Notes from a Vienna trip (June 2016)


I was last in Vienna in 2007. It’s been far too long between drinks. So what to do there in 2016 ? Well…..

 A is for A380: For the first time (for me, anyway), a chance to fly Singapore Airlines’ A380 in their award-winning Business Class.  What to say ? The seats are throne-like and very comfortable when you are seated. Compared to the vast majority of First Class products on the market (they are dwindling), you feel that this is more than sufficient luxury for a long-hail flight. That said, when turned into a flat bed for sleeping, things get a touch less luxurious. Emirates probably has the easiest set up, push a button and adjust. Air NZ requires the pull lever and lay out as does SQ. But the age of the SQ product is now showing – levers get stuck or are a touch tricky to deal with and it can get a touch frustrating. It’s comfortable once all of the exertions are completed but if you tend to sleep on one particular side, you might want to factor that in when you select your seat. Food-wise, no complaints. SQ’s business class menus are superb and I had the best beef tournedos I think I have eaten anywhere on one flight. Book The Cook continues to be popular and for my last flight back, I could not resist the temptation of the (in)famous lobster thermidor – one of those dishes you have to have on an SQ J-class flight. Entertainment wise, an interesting contrast between systems – I like the new touch-screens on Air NZ and QF. SQ has gone for swipey-swipey little controllers in J and the old candybar remote in the A380s is also showing its age with controllers not being fully functional. But these are not major issues if, as I do, you crave sleep on long haul flights.

A is also for A320. Between London (see below) and Vienna (see below) we flew British Airways because we had oneworld privileges to use.  Notwithstanding the fact that the flights left from LHR T3 and not T5, things were acceptable. True, we got the same snack box both ways but it the pastrami and pickle bap and apple crumble muffin were tasty enough. Veteran travellers, however, knew better and got their victuals from Pret A Manger in advance of boarding – a tip for the wise for next time.

B is for Brexit: So, the referendum has taken place and the answer is Leave. Well, well. We were there up until two days prior to the vote. By that time, the media had gotten quite all-over-the-place. Leave was ahead, then Remain was ahead, then it was deadlocked. So many polls, so many Poles and so little objective, rational debate. Things got down to brass tacks, however – would the summer holiday to Spain go up next year ? Would easyjet find it harder or easier to do business ? Would the booze cruise to France still be a viable option or would duty free liquor make a sudden comeback ? Such were the first world problems being debated by the general populace.

As a bit of a catch-up, those electing to stay coalesced around the movement “Britain Stronger In Europe”. Not very catchy and as Scottish comedian Susan Calman pointed out, it might have been easier to remember BRIE (Britain Remain In Europe) despite the cheesy connotation. The leavers were split between Vote Leave (led by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove) and Leave.EU (UKIP’s movement). The distinction became rather handy afterwards for Farage as The Hunt for GBP350 Million for the NHS started after the results of the vote became known.

Humour was sadly lacking during the “shebacle”, possibly accentuated by the stunningly awful murder of MP Jo Cox. John Cleese had provided some marvellous Tweets before electing to vote to Leave:

“Would someone remind me: is it Leaving or Remaining that will bring Death of the First Born ? As an only child, I need to be clear on this…”

“The level of debate between ‘Remain’ and ‘Leave’ has been so unimpressive that I have reached the decision to vote against both of them”

In the end, the short-term reaction has proven to be quite destructive. For someone who can remember the gate being slammed shut when the UK joined what was the EEC in the 1970s, there was a similar impact to us when the export tap (or meat and butter, primarily) got turned off. In the forty years since, we have pivoted to Asia and this will continue to shield us from the economic rollercoaster that the UK will invariably suffer over the next two years. One thing, though – had I known what the impact was going to be, I wish I could have found a way to get billed later. It would have saved me quite a nice amount of money !

C is for Concerts: A veritable feast of symphonic music throughout the trip – what a luxurious pleasure it was.

London Symphony: 2016 is a year of transition. With the end of the Gergiev era and a year or so to go before Simon Rattle becomes Music Director, in some respects, it is a year of guest conductors and more fragmented programmes.  The LSO’s Principal Guest Conductor is British maestro Daniel Harding and not having seen him in concert, this was a chance to see one of the younger and now established conductors in solid repertoire.  Dvorak “bookended” the concert with his overture to Othello and 8th Symphony – more about the latter later.  In between, Lisa Batiashvili was soloist in Bartok’s Violin Concerto No. 1.

Here, I must be honest – jetlag caught up with me and because the overture is a bit of a slow burn, I actually managed to slightly doze off in the middle of it. Not great. I’m sure it was performed well. Regarding the Bartok, the sight of the score for the soloist being brought on stage also puzzled me a bit. Was this a piece too difficult to memorise for one of the best of the current crop of violinists or were there areas of co-ordination with the orchestra that were that tricky ? I’m not sure. In any case, the Concerto is one of those pieces that frankly only the composer and his closest admirers are likely going to love. Lisa Batiashvili performed it admirably from a technical point of view but again, I have to admit that I was waiting for the second-half symphony and again managed to take a nap in the middle sections of the piece.  My bad.

Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony is a work that does not cause one to drop off. Written in less than three months, Dvorak wanted to explore new forms of musical expression and the music is bright and optimistic even though the first movement starts off in a minor key. LSO Principal Guest Conductor Daniel Harding knows this work well, naturally, and looked for phrasing and tonal lines more than dynamic emphasis in his conducting as befits the music. If I had one very minor criticism it would be that the third movement waltz did not flow as much as it could – to me, it is the most beautiful movement of the symphony and must be allegretto grazioso as intended rather than just allegretto. No complaints about the fourth and final movement which was performed with intense energy exactly as it should be and rounding up this concert with a flourish.

Vienna Philharmonic (Weiner Philharmoniker): A dream come true – attending a VPO concert at the Musikverein. And on the programme, a Bruckner symphony no less. The VPO had their ‘A’ team on with concertmasters Rainer Kuchl and Rainer Honeck on the front desk plus section principals such as Raimund Lissy, Tibor Kovacs and David Nagy.

Some history for those not familiar with one of the best orchestras in the world: arguably best known for its New Year’s Day concert which is broadcast around the world, the Vienna Philharmonic has its origins in the Vienna Court Theatre (Hofburgtheater) and its orchestra.  Mozart and Beethoven worked with this orchestra and it premiered several works by both composers.  But more than any other person, it was conductor Hans Richter who made the VPO into one of the finer orchestral ensembles in the world. The years 1875 to 1898 saw the premieres of Brahms’ 2nd and 3rd Symphonies, Anton Bruckner’s 4th and 8th Symphonies as well as the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss worked with the VPO in the early part of the 20th century and after WW2, its reputation flourished again with the giants of classical conductors such as Herbert von Karajan, Leonard Bernstein and Karl Bohm in particular.

The programme itself, part of the Wiener Festwochen (Vienna Festival Week) was short and without an interval – Webern’s Op 1 Passacaglia for orchestra and Bruckner’s final work, his Ninth Symphony. One could say that this represented a number of things – the last late-Romantic Viennese composer followed by a star of the Second Viennese School or ‘first and last’ in reference to the order of composition.

Anton Webern had commenced composition studies at the University of Vienna with Arnold Schoenberg in 1904 at the same time as Alban Berg.  Schoenberg himself gave up teaching after about a year but both Webern and Berg continued their studies with him privately. The passacaglia, a baroque form, is an interesting choice. Schoenberg once said that “[composition] exercises should not consist of any old notes written down to fill out an academic form”. In a sense, this is, with its 24 variations running throughout the piece. There are harmonic similarities with part of the Bruckner and it is tightly constructed as a piece of music. Given Webern’s later works, the Passacaglia remains tonal and accessible to the ear and provided both similarities and constrasts to the Bruckner. Naturally, it was well played and for me, a chance to really hear the VPO in their ‘home’ concert hall (although the Musikverein people will tell you that there is no resident orchestra).

Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony was his last and the fourth movement was unfinished.  He was, in fact, working on it on the day he died. Over two hundred pages of sketches for that part of the work exist, the earliest dating back to 1887. Rather ironically, the symphony suffered at the hands of unsympathetic “mutilation” (as one scholar put it) editing after Bruckner’s death so when it was first performed, it was treated as a rather compact piece unrecognisable to what you hear today. The ‘original’ version was only premiered in 1932. D minor was, according to the composer himself, his “favourite” key.  True or not, the Ninth invites parallels with Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and the question is often asked what sort of a finale did Bruckner have in mind for what was always going to be a gigantic work.  We will, of course, never know what Bruckner would have come up with but the third movement Adagio, which was completed, does quote his Seventh and Eighth Symphonies, thus providing a moving ending to the symphony.

 

Nezet-Seguin has an exceptionally busy schedule now which will only get busier now that he will be taking over as Music Director of the Metropolitan Opera in New York from 2020 – over the last few days, he had performed the same programme with the VPO in Dortmund, Cologne, Baden Baden and Frankfurt before this concert. Just before that, he was in Asia (China & Japan) with the Philadelphia Orchestra of which he is Music Director. On Friday, he would be in Montreal before heading immediately to Berlin with their Philharmonic and then doing a short tour around Germany. What a life. Vienna one week, Berlin the next. You’d never know he had a hernia operation in March.

