Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Pärnu: happy families, happy town


This is the unofficial Estonian royal family - great patriarch (and, ever since Edinburgh University days, when he took over the reins of the Scottish National Orchestra, my conducting hero) Neeme Järvi with his always direct and engaging wife Lillja on the right, their youngest son Kristjan on the left and the other, Paavo, driving force behind the Pärnu Music Festival (read all about it, and its two superb orchestras, on The Arts Desk), fourth from left. Plus assorted children/grandchildren, some of them very talented performers in the festival's annual afternoon children's concert.

There were at least nine Järvis performing in the festival. Here are some more in the fabulous three-hour chamber music concert, which gets Neeme's daughter Maarika into the picture (left) plus her cousin Teet the cellist, centre, and two more Järvis; the fifth player was the girlfriend of another since one more Järvi couldn't make it. Both photos courtesy of the excellent Kaupo Kikkas.

I actually found some press pics from my first time in Estonia, back in 1989: a very emotional return for Neeme, who hadn't seen his family in the nine years since he'd emigrated to America and whose mother had died in his absence. That's a younger Teet on the left, I think, and one of the boys must be Madis, who's above on the right.

Teet's father Vallo, a conductor like his brother, died five years later. Here they are at the momentous Tallinn meet-and-greet. The photographer whose name is printed on the back of the photos is Kalju Suur (address: K. Marxi 34-4, Tallinn USSR).

Other families of sorts were formed in the intense week of the festival. Needless to say I started as something of an outsider, an observer, as I was supposed to be, of the great western players working with Estonian young professionals in the Festival Orchestra, but thanks to a short meeting with top violinist Ben Baker at the East Neuk Festival, I got to talk further with him there and meet his cellist friend from Yehudi Menuhin School days, Jonathan Bloxham. One lunchtime at the pleasant bar that functioned as musicians' meeting place I also started up a conversation with pianist Sophia Rahman and her partner Andres Kaljuste. All four gave an uncannily perfect performance of Korngold's Suite for Piano Quartet (no harm reproducing another of Kaupo's pictures already used on The Arts Desk here).

The 15 would-be conductors using the junior of the two orchestras as a training-ground also seemed to get on well, so there's another family for you. Trust Neeme, who was sharing some of the training with Paavo and Leonid Grin, to be still instructing them in his farewell speech.

Invited guests had their own familial agendas. Fellow reporter on the best of all festival visits was my editor on the BBC Music Magazine, Olly Condy, who came with his wife Caroline and their totally adorable six-month-old baby Alice. Here they are at the aforementioned children's concert in which the youngest of the Järvis played. It was Alice's first concert and she beamed throughout it as usual.

She beamed especially, constantly, at me, which was very gratifying. I adore this very socialised and blithe young Condy. Here PR and friend Lucy Maxwell-Stewart and I are faking - but with pleasure, albeit happy to hand Alice back to full-time care - an alternative family shot on the beach after a delicious swim.

Alice even had her toes tickled and programme signed by Arvo Pärt, whose Swansong in the final Pärnu Festival Orchestra concert, completely undid me in five minutes flat. Here he is during rehearsals with Paavo (also courtesy of Kaupo, I think).

The family outings to the seaside added an extra dimension to our time in Pärnu, Estonia's official 'summer capital' with the only major south-facing beach in the country. Mornings were spent swimming and lazing about, afternoons at rehearsals or discovering the local delights and evenings at several of the best concerts I've ever attended.

I was very grateful for the splendid exclusive tour we had around Pärnu's streets, parks and seafront given by a very delightful lady, teacher as well as guide Malle Tiidla. She'd been given a season ticket for all the festival concerts as a birthday present, so was glad to meet up with us at one of the concerts (here she is third from the left at the very spacious and foyer-handsome concert hall).

The tour lasted four hours - I have no idea if that had been the plan, but there were so many stops for babyphotos and we wanted to see so much that if she was on a tight schedule she didn't have the heart to say so.We began at the Tourist Office, which is in the handsome Town Hall of 1797 just along the street from the Catherine Church begun in 1764.

One of the many casualties of the Soviet occupation and Second World War combined was the town's main church, St Nicholas, which had been bombed but not so badly that it couldn't have been rebuilt; the Soviets, perhaps because the majority of its congregation had been German, razed it to the ground. That leaves in central position St Elizabeth, the spire of which is a feature of the old town.

