Friday, April 24, 2009

A Russian Visitor

On Wednesday night, Joshua and I went to Symphony Hall to hear The National Philharmonic Of Russia, now on a prolonged tour of the United States and Canada.

The National Philharmonic Of Russia, formed in 2003, is a state-chartered and state-funded orchestra, the only such ensemble created in post-communist Russia.

The orchestra’s conductor is Vladimir Spivakov, who began his career as a violinist before he took up conducting.

The genesis of The National Philharmonic Of Russia goes back to a very-public spat between Spivakov and Mikhail Pletnev, former colleagues who had a vicious falling-out in 2002.

In 1990, Pletnev founded The Russian National Orchestra, a privately-funded orchestra that has always derived much of its financial support from the West. Pletnev served as The Russian National Orchestra’s chief conductor from 1990 until 1999.

After Pletnev stepped down from The Russian National Orchestra, Spivakov was named as his successor. Spivakov, however, did not work out as Pletnev’s replacement, and in 2002 Spivakov was informed that his contract would not be renewed beyond 2003.

Angered at the news, Spivakov resigned his post on the spot and convinced Vladimir Putin to help him form a new, state-sponsored ensemble.

The new ensemble was formed within weeks of Spivakov’s sudden departure from The Russian National Orchestra. The new orchestra’s name deliberately mirrored the name of its rival—and, in fact, the new orchestra attempted to steal players from its established competitor.

After a couple of years of bilious public feuding, things settled down between the two orchestras. The bitter rivalry cooled, at least publicly. Both orchestras now enjoy committed audiences in Moscow and manage to co-exist peacefully in the same city.

However, only The Russian National Orchestra has established itself as a force in the world of commercial recordings and only The Russian National Orchestra is a regular guest at Europe’s most prestigious music festivals. The National Philharmonic Of Russia does not enjoy the same level of prestige in the West as its counterpart.

The current North American tour of The National Philharmonic Of Russia, its second visit to this hemisphere, is a long and grueling one. I find it exhausting simply to look at the orchestra’s schedule of concerts on the tour. Few of the venues on the schedule are notable concert venues—indeed, many of the orchestra’s concerts are in backwaters. The current tour clearly was undertaken to generate foreign currency, not to raise the orchestra’s profile or to enhance the orchestra’s prestige in North America.

On its tour, the orchestra has brought only three programs, all Russian. The musicians must be sick unto death of playing the same three programs over and over and over.

The Boston program consisted of Liadov’s “The Enchanted Lake”, Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 1, Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo And Juliet” and four numbers from Prokofiev’s “Romeo And Juliet”.

This was not an appealing program, but The National Philharmonic Of Russia was one of only three touring orchestras to appear in Boston this season, and Josh and I hated to miss it.

The orchestra was not bad, actually. It had a big, bass-heavy sound, apt for Romantic Russian repertory. The string ensemble demonstrated the richness of sound typical of Russian orchestras. The brass played very cleanly, which surprised me. The wind ensemble was certainly competent, but the winds were not special.

The playing, if nowise remarkable, was at a high level. Of course, the playing SHOULD have been at a high level, given the number of times the orchestra has played this particular program.

The orchestra did not offer a challenging program nor did it offer any hint how the musicians might fare in music of other nationalities. I doubt, for instance, that the orchestra’s playing would have impressed in more cerebral repertory, such as Mozart or Beethoven, or a Martinu-Hindemith pairing.

Spivakov is not much of a conductor. He favors slow tempi, and the music constantly loses tension in his hands. He has not an ounce of rhythmic life in him. Everything he does is obvious and overstated. He is a better violinist than conductor.

Despite the fact that the pianist was atrocious, the best performance of the evening came in the Rachmaninoff. The orchestra had the right sound for Rachmaninoff, and Spivakov seemed to be right at home in Rachmaninoff, obtaining lush sound and sweeping ardor from the players. I actually do not object to the Rachmaninoff Piano Concert No. 1, and the orchestral portion of the concerto was a great success. The soloist, Denis Matsuev, was nothing more than a pounder of keyboards.

Oddly, the Tchaikovky, which I thought might be right up Spivakov’s alley, did not work at all. It was the least successful performance of the evening. The reading lacked character, tension and atmosphere. Further, Spivakov was unable to knit the various sections of the composition into a whole. The climaxes at the end seemed to come from nowhere, since nothing had happened earlier in the piece to justify such a cataclysmic outburst.

The National Philharmonic Of Russia heard in Boston is hardly a first-class orchestra, but two months working with Claudio Abbado or Riccardo Chailly might reveal it to be an orchestra with astonishing potential. Spivakov certainly needs to be replaced as soon as possible.

This weekend, Josh and I plan to attend one of three performances, with the choice being left to Josh. Either we will attend Publick Theatre’s production of “Humble Boy”, Boston Ballet’s production of “The Sleeping Beauty” or an all-Haydn concert by Boston’s Handel And Haydn Society. Josh will make his decision as the weekend progresses, depending upon his mood and his study load.

After this weekend, Josh and I will do nothing until his exams are over.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Marking The Occasion

My parents have been back home for exactly two weeks, and they have settled back into routine.

All the junk they bought in Portugal and arranged to have shipped home has arrived.

I can understand the purchase of Portuguese tile, and I can understand the purchase of ginginha, but I cannot understand or explain the purchase of Portuguese marzipan—and I think my parents have now arrived at the same conclusion, too.

The Portuguese marzipan certainly looks nice—it is bright and colorful, even artistic, and definitely resembles real fruit—but, since no one in my family likes marzipan, buying marzipan was sort of like buying wax fruit. What was the point?

Everyone at home tried a taste of the Portuguese marzipan, and apparently everyone’s curiosity was satisfied with a single swallow—except for my nephew, who spit his out. I hope Joshua and I will not be expected to come to the rescue when we go home, and assume responsibility for consuming the rest of the marzipan!