 

This performance was excellent, perhaps a smidgen short of outstanding. Not a criticism of the orchestra at all, the VPO performed exceptionally but Nezet-Seguin’s interpretation in certain areas, notably some sectional tempi, showed restraint.  This is not to say that he does not understand the architecture of the Bruckner symphonies at all – he absolutely does and his recordings with the Orchestre Metropolitan du Grand Montreal and the Philadelphia Orchestra show that – and from a sound balance point of view, it was one of the best performances I have heard but at a few points in time, there is something, perhaps that comes with more contemplation and age, that Karajan, Wand, and Giulini brought to the music that took it to another level. All that said, it was hard not to luxuriate in such a fantastic venue with fantastic sound and acoustics being tested to the utmost by this symphony.

 

Wiener Symphoniker: It was always going to be interesting to compare the two ensembles – the Symphoniker does not have the global reputation of the Philharmonic but one should not treat it as inferior, particularly with Vladimir Jurowski conducting. While the Philharmonic has its origins with Otto Nicolai going back to 1842, the Symphony was founded in 1900 as the Weiner Concertverein and one of its aims was to provide affordable concerts and premieres of new works – amongst the list of first performances include Bruckner’s 9th Symphony, Schonberg’s Gurrelieder and Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the left hand. After nearly being disbanded post WW2, its chief conductors Hans Swarowsky and Josef Krips rebuilt the orchestra and took it to new heights. Herbert von Karajan was chief from 1950 to 1960 and was followed by Wolfgang Sawallisch, Carlo Maria Giulini, Gennady Rozhdestvensky and Georges Pretre.  Its guest roster list has included Leonard Bernstein, Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta, Claudio Abbado, Carlos Kleiber and Sergiu Celibidache.

 

A very interesting programme including Rachmaninoff’s “Isle of the Dead”, Korngold’s Violin Concerto with Leonidas Kavakos as soloist and Zemlinsky’s tone poem “The Little Mermaid”, a piece that is seeing something of a revival after being more or less forgotten, except by musicologists. I have to say that I love Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead for its orchestration. Based on a painting by Arnold Böcklin which Rachmaninoff had seen in a black and white version, the music is cold, brooding and mysterious. It ebbs and flows like a current as well and it is curious how Rachmaninoff could never adequately explain why he was so moved by Böcklin’s image or how he translated it so quickly into music: “When it came, how it began—how can I say? It came up within me, was entertained, written down”, was all he would say. Rachmaninoff’s own recording of the piece with the Philadelphia Orchestra, scratchy though the sound may be, is instructive in terms of tempi and orchestral colouration.

 

I had expected a lot more shades of dark colours from the orchestra and was therefore slightly disappointed by the performance. Perhaps the Bruckner from the night before had affected my ears but despite conductor Vladimir Jurowski’s urgings, an element of deep mystery and foreboding seemed to be lacking which was a pity. Ah, well. On to the Korngold.

 

People these days forget that Erich Korngold’s career had two distinct halves. As a prodigy pianist and composer in his teens and twenties, he had composed chamber music and operas before a fortuitous invite to Hollywood in 1934 to write some film music there.  He was no less prodigious composing over twenty scores and claiming Academy Awards for Captain Blood and for Robin Hood as well as influencing the style of film music for decades after that.  I mention this because if you heard his Violin Concerto for the first time, you could easily be forgiven for thinking that you might have heard this before or that it might be the theme to a television series or movie. If you are an expert on films from the 1930s and 1940s, you will likely identify the third movement as being music from The Prince and the Pauper. Soloist Leonidas Kavakos made easy work of the opening movement and performed the second movement, often described as the ‘heart and soul’ of the concerto exquisitely. The rollicking finale was a delight in which soloist and orchestra both revelled in – it reminds me of a Saturday afternoon matinee Western, full of energy, a little cheesy at times but nonetheless entertaining. A stunning encore by Ysaye loaded with double and triple stops showed how technically masterful Kavakos is. It threatened to overshadow the concerto performance completely in some respects and was received with even more applause as it should.

 

Die Seejungfrau (as it is called in German), is based on the Hans Christian Andersen story ‘The Little Mermaid’.  Unlike the Disney movie, there is no happy ending here. Spoiler alert: the story goes something like this. Mermaid rescues handsome Prince from drowning. Mermaid takes immediate fancy to said Prince and bargains with a sea-witch for legs instead of fins. Mermaid’s only way of communicating with Prince is by dancing which is painful for said Mermaid.  Prince ends up marrying a human princess and Mermaid dies by dissolving into the sea. Zemlinsky’s musical score for this piece might also have ended up dissolved as well.  When he fled Europe in 1938 (the Nazis considered his music to be ‘degenerate’), he took only the second and third movements with him, the first ended up, luckily, in a private library.  Because he suffered a stroke in 1939, he wasn’t able to explain what the scores were and only in the 1980s did musicologists work out that he had actually composed a three-movement tone poem.

 

Jurowski and the Weiner Symphoniker came into their own and revelled in the textural and harmonic contrasts this work offers.  In my Concertgebouw report from 2014, I said that Vladimir Jurowski’s conducting is a sort of ‘take no prisoners’ style – direct, forceful and clear. It certainly was that again and the orchestra responded accordingly and delivered the clarity as well as drama that seemed to be lacking in the earlier Rachmaninoff. Given that the work will be performed in Auckland later this year, it will be interesting to see how that goes.

 

D is for Dining: Not a complete run down of all of the places we went to, just the ones worth scribbling about:

 

In London, breakfast should be taken properly and there is no better venue than The Wolseley. Recently voted one of the UK’s top 100 establishments, the great and good and former Australian PM Kevin Rudd were in attendance when we were there. The Full English breakfast can’t be beaten even though I am not a great fan of black pudding or baked beans but when in Rome…….The smoked salmon and scrambled eggs is also an excellent way to start a day.

 

An English Afternoon Tea is one of those things one must do in London. Having done the rounds including The Ritz in previous visits, there was only one venue left which was The Savoy. After an incredibly expensive and expansive refurbishment, the Savoy is truly back to its iconic status and the sumptuousness of its décor is almost a touch intimidating.  But the Thames Foyer with its domed glass room and giant birdcage in the centre is a fantastic venue for this ritual. We were lucky enough to get a table inside the birdcage and it does make a difference – you do feel rather upper crust for the duration. In addition, we were lucky enough to partake of the first afternoon of the special tea marking the Queen’s 90th birthday. So, jam pennies (a childhood treat partaken by HM), Scottish salmon, Coronation Chicken all featured as did a selection of appropriately themed cakes – a square of the official birthday cake, Kate & Will’s chocolate biscuit cake as served at their wedding and the raspberry tartlet with lemon cheese which is a regular at Buckingham Palace afternoon tea treat all featured.

 

Kurobuta (5th floor, Harvey Nichols Knightsbridge) is a bit of an odd duck. With a name like that, you expect Japanese and the basic components are certainly that.

But wait a second. This is the third establishment opened by ex-Nobu chef Scott Hallsworth and that tells you a lot. What we got was more Peruvian or Brazilian rooted in terms of flavour with a Japanese twist. Although its website says that its food is ‘reliably out of this world’, we were a touch underwhelmed. The hijiki and avocado bowl wasn’t so much as a bowl than plate although the flavours were good. The takikomi gohan basically wasn’t – if it was billed as Japanese risotto (which is different again, actually), then that would be have been more accurate.  The tuna sashimi pizza was interesting – small though it was, it was quite good. Think crispy tortilla with slices of raw tuna topped with wasabi tobiko. The maki of hot smoked salmon, avocado, pickled chillies and chive skordalia did not work on any level for me. Skordalia works with grilled fish, vegetables or even lamb, not raw fish and certainly not in an Asian context. And yes, I’ll happily be labelled a traditionalist or a fuddy-duddy for that comment. You taste it and see what you think. Surprisingly, the cocktails were free – we had acquired a discount voucher outside of the place and they accepted it.

 

In Vienna, I satisfied my craving for currywurst at Bitzinger’s Wurstel Stand which is behind the Staatsoper. To be fair, it is in all of the guidebooks as the place to go if you don’t understand your wurst (that’s sausages to non-German speakers).  Otherwise, you will be struggling to pick out your kasekrainer from your waldvierter and you don’t want to be eating weisswurst after midday, do you ?

 

E is for Empire : Specifically the Austrian and the Austro-Hungarian ones which these days are consigned to footnotes and dictionary entries. Emperor Frederick III, sometimes nicknamed as  “Arch-Sleepyhead of the Holy Roman Empire” (Erzschlafmütze), used to like putting the initials “A.E.I.O.U” on buildings and other things – meaning = Alles Erdreich ist Österreich untertan or “All the world is subject to Austria.” In some vestigial ways, it still is.

 

The transition from the Hapsburg Monarchy to what became the Republic of Austria over 150 years is extremely convoluted. Perhaps the best way to understand some of it is to look at the rule of Emperor Franz Josef I (yes, the Franz Josef Glacier is named after him thanks to Julius von Haast). Franz Josef assumed the imperial throne in 1848 as Emperor of Austria (which included parts of the Holy Roman Empire and the German Confederation). Wars and internal revolutions then forced Austria into a number of territorial concessions as well as giving Hungary more autonomy. After 1867 with the Austro-Hungarian Compromise, the ‘double monarchy’ was established which included the autonomous territory of Croatia-Slavonia. What became Czechoslovakia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as well as it was only World War I which brought about its unravelling.