The oldest building is the so-called Red Tower of the 15th century, originally used as a prison; currently neglected and unoccupied, one storey shorter and of course whitewashed.

Of the 17th century bastions built by the Swedes, the Tallinn Gate and grassy banks above a moat remain. By 1835 the Vallikääru Park had been created, and, re-landscaped, it now doubles as a harbour. The gate is now the only one of its kind left in the Baltic countries.

Just along the street from it is the home Functionalist architect Olev Siinmaa built for himself in 1933. He fled to Sweden 11 years later, leaving behind numerous examples of his work in Parnu.

Pärnu was once a major Hanseatic port on the route to Novgorod, but those days are long over; under the Soviets, the port was closed to the outside world and its status reduced to a fishing harbour. There isn't even much sign of that any more. Its bathing and convalescent attractions have remained constant since 1835, though, when what is now the de luxe Hedon Spa and Hotel was built. The wooden construction burnt down and was replaced by an odd neoclassical construction in 1927

but it's rather comfortable if ever so slightly blingy inside, and the southern facade almost on the beach is very different.

My favourite building here is the Kuursaal of the 1880s, where many popular entertainers played on both indoor and outdoor stages. There's a statue outside to composer-accordionist Raimond Valgre. Apparently songs of his should play when you sit on the bench, but I didn't hear any.

Inside the Kuursaal's vast space was deserted on a sunny afternoon

because everyone was out on the terrace. The waitresses here were supremely friendly, as elsewhere in Estonia, and as usual, one offered to take a group snap.

As for the food - simple, fresh - it was infinitely better than in any of the eateries we tried in town. There was care in presentation, too: dessert time.

The miles of white Baltic sand we had practically to ourselves on our bathing days; strongish winds had put people off, but the sea was warm even if one had to wade some distance out to be able to swim.

I made my way up via the historic Ladies' Beach in the company of Lucy the first full morning, but was left in no doubt that I could go no further than this on the second day.

Still, there were plenty of sandy accesses

and needless to say Alice was queen of the dunes.

Malle's tour took us back into town past the opulent Villa Ammende, a merchant's home from 1905 to 1927 when the family went back to Germany.

Now it's the other and most expensive of the de luxe hotels in town. I preferred the simpler, deliciously old-fashioned summer villas across the road, full of light, like the one where Anneli, down on a visit from Tallinn - more about our time there anon - stayed.

David Oistrakh loved it here - there's a plaque on the dacha where he stayed, apparently because he warmed to the Estonians' absence of antisemitism as well as the town itself. This was always 'the west' for Soviet citizens.

The place is still apparently used as a summer home but there were no signs of occupation when we were there and I thought it ought to become an Oistrakh Museum, with at least a display of photos of the great violinist on holiday and performing here.

Shostakovich came here too - this priceless photo shows him with Neeme and Paavo some time in the late 1960s/early '70s. Unusual for him to be the jolliest looking person in the picture.

Our hotel was just around the corner, plain and comfortable; strictly speaking it was more a sanatorium full of old Finns who come here in droves. For festival musicians, it was the perfect place to concentrate on a huge amount of repertoire, somewhere with which I think we all fell in love. I'll go back with J next year, that's for sure.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Domestic strife at the Frontline

A cup of coffee helps to put things right in the turbulent household of Robert and Christine Storch (aka Richard and Pauline Strauss – played above in the recent Garsington production of Strauss's Intermezzo by Mark Stone and Mary Dunleavy, photo by Mike Hoban). It takes mushrooms sprinkled with rat poison, and then a good old-fashioned strangling to solve the problem among the Izmailovs of Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk when bored and abused housewife Katerina wants a real man (my thanks to Eduard Straub for allowing me to reproduce two images from the ever-fascinating Dmitri Tcherniakov's production as first staged for Deutsche Oper am Rhein, heading for ENO soon).

We've had several summer months to put between the Strauss comedy and Shostakovich's compassionate shocker - scheduled for late September - in my Opera in Depth course at the Frontline Club. Back in mid-July we wound up in double-quick time with the happy ending of Strauss’s autobiographical marriage opera, and after doubts seeped in with Dunleavy’s less than sympathetic Christine at Garsington, and for that matter with the only half-realised production from Bruno Ravella, Felicity Lott and John Cox in the Glyndebourne production of the 1980s – the only one, I think, on DVD – won even hardened sceptics round.