While my parents were away, the dog stayed with my older brother and his family. The dog was completely happy, and so was my nephew.

The dog is taking more of an interest in the baby now. He left her alone the first three months or so—he must have understood, instinctively, how fragile she was—but now he pays attention to her. He keeps his eyes on her. If she appears to need something, he will look at my sister-in-law and bark—but he will only bark once. In this situation, his bark becomes a short, quick bark, as if he is alerting my sister-in-law that the baby needs her attention without himself contributing any more noise than necessary to the alert.

He watches while the baby is being fed, but he does not attempt to interfere. This is pretty remarkable, because his normal practice is to insist upon food if he observes anyone else eating. Somehow he understands that the rules are different for the baby, and he has adjusted his behavior accordingly.

Several times a day, he goes to whomever is holding her, and sticks his nose against her leg. Sometimes he licks her leg. I think this signifies that he views her as part of his family.

While the dog was staying with my brother and his family, my brother had to stop the cuckoo clock. The cuckoo drove the dog crazy. He barked while it cuckooed, and for an additional two minutes after it stopped. Either there was something about the sound of the cuckoo that bothered him or he must have believed that some intruder had encroached upon his territory. Whatever the root of the problem, the cuckoo mechanism unquestionably disturbed him, and my brother stopped the clock. There was no point in getting the dog riled at thirty-minute intervals.

Everyone at home had a nice Easter Sunday. My mother prepared a major Easter dinner, as she always does, and I am sorry that Josh and I missed it.

For only the third time in my life, I was not home for Easter. In 2002, I was in Vienna at Easter. Last year, Josh and I were in Oklahoma at Easter.

Josh and I did nothing on Easter Sunday—well, we DID bake a ham—and I regret that.

We did not even attend Easter Sunday Service.

We have never been able to find a church in Boston that we like. The establishment Protestant churches here are all too weird—they are political organizations more than religious organizations—and months ago we stopped trying to find a church suitable for civilized worship.

Instead of attending Easter Sunday Service, Josh and I listened to a Mozart Mass and a Haydn Mass.

That was how we chose to mark the occasion.

Saturday, April 18, 2009


Fifty yards away from Trostbrucke is Zollenbrucke, a sandstone bridge from the 17th Century. It is Hamburg’s oldest bridge in continuous use.

Zollenbrucke used to span Groeninerfleet, a canal that was filled in after the war. The bridge no longer serves a structural purpose.

The bridge takes its name from a former customs house that once stood on the spot.

Of Hamburg’s 2300-plus bridges, Zollenbrucke is the favorite of the public. The bridge is now a pedestrian walkway, a veritable overlook upon the point at which Groeninerfleet formerly flowed into Nikolaifleet.

Laeiszhof Und Globushof

On one side of Trostbrucke is Gebaude Der Patriotischen Gesellschaft. On the other side are two famous counting houses (“Kontorhauser”) known as Laeiszhof Und Globushof.

Laeiszhof Und Globushof are the only two large-scale counting houses in Hamburg to emerge from World War II undamaged. The buildings long served as headquarters for the Laeisz Shipping Company, whose founder gained worldwide fame by providing funds to erect Hamburg’s main concert hall, Laeiszhalle.

Laeiszhof, dating from 1897 and 1898, is the older of the two buildings. It is a severe, modern reinterpretation of a Northern European Renaissance structure.

The Neo-Baroque Globushof, from 1907 and 1908, has a less formal fa├žade and features numerous sandstone decorations. Copper models of ships sit atop its spires, and very impressive they are. The entrance facade is decorated with statues of Wilhelm I and Bismarck.

The ships of the Laeisz Shipping Company were long known as the world’s fastest. The successor owner of the Laeisz Shipping Company continues to occupy both buildings.

We examined the interior of the Laeiszhof, which was full of splendor. Grand stairwells, mezzanines, skylights, rotunda, courtyards: the building had every possible luxury of its time, all befitting a palace of commerce.

The building still uses old-style German elevators—the type that runs continuously and has no doors—and we rode the elevators as a lark.

We also made it into the Chairman’s Office, a lavishly-appointed suite crammed with model ships and historic ship memorabilia. I don’t think we were supposed to be there but, once inside, we were allowed to look around to our heart’s content by a gracious secretary. She even presented us with a copy of the company’s annual report as we departed.

Perhaps she thought we might buy shares.

Friday, April 17, 2009


Gebaude Der Patriotischen Gesellschaft abuts Trostbrucke, a small but historically-important bridge that spans Nikolaifleet, one of Hamburg’s dozens of canals.

Trostbrucke was erected in 1881. It is one of countless bridges in Hamburg, a city that boasts more bridges than Venice and Amsterdam combined.

When erected, the 1881 stone bridge replaced a wooden bridge from the 13th Century. It is decorated with statues of Bishop Ansgar, who founded Hamburg’s first Christian outpost in 832, and Count Adolf von Schauenburg, who founded Hamburg’s merchant district in the 12th Century. These two historic persons were chosen because the bridge was intended to note the important connection between Hamburg’s religious history and its merchant history, the two foundations upon which the city was built.

Trostbrucke (“Comfort Bridge”) was given its name because prisoners on their way to be tried at the town hall were comforted for one last time on the bridge.

From the middle of the 13th century until the 1842 fire, Trostbrucke was the very center of Hamburg’s Altstadt.

Gebaude Der Patriotischen Gesellschaft

Near and to the rear of Hulbe-Haus is Gebaude Der Patriotischen Gesellschaft.

In 1765, Hamburg’s middle-class intellectuals founded a society to support measures for the improvement of the public good. This society became known as Die Patriotische Gesellschaft (“Patriotic Society”). Its building, accordingly, is Gebaude Der Patriotischen Gesellschaft.