 

One consequence was the grandness of royal titles. They probably rivalled the British ones at their peak but even though they have little meaning today, they are worth restating given that they are arguably grander than anything we are currently used to. So Emperor Franz Joseph would need to be (formally) addressed as:

His Imperial and Royal Apostolic Majesty, Francis Joseph I, by the grace of God Emperor of Austria; Apostolic King of Hungary, King of Bohemia, Dalmatia, Croatia, Slavonia, Galicia, Lodomeria, Illyria; King of Jerusalem, etc.; Archduke of Austria; Grand Duke of Tuscany, Crakow; Duke of Lorraine, Salzburg, Styria, Carinthia, Carniola, the Bukovina; Grand Prince of Transylvania; Margrave of Moravia; Duke of the Upper & Lower Silesia, Modena, Parma, Piacenza, Guastalla, Oswiecin, Zator, Cieszyn, Friuli, Ragusa, Zara; Princely Count of Habsburg, Tyrol, Kyburg, Gorizia, Gradisca; Prince of Trent, Brixen; Margrave of the Upper & Lower Lusatia, in Istria; Count of Hohenems, Feldkirch, Bregenz, Sonnenberg, etc.; Lord of Triest, Kotor, the Wendish March; Grande Voivode of the Voivodship of Serbia etc. etc..

Interestingly, Empress Elizabeth (forever known as Sisi), used the Countess of Hohenems as an alias when she travelled throughout Europe.

 

Remnants of these glorious and highly structured days still endure. The Brits have their Royal Warrants which continue to be highly prized and in the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the initials “k&k” (kaiserlich und königlich – “imperial & royal”) amounted to the same thing.  They continue to be bandied about as a mark of high quality and history even now. Demel, for example, refers to itself as k.u.k. Hofzuckerbäcker (the Imperial and Royal patissiers) and the generic “k.u.k. Hoflieferant,” means imperial and royal court purveyor.

 

F is for Fact or factoid: They say that in 1913, Hitler, Trotsky, Josip Tito, Freud and Stalin lived in Central Vienna and some of them were regulars at the same coffee houses. I wonder if that is in fact true ?

 

G is for German (the language, not the people): German has never been one of my stronger languages. I picked up most of it as one does when necessitated by study and circumstance.  But what one does pick up is Hochdeutsch (High German). So, when I first went to Austria, having come from Frankfurt and Munich, I was taken aback at the dialect used in Austria, specifically Vienna. The best linguistic nomenclature for the dialect, I think, is Austro-Bavarian although the dialect is also influenced by proximity to Hungary and what was Czechoslovakia. And in two distinct areas, it causes headaches for those who only know Hochdeutsch – legal / administrative matters and culinary terms.

 

Some examples (from Wikipedia): Words primarily used in Austria are

 

Jänner (January) rather than Januar,

heuer (this year) rather than dieses Jahr,

Erdäpfel (potatoes) German Kartoffeln (but the Dutch say Aardappel),

Schlagobers (whipped cream) German Schlagsahne,

Marillen (apricots) German Aprikosen (but the Slovak word is marhuľa, the Polish is morela, in Slovenian it is marelice, and Croatian marelica),

Paradeiser (tomatoes) German Tomaten (but in Hungarian, they are paradicsom, in Slovak you say paradajka, in Slovenian paradižnik and in Serbian paradajz),

Palatschinken (pancakes) German Pfannkuchen (but the Czechs say palačinky, the Hungarian palacsinta and the  Slovenians palačinke).

Zwo (standard German = zwei) which is the number 2

 

It is what it is !

 

H is for Hotels: In London, company properties of course. The first London leg was spent at Millennium Hotel Mayfair – no upgrade this trip and the room was frankly tired. This impression was only confirmed by an aircon pipe leak which resulted in having to swap rooms after only two nights. Not optimal to say the least.  But the location close to Oxford Street cannot be beat so one makes do. On the way back from VIE, we stopped off in London again at Millennium Hotel Knightsbridge, where we had stayed over eleven years ago. Coming from the Interconti (see below), the rooms are tiny which is not great when you have a lot of luggage. Two positives – huge flat screen television and the refurbished bathrooms which were good. The other advantage is its location – Harvey Nichs is a two minute walk and Harrods no more than five. You can wave to Julian Assange at the Ecuadorian Embassy as you pass it.

 

I is for Intercontinental Hotel Wien: In Vienna, out of convenience and to maximise benefits, the Intercontinental Wien. Located near the Stadtpark and the Vienna Konzerthaus, it might not be the most modern place in the city but the rooms are big and sufficiently well appointed. One criticism is the lack of a fine dining restaurant – perhaps because this option does not make the hotel money, they’ve elected to go with something a lot more casual. It seems a bit out of place with the general décor and ethos of the hotel.

 

J is for Jerzy Franciszek Kulczycki: Unless you have a knowledge of Austrian History of the 17th Century, you won’t have any idea who I am talking about. The name is definitely Polish as he was born in Sambor, then part of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth but now part of what is Ukraine. A nobleman, he joined the Zaporozhian Cossacks as a soldier but had a phenomenal talent for languages – it is said that he was fluent on Polish, Ruthenian (Old Belarussian, to some), Serbian, Turkish, German and Romanian. Unsurprisingly, he found work as a translator for the Austrian Oriental Company in Belgrade but had to flee the Ottoman authorities who were arresting foreign traders as spies. His solution was to take out Polish citizenship and moved to Vienna in 1678 and formed his own company. In 1683, the Ottoman Empire laid siege to Vienna and he fought on the side of the Hapsburgs / Polish-Lithuanians / Holy Roman Empire.  Vienna was severely besieged and its inhabitants were starving. Kulczycki volunteered to try and contact Duke Charles of Lorraine whose forces were positioned to the north of the city and conducting raids against the Turkish forces.  This he did in disguise and using his knowledge of Turkish by singing Ottoman songs as he made his way through enemy lines. After contacting the Duke, he managed to return to the city and advised the City Council that the Duke’s forces were in a position to help. Armed with that knowledge, the Council chose to continue the fight and not surrender to Kara Mustafa Pasha and they eventually prevailed. Kulczycki was given hero status as a result.

 

But that is only half the story as his importance transcends his military exploits. As they hastily withdrew from the city, the Ottomans left sacks of beans which the Viennese thought might be camel feed or worse, camel dung. Kulczycki knew what it was – he had spent time in Ottoman captivity and was gifted the beans which he proceeded to roast. Sugar and milk were added and thus the coffee culture in Vienna was born. And the opportunity to write a little about the topic !

 

Ordering coffee in Vienna is a bit of a mission – you need to be specific as to what you want. You won’t be able to get away with ‘black coffee’ or a ‘flat white’ as you will either get a dismissive shrug or a withering look from your waiter. For those looking for a short black, you will need to order a mokka.  A brauner is a mokka with a tiny bit of cream (cream is a big thing there). Or maybe you could order a Verlängerter (a long black, more or less)  If you want to be a touch decadent, than an Einspänner (strong coffee in a tall glass topped with whipped cream) might be for you. Me, I stick to the Melange which is pretty much a flat white / cappuccino type.  Coffee in Vienna is invariably served with a shot glass of mineral water. Some people believe that it is to be drunk before the first sip to clear the palate. I’m not sure that’s right. I think (and many agree) that it is to cleanse the palate after the coffee particularly if you then order another one or choose to drink something else. That’s my take on it. By the way, you are more than allowed to linger over a single cup if you wish. You shouldn’t be moved on until you ask for the bill (rechnung).

 

K is for kunst (art): of which there is plenty in Vienna. But one should be selective. I never got around to the Kunsthistoriches Museum Vienna (KHM) in 2007. Not sure why. But in any case KHM will be celebrating a special anniversary: 125 years ago, on October 17, 1891, KHM was formally opened to the public. From an architectural point of view, the building itself is hard to miss. It sits directly opposite its sister building the Natural History Museum. Both were made of sandstone and opened by Emperor Franz Josef I.  Both were built, perhaps a touch selfishly, to house the enormous art and antiquities collections amassed by the Hapsburgs and to make them available and accessible to the public. And both are lavishly decorated with marble, stucco ornamentations, gold-leaf, and paintings. Now, it might be a bit simplistic to try and reduce the highlights of the collection to a handful of works but as this is my trip report, my rules apply – Benvenuto Cellini’s 1543 ivory and rolled gold Saliera (salt cellar) is a highlight of the Kunstkammer rooms; of the humungous collection of paintings, Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s 1567 Peasant Wedding and Raphael’s Madonna del Prato might be cliches to students of art history but not to me; and the collection of ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian artefacts is an outstanding treasure trove of many items including jewelry.  Definitely worth a wander around if you are in to art, art history and museums generally.

 

No time to visit the Albertina sadly. It is an interesting building and houses one of the largest and most important print rooms in the world with approximately 65,000 drawings and approximately 1 million old master prints, as well as more modern graphic works, photographs and architectural drawings. There are also two collections of Impressionist and early 20th-century art.  We elected not to visit the Belvedere. Principal reason being that while Gustav Klimnt might be inherently a Viennese icon for The Kiss and Judith amongst other works, they don’t appeal to me. Rodin’s Kiss and Alfons Mucha’s various works are more to my taste. And Vienna is, for me at least, a city of music and musicians.

 

L is for London: We didn’t travel directly to and from Vienna, opting to stay in London immediately prior and after our Austrian soujourn.  Prior to the Brexit shebacle, the city was in festive mood celebrating and commemorating the Queen’s (official) 90th birthday and Prince Philip’s 95th birthday as well. All of that was quickly forgotten after the referendum, of course.

