that matter), be careful and shop around. Nearly every place will quote you a different price. When I bought my current one, a cute hot pink number (the guy apologized that they only had pink, but hey, I LIKE pink), I heard prices between 49 and 119.

Vodaphone's warranty is great and they stand behind it. Despite the fact that I got the phone at a low price, when it stopped working--wouldn't charge or turn on for me--they replaced it with another adorable pink one, just like my old phone. The new phone is working fine. The photos on this post, as well as the previous one, all come from it.
On to knitting: a number of my friends and relatives are knitting mavens. (I was one once, too, but with tendinitis, I've had to hang up the knitting needles, although my fingers still itch in that direction and I occasionally give in). I went on a yarn hunt for N.--she had run out of a beautiful German yarn 3/4 of the way through a blanket--and found Laniolo, a marvelous store run by the knowledgeable Katharina Ritter. Hers was the only store here in Munich that carries the brand N. was looking for, and Frau Ritter recognized the yarn style. Unfortunately, she didn't stock it, as it didn't suit the needs of the local market. I took a picture of the store for my friend, T., who "collects" interesting knitting stores, but the lighting wasn't all that hot. So instead, here's a link to Lanaiolo:

What I'm reading: The December issue of Analog, a great sci-fi/ fantasy magazine that I've been hooked on since I was 12.

What I'm listening to: Outdoor chordal accordion pop tunes and Andes band music (a four-man group with wood flute, bass, percussion, guitar, and vocals) in different parts of the Marienplatz. Nice. They were far enough from each other that they didn't compete all that much.
Next time: A great new music concert I went to a few days ago...



It's wonderful to be back! I love this city--eine meiner Liebslingsstaedte auf der Welt (one of my favorite cities in the world)--with its plentiful pedestrian walkways, great public transportation, and feeling of Gemuetlichkeit. I have spent much time here in the last six months, and would gladly spend much more.

Munich is beautiful and cozy in the nicest way. It's also safe-- the locals are proud to tell you that it is the safest city in Europe--and it's possibly the only city/ urban area where I have felt 100% comfortable out on the street alone at 11 p.m. on a weeknight.

The Altstadt (old town) is roughly a circle and easily walkable. But anywhere within the ring--and within much of Munich as well, you are only 1-3 blocks away from a tram, bus, underground (U-Bahn) or subway (S-Bahn, Schnellbahn). The map above only shows the U- and S-Bahn connections... And the connections are frequent, at least on the main lines.

I arrived late on a Saturday and ran a few errands before taking a walk through the beautiful Marienplatz. Because I had spent nearly two months this past fall in Munich, it felt like coming back to a home away from home. Ahhh.

Munich and Bavaria are very traditional and Catholic, so almost everything commercial closes down on Sunday. But stores stay open every other day until 8 p.m. Still, I knew I'd have to hustle if I wanted to fill my frig with inexpensive yummies and basic food for Sunday.

One of my first stops was a bakery in the S- Bahn station at Karlplatz/ Stachus (one stop from the Hauptbahnhof/ Central Train station). They've got a Nougatthaler that became a total favorite my last time here: two shortbread cookies with a dense hazelnut/chocolate cream filling that's not gooey. Delicious! Then the usual things: carrot salad (the Vinzenmurr chain makes one that I love), Feldsalat (my favorite kind of lettuce lately), Balsamico for the dressing, a bit of ham (Schinken), a couple of Semmel (small plain rolls), and a little jam. Then I was set for food for Sunday.

Next up: a new Asterix. I love reading graphic novels and I especially find it fun to read them in foreign languages. It's a great way to gain reading proficiency (up to a point) and increase vocabulary. Asterix and Obelix (from France) have been favorites ever since I encountered them in Switzerland when I was 15, and they're available in a number of languages. Hmm, so many to choose from. This was hard.