A surprising number of establishments now maintained by the state has come into existence as a result of this society. Between the years 1767 and 1898, the society founded Hamburg’s first trade school, the first German poorhouse, Europe’s first savings bank, and various spas and public libraries in and around Hamburg. The society also organized Hamburg exhibitions of new inventions. Today the society supports scientific and technical innovations, as well as young artists.

The society’s Neo-Gothic building, seen today in a simplified and renovated post-war version, was built between 1845 and 1847. It was one of the first important buildings to be completed after The Great Fire Of 1842. The building is located on the site of the former Rathaus, destroyed in the conflagration.

World War II left its mark on several parts of the building. The effects of bomb damage may still be seen if one examines the building closely.

Before the war, Die Patriotische Gesellschaft maintained a remarkable and renowned library in its main building. All 120,000 volumes were lost in the air raids of 1943.

Thursday, April 16, 2009


Just as Hamburg’s Rathaus emerged from World War II completely unscathed, several notable buildings nearby also escaped wartime damage and destruction.

One such building was Hulbe-Haus, a beautiful 1910 building built in Dutch Renaissance style. Hulbe-Haus is notable for its layered steeple topped by a golden cog, the symbol of North German port cities.

Hulbe-Haus has become a minor landmark of the city of Hamburg, and this is so for three reasons. First, the building protrudes several yards into Monckebergstrasse, Hamburg’s main shopping street. It is the only building that protrudes into the lengthy, grand boulevard that connects Hamburg’s Rathaus with the city’s main train station (“Hauptbahnhof”). Second, Hulbe-Haus is one of only two buildings on Monckebergstrasse that was not obliterated by wartime bombs and the ensuing fires. Third, Hulbe-Haus lies atop the very center of Hamburg’s first settlement, Hammaburg, erected in the 9th Century.

Hammaburg was an ancient fortress after which the city of Hamburg was named. Hammaburg was also Northern Europe’s first Christian outpost—the fortress Hammaburg served as a diocesan town and the missionary center for all of Northern Europe. Indeed, Christianity came to Northern Europe via Hamburg, and it did so hundreds of years after Christianity had spread to most other parts of Europe.

The streets around Hulbe-Haus have been the sites of numerous excavations since 1962. A nearby office building displays in its basement excavations showing the remnants of what once was the bishop’s residence. The remnants are almost one thousand years old. The basement is open to the public, and we made a short visit. A couple of ancient stone walls and a few ancient stone columns were on display, all illuminated so that they might easily be viewed by visitors. It was not particularly impressive.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


Joshua and I have kept four discs in our player since the middle of February, a mark of how busy we have been over the last several weeks and how little we have listened to music.

Further, we liked the four discs very, very much—for once, we chose well—and we gave each disc many, many listens. It was a splendid listening program.

Haydn’s Symphonies Numbers 6, 7 and 8, performed by The Hanover Band under Roy Goodman, on the Hyperion label

Schubert’s Complete Incidental Music to “Rosamunde”, performed by Elly Ameling, the Leipzig Radio Chorus and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under Kurt Masur, on the Philips label

Brahms’s Sonatas For Violin And Piano, performed by Anne-Sophie Mutter and Alexis Weissenberg, on the EMI label

Orchestral music of Copland, performed by William Blount and the Orchestra Of Saint Luke’s under Dennis Russell Davies, on the MusicMasters label

Franz Joseph Haydn’s “Le Matin”, “Le Midi” and “Le Soir” Symphonies were the first symphonies Haydn composed for the Esterhazy Court. They are the earliest of Haydn’s symphonies to be performed with any regularity.

Haydn is believed to have been inspired, in writing the symphonies, by Vivaldi’s concertos known as “The Four Seasons”, a copy of which was in the Esterhazy library and studied by Haydn. Symphonies 6, 7 and 8 were composed and first performed in 1761.

These are captivating works, known by everyone, and The Hanover Band recording is very fine. Goodman conducts from the harpsichord.

There are many, many fine recordings of these works, staples of the gramophone since the advent of the LP, but I doubt that this recording need take a back seat to any other. The recording was made in 1991.

Goodman is an underrated conductor. He is almost unknown in the U.S. Even in Britain, his profile lags those of John Eliot Gardiner, Christopher Hogwood, Roger Norrington and Trevor Pinnock, Goodman’s contemporaries who have also made their names in the original-instrument field. Goodman is in no way inferior to his well-known colleagues. Indeed, he is demonstrably superior to a couple of names on that list.

Goodman is the only conductor from that group whom I have never heard in concert. His U.S. appearances have been infrequent and I have never managed to hear him in London.

Goodman now works on the continent, mostly with modern-instrument ensembles. His discography is very distinguished. He may be the most talented of the British original-instrument bunch.

Franz Schubert’s “Rosamunde” is a treasurable work. Schubert wrote the score in 1823—incidental music for a long-forgotten play—and it is one of his most appealing creations.

Four orchestral numbers from “Rosamunde” are known to regular concert-goers, but the complete score is very seldom performed. The complete score is known almost exclusively through recordings, of which this Masur recording is one of the finest.

The score consists of an overture (borrowed from “Zauberharfe”) and ten numbers. Three of the numbers are for chorus and orchestra. A single number is for soprano and orchestra. The remaining seven numbers are for orchestra alone.

The Masur recording is very fine.

The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra of 1984 (the year this recording was made) was a very cultured orchestra. The string playing was very light—no leaning on strings, no excess vibrato, no impenetrable “wall of sound”—and very articulate and very subtle.

The strings played like an Old World chamber ensemble—attacks, phrasings, balances: all were immaculate—and yet this perfection was not accomplished through a conductor’s whiplash tactics. It was all effortlessly natural, ingrained into the musicians over years, even generations, of working within the traditions of a noble and distinguished academy of musicians.