 

M is for Musikverein: One of the most beautiful concert halls in the world – to look at and to listen in. If you’ve seen any of the telecasts of the Vienna Philharmonic New Year Concert, you will know what I mean. Acoustically, it is also fantastic – perhaps more by luck and, as our guide pointed out, choice of cheaper materials than what was originally intended. Some of the ‘marble’ panels are in fact painted wood and for the sake of the sound, are much better.

What I did not know was that there are now two dedicated concert halls and four rehearsal rooms which can act as concert halls.  The largest and most famous is the Goldener Saal (Golden Hall) which seats 1,744 and also has standing room for 300 (although that can be a bit of a crush, I suspect).  It was completed in 1863 by the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (Society of Friends of Music in Vienna) which still owns the building and hires it out. The Brahmssaal is the smaller concert hall and generally used for recitals and chamber music.  I had not seen the Gläserner Saal/Magna Auditorium (Glass Hall) which is an impressive area which replicates to the centimetre the dimensions of the Goldener Saal stage as well as the acoustic, but this can be changed by the use of acoustic panels. The Vienna Philharmonic regularly use the Glass Hall for rehearsals especially when the Goldener Saal is not available and did so a couple of days after the concert that I went to. The Glass Hall can also be used for recitals, particularly for the young or up and coming musicians.  The Metallener Saal is, by appearance and name alone, something suited to heavy metal or punk rock – it does appear to be metallic and it is black and very shiny. Apparently, the hall is perfect for singers but not having tested it, I can’t say for sure. The Steinerer Sall and Holzerner Saal are more conference / meeting or rehearsal areas and not generally used for concerts.

 

N is for Number of pictures taken during the trip: An eye-watering 2323 jpgs. The vast majority on the iPhone (which is starting to conk out badly these days to the point where I need powerpacks).

 

O is for Oper (which is German for “opera”):  No time for another attempt at getting a decent seat at the Staatsoper (only Verdi’s Macbeth was on the bill which did not appeal) or a backstage tour but just a quick look through Arcadia which is the music shop on the Kaertnerstrasse side of the building. Different story in London – managed to complete a backstage tour of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. I was surprised that a) no pictures were allowed on the tour due to copyright (justifiable given that a rehearsal of Werther was about to take place) and b) the main auditorium was smaller than I thought compared to say the Met, San Francisco, Munich and others. I could have spent all morning observing the ballet class, however – various members of the corps de ballet and soloists were being coached through a general class. The level of difficulty might not match a performance but when you break down the movements and combine, you have a better appreciation of what is involved. We also got shown the costume and dying room – remarkably located on the top floor of the extension building which, given the nature of the equipment and so forth might seem like a strange location for the facility but there it is. The huge backstage area is also remarkable – given the fact that the stage may need to have a matinee performance and an evening performance, it is possible to hold the scenery and stagings for up to three productions – a remarkable thing, considering the size and weight.

 

P is for Palaces: Schonbrunn, obviously, and the Hofburg. The former started life as a ‘hunting lodge’ but within fifty years of it being built, it had pretty much become the centre of imperial family life. It was designed to be ‘palatial’ and its chief architect Fischer von Erlach stuck to the brief. However, it was Empress Maria Theresa who completed it and remodelled it to accommodate herself and her family as well as the court. Schonbrunn has 1,441 rooms in total including the Great Gallery which reminds one of Versailles, a room with Chinese lacquer panels for wall coverings, the Bergl rooms which have landscape murals on the walls, a theatre for musical performances and many others. She also had the Gloriette designed and built to glorify Habsburg power.  Stone from another palace was recycled in order to build it. It was destroyed in the Second World War, but was restored in 1947 and refurbished again in 1995.  It now serves as a café / tea room – she must be spinning in her grave. Mozart performed here twice – the first time was in 1762 when he was six and he was treated almost as one of the family. In 1786 he participated in a very interesting competition put on by the Emperor Joseph II to commemorate a state visit. In one side of the Orangerie, he performed his one-act German mini-opera Der Schauspieldirektor (The Impressario).  On the other side, Court Kapellmeister Antonio Salieri had his one-act Italian mini-opera Prima la musica e poi le parole (First the music, then the words). The guests, seated in the middle after a sumptuous dinner were invited to hear both works and choose which one they preferred – history records that Salieri won the contest. But you hardly hear either work and if you do, it is Mozart’s. A tip if you are visiting Schonbrunn – do go and see the Apfelstrudel Show. You won’t want to eat doughy, heavy pastry versions of strudel ever again !

 

The Hofburg area has been the documented seat of government since 1279 for various empires and republics. Indeed, as you exit the tour of the Imperial Apartments you will pass by part of the Chancellor’s (Bundeskanzler’s) official offices, some of which were used by emperors and princes back in the day. The area has been a seat of government since 1279 and has been expanded to fit in residences, museums, the treasury, the national library, the national theatre and the Spanish Riding School. For the non-equine interested tourist (the Spanish Riding School is worth a visit, but not on this trip), three things are likely to feature in the guidebooks – the Imperial Silver Collection which includes the “Milan Centerpiece” which is almost 30 meters long, porcelain from East Asia, Sèvres and Vienna as well as “panorama plates,” Fayence china and countless examples of gold- and silverwork. The Sisi Museum (named for the Empress Elizabeth, wife of Emperor Franz Josef) lets us into the life and complex personality of Empress Elisabeth.  You can see many very personal objects on display which afford fascinating insights into the Empress as she was in life and the subsequent legend she became after her tragic assassination. She was, for example, a bit of a fitness freak – you can see her weight sets and gym equipment which would likely fit in even today. She was a beauty freak as well, obsessed with the latest treatments, hair care and diets – remarkable for her times.  Famously, she refused to be photographed after she turned 40.  Politically, she aligned herself with the Hungarians, much to the chagrin of the Viennese. Despite all of this, history has treated her kindly and the legend has surpassed historical fact. Relations between Sisi and Franz Josef were decidedly austere, if not frigid.  One fascinating detail of the Imperial Apartments is the bell that the Emperor had to ring if he wanted to visit his wife.

Speaking of the Imperial Apartments which are still furnished as they were when Franz Josef was alive.  The nineteen rooms comprise studies, residential suites and reception rooms – you can see the room where the Emperor had twice-weekly audiences with the public. Anyone could apply to the Grand Court Master to be received by the Emperor, who often referred to himself as the “First Civil Servant of the Empire” and audiences, when granted, lasted roughly two or three minutes. You had to dress up of course and never turn your back as you entered or left but you could bring up anything with the Emperor in that time, a complaint, a thank you, a petition and people did – the story goes that the composer Anton Bruckner, after being awarded a state decoration, asked for an audience to thank the Emperor. But he may have gone a bit too far – Bruckner reportedly asked the Emperor to have the music critic Eduard Hanslick be less critical of his compositions (it didn’t work !)  Franz Josef would signal the end of the audience by nodding slightly and telling his guest “It has been a pleasure”.  It has been estimated that Franz Josef met with over 100,000 people in this way during his reign.

 

Q is for Quartets: Why ? I refer to Mozart’s string quartets 14-19 (for those who collect Kochel numbers, K387, 421, 428, 458, 464 and 465, the “Dissonance” quartet). Written between 1782 and 1785 in Vienna, they are the apex of Mozart’s chamber music writing although not without a little controversy. Haydn was full of praise when he first heard the works in January and February 1785 and remarked to Mozart’s father the now-famous words, “Before God, and as an honest man, I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name. He has taste, and, what is more, the most profound knowledge of composition.”

 

Mozart, in turn, dedicated all six quartets to Haydn with an effusive dedication page as follows:

 

To my dear friend Haydn,

A father who had resolved to send his children out into the great world took it to be his duty to confide them to the protection and guidance of a very celebrated Man, especially when the latter by good fortune was at the same time his best Friend. Here they are then, O great Man and dearest Friend, these six children of mine. They are, it is true, the fruit of a long and laborious endeavor, yet the hope inspired in me by several Friends that it may be at least partly compensated encourages me, and I flatter myself that this offspring will serve to afford me solace one day. You, yourself, dearest friend, told me of your satisfaction with them during your last Visit to this Capital. It is this indulgence above all which urges me to commend them to you and encourages me to hope that they will not seem to you altogether unworthy of your favour. May it therefore please you to receive them kindly and to be their Father, Guide and Friend! From this moment I resign to you all my rights in them, begging you however to look indulgently upon the defects which the partiality of a Father’s eye may have concealed from me, and in spite of them to continue in your generous Friendship for him who so greatly values it, in expectation of which I am, with all of my Heart, my dearest Friend, your most Sincere Friend,

W.A. Mozart

 

While both composers would have understood the complexity and quality of the works, the same knowledge and appreciation was not universally shared, especially around the time of publication.  An anonymous critic said in the same piece that the music was not as pleasing as another, now almost forgotten composer and that the music “has a decided leaning towards the difficult and unusual” but also praised their “bold spirit”.  Music students will also recall that reactions to the ‘Dissonance’ quartet were not favourable with one composer describing it as “barbarous” and “miserable”. This might be an Italian view – when the publishers Artaria sent the engravings to be published in Italy, they were sent back with a report “the engraving is full of mistakes”. That was not the view in Salzburg or Belin – critics praised the first performances of the works there and, not surprisingly, the quartets are very much part of the cornerstones of the chamber music repertoire.