It was Elisabeth Söderström who sang the first Christine at Glyndebourne, and a half-good Chandos recording exists to testify to her own doughtier charms. Flott simply owned the role, as they say: she’d figure as a great comedienne if Strauss’s excellent libretto were merely read out. With both physical glamour – which presumably the real Pauline didn’t possess – and nervous perplexity and perversity – which clearly she did - she suspends all disbelief.

Even so questions need to be asked about one crucial issue: why, when Strauss put in nearly all his real wife’s bon mots and her less attractive qualities to boot, didn’t he mention that the wife had been a superb prima donna who gave up her singing career to look after husband and son? Clearly the flighty temperament was always there, but wouldn’t it have been exacerbated by dissatisfaction that she had sacrificed her career. Christine in Intermezzo is merely a spoilt housewife with charm, if you're lucky with the performer, and that’s unfair to the autobiographical roots.

The other question that bugs me is where Christine’s presumably naïve flirtation with the young Baron Lummer – a comic take on the Marschallin-Octavian relationship deliberately evoked in fleeting moments – had its roots in real life. Everyone who loves Strauss knows the anecdote of the mistaken telegram which nearly led to divorce on grounds of infidelity. But I, for one, would like to know about the Baron Lummer saga. The point here, though, is that it mostly shows the heroine in her most attractive and even generous lights.

We will probably never know. All I can say is that with the very first class I was back in love with the score and (most of) the situations. It was also a pleasure to get to know the splendid vocabulary of Strauss's original German libretto (both the Glyndebourne and Garsington productions were sung in Andrew Porter's fine English translation - right under the circumstances, I think). That was thanks to other supreme interpreters – Lucia Popp and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau on the Sawallisch recording, more recently the wonderfully characterful and humorous Simone Schneider on a new CD set taken from a semi-staged Munich performance.

And Jeffrey Tate’s Rotterdam Philharmonic recording of the Four Interludes embraces a desert island track of mine in his very leisurely but glowing account of the “Reverie by the Fireside” – perhaps Strauss’s greatest slow movement.

Four of next season’s operatic choices for the course leaped out when English National Opera announced Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk as its opening production (second image of original Deutsche Oper am Rhein production above), Verdi’s La forza del destino to follow  and Tristan und Isolde as its big show of next summer, while the Royal Opera’s Boris Godunov, directed by Richard Jones and conducted by Antonio Pappano, ought to be among their best successes. I knew I couldn’t justify a whole half-term on Enescu’s Oedipe or Gerald Barry’s The Importance of Being Earnest, so why not spend three Mondays on the tragedy and two on the groundbreaking operatic comedy? Mark Wigglesworth has promised to come and talk about the first two new productions he'll be conducting in his first season as ENO's Music Director, and I hope Richard will return for Boris. Join us at the wonderful Frontline from late September; contact me for details on david.nice@usa.net. Oh, and yes, I admit it, this is a 'shop-window' entry.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Tonnara di Scopello

'When I first came to Scopello I thought only that it was the most beautiful place I had ever seen,' wrote Gavin 'Ring of Bright Water' Maxwell in the first chapter of The Ten Pains of Death. When we first came there in June, I knew nothing of his time at the tuna fishery headquarters just below the settlement of Scopello di Sopra, Upper Scopello, in the north-west of Sicily. What drew us were friend Cally's lyrical paeans to the Riserva Naturale dello Zingaro, just under two kilometres from Scopello along a dead-end read and a natural paradise with seven kilometres of coastline undeveloped save for a line of pylons and several simple settlements (plus a good deal of land behind it). Of which more anon, though I want to declare, and show, immediately that from the upper coast path, that certainly is one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen (but there are so many!)

In the long term, the knowledge of Maxwell's time in Sicily during the late 1950s triggered off a fascination with a notoriously difficult and complex individual, one certainly worth reading about in Douglas Botting's biography, with its prose as clear and eloquent as Maxwell's own but also an excessive coyness about its subject's homosexuality (time for a new study). Now is not the place to write about it, except to note that one of this infuriating but - if only at the end of his life as recounted in the biography - rather lovable man's many dishonesties was not to so much as mention his key to the wonderful series of locals' narratives of which The Ten Pains of Death consists.