To this lightness of string sound was added a dark coloration, creating a string sound of the most remarkable distinction, beauty and grace. No other orchestra’s string section ever sounded like the string section of the Leipzig Gewandhaus.

The winds, too, were distinctive. The winds featured a dark, reedy coloration, especially the tangy oboes and the vibrato-laden flutes (the flutes actually sound like wooden flutes in many of the orchestra’s recordings from the 1970’s and 1980’s).

The wind ensemble’s playing was very understated, emerging from the orchestral fabric very subtly, making its presence known primarily through timbre and color rather than through highlighting or sheer volume.

The brass sound of the old Gewandhaus was unique (and not to all tastes). The brass had a very tight, focused sound, lacking roundness, brilliance and richness. This was especially true of the trumpet section, which would sound timid, even constricted, in an American orchestral setting.

Today’s Leipzig Gewandhaus maintains some of its former qualities—the light string articulation is still miraculous—but the orchestra is beginning to sound more and more like any other international ensemble. The brass is now more assertive, the winds more prominent, and the strings offer a greater mass of sound consistent with the orchestra’s counterparts in Berlin and Dresden. The orchestra, nevertheless, remains one of the most interesting orchestras anywhere.

The Leipzig’s “Rosamunde” recording is magnificent. The orchestra has the perfect sound for Schubert, and the playing is idiomatic and elegant. Most orchestras have lost the capability of playing Schubert, but Leipzig in 1984 had the sound and style for Schubert in its bones.

Much of the success of the recording must be credited to Masur, a very fine conductor in Central European repertory.

I have always believed that Masur was at his best in the music of the Early Romantics—Schubert, Mendelssohn and Schumann—and this “Rosamunde” recording reaffirms that belief. His is a very stylish and emotionally-complete performance. He never overplays rhetoric or sentiment, but his performance is nevertheless deeply-felt, full of the necessary innigkeit. My recollection is that the competing “Rosamunde” recording under Claudio Abbado, by comparison, is precious, even finicky, and ultimately lacks Masur’s gravitas and warmth. However, I acknowledge I have never listened to the two recordings side-by-side for purposes of comparing them.

Anne-Sophie Mutter’s 1982 EMI traversal of the Johannes Brahms violin sonatas remains her only integral recording of these works. I am somewhat surprised she has not re-recorded the sonatas for Deutsche Grammophon (there may be new recordings “in the can”, awaiting release, since Mutter and her current pianist performed the three sonatas in recitals all over Europe in 2006).

On Mutter’s personal website, she omits this particular Brahms disc from her discography altogether, despite the fact that it is still in print and very highly regarded. It is the only one of Mutter’s many recordings not referenced on her website—and I know this cannot be unintentional on her part.

Mutter was only 19 years old when this recording was made, but no allowances need be made for youth. Mutter is an instinctive and great Brahms player—and she was a great Brahms player at age nineteen.

The pianist on the EMI recording was Alexis Weissenberg. This was Mutter’s only recording with Weissenberg and I wonder whether she was dissatisfied with Weissenberg’s work and whether this accounts for her omission of this disc in her online discography.

The performances are very good, among the finest versions ever recorded. Myself, I wish Mutter had waited five years before recording these works, because her playing is somewhat less personal than it would become just a few years later. However, no one can fault these performances. They probably will remain in the active catalog forever.

Brahms waited until he was 46 years old before he published his first violin sonata in 1879. He had written several works for violin and piano while in his twenties, but he had destroyed those works—even though Robert Schumann had described them as works of utter genius.

Two more sonatas were to follow over the next decade, each more focused than the last, each with ideas more natural than the preceding sonata.

Brahms had long since passed his prolix stage in chamber music by the time he wrote these works. They have much more in common with the late Clarinet Sonatas, Opus 120, than with such early chamber works as the Piano Quartet Number 1 In G Minor, Opus 25, or even the Cello Sonata Number 1 In E Minor, Opus 38. They are spare, ultra-refined works, free of a single superfluous note.

Josh and I brought several Brahms discs to Boston—we brought more Brahms music than music of any other composer—because Brahms is my favorite composer and because Josh wants to learn more of the Brahms work list.

We also brought several Aaron Copland discs to Boston, because Josh likes the music of Copland very much.

Copland was probably America’s finest composer of art music—truly, does he have any competition?—and everything he wrote had a very high finish.

The knock against Copland’s work is that all his music sounds alike and that he wrote within a very narrow emotional range. This very well may be true, but the very same criticism may be leveled against the music of Maurice Ravel (whose music also had a very high finish).

The MusicMasters disc contains four works: Music For The Theater (1925); Quiet City (1940); Music For The Movies (1942); and the Clarinet Concerto (1949).

Recorded in 1988, this is one of the best Copland discs in the catalog.

It is obvious that the performances were all very carefully prepared. Dennis Russell Davies elicits very clean playing from the chamber-size forces—which never sound underpowered—and he obtains robust performances full of character and expression. Nevertheless, these are “anti-Bernstein” readings: simple, direct, free from hyper-activity and salesmanship.

Nothing is jazzed up to excess. Musical argument is not subjected to hothouse treatment. There is no milking of sentiment. Rhythms are clean and bracing, not overstressed and overstretched. The music is allowed to speak for itself.

Davies probably conducts the music of Copland better than he conducts any other music. His Copland discs are the highlight of his discography, and this surely is one of the finest of his several Copland recordings (some of which date back to his Saint Paul days).

I do not believe this disc is widely-known, probably because the short-lived MusicMasters label never enjoyed wide distribution. Happily, these performances were reissued in the U.S. and the U.K. last year on the Nimbus label.

I hope they enjoy a renewed life.

Monday, April 13, 2009


On Friday night, Joshua and I had tickets to Krystian Zimerman’s recital at Jordan Hall. Zimerman cancelled, which disappointed us, as we both had wanted to hear him.