 

R is for Retail Therapy (aka shopping): In London, the “usual” things: shirts from Jermyn Street and surrounds (a liquidation sale provided unexpected opportunities), something from Penhaligons and bits and pieces from the various summer sales.  No tea or marmalade from Fortnums you will be interested to note – partly no room left in the suitcases but also because we had stocked up on so many things from Vienna. In Vienna, shopping was mostly dictated by time and location. Time being a day or so, location being the Graben and Kaertner Strasse. Brand names are more than evident in the former and souvenir shops dot the latter. Of course, one could not go past some time at Meinl ab Graben. Julius Meinl’s emporium grew out of a coffee house / trading business – the story began in 1862 when Julius Meinl I. opened his first grocery store, selling spices and green coffee in the center of Vienna. He created coffee blends and was the first to offer freshly roasted coffee for sale. Near Meinl is Demel (see “E” above) and of course we had to get their Sacher Torte for research purposes as well as their own Demel Torte which is different again. A small can of Almdudler had to be brought back – Austria’s national soft drink, a herbal lemonade if you will, it tastes something like cinnamon cola. As the slogan goes, Wenn de kan Oimdudla haum, geh’ i wieda ham! (Standard German: Wenn die keinen Almdudler haben, gehe ich wieder heim! English: If they don’t have Almdudler, I’ll go back home!).

 

S is for Salzburg: A chance at a day trip to Salzburg was a must. No time to do the Sound of Music tour or the Festspielhalle, but a chance to see some of the famous sites. The tour started early – we had to meet at the Opera at 7am. Not great when we had just flown in the night before. Oh, well, no pain, no gain. The advantage of taking the coach was the chance to see some of the Salzkammergut and the lakes including Lake Fuschl (aka Red Bull Lake) which is completely drinkable, so pure is the water in it. Once in Salzburg, a quick walking tour – through the Mirabell Gardens, past the Mozart Wohnhaus (the Mozart family lived there for a time, it is now a museum), over the river bridge into the old city. Of the old city, the cathedral, Mozart’s birthplace (which now has a convenience store on the ground floor) and the Festspielhalle, market square and its surrounds and then free time. Having been to Salzburg before and knowing the layout of the Alte Markt, I set myself a quiet challenge – to get some original Mozartkugel from the Furst kondoritei.  After a few errors, we did find it – crammed with tourists of course but not so crowded as to be able to acquire said sweet treat and then depart. Just before we got our coach back to Vienna, we had time to canter up the famous steps in the Mirabell Gardens as Maria and the von Trapp kids do in the Sound of Music and to check out the gift shop in the Mozart Wohnhaus. From there, I bought a copy of part of the autograph score of an aria from Mozart’s Magic Flute (Pappageno’s aria Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen).

 

T is for torte: Of which there are many in Vienna, the ones from the Sacher Hotel and Demel being the most famous. Someone wrote, accurately, that the Sacher Torte causes more fuss, fury and controversy than any other single gateau in the world. It is also an example of a working duopoly.  Sacher and Demel easily dominate the market both in Austria and overseas thanks to sales online. There would be few cake aficionados who do not know that the classic description for the Sacher Torte is a chocolate sponge cake with a layer of apricot jam and a coated dark chocolate glaze. Seems simple enough. But how did this come about ?

 

In 1832 the Austrian aristocrat and sometime Foreign Minister Prince Wenzel von Metternich placed an order for a special dessert for himself and his guests. Unfortunately, the prince’s pastry chef got ill and his 16 year old trainee Franz Sacher had to help out his master and took the challenge to create a special dessert. According to legend, Sacher consulted with his sister Anna and they decided the best thing to do was to make a chocolate cake. Prince von Metternich and his guests were very pleased with the dessert. But some say this never happened. Years later Franz Sacher’s son, Eduard, became a pastry chef as well and he was trained at the pastry store Demel k. und k. Hofzuckerbäckerei (see “E” above). While Eduard was working at Demel he refined the chocolate torte of his father and the torte became the Sachertorte that we know today. Demel was also the first pastry store that sold the “Original Sachertorte”.

 

In 1876 Eduard Sacher opened the Hotel Sacher and, naturally, the Sacher Torte was on the menu.  Its fame spread steadily – in an 1888 letter to the Wiener Zeitung newspaper, Eduard noted (in something of a huff), that the Sacher Torte became a staple dessert and was on the everyday menu of the Austrian imperial family. He also noted that up to 400 Sacher Torten were sold a day and sent to Paris, Berlin, London and further afield by sea.  Apparently, he had set up a dedicated kitchen to make all of them. Too much of a good thing does invite trouble and this is where the lawyers got their grubby little hands on it. From 1954 until an agreed settlement in 1963, the battle raged as to who could claim theirs to be the “original”. However, eventually an out-of-court settlement was agreed, under which Hotel Sacher became the one that could say it was the original producer of the sachertorte. After all of that, it does come down to apricot jam. Why, do you ask ? Because Demel’s sachertorte has one layer of apricot jam, while Hotel Sacher’s version has two.

 

U is for Unfinished Business:

–Because this was not a solo trip, the chance to duck in to Prague and Budapest will have to wait until the next visit. Again;

–A return visit to the Volksoper and the Staatsoper will have to wait. Again;

–Albertina (see “K” above).

–In terms of the orchestras to hear live, the list is reducing quite measurably – top of the list now is the Berlin Philharmonic followed by the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, LA Phil, Boston Symphony and the NHK Symphony. That might give you some clues as to future trips.

–One day I will have enough money for a decent ticket at the Royal Opera House. Not sure if Brexit is good or bad in this regard !

 

V is the Roman numeral for 5 – the five most surprising / bizarre things on this trip were:

  1. i) Virtually no vacant seats in the SQ A380 in Business. Amazing. Only one free seat from SIN to LHR and only the tech crew rest seats from LHR to SIN. A few vacancies on the 77W to and SIN but SQ would be delighted with the loadings. People vote with their feet and their wallets, still.
  2. ii) Perhaps I am getting on a bit but it was interesting to see the dress code for those turning up to the concerts at the Musikverein – the locals were semi-formal, gentlemen invariably in jacket and tie if not a suit, women in evening wear. The Japanese tourists could be spotted a mile off as some of them had taken the time and trouble to get into kimono – a habit I suspect that stems from the New Year’s Concert. In a similar vein, you can identify the Chinese tourists no problem at all – extreme casual from polo shirt for the men to a summer top from H&M or similar for the ladies or jeans and summer footwear. Not befitting of the venue, in my personal opinion but what can you do ?

iii) Service of any standard at the British Museum is typically British. That is to say non-existent or worse. I would say that it has actually got worse since our last visit. Hard to believe but true. The Elgin Marbles are more friendly, believe me.

  1. iv) British Airways Airbus pilots seem to routinely shut down one engine after landing – how do I know this ? Because of the ‘woofing’ sound caused by the Power Transfer Unit when the hydraulic system operates. You don’t hear that sound on Air NZ flights but you do on US airlines. So now you know who is trying to save money !
  2. v) Viennese wine is actually pretty good – certainly better than the cheap plonk from France and Italy. One tip: Gemischter Satz (a blend of three whites) is better than your standard Gruner Veltliner. Might become the next big thing, too !

 

W is for Wien: Vienna is one the world’s historic cities and consistently highly ranked for its quality of life.  It has been a central point in Europe for centuries, primarily thanks to the Hapsburgs who settled there in the 15th Century.  Music students will be able to rattle off the names of famous composers and musicians who came to Vienna to seek the fame and fortune – Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert (a native of the city), Joseph Haydn, Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler and the Strausses (Johann Sr, Johann Jr and the unrelated Richard). Politically and philosophically, the city has always had influence

 

While the Austro-Hungarian Empire is nothing more than chapters in history textbooks, Vienna’s post WW2 history is rather interesting. It could easily have become another flashpoint between the Allies and the Soviet Union, but the Austrian State Treaty of 1955 prevented that – Austria declared its permanent neutrality and was re-recognised as an independent state. One consequence is that it has never joined NATO although it is a member of the Partnership for Peace initiative. But like Berlin, Vienna was partitioned into the American, British, French and Soviet zones and it might well have been split into a western and eastern city. The Marshall Plan and the death of Stalin and the resulting thaw all helped to diffuse tensions.

 

Vienna’s modern importance continues as the home of certain United Nations organisations and the headquarters of OPEC (Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) and the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe) which is headquartered as part of the Hofburg and right next to the State Library. The UN has a significant presence in Vienna, acknowledged musically at this year’s Vienna Philharmonic New Year’s Concert with Robert Stoltz’s “UNO March” on the programme. In fact, the UN “family” consists of the following:

 

  • United Nations Office at Vienna (UNOV)
  • United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)
  • International Money Laundering Information Network (IMoLIN)
  • International Narcotics Control Board (INCB)
  • Office for Outer Space Affairs
  • United Nations Postal Administration (UNPA)
  • United Nations Information Service (UNIS)
  • Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
  • United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS)
  • United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR)
  • International Trade Law Division of the United Nations Secretariat / United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL)
  • Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS)
  • United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
  • United Nations Environment Programme – Interim Secretariat of the Carpathian Convention (UNEP Vienna ISCC)
  • United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs
  • United Nations Register of Damage Caused by the Construction of the Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (UNRoD)

 

Although we had no time to check out “UNO City / Land” (as some call it), I was aware (through friends and contacts) of a lot of activity especially through the UNHCR given the Syrian Refugee Crisis. No doubt our candidate for Secretary General, former PM Helen Clark, will be making a few visits there in due course.