You'd think from it that Maxwell was a fluent Italian speaker; he wasn't, and even if he had been, he wouldn't have penetrated the Sicilian dialect. His lifeline was a young barber's apprentice referred to in Botting's biography only as 'Giuseppe M' - why? For reasons of political safety? - 'who with Gavin's support and encouragement was to rise to become a radical political leader in...Palermo'. When this brilliant supporter - and lover, perhaps? - needed Maxwell's help the most in later years, taking the brunt of the offence they had caused the powers backing the Mafia in their first book together, the writer - beset, it's true, with more than his usual tranch of self-made troubles - cut him off.

What needs to be asserted, then, is that 'Giuseppe M' wrote most of the book, or rather that it is his interviews which were translated into English, and yet he gets not a mention; the dedication comes 'with profound affection and sympathy to the common people of Western Sicily, who know the ten pains of death'. It is their chronicle of suffering and courage, a common portrait in which the church and state come off very poorly indeed (in what I presume was Maxwell's ordering, the immediate contrasts between the prostitute and the nun, interviewed no doubt by Giuseppe, leave one in no doubt which of the two is more honest).

No doubt Maxwell's sympathy with the people was genuine, and his book - along with its predecessor, God Protect Me from My Friends about the bandit Salvatore Giuliano, which I have here to read next - gave a richer and more frank portrait of Sicilian peasant life than any other.

How things have changed since then, first with the economic boom of mainland Italy finally reaching southwards in the 1970s and '80s, then with European Commission funding transforming towns and villages, and the fear of the Mafia finally lessened (though of course that spider is far from extinct). Scopello is a case in point (above: a table in the main square. The main Bar Pasticceria, which bakes its cakes above the shop, is so perfect that one wonders how the sad bar opposite ever does any business). When Maxwell visited it Scopello di Sopra was semi-deserted:

Until a very few years ago there were some three or four hundred people living...[there], but because they nearly all had relations in the United States, or Canada, or Brazil, or Australia - (and, if the truth be told, because many of them had bettered their lots by smuggling contraband into Scopello tonnara) - the greater part of them decided to escape from the squalor of life in Sicily and have emigrated. Now there are only some 50 people left, and they too dream for most of the time of escape [later Maxwell explains that most houses are deserted because the emigrants never sold them, hoping to come back one day - which, it seems, many did].

There is a little piazza of crazily uneven paving-stones and loose boulders, with an unadorned stone fountain at its centre [the fountain, against a wall, was being renovated and under wraps when we visited]; above, the bare stone mountains climb steeply into the sky [night shot from the village follows]

and below, the land tilts abruptly seaward. Already, when one leaves the last of the scarecrow houses and begins twisting one's ankles among the big loose stones of the track, one is on a gradient of one in four; looking back, one is aware of having skirted a cliff upon the very lip of which Scopello di Sopra is built (below, the crag above the Tonnara boathouse).

And immediately one is looking down on the sea a mile below [sic: surely much less than a mile - that would be Ravello to sea level on the Amalfi coast, and that takes hours to reach from the coast], a sea of purple and blue and peacock green, with a jagged cliff coastline and great rock towers or faraglioni thrusting up out of the water as pinnacle islands, pale green with the growth of cactus at their heads.

Now there's a ticket office in the daylight hours at the top of the track leading down to the tonnara. I couldn't work out from my ticket whether it's privately or state owned, but you can stay in the palazzo where the owners lived. The tonnara, used by the Arabs thousands of years earlier, ceased functioning in the 1980s, and when Maxwell stayed here, the season was the worst for many years, forcing him to change the theme of his book. I'd love to return and stay right on the sea in May or October, but even on a mid-June weekday the place was very busy with bathers and swimmers.

I still loved it, and the bathing in the brilliant blue and emerald water was a delight, because you just lower yourself in from the harbour and there's no need to wade out for further depth. J didn't want to with so many folk about, but snoozed pleasantly in a deckchair under the solitary tree with one of the many cats for company.

Later we both swam at another beach along the coast. It was the end of the day so the rather hilarious Italian pop blaring from the beach hut soon left us in peace.