At least we learned of the cancellation in advance. Because Zimerman had cancelled a recital elsewhere just a few days earlier, Josh and I had been keeping our eyes on the Boston Celebrity Series website to see whether Zimerman’s Boston recital was going to proceed as scheduled. On Friday morning, we noticed that the website had posted a notice announcing Zimerman’s cancellation.

Josh and I remained in a frame of mind to do something Friday night, so we looked for alternatives and settled upon a performance of William Inge’s 1953 play, “Picnic”, at Stoneham Theatre in Stoneham.

Consequently, very late on Friday afternoon, we drove up to Stoneham, a town totally new to us, and easily located the theater.

Stoneham Theatre is a professional theater company that presents a seven-play season in a small but fine facility.

Neither of us had seen a stage production of “Picnic”—the play is very, very seldom revived today—and neither of us had seen the movie, either. We were curious to see a live presentation of the play, and we looked forward to an old-fashioned play with a large cast, the kind of play no longer written and produced.

“Picnic” more than held our interest. Of course the play is dated, and remarkably similar in tone and theme to Inge’s other stage works, but we enjoyed the play and the performance immensely.

“Picnic” is not a strong play—one can observe the plot gears grinding from the opening scene, and predict the final resolution within seconds of the arrival of Hal, the drifter—and the Stoneham Theatre production was not strong, but we had a very good time. We probably will never want to see the play again, but it was a night well-spent.

We almost stayed in town Friday night to catch a performance of Charlotte Jones’s 2001 play, “Humble Boy”, at Boston’s Publick Theatre, but we decided to see “Picnic” instead. We may try to catch a performance of “Humble Boy” next weekend.

We are coming to the end of Josh’s school term. Josh will soon move into full-time study mode for his first-year exams.

We also are coming to the end of Boston’s concert season. We plan to attend one more concert before the term is over—The National Philharmonic Of Russia, on tour in the U.S., playing a Russian program under Vladimir Spivakov—and we may attend a concert by Boston’s Handel And Haydn Society, playing an all-Haydn concert under Roger Norrington (the attraction is Haydn, not Norrington). With regard to the latter concert, we will make a decision whether to go at the very last minute.

Josh and I missed a substantial number of concerts offered this season by the Boston Celebrity Series, the local presenter of guest artists. This was regrettable, but Josh and I are in Boston to attend to business, not to attend concerts.

We missed several string quartets, several pianists, and several vocalists. However, we have to schedule things around Josh’s schoolwork, and most of the concerts we missed were on weeknights or during exam period or while we were busy doing other things or featured artists we already had heard too often. Upon reflection, I find it amazing that we managed to attend any concerts at all.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Lisbon: A Second Day

My parents spent a rewarding Palm Sunday in Lisbon.

They had an early breakfast at their hotel, and at 8:30 a.m. they set out for their final day of sightseeing in Portugal.

My parents had hired a driver for the day, as they had four stops on their schedule, none close together, and they wanted to travel between stops quickly, dependably and comfortably, free from worry and stress. The driver was arranged through an agency. He spoke English, and he was very courteous and very reliable.

The first stop was a return to the Alfama Quarter, where my parents visited two important houses of worship.

The first was The Church Of Saint Anthony Of Lisbon (“Igreja De Santo Antonio De Lisboa”), a church dedicated to Saint Anthony Of Padua (1195-1231), who was born and raised in Lisbon and who is known in Portugal—but nowhere else—as Saint Anthony Of Lisbon. (Saint Anthony never left Portugal until he was 25 years old; he first traveled to Italy in 1220 or 1221, and spent the last decade of his short life in and around Padua.)

The Church Of Saint Anthony is sited upon ground that formerly was occupied by the house in which Saint Anthony was born. A church dedicated to Saint Anthony has occupied the site for over five hundred years. The current structure, of Baroque design, is the fourth church building on the site. It post-dates the 1755 earthquake.

Next to The Church Of Saint Anthony is the Lisbon Cathedral (“Se Patriarchal De Lisboa”), which my parents also visited.

The current Cathedral structure has been in place since 1150, but numerous and substantial changes to the Cathedral have been imposed over the centuries. One hundred years ago, the Cathedral was simplified in an attempt to return the Cathedral’s architecture to its original Romanesque form. Renaissance and Baroque embellishments were removed, inside and out, and original Romanesque features were emphasized. The Cathedral is now believed to resemble the original structure, more or less.

It is a very severe building, lacking grace and beauty, and exudes a fortress-like harshness. It is surely one of the least imposing and least admirable cathedral buildings in Europe.

The interior of the Cathedral is very spare. It is also very gloomy, as there are so few sources of light (the Cathedral lacks windows).

The Cathedral is home to numerous tombs of historic persons. It is also the repository of the baptismal fount of Saint Anthony, perhaps the Cathedral’s most cherished artifact.

My parents found the Cathedral to be very unimpressive, almost displeasing, and they did not make a long visit.

From the Alfama Quarter, my parents were driven to the English Cemetery. In the center of the English Cemetery is an Anglican church, Saint George’s Church, at which my parents attended Palm Sunday Service.

There has been a large English contingent in Lisbon for centuries owing to longstanding trade ties between Britain and Portugal. As a result, Anglican worship has been offered in Lisbon for almost 400 years.

There are currently at least four English-language churches in Lisbon—one Anglican, one Baptist, one Scottish Presbyterian and one non-denominational—and additional others in nearby Estoril and Cascais. (For centuries, there has also been a Portuguese-language Roman Catholic church in London.)

The current Saint George’s structure was consecrated in 1889 and is of typical late-Victorian ecclesiastical design. It has a splendid organ.

After Palm Sunday Service, my parents were driven to Portugal’s largest and finest art museum, The National Museum Of Ancient Art (“Museu Nacional De Arte Antiga”).