Over by Karlplatz/Stachus, across from the Hugendubel bookstore and right at the end of Neuhausstrasse, they've put in an outdoor ice skating rink for the holidays, just like in San Francisco. It made me feel right at home yet again. They have these huge plastic bears on mini-skis that the kids can push around if they don't know howto skate yet: adorable and sehr praktisch. I stopped and watched people skate for a while until I got chilled.

When I'd left Munich in November, there was a new installation going in at the end of Neuhausstrasse. (Neuhausstr. is one end of the pedestrian walkway that leads to the Marienplatz). It was finished a day or so before I left and was still up, smack in the middle of cobblestones, old, architecture, and restaurants like the Augustiner. Called "The Traveller," it was installed to promote the new Louis Vitton store and is by Belgian artist Arne Quinze. It 's a neon reddish_orange mini-forest of urban trees, if a forest were made of wooden 2x4s stuck into cement. The piece should stickout like a sore thumb, as it doesn't fit in at all--and it does in a glaring and jarring way. Yet somehow it winds up being intensely cool, very interesting, and somehow does fit--or perhaps I'm just used to it.

What I'm reading: Finished The Accidental Sorcerer (K.E. Mills). The book got darker and more serious from about the midpoint on--sort of changing its genre a bit in midstream, which made the middle a bit messier than it needed to be perhaps--but it was still a good read. I'm looking forward to getting the other books in the series from the library when I get home.

What I'm listening to: Studying Joseph Marx Lieder for my upcoming concert.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Dolomite photos: yes, books can change your life

Two photos of the Dolomites from the garden in front of the Villa Madruzzo. Note the lack of snow: I'm told it's not been a very snowy winter. E. also told me that I arrived in Trento for the warmest day of the winter--for which I and my thin Californian blood are grateful.

My greatgrandparents may well have come from the Alto Adige/ Dolomite region. Their last name, Zeisler, is apparently very common in the Sud-Tirol/ Dolomite area, according to any number of local folks. (Several have even suggested I grab the phone book and start dialling Zeislers until I find one I'm related to. But I don't quite have enough chutzpah to do it yet. Maybe another trip.) Plus my dad maintained that my greatgrandmother, Rosie, spoke fluent Italian. I do remember my greatgrandmother, and a little bit of my greatgrandfather, as they both lived into their mid-90s, but Rosie never spoke any Italian to me--at least as far as I can remember.
I have always loved the Alps, and have felt a special affinity for the Dolomites. So perhaps it's true.

Why else do I love the Alps so--beside their incredible grandeur and beauty? What's not to like, right?

Well, the underlying reason is a prime example of the power of books to change a person's life.

When I was little, I read "Heidi" and adored the descriptions of the Alps, the simple cheese and bread--everything about the book. There was an inner and outer coziness about it that warmed my heart. I didn't want to live Heidi's story, but oh, how I was in love with the it all! As a result, when I decided to do an exchange program as a teenager, I chose to go to Switzerland, and I spent the summer in the French-speaking part of the Swiss Alps (the next summer, too--I had to go back). I'm still friends with my former host family and go back periodically to visit them and their special corner of the world. That summer influenced me in many ways, both long-term and immediate.
Had I not read "Heidi," who knows where I might have gone instead? And who knows whether or not I'd feel any affinity for the mountains, beyond any potential ancestral Ur-memory?


Trento (#3 in my series of catch-up posts)

Back in my first Italian train this trip, the one to Livorno, my arrival in my compartment was a bit like a scene from a movie: nearly full train and full compartment (completely full, as someone was in my seat. It is obligatory to make a reservation in Italy for trains such as the Eurostar, but not everyone does, of course.) Nanette rolling into the compartment with big suitcase and the rest of the compartment pitching in--all except someone's wonderful elderly father, who dozed the whole time, other than when bumped by said suitcase, at which point he woke up and looked over at us indignantlly--to heft the suitcase onto the luggage rack, since there was no room for it in the aisle or at my feet. The father's short adult son was doing the honors, aided by an equally short but sturdy woman. Luggage stowed, backs intact, we were on our way. Basta cosi. At the end of the trip, the process was reversed and off I went.