Our accommodation started badly: the warmly-recommended La Tranchina was full, and I'd found a small pensione in the village. It would have been fine, if a tad cramped, had the air conditioning worked. But it was broken and who knew, said the slightly melancholy but pleasant owner, when the engineers would come from Palermo. Since we'd had a sleepless (until 4am) night sweating with the small window shut because, when opened, the noise of other air conditioners was even worse, we moved headquarters to the simple and spacious hotel round the corner, the Torre Bennistra, one of two with magnificent views along the coastline. The other, La Tavernetta, had a charming hostess and our favourite restaurant, looking both ways, not least towards the celebrated bakery where we bought our rich lunches for walks in the Zingaro, Pane Cunzatu.

Its neon sign below the crescent moon is rather flash for Scopello, which is mostly rather quiet and fortunately unexpandable (I hope and pray, but the geology surely wouldn't permit growth). Though things were livening up, and the cafes filling with Italian men in Godfather-style black suits,  for two weddings on the afternoon of our departure.

We managed two big-ish walks, hikes, call them what you will, in the Zingaro. On a morning when the few spots of rain and grey skies, seen here from the hotel room balcony (so yes, we finally got a sea view),

quickly cleared, we made our way to the park entrance. The history is an unusually heartening one for Sicily, especially in the 1980s when I first visited on an Interrailing trip - east coast, Lipari and Stromboli - and found everyone so dour compared to the mainland Italians. A coast road was proposed from Scopello to the bigger resort of San Vito lo Capo on the northernmost tip of the peninsula. Six thousand environmentalists showed up to protest in May 1980 and the result was Sicily's first national park, opened the following year.

The lower path, even in mid-June, was as busy as the standard Cinque Terre route. Compared to the upper route, its sea views were modest, but looking upwards past the small palms to the heights gave it a different grandeur.

It was a fiercely windy day, so much so that I didn't notice the sun getting at parts which I hadn't suncreamed up properly (result: burnt upper arms and legs). So the sea off the many idyllic little beaches which should provide stopovers was too rough to swim in. I loved the dramatic (and deserted) Cala Marinella where we had our Pane Cunzatu and fruit, though.

Limited geological knowledge gives me only very basic information about the folds and striations which make yet another case of nature outstripping art: the fundamental rock formations of the Zingaro are dolomitic calcareous of 'mesozoic limestone'.

Several lizards with green backs, fearless and obviously on the hunt for tourists' breadcrumbs, added to the wonder of the composition:

After lunch, J made his way back along the lower path and I climbed towards a collection of refuges in a nicely greened zone called Sughero. The ascent was gentle, opening out on to highlands with outcrops of calcereous rock contrasting with what I assume was reddish sandstone.

The vegetation was sparse, and tantalising route markers illustrating a wide variety of orchids suggested it would be good to come a month earlier, but still I found quite a range of plants I could identify and many I couldn't. On the rocks, spotted or clustered with orange lichen, were a type of sempervivum

and some of the lichen was plant-like in itself.

Cistus still flowered in between the sporadic holm oaks

and once descending past the outcrop of the Pizzo del Corvo at about 400m

those strikingly blue eryngiums I've also seen on the dunes of north Norfolk began to appear.

To complement the colour, it was here and only here on two occasions that I came across a number of exquisite small blue butterflies. You only see the eyes, not the colour, when they're at rest on plants:

I think this is angelica flowering with a view up a valley which would make a good start to a different circular walk on a future visit

Now the views back towards the Scopello peninsula open up

and you pass a farm with beehives

before the long descent back to the visitors' centre, with farmland the other side of the boundary fence beyond the park (which of course had also been cultivated as far as it could be before it became a reserve).

Lower down there's Euphorbia arborescens, which is supposed to have shed its last red colours in April, but here they still were.

and the long thryrsi of agaves formed the occasional strong foreground to the coastal scenery.

The walk along the tarmac-ed road is no great hardship, since some of the villas are nicely planted with the oleanders you see everywhere in Palermo

and wilder nature still makes itself felt.

So to the delicious evenings of showering and supping, with the lights changing from pink on the mountains over the bay

to a deeper sunset looking towards Monte Passo del Lupo in the Zingaro heading towards San Vito lo Capo.

Romantic, yes, very; and this wasn't a bad choice for an umpteenth honeymoon, a very specific one just after the wedding on 15 June. I know now that Sicily is a project to explore for the rest of my life. I'd already caught the bug on our last visit, after many years away; now it's truly biting. But then there's Iceland, and India, and...