The National Museum Of Ancient Art is a comprehensive museum, holding paintings, works on paper, sculpture, antiquities and decorative arts. My parents, owing to time constraints, only viewed Old Master paintings from the 15th to the 19th Centuries, which were of very high quality.

After two hours at The National Museum Of Ancient Art, my parents were driven to The Calouste Gulbenkian Museum (“Museu Calouste Gulbenkian”), established by the estate of oil magnate Calouste Gulbenkian and home to Gulbenkian’s fabulous personal art collection.

Gulbenkian’s great art collection resides in Portugal because, during World War II, Gulbenkian settled in Portugal to wait out the war. He liked Portugal so much that he remained in the country until his death in 1955 and, further, left the bulk of his estate to a foundation that promotes various cultural activities in Portugal.

The Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, like The National Museum Of Ancient Art, holds a full array of art objects—paintings, works on paper, sculpture, antiquities, decorative arts—but, once again owing to time constraints, my parents concentrated on Old Master paintings.

Gulbenkian, following Andrew Mellon’s lead, acquired many of his paintings from The Hermitage in Leningrad during the 1930’s, buying them from a Soviet government desperate for foreign currency. Many of the most-renowned paintings in the Gulbenkian collection were formerly owned by The Hermitage (and had been acquired for The Hermitage by Catherine The Great during the 18th Century).

It was very late afternoon by the time my parents completed their museum visits and were driven back to their hotel for the evening. They had dinner in the hotel dining room and prepared their things for tomorrow’s flight home.

My parents had a very nice visit to Portugal. Despite a few not-very-interesting activities called for by the tour itinerary, my parents visited many historic and beautiful places, experienced magnificent scenery, and met some very nice travelers (most persons on the tour were from the U.S., but a few were from Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Britain). The food and accommodation were of a high standard, the guides excellent, the itinerary varied, the pace of the tour active but not frenetic. They were able to enjoy a wonderful vacation without doing any work, having left all advance plans and preparations to professionals. It worked out perfectly for them: ten days of relaxation and stimulation in a beautiful country totally unknown to them.

Portugal must have reliable mail service. On Saturday, Joshua and I received a postcard that had been mailed from Estoril on Monday, March 30.

However, no postcards have arrived in Minneapolis yet. The postcards will probably arrive tomorrow, along with my parents.

Saturday, April 04, 2009


This morning my parents’ tour group departed The Algarve and proceeded to Lisbon.

The tour group arrived in Lisbon in late morning and for the rest of the day the participants in the tour were shown a handful of the highlights of Lisbon.

To see everything in Lisbon worth seeing, and to do so at a leisurely pace, would require two weeks. However, as my parents’ guided tour had only one half-day in Lisbon at its disposal, the focus was on a couple of “must-see” Lisbon attractions.

First stop was the Alfama Quarter, one of Lisbon’s oldest neighborhoods. A maze of narrow medieval streets and ancient buildings, the Alfama Quarter was the only section of Lisbon that survived the 1755 earthquake (because it was the only section of the city built on bedrock).

Tour participants were granted two hours in which to explore the Alfama Quarter and have lunch. By design, my parents used the allotted time to take Tram 28 to the top of the Alfama Quarter’s steep hill. From the top of the hill, they walked back down through a series of side streets, picking up a sandwich along the way. En route, they located Lisbon’s Cathedral and the Church Of San Antonio, both of which they plan to visit tomorrow morning, Palm Sunday.

The Alfama Quarter is very charming. It is a mixture of shops, cafes, homes and stately public buildings. Some of the houses are in various states of dilapidation, while others have been restored in recent years as the quarter has undergone gentrification. It is perhaps Lisbon’s most frequently-visited quarter.

From the Alfama Quarter, the tour group proceeded to Lisbon’s entrance harbor to undertake a guided visit of Jeronimos Monastery (“Mosteiro Dos Jeronimos”), Portugal’s single greatest ecclesiastical structure. The mammoth Jeronimos Monastery is situated in Belem, the seaport near the gates of Lisbon.

Jeronimos Monastery parallels The Mafra National Palace in that both giant complexes—one ecclesiastical, one ecclesiastical and secular—were funded with the fabulous wealth pouring into Portugal during The Age Of Discovery.

The monastery was built specifically to commemorate Vasco Da Gama’s successful voyage to India in 1497. The monastery was begun in 1502, and mostly completed by 1550, although interior and exterior decorations were refined for another half-century.

Jeronimos Monastery is considered to be the world’s finest example of Manueline architecture. Manueline architecture is a unique Portuguese mixture of flamboyant Gothic, Moorish and early-Renaissance architecture, named after Manuel I (“The Fortunate”), the Portuguese monarch that commissioned the monastery. The monastery complex is a riot of intricate stonework, inside and out.

The monastery complex is enormous. In addition to a massive church, the complex houses a refectory, chapter house and cloister. Indeed, the complex is so large that it now houses two major secular museums, Portugal’s invaluable National Maritime Museum and a somewhat less important National Archeological Museum (neither of which was part of the guided visit).

The church at the monastery serves as one of Lisbon’s two Pantheons: notable figures from Portuguese history, such as Vasco Da Gama, are buried in the church, as is one complete line of Portugal’s Royal Family.

From Jeronimos Monastery, the tour group visited nearby Belem Tower and Monument To The Discoveries, both of which are also situated at the seaport near the gates of Lisbon.

Belem Tower was another commission of Manuel I. Belem Tower, too, was built to commemorate Vasco Da Gama’s successful voyage to India. Another notable example of Manueline architecture, it was constructed between 1515 and 1521, contemporaneous with the construction of nearby Jeronimos Monastery.

Belem Tower serves both as a ceremonial gateway to the city of Lisbon and as part of the city’s ancient array of coastal defenses. It provides the most famous image of Lisbon, known worldwide, and has served as the symbol of the city for five centuries.