Trento is a beautiful historic town. Built on top of Roman ruins, the city is most famous for hosting the Council of Trent in the mid-16th century. The Council lasted about 20 years and instituted a number of major reforms in the Catholic Church in response to Martin Luther and others involved in the Protestant Reformation.

Trent pictures (above)
5) Theater 3) the piazza dell'Duomo, with a not-great photo of E. 4) A street in Trent 2) Casa Rella frescos 1) faculty of sociology

My hotel--E. has a cat and I'm allergic--was a wonderful internet special (I sing the praises of for Italian reservations),the Villa Madruzzo. The staff was warm and welcoming, the service impeccable, and the site a lovely, park-like setting overlooking the mountains. Breakfast was a wonderfully huge buffet that my husband would have loved, in an elegant dining room.
I'll post a view of Dolomites from the Villa Madruzzo's garden below.

The hotel is the former residence for the bishopric. It's a bit out of the centre of town, but that was okay, since I was with friends.
For dinner, we went to E's brother's restaurant, La Posada. We ate a regional speciality called (I'm pretty sure) canerdeli, plus a great pizza bianca.
Since arriving in Italy, I've been speaking fluent Germian: a disconcerting mixture of Italian and German. Occasionally when I'm stuck, French pops in. What makes it particularly disconcerting is that I'm not aware that I've switched languages until I'm several words into the changeover. I haven't been in Italy long enough for the Italian to take over, and I'm hoping not to lose my incipient ability to actually speak the German language with any hint of fluency, as a result. I think if I were to spend more time in Italy this trip, it would sort itself out, but I'll only be in Italy for 3+ days total. E. speaks German, as well as Italian of course, and her partner speaks Italian and a bit of English. They've dealt with my totally spasmoid linguistic disability with grace and kindness and we've had a great visit.
And it was so wonderful to see E. again (we did a course at the Goethe Institut zusammen)!!!
What I'm reading: Finished Hectors Reise (finally--took me long enough but--in my defense--it was auf Deutsch, which I read slowly).

What I've been listening to: The sound of the wind in the mountains


On to Livorno .

It wasn't that long a trip from Germany to Italy, but it was--to mix a metaphor--
quite a sea change. The air was cold and crisp, the wind brisk and chilling,
but it was warmer than Berlin: I could step outside without a coat for a moment and
not freeze. And the sea was nearby. It wasn't beach weather, but still.

Here's a picture from the front of the train station in Livorno: note the vibrant palm trees.

Now, I really do like Berlin. But the place I had been staying was underheated, especially at night, and I'd been sick. So I was oh-so-grateful for a slightly warmer climate.

Before anyone gets too excited about the warmer weather, let me point out that it was still cold and blustery.

The next day, I had my company audition at 3. Promptly at 2, a wonderful Italian soprano (spinto), a Korean baritone and I arrived and waited outside--and I do mean outdoors--the audition location, a choir hall. In the cold, windy air. Luckily there was
a little shelter from the wind and a patch of sunshine. Note that I no longer felt at all warm: I had--stupidly--worn a light-weight outer layer to the audition
because it had been nice outside and my winter coat is a desperately lumpish, stylistic-death, two-sizes-too-large, worn-looking but super toasty ski jacket. Makes me look like Nanook of the North instead of the dashing diva. Did I mention it's super toasty...

But I digress.

So it was very cold, and the three of us got to the audition an hour early. And waited. And waited. At 3 on the dot, the Maestro and pianist drove into the courtyard to let us in and start the auditions, thank goodness. They were charming, in the Italian style. Shortly after, a few
thereafter other singers started to dribble in. After a bit of organizing and talking to the accompanist, the auditions got going, in a tiny, very bright, live room, with a wonderfully powerful portable heater. I toasted up immediately. I got to go first, which is always my preference.

The Maestro spent a long time talking with me and hearing me sing (and with the next singer, my Italian spinto friend, too,). I sang three arias, 3/5 of the Italian rep I'd brought with me that day. (The other two Italian pieces would have been a challenge for the accompanist to read, for differing reasons, include recitative.) Three arias tends to be a good sign for an audition.