X is the Roman numeral for 10 – the Top Ten things on this trip were:

1) Vienna Philharmonic live at the Musikverein: better than any recording and a sublime orchestral ensemble sound.

2) Singapore Airlines Business Class in both the A380 and 777-300ER: A superb travel experience. (See “A” above)

3) Afternoon Tea at the Savoy: had to be done and the last one on the list (after Harrods, Fortnum & Mason’s, Brown’s and The Ritz).

4) Day trip to Salzburg: despite its length, worth it. Especially getting those Original Mozartkugels.

5) Musikverein Tour: See “M” above.

6) Coffee at Café Leopold Hawelka – a true taste of the coffee culture in Vienna.

7) A piece of Sacher Torte at the Hotel Sacher – a tourist trap to be sure, but why not ?

8) London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican: A very solid and rousing Dvorak 8 (see above).

9) Backstage tour of the Royal Opera House – worth doing if you can’t make a performance.

10) Catch up with various friends in London and Vienna: an opportunity to meet up with familiar faces and some long (overdue) ones as well. Definitely a social highlight of the trip.

Y is for You’ve Done Very Well To Get This Far: Chapeau. My prose is as turgid as ever, I suspect, so well done.

Z is for Zinzendorf: The importance of Count Karl von Zinzendorf und Pottendorf cannot be underestimated.  The Count, who rose to be Finance Minister in the court of Emperor Joseph II and who held the office between 1781-1792, was a very frequent theatre, opera and concert goer and kept a massive and detailed diary. For a number of reasons (its voluminousness, 76 volumes in total, and the fact that it was written in the court language of the time which was French), it has not been fully translated and published into English but has been a source of unique information about performances around that time which have been cited repeatedly by historians. Zinzendorf, for example attended eight of the ten performances of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte and 18 of the 29 performances of the revival of The Marriage of Figaro in 1790.  He also saw the Magic Flute (its 24th performance) in November 1791 noting that “the music and the stage-designs are pretty, the rest an incredible farce. A huge audience”. For those interested in the diaries and in the history of the period, Professor Dorothea Link’s book “The National Court Theatre in Mozart’s Vienna” is the best source material available.

 

That’s all for the moment –  stay tuned for further (abridged) adventures !

 

 

 

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Review: Auckland Philharmonia “From Leipzig” (23 July 2015)


After a stunning Mahler 5 from the NZSO under Vasily Petrenko last week, I was looking forward to Anton Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony under another young superstar Lionel Bringuier. Sadly, an injury prevented him from travelling to Auckland and he was replaced at the eleventh hour by the veteran Austrian conductor Gunter Neuhold.  

The programme of Felix Mendelssohn’s popular Violin Concerto and the Bruckner obviously inspired the “From Leipzig” title given that both of these works were premiered in that eastern German city.  

While Mendelssohn’s great concerto needs little introduction, being one of the most popular concertante works in the repertoire, mention should be made of the evening’s soloist, someone whose playing the British conductor Daniel Harding described as “uncluttered honesty”.  

German violinist Isabelle Faust has garnered many favourable reviews for her various performances throughout the world most recently for her recordings of Bach, Beethoven and Bartok.  She brought her “Sleeping Beauty” Stradivarius violin with her so what sort of sound would she bring to the Auckland Town Hall ?

It was strong, clear and precise with perfectly weighted intonation. From the first notes which come in almost immediately, there was no hesitation, just beautiful, uncluttered sound with drama where required and senstivity throughout. The second movement Andante was particularly notable for its honesty as Faust resisted all temptation to make it sentimental or schmaltzy as some performers tend to do. She was sending a clear message – let the music (and the fiddle) do the talking. The finale was indeed molto vivace and again, the technical challenges within were dealt in fine style without sacrificing any of the detail or tone. A performance worthy of her excellent reputation and received very warmly by the Town Hall audience.

An encore of the third movement Largo from Bach’s C major Sonata for solo violin was a treat and underlined the clarity and balance we had just heard. Let’s hope that she returns in the near future,

And so to the Bruckner – his massive symphonies are challenging for many reasons, not least of which is the question of which edition of the score to use, Haas or Nowak ? In an illuminating pre-concert talk, APO librarian Robert Johnson noted that Maestro Neufeld had brought with him two versions of the score including the ‘original’ Breitkopf & Haertel published edition and had requested some amendments to the parts the orchestra had.

Such details aside, Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony was one of his most popular and acclaimed works in his life time which was unusual given the hostile critical reaction to his other works.  It contains all of the Brucknerian hallmarks – a wide canvas with broad thematic ideas, huge dynamic contrasts, long contrapuntal phrases and plenty of brass including four “Wagner Tubas”, the first time these instruments had been programmed outside of the theatre. 

On the whole, it was a reasonable effort from the Auckland Philharmonia and Maestro Neufeld, who is well known in Europe for his operatic works especially his Ring Cycle. Particularly strong playing from the cello and viola sections was prominent throughout and the horns and Wagner tubas provided the dark shading unique to these instruments, The fourth movement Finale was notable for its coherence and dynamic balance between the various sections and capped off a decent evening of solid classical music.

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Review: Auckland Philharmonia “Turandot” (3 July 2015)


Last year, the Auckland Philharmonia’s Opera In Concert was, by all accounts, a stunning performance of Wagner’s monumental opera Tristan und Isolde.  On Friday night, we got another stunning in-concert performance of Giacomo Puccini’s unfinished opera “Turandot”.

Known to some as the opera “Nessun Dorma” (it’s an aria, not an opera), the story itself is rather exotic and set in a mythical, somewhat fantastical China.  In short, princes who seek the hand of Princess Turandot need to answer her three riddles correctly otherwise they will be beheaded.  This seems harsh until you understand that Turandot’s character can be summarised as someone did, as being “a fierce man-hating princess who aims to kill anyone wanting to marry her, in the belief that she is avenging a mistreated ancestor”.  You get the picture.

Back to the story.  The Prince of Persia is the latest victim for execution.  In the crowd gathering for his execution is Calaf, the Prince of Tartary, a region now conquered by the Orientals.  Calaf, who is travelling surreptitiously, by chance stumbles on his father King Timur, now blind, and his only remaining servant Liu.  Calaf, on seeing Turandot at the execution, falls instantly in love and determines to accept the challenge of the riddles despite protests from more than a few.

Turandot’s three questions are “What is born each night and dies each dawn?” , “What flickers red and warm like a flame, but is not fire?” and “What is ice which gives you fire and which your fire freezes still more?”.  No spoilers here but rest assured Calaf answers all three correctly.

But the happy ending does not eventuate – Turandot does not want to marry Calaf and does not know the Prince’s name anyway.  Calaf quickly turns that into a riddle for her to answer by sunrise.  Turandot commands that no-one will sleep until the prince’s name is discovered and this is where that famous aria comes in – “none shall sleep”.  But Calaf is certain he will win. 

As things get rather ugly from that point, it’s probably best to leave the plot there and focus on the performance which was stellar. 

Two very strong leads ensured that this performance would be a memorable one.

Italian soprano Tiziana Caruso was mesmerising as Turandot projecting the character’s fierceness, nobility and, at the end, vulnerability with exceptional clarity. Elaborate costumes and surtitles were not necessary as her vocal power and stage presence alone defined the character.

Brazilian tenor Thiago Arancam as Calaf impressed greatly with Jonas Kauffman-like looks and vocal timbre to match. His performance of Nessun Dorma was highly anticipated of course and he did it well but he had already impressed the audience well before that with a captivating stage and vocal presence, particularly with the aria Non piangere, Liu and his appeal to Turandot to allow him to take her challenge.

If you know the opera well, you will know that a strong Turandot needs an equally strong Liu and German soprano Nadja Stefanoff provided wonderful vocal colour and strength of character. Her performance of the aria Signore, ascolta in Act 1 as well as her performance throughout Act 3 conveyed the strength of Liu’s unrequited love for Calaf without ignoring the tragedy that goes with it.

The bureaucratic Ping, Pang and Pong provide humour, particularly in Act 2 and Andrew Moran, Robert Macfarlane and Richard Greager provided wistfulness as well as a rotund comicality which contrast the serious plot points. Faroese bass Runi Brattaberg, a welcome return visitor impressed as the blind King Timur as did Australian tenor Christopher Lincoln Bogg as the Emperor Altoum. And Warwick Fyfe’s Mandarin, who is the first voice you hear, set the scene wonderfully with his pronouncements of the laws of the land.

Musically, at the centre of it all was an augmented Auckland Philharmonia performing at its best under their Music Director Eckehard Stier who controlled things magnificently and drew every ounce of emotion and drama from the lucious music that Puccini wrote. Mention too must be made of the excellent contribution from the chorus comprising of Freemasons New Zealand Opera Chorus and Viva Voce.

Worth a standing ovation ? Definitely !

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2015 Michael Hill International Violin Competition – Grand finale


And so to the grand finale of the 2015 Michael Hill International Violin Competition.  A well-attended Auckland Town Hall audience, many of whom had attended the earlier rounds in Queenstown and Auckland, was full of expectation and we were not disappointed.

It pays to remember what an endurance test this competition has been for the competitors – of the 158 applicants, 18 made the semi-final recital rounds in Queenstown and only 6 made it to the chamber music rounds in Auckland with three of their number making the final on Saturday night.

Opening proceedings was Canadian violinist Timothy Chooi who set the bar very high. His performance of the Sibelius projected dynamic power and very clear playing through all three movements. He definitely wowed the audience with what could only be described as a thrilling performance and the audience reacted accordingly.