Monument To The Discoveries is a modern tribute to Portugal’s most glorious era. Completed in 1960, the 500th anniversary of the death of Henry The Navigator, Monument To The Discoveries portrays 33 figures from The Age Of Discovery, including Henry himself, who stands atop the monument and looks out upon the water.

The 1960 Monument To The Discoveries was a recreation of a smaller, temporary monument that had been created for the ill-fated 1940 Lisbon World’s Fair. As most of Europe was at war from September 1939, the 1940 Lisbon World’s Fair turned out to be a purely local affair and is largely forgotten today.

Once the tour group completed its visit to the three key attractions at the Lisbon entrance harbor, the group proceeded to its Lisbon hotel, a high-rise Marriott in the modern section of Lisbon, home of Lisbon’s business and financial districts. My parents said that the views of Lisbon from their hotel windows were marvelous.

After a couple of hours settling into the hotel, the tour group was taken to a restaurant for what was called a “farewell” dinner. Tonight’s dinner marked the final event of the eight-day guided tour. The tour will conclude tomorrow morning by transporting tour participants to the airport.

Tomorrow my parents will remain in Lisbon, spending the day on their own. They plan to visit two churches in the early morning, attend Palm Sunday service, and visit Lisbon’s two main art museums in the middle of the day and in the afternoon.

On Monday, they will fly back to Minneapolis.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Lagos, Sagres, Cape Of Saint Vincente And Silves

Today was a long day in The Algarve for my parents, as they were escorted around the Southwestern-most point of the European Continent from morning until night.

Happily, this area is very compact, and the places the tour group visited—Lagos, Sagres, The Cape Of Saint Vincente and Silves—were all within a few kilometers of each other as well as within a few kilometers of my parents’ hotel in Alvor.

This area of Portugal was central territory in The Age Of Discovery. Ships by the hundred set forth from Lagos and Sagres to explore the globe, and most of the voyages of exploration originating in Lagos and Sagres were inspired by Henry The Navigator, the princely seafarer who lived and worked in Lagos and Sagres and planned his (and others’) voyages from his famed School Of Navigation in Sagres.

Portugal was one of the world’s wealthiest nations at the time of the onset of The Age Of Discovery, and The Age Of Discovery substantially enhanced Portugal’s wealth—the inflow of gold and foreign treasure first from Africa and later from The New World made the nation’s coffers overflow for more than two centuries.

The 1755 earthquake changed everything. The earthquake destroyed virtually all of Portugal instantly. To this day, much of Portugal has never been rebuilt. Starkly put, the nation never recovered from the scale of the 1755 disaster—Portugal went from a great power to an irrelevant country literally in six minutes. Only in the last decade, with massive amounts of aid from the European Union, has Portugal’s living standard once again begun to approximate the living standard enjoyed in the rest of Western Europe.

In the last half-millennium, there is only one other instance in which a wealthy country lost its wealth and position so rapidly: Belgium in 1914. On August 4, 1914, neutral Belgium possessed the world’s sixth-largest economy. By August 16, 1914, Belgium’s national wealth had been erased and its economy decimated, victim of Imperial Germany’s aggression. Belgium was forever rendered irrelevant by World War I, just as Portugal was forever rendered irrelevant by the 1755 earthquake. Neither nation was to emerge from its tragedy anything like its former self.

The day began for my parents in Lagos, the city in which Henry The Navigator built his personal palace. The palace was destroyed by the earthquake; only remnants of the foundation remain.

My parents said that Lagos was a lovely town, a town of cobblestone streets, beautiful trees and flowers lining the streets and squares, and distinguished old buildings. They said that Lagos warranted a visit lasting a couple of days, not a couple of hours.

The most prominent structure in Lagos is the fort that protects the harbor (“Forte Da Ponta Da Bandeira”).

The tour group received a guided tour of the fort and was allowed to walk the walls of the enormous structure. My parents said that the fort was fascinating, and the views from the ramparts gorgeous.

The fort contains a naval museum, which the tour group did not visit.

The Lagos fort remained in use until recent decades, as this part of the Atlantic Ocean carries a long and distinguished history of trade and naval warfare. It was not uncommon, 300 years ago, to see 400 ships in the Lagos harbor. Two great naval engagements occurred off the coast of Lagos, both involving the British and the French. In 1693, the French prevailed; in 1759, the British won a decisive victory.

For over two centuries, Lagos was a more important center of trade than London or Amsterdam, a more important locus of scientific discovery and technological innovation than Paris or Vienna, and a more important seat of political and military power than Venice or Madrid. Today Lagos is nothing more than a resort town, offering little discernible evidence that the town was once one of the most important places on the globe.

From Lagos, the tour group traveled to Sagres, home of Henry The Navigator’s School Of Navigation and the Compass Rose.

Sagres, too, hosts a fort, which is the only interesting feature of the town. The Sagres fort is situated on an unusual—and breathtaking—promontory in the Atlantic Ocean.

It was on the Sagres promontory that Henry The Navigator erected a fort and established his School Of Navigation, an institution responsible for many advances in mapping and navigational instruments. Ferdinand Magellan and Vasco Da Gama were prominent graduates of Henry’s School Of Navigation.

The School Of Navigation was home to the famed Compass Rose, 43 meters in diameter, made from pebbles. According to my parents, the Compass Rose was sort of impressive, and also sort of unimpressive, and I think I understand exactly what those inherently-contradictory statements mean.

After the visit to Sagres, the tour group was driven extensively around The Cape Of Saint Vincente, the Southwestern-most spot on the European Continent.

My parents said that the scenery along The Cape Of Saint Vincente was spectacular.

The multi-colored rock cliffs—red, white, yellow, brown—rising above the ocean are, on average, 200 feet high, providing some of the most dramatic views to be seen anywhere.