One forgets how lavish with fulsome praise Italians can be! It makes singing an audition such a pleasure--not that the praise means you'll get hired, but it still feels nice to hear how wonderful you are instead of the American "Thank you," or the German brutal truth. On the other hand, I'd rather hear the brutal truth: I can learn and grow from it, whereas I can't improve if someone tells me I'm the bestest and the mostest but doesn't hire me. Still, that's personal taste, and it can be a mite hard on the ego.

The next morning, I was catching a train to Trento, where my friend E. lives. (I was making a slight detour on my way to Munich.) The second photo is a picture of the ceiling of the train station in Livorno--just a local train station and yet it's stunning: the beauty in the decorative arts and architecture in Italy--as in much of Europe--never ceases to amaze.

What I'm listening to: Schoenberg Op. 2. Studying for my concert. Not in the train, though, it's too loud. (And let's not talk about the average level of cleanliness, basic repair, and overall availability of bathrooms in Italian vs. German trains. Whatever you've heard, it's probably true.)

What I'm reading: 1) Continuing with my Arabic alphabet book. Now I have 6 more letters (for a total of 13) that I can be illegible with. Arabic script is beautiful, but I find the
curved characters hard to recognize and decipher when I look at a word, and I'm certainly nowhere near adequate at writing my 13 characters. 2) The Accidental Sorcerer by K.E. Mills. Fun book, sort of in the Terry Pratchett comedic school of light fantasy. The first of a series. I'm about halfway through it.

What I'm working on: same old, same old--but I do like the same old.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


Note: this is the first in my catch-up series...

I left the U.S. on Jan. 10 for a few more auditions. Plus my agent in Deutschland had told me he hoped to have something to send me to when I was here.

First stop: Berlin.

But really, the first stop was JFK--5 1/2 hours in the airport (from 10:30 p.m. to 4 a.m.) while the airplane was moved from one terminal to another and then prepared for us. Miserable. De-icing was the icing on the cake, so to speak, but at least that was necessary and logical. The rest of the delay was...somewhat ridiculous.

Second stop: Berlin. No. Not yet. Despite the fact that we arrived at London Heathrow a little before 3 and that my flight was at 3:45, the merciless minions at Heathrow declared that there was not enough time to catch my flight and bumped me onto the 7:20 flight to Berlin--after I had dashed through the airport to try to make it. So roughly 4 hours in Heathrow.

I'm going to avoid Heathrow in the future if I can--it has seemed to be a black hole of delays every time I've flown here. I had the opportunity to fly through Heathrow again this trip and--hee, hee--declined.

(Why not avoid JFK, you may ask, since the delay there was even longer? Well, first, it's harder to avoid and more importantly, I've had great luck much of the time going through there. January is just tricky, weatherwise.)

Third stop: yes, finally, Berlin. Berlin Tegel is a great airport. Tidily organized and well designed. I've flown in and out of it two or three times, and have found it easy to use.

The cabbie (from the airport to hotel) was a Greek imigrant. He'd been in Berlin more than 20 years, saying that he'd come for a bit and wound up staying. He chatted about the good old pre-detente days when you could enjoy talking politics without religion coming into it. He also said that Berlin is a young, vital, energized and energetic city--and so it seems to me, too--but that there still isn't enough employment. I haven't been in Berlin enough to evaluate that statement, but he should know.

Berlin is beautiful, too: a modern city of glass and steel, with huge parks, open spaces, and stately promenades. It was cold here when I arrived, and the ground was icy. Snow was expected, but not until midweek.

On Monday, I slept in to recover from the hours and hours and hours airports without sleeep. Then I took the Ubahn and walked around Friedrichstrasse before practicing before my first audition, which was scheduled for Tuesday.