How to follow that ? You had to feel a bit sorry for Korean violinist Eunae Koh after such a positive audience reaction but overcome it she did with an elegant performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto, particularly in the second movement adagio. A very different work to the Sibelius, it requires a dfferent mindset. Whereas the Sibelius concerto is cold and steely, the Brahms requires warmth and lightness. Her performance had both. But had she done enough ?

After the interval, at which there was considerable audience gossip, Australian Suyeon Kang had the second half all to herself with her rendition of the Sibelius concerto. It was a performance very different from that heard in the first half. By being noticeably slower and more deliberate, it made you think. Details such as the dialogue betweeen soloist and the violas in the first movement, for instance, were clearer and more interesting. But this approach is risky – a slower tempo draws more attention to your intonation and phrasing. Was the second movement a bit slow or just right ?Would such risk be rewarded by the jury ?

All three soloists had the benefit of the Auckland Philharmonia in excellent form under the very sympathetic baton of English conductor Rumon Gamba. Maestro Gamba took great care to coordinate with each soloists to ensure that the finalists gave their best possible performance with the orchestra and delivered their interpretation of their chosen concerto.

So, who won ? We were kept in suspense for a little while but the list of prize winners was:

–Best performance of the New Zealand commissioned work: Jung Min Choi (South Korea)

–6th prize: Marie-Christine Klettner (Austria)

–5th prize: Elly Suh (South Korea)

–4th prize: Natsumi Tsuboi (Japan)

–3rd prize: Timothy Chooi (Canada)

–2nd prize & winner of the chamber music prize: Eunae Koh (South Korea)

–Winner: Suyeon Kang (Australia)

And the prize for the winner ? NZ$40,000 as well as a recording contract on the Atoll label, a personalised professional development programme, a bespoke gown and a piece of Michael Hill jewellery designed by and presented to the winner by Lady Hill herself. Ms. Kang will return to New Zealand in 2016 for a performance tour across the country, presented in partnership with Chamber Music NZ and the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra. Congratulations to her for her performances throughout the competition – a worthy and popular winner indeed.

As for the others, doubtless we will see or hear about them with interest as they progress with their careers around the world. Remember, you heard them here first !

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Michael Hill International Violin Competition 2015 – Day 2 of the Auckland semi-finals


After three very solid performances on Wednesday night, the remaining three semi-finalists in the Michael Hill International Violin Competition completed the chamber music round in the Concert Chamber of the Auckland Town Hall on Thursday night.

Chamber music as part of a solo violin competition is, on the whole, somewhat unusual.  Trios, quartets and other ensembles have their own dedicated competitions around the world and for the most part, most solo instrument competitions will involve recitals of various pieces selected by the jury or by the performer and this element was completed last week in Queenstown.  The rationale for the MHIVC, outlined by its Artistic Director Dene Olding, is that part of a performer’s career will inevitably involve chamber music and it makes sense to add this extra dimension.  This makes the Michael Hill a very tough gig and a real test of endurance, repertoire and musicianship.

Eunae Koh, Elly Suh and Suyeon Kang, all female and all Korean, performed very strongly in the Queenstown recital sections of the semi-finals.  Could they carry over their high quality performances to Auckland ?

Opening with the ‘Ghost’ trio was Eunae Koh. While this was a solid performance showing good balance, attention to ensemble detail and clean playing, I could not help make some comparisons with the performances of the previous evening. To my ear, it was not as compelling as Natsumi Tsuboi’s performance. But again, I am stating my personal views – the international jury know better than I do.

Elly Suh once again exhibited solid, clean playing in the Op 1 No 2 trio interacting well with cellist Ashley Brown and pianist Michael Houstoun and was a pleasure to listen to.

After the interval, Suyeon Kang performed the c minor Op 1 No 3 trio with true poise and balance. Compared to Timothy Chooi’s performance the precious evening, it was not as aggressive and the theme and variations second movement was impressive. The visual communication between Kang, Brown and Houstoun was very clear and consistent throughout her performance and I thought this was easily the strongest performance of the evening.

So I have to confess to be slightly surprised when the three finalists were named – they are Timothy Chooi, Eunae Koh and Suyeon Kang. Chooi and Kang will perform the Sibelius concerto while Koh will perform the Brahms.

The final will be very interesting indeed ! Good luck to all. 

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Michael Hill International Violin Competition 2015 – Semi-finals, Day 1


This week sees the climax to the 2015 Michael Hill International Violin Competition, a biennial event and one that has gained attention and importance around the classical music world.  The semi-final rounds in Auckland, consisting of the six remaining competitors, are split over two nights as they perform a Beethoven piano trio together with New Zealand musicians Ashley Brown and Michael Houstoun at the Auckland Town Hall.  Of the six, three will be chosen for the grand finale on Saturday which will involve a concerto performance with the Auckland Philharmonia.

The competition proper commenced last week in Queenstown.  Of the 158 entrants, 18 were selected for the recital programmes which was held at the Queenstown Memorial Centre over last weekend.  Thanks to the excellent live and podcast coverage of the recital rounds from Queenstown by Radio New Zealand Concert, everyone could get some idea of the quality of the playing of the competitors.

Based on performance order after the recital sections, the lucky six to advance to the chamber music round were  Marie-Christine Klettner (Austria), Natsumi Tsuboi (Japan/USA), Timothy Chooi (Canada), Eunae Koh (South Korea), Elly Suh (USA/South Korea) and Suyeon Kang (Australia).

On Wednesday evening we heard the first three in announced order. Marie-Christine Klettner chose the Trio in G major Op 1 No 2 and gave a solid , if a little bit safe, account of this early Beethoven work. I say safe as there seemed to be a definite emphasis on achieving balance and matching dynamics above all else without projecting individual lines too much.

Natsumi Tsuboi was next to feature with the Trio in D Major Op 70 No 1, nicknamed the “Ghost” due to its eerie slow movement. This was a highly polished and extremely well balanced performance from the start and gave the impression of an ensemble that was both comfortable with each other which, given the lack of rehearsal time, made it more remarkable. No problems with projection here and particularly notable was the near-perfect balance between violinist and cellist as well as the general co-ordination between the three musicians. While one needs to give due weight to the simplicity of the earlier trio and differences in style with this later one, for me, this was by far the strongest performance of the evening.

After the short interval, Timothy Chooi, the brother of 2013 MHIVC winner Nikki Chooi and the only male semi-finalist, performed the Trio in c minor Op 1 No 3. Chooi started aggressively, perhaps a touch too much, and at times, you might have formed the impression that this was more a violin sonata rather than a trio. While the third and fourth movements showed more balance and synchonicity between all instruments, the theme and variations was a touch unbalanced which was a pity as this could have been a standout performance.

But my impressions and opinions count for nothing – the final decisions are up to the international jury which include the likes of Pierre Amoyal, Jospeh Lin, Helene Pohl and Benjamin Schmid to name only four, each of them experienced and distinguished musicians and teachers in their own right.

On Thursday night, we will hear the remaining three competitors and the judges will announce the three finalists for Saturday’s grand finale.  All sessions of the competition are being live streamed through the competition website and through Radio New Zealand Concert. It is definitely worth listening to !

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Review: Auckland Philharmonia “Chang & Bolero” (30 April 2015)


Every now and then, we do get a superstar of the classical music world come to visit. So it was good to see the ‘sold out’ signs both on the web and at the Auckland Town Hall last Thursday’s Auckland Philharmonia concert.  Perhaps repertoire everyone knows was another reason but more likely was the appearance of American-Korean violinist Sarah Chang making her New Zealand debut.
 
Chang is rightly billed as a superstar and seemingly concertising everywhere. Indeed, Auckland was the last stop on what must have been a very exhausting twelve-week tour that started in Asia and then took in the Australian capitals for both concerti and recitals.
 
Smetana’s Overture to ‘The Bartered Bride’ can be a bit of a warhorse but not this time. Polish conductor Michal Dworzynski, a welcome return visitor to the APO, took the vivacissimo tempo marking very literally and really pushed the orchestra from the beginning. If that was going to be the pace for the evening, there would be some burn out at some point.  
 
Two words aptly describe Antonin Dvorak’s Violin Concerto – neglected masterpiece.  Compared to the other concertante works for the violin, perhaps it does not dazzle or charm as much, but without rock-solid technique and intonation, its degree of difficulty can easily render soloists undone from the very first notes. This might well be the reason why Joseph Joachim, the violin virtuoso to whom the work was dedicated, may have decided not to play it even once.

While we saw and heard flashes of brilliance and Chang’s trademark clarity throughout the performance, something seemed out of place. Chang’s body language on stage seemed to indicate discomfort with something, particularly in the first movement. Perhaps the exertions of the last three months had caught up with her in some way. Certainly, the lack of an encore might have been a hint in that direction.

Having heard a number of her recordings and other concert performances, Chang is clearly capable of better and it was also clear that the Town Hall audience expected more. Given that she is friends with APO Music Director Designate Giordano Bellincampi, maybe she will return for a performance of her favourite Brahms concerto in the future.

Luckily, the second half more than compensated for the first with Bizet’s Carmen Suites and Ravel’s Bolero.

Maestro Dworzynski works well with the Auckland Philharmonia and the orchestra responded back with an assured performance of both the the suites as one continuous work. Carmen might be a tragedy, but the audience was well pleased.