In an interesting coincidence, I met a violinist at the drugstore who was playing a concert that night as part of the West-Eastern Divan. (Concert was sold out, although they were thinking of adding a second one at 11 p.m., as they were leaving Berlin the next morning.) He was looking for a restaurant he'd seen near there the last time he was in Berlin and I caught his non-native accent. We wished each other luck, he with his concert and me with my audition. I hope he found the restaurant!

But Monday night, I got hit with a virulent 48 hour flu (I thought it might be food poisoning, but have heard from others in Germany that this is going around.) Ugh. Felt too miserable to leave the room--let alone sing--and had to postpone audition. Unfortunately the next audition date (Jan. 27) was all full, so it will have to be later. The hotel staff was very helpful and dug up some gingerale for me when I started to recover. Being by yourself in a hotel when you're sick is definitely the pits! Thank goodness I was better and able to travel on Wed. morning, as planned.

What I'm reading:
Hectors Reise oder die Suche nach dem Glueck (Francois LeLord, trans. into German). This is a sweet and whimsical tale that gets a bit slow in the middle--perhaps because I was reading it in another language. It's not a barn-stormer of a plot, but a pleasant feel-good read, nonetheless. Also, a seatmate on the flight to JFK told me about an online Graphic novel that I've just started (Grunerkrigg Court by Tom Siddell). I really liked the first chapter and will talk more about it when I get farther along in it.

What I'm working on:
Audition rep, natuerlich.

Inaugural Postscript

What a speech! Honest, tough, pragmatic, idealistic and--most of all--true. Well-delivered, of course. A speech that reflects my feelings and gives me hope for our collective future.

Read the text here (link will take you to the New York Times).

Happy Inauguration Day!

On a cold, snowy day in Munich--although it actually stopped snowing a few hours ago--I am watching the online video feed for today's inauguration. I have two sites running, one with British commentary (EuroNews on Joost) and one with American (Fox on Hulu). I've added The New York Times as well. It makes for a tri-strand antiphonal celebration that echoes (the Times feed is the first and loudest), but is nonetheless comprehensible.

It's moments like these that make us all into news junkies.

I can't remember feeling this excited and pleased at an inauguration in my adult lifetime. The "man on the street" in Germany, i.e., the taxi drivers whom I talk to--is a bit concerned that Obama will turn out to be same-old, same-old: they've watched Obama's cabinet choices and are not seeing the breath of fresh air and change that they'd thought they'd get. At least one cabbie wonders whether Obama will end up having tricked everyone. As for me, I'm hoping Obama's bringing experienced folks in to help get his own people up to speed.

Time will tell. But the world watches and waits, hoping for a turning point.

And it is more than time that we had a president who broke the barrier of prejudice. May all future elections be blind to color, creed, sex, orientation, race.

In lighter news, I've been woefully delinquent in posting here: I will come back over the next few days to fill in my recent travels to Berlin, Livorno, Trent, and Munich, as well as more about books and music, etc.

But in the meantime, happy inauguration to everyone: may today's ceremony augur well for all!

Monday, January 5, 2009

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year to all!

Here, finally, is a picture from the Christmas concert at First Church in Berkeley. From left to right are: Steven Levinow, viola, Patti Tenbrook, cello, William Ludtke organ and conductor, me, Kathleen Moss, mezzo-soprano, Paul Murray, baritone, Michael Jones, violin.

At the moment, I'm feverishly getting ready to go back to Germany...very soon...The entire suitcase/ traveling/ packing thing is always somewhat of a challenge, especially in the winter. I wish I could have a magic carpetbag, like Mary Poppins. (Failing that, I continue to be a huge fan of Eagle Creek luggage.) Where's Julie Andrews when you need her?

What I'm listening to: the incomparable Teresa Stratas singing Kurt Weill's "I'm a stranger here myself." What a performer, with those round gamine eyes and expressive voice!

What I'm reading: Write it in that people can have trouble reading my atrocious handwriting in yet another language. So far I've learned to write 7 letters.

May everyone have a 2009 that is better than your fondest hopes and wildest imaginings!