Bolero Ravel’s most famous piece, something that surprised even the composer himself – he wondered whether orchestras would want to perform it given its repetitive, mechanical nature.  Forever associated with the Winter Olympic champions Torvill & Dean in the 1980s, it is actually quite a clever work as the various wind instruments take their solos and the snare drum gets louder and more insistent.

Conductor and orchestra both made sure that this was well-paced and like Goldilocks’ porridge, was not too slow, not too fast, not too soft but loud enough in all of the right places. Worthy of a perfect 6.0 from all the judges.

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REVIEW: Auckland Philharmonia “Out Of This World” (16 April 2015)


A well-attended Auckland Town Hall audience was treated to another intriguing programme from the Auckland Philharmonia on Thursday evening. Bach, Dutilleux and Shostakovich are not your everyday concert fare and the theme of “Out Of This World” was a nod to the main work and the evening’s soloist, German cellist Nicholas Altstaedt.

JS Bach’s Overture from his Suite No.3 in D major started proceedings and Music Director Eckehard Stier conducting a baroque-sized ensemble kept things balanced, bright and breezy as befits this piece.

Henri Dutilleux is not likely to be the first name that comes to mind when thinking of French composers but perhaps he should be given more prominence than he currently enjoys.  A firmly independent voice despite being compared to his contemporaries such as Olivier Messiaen and Pierre Boulez, there are many intriguing descriptions about his compositional style and his music – perfectionist, anti-ideological, unsentimental and poetically flexible.

(A very useful guide to Dutilleux’s music by the excellent critic and writer Tom Service can be found here:
http://www.theguardian.com/music/tomserviceblog/2013/jan/21/henri-dutilleux-contemporary-music-guide)

The work that gave the evening its title was Tout un monde lointain (literally “A whole distant world”) and Dutilleux wrote it between 1967 and 1970 for the acclaimed Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. Inspired by Baudelaire’s poetry, this five-movement work is challenging for both soloist and orchestra. The cello soloist is required to play a good portion of the work in the high register but at the same time act as a foil for the orchestra as well as projecting its unique and solo voice. The orchestra, with its expanded percussion section, might easily overwhelm the soloist and Maestro Stier was visibly at pains to ensure the balance was correct throughout.

This was, apparently, Nicholas Altstaedt’s first concert performance of this work and also the first time the Auckland Philharmonia had performed it. You couldn’t tell as both seemed completely assured in their performances. While this work might not dazzle with technical derring-do as you might expect from a concerto, that is as Dutilleux intended and this performance was notable for the clarity from Mr. Altstaedt, the complexity of the different layers of music in the piece and the restraint and balance from the orchestra. It all gelled together nicely in an intriguing way. Not having heard it live before, it is a piece I would not mind hearing again. And I think the Town Hall audience would agree.

A encore of Sibelius’ “Raindrops” performed by Mr. Altstaedt and concertmaster Andrew Beer was both charming in contrast and its simplicity.

Remarkably, we saw Mr. Altstaedt in the second half as well as he joined the Auckland Philharmonia’s cello section for Dimitri Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony. Not for nothing is it one of the more frequently performed works in the modern symphonic repetoire with its searing harmonies in the first movement, the comical sarcasm of the second, the plaintive and highly emotional third and the highly charged and mock triumphant fourth movement.

The Auckland Philharmonia’s performance can justifiably described as out of this world in every respect. Perfectly paced and weighted dynamically throughout, I cannot remember a performance from this orchestra that had so much energy and intensity and which conveyed a full range of musical colours and textures on every level. Maestro Stier asked for much from his orchestra and got it with interest. A stunning and highly memorable performance that both conductor and orchestra should be very proud of.

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Two nights at the Met (New York City, March 2015)


Recent travels took me to New York City for the first time and one particular highlight was to attend two performances at the Met over the space of two weeks. Specifically, the closing night of Tales of Hoffmann under Met Music Director James Levine and the opening night of a revival of Verdi’s Don Carlo. Getting Jimmy Levine into the pit is now a well-rehearsed process. He had a specially-designed wheelchair as well as a rotunda to allow him to get the wheelchair in and positioned where he needs to be. Everyone is by now well-used to the process but given that Hoffmann is a three-act affair, it tends to get a bit like Grand Central Terminal in the pit ! But I digress.

The Tales of Hoffmann, which is based on three short stories by ETA Hoffmann, is interesting not only for the plot but also for the fact that there is actually no definitive version of the opera. Jacques Offenbach didn’t help things when he voiced his own premonition that he would, like one of the characters (Antonia), die before the work was completed which he duly did ! The libretto can be summarised thus – Hoffmann, a moderately successful poet but unlucky in love tells how he falls in love with four women – Olympia, who turns out to be a mechanical doll, Antonia, who sings herself to death due to a medical condition, Giulietta, a rich courtesan and finally Stella, the prima donna singing in Mozart’s Don Giovanni but he is too drunk and she fall for his rival Lindorf. Aficionados of the stories and the opera will note that I have omitted to mention that the Muse of Poetry is the other ‘woman’ in Hoffmann’s life and she poses as his best friend Nicklausse in the course of the opera and as these stories are told. In the end, Hoffmann devotes his existence to poetry and the Muse is pleased but as he pledges never to love again, who knows what befalls him in the end. The cast was very much American which showed the relative depth of talent available to the Met domestically. Tenor Matthew Polenzani was both strong vocally and in his stagecraft while mezzo Jennifer Johnson Cano played a strong foil as Nicklausse. Soprano Susanna Phillips also showed solid vocal technique and acting skills as Antonia and Stella and French bass-baritone Laurent Naouri shone malevolently as the four villains as you would expect him to do given that he is married to one of the most outstanding singers of the day (Natalie Dessay – whose portrayal of Olympia over the years has been the gold standard). Speaking of Olympia, soprano Audrey Luna, dressed in what can only be called a cross between cosplay and scarlet fairy, hit all of the high notes with ease and grace. In the same vein as Ms. Luna’s own costume, no expense is spared with the elaborate costumes and staging, the chorus and extras in the cast some of whom are, well, minimally dressed. We do have a circus and bordello in the entertainment package, after all ! The Met orchestra under their venerable leader sailed through the music making it an intriguing and delightful evening.

Verdi’s Don Carlo is not an opera I know well and that might also have to do with the fact the fact that there is a French version (Don Carlos as it was originally written for the Paris Opera) as well as the Italian version and that Verdi made many revisions and cuts. The storyline is not as interesting, to me, as other Verdi operas – based on Schiller’s free-form poetic setting and in five acts, it revolves about the trials and tribulations of Don Carlos, Crown Prince of Spain. Initially betrothed to the Princess Elizabeth of France (as part of a peace deal), that engagement is ruthlessly cut off by his own father who negotiates Elizabeth for himself. The rest of the opera sees Don Carlo anguished between his feelings for Elizabeth and his sense of duty to Spain as well as trying to deal with his unfeeling and rather cruel father King Philip. But the plot and the characterisations are somewhat hampered by the source material and as a result (in my opinion at least), this greatly affects the quality of the music. Plot issues aside, it was a very strong cast including Italian soprano Barbara Frittoli as Princess Elizabeth, legendary Italian bass Ferrucio Furlanetto and the legendary Siberian bass-baritone Dimitri Hvorostovsky (a late replacement for Simon Keenlyside who had withdrawn due to illness). Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee did well as Don Carlo but had to overcome a rather sub-par start. His duets with Hvorostovsky were, however, excellent and Lee had no problem finding an extra gear whenever they were on stage together. But Furlanetto’s dark, brooding and malevolent characterisation of King Philip showed what vocal projection is all about. I must say I am heavily biased but the best parts for me were when Furlanetto and Hvorostovsky were on stage whether in duet or part of the ensemble cast. Opera doesn’t get better than that. Canadian wunderkind Yannick Nezet-Seguin had a few wobbly moments with the Met orchestra but held things together well overall. A very memorable night for this opera fan.

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Review: Eddie Izzard “Force Majeure” (Auckland, 19 February 2015)


British comic, actor, writer and soon-to-be politician Eddie Izzard played the Aotea Centre last night in the first of two sold out shows. Last here four years ago with his Stripped show, his uniquely warped sense of humour struck many a chord and caused much mirth with a very appreciative Auckland audience.

Izzard has been touring his Force Majeure show over the last two years across 26 countries in three languages (English, French and German to be exact). Those multilinguistic talents are peppered throughout the evening as are several others. Did you know, for example, that the Welsh and Indian accents are within a screwdriver tightening of each other ? Many experts have said this and it’s absolutely true.

As with any Izzard show, the ride is unpredictable and full of twists and turns into the weird and absurd – who else could link through human sacrifice, the kings of England, Julius Caesar and how he was immortalised in a salad, chickens as military advisors, the comparative merits of various religions and how you only need hairspray to get rid of an errant fly on stage. And that was just the first half.

While nearly all the material is new, as it should be, he has also reworked one of his most famous routines, the Death Star canteen marvellously only this time God is lining up for the spaghetti carbonara with Lord Vader. Where’s Mr. Stevens, the head of catering when you need him ? You’ll just have to find out whether you need a tray or not.

Coming off a long Australian and New Zealand tour, you might have thought that both comedian and some of the jokes might be showing signs of fatigue. There was a touch of that to be honest with the odd pause between segments and a little struggle to maintain the pace but on the whole, it was a generally polished and indeed funny set of absurdist observations and facts that left the audience happy.

Et voila ! Absolutely true.

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