Three times the tour group stopped at overlooks to enjoy the uncommon and unforgettable views.

At a fourth stop, the tour group visited the lighthouse on the Cape, erected on the site of a centuries-old convent. It is one of the largest lighthouses in the world and has one of the most powerful sets of lights in the world.

The lighthouse on The Cape Of Saint Vincente provides a vital service. The Cape Of Saint Vincente is one of the world’s most heavily-trafficked shipping lanes, the waters of the Cape are among the world’s most treacherous, and the countless rock outcroppings on the Cape are lethal to ships. This portion of the Atlantic Ocean has been one of the world’s great graveyards for vessels for centuries.

After the tour group had had sufficient time to enjoy The Cape Of Saint Vincente, the group proceeded to Silves, an inland town due North of Lagos.

Silves has numerous attractions—ancient churches, convents, and castles—but the tour group did not have time to see, let alone visit, any of the town’s attractions. Instead, the sole purpose of the tour group’s visit to Silves was to tour a cork factory and to tour a marzipan factory, both on the outskirts of town.

Silves was once the worldwide center for cork-making, but the decline in global cork demand forced most of the town’s cork-makers to close their factories decades ago. Apparently only one Silves cork factory remains in business, and that was the factory visited by the tour group.

My parents said that the cork factory visit was not particularly interesting—and, in the requisite visit to the cork factory gift shop at tour’s end, no one from the tour group bought a single item insofar as my parents could ascertain.

From the cork factory, the tour group proceeded to a nearby marzipan factory for another factory tour.

My parents said that the marzipan factory was much more interesting than the cork factory.

Southern Portugal has for centuries been an important center for marzipan-making. Its prominence in this field is due to the enormous groves of almond trees that have graced the Southern Portuguese countryside for millennia.

Portuguese marzipan is unique—it uses higher almond content and unique sweeteners, variants that make Portuguese marzipan different from all other marzipan—and highly-prized throughout the world.

My parents said that watching the marzipan-making process was rather intriguing. Highly-skilled artisans are needed to fashion the delicacies, since Portuguese marzipan is incessantly colorful and sculpted into all sorts of complicated shapes and figures.

Apparently the most popular shapes for Portuguese marzipan are fruits. Marzipan is most often crafted to look like oranges, lemons, tangerines, limes, apples, pears, peaches, plums, grapes, bananas, pineapples, mangos and other fruits. An experienced and skilled artisan is able to make the appearance of his marzipan fruit creation indistinguishable from the real thing.

To the best of my knowledge and belief, no one in my family has a taste for marzipan, but at the marzipan factory gift shop my parents nonetheless bought two boxes of marzipan. Each box contains a full array of different fruits. I have no idea whom my parents plan to favor with gifts of marzipan. Gift-wise, marzipan is like fruitcake: most persons are happier to give than to receive. I believe my parents, in buying marzipan, may have experienced a momentary lack of lucidity.

From the marzipan factory, the tour group made its final stop of the day: an abandoned cork factory turned into upscale restaurant. The tour group dined at the restaurant on an assortment of Portuguese delicacies.

Given that tourism is now The Algarve’s top industry, most abandoned cork factories have been turned into eating establishments or shopping outlets, primed to capture the tourist trade.

My parents said that it was a very fine restaurant, and that the dinner was excellent.

Tomorrow morning, the tour group goes to Lisbon for the final day and night of the tour.

My parents will remain in Lisbon for an extra day at the conclusion of the tour in order to visit Lisbon’s two internationally-renowned art museums.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

The Algarve

Today was a free day for my parents in The Algarve.

They are staying in a resort hotel right outside the town of Alvor, and they managed to make the most of their day.

Alvor is a very small town. First settled by the Carthaginians, Alvor was nothing more than a small fishing village for centuries. Its most notable claims to fame are a ruined castle outside the town (destroyed in the 1755 earthquake) and the fact that Portugal’s greatest king, Dom Joao II, died suddenly in Alvor in 1495.

The Algarve first became a tourist destination in the 1960’s. Tourist development over the last forty years has driven away the old fishing industry and replaced it with a ring of fashionable resorts that surround the town. The town itself, however, remains much as it was ever since the post-1755 reconstruction.

Genuinely, Alvor is a village that serves tourism. It is a maze of narrow, winding streets filled with cafes, small shops and houses. Most of the town’s inhabitants work at one of the nearby resorts.

My parents and the couple from Rochester spent the morning and early afternoon walking around the town. The most notable building in Alvor is the town’s only church, Igreja Matriz, the only Alvor building that survived the 1755 disaster.

They visited the church, and walked all around the town, and strolled the beach, and found a place to enjoy a seafood lunch.

In the early afternoon, they all went back to the hotel to relax for a couple of hours, after which they embarked on an excursion—primarily because it seemed to be the most interesting thing to do.

The went on a sailing expedition on a two-masted ship, which sailed around The Algarve Coast, passing fishing villages and medieval fortresses and amazing coastal rock formations. The sailing expedition included a visit to the famous Algarve Caves. At the entrance to the caves, the ship launched small boats to take passengers inside the caves, which apparently are very similar to the caves on the island of Capri off the coast of Naples.

The sailing expedition concluded with dinner at a classic Portuguese restaurant in the town of Portimao, a somewhat larger version of Alvor just up the coast.

After dinner in Portimao, my parents and the couple from Rochester were transported back to the hotel.

My parents said they loved the excursion. It made the day worthwhile.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Evora And The Algarve

This morning my parents ended their four-day stay in Estoril and proceeded to The Algarve via Evora.

Evora is one of Portugal’s most interesting cities—it is the only city in Portugal that survived the horrific 1755 earthquake more or less intact—and my parents had several hours at their disposal, in the middle of the day, to enjoy the city.

Evora has a long and distinguished history. Evora was an important city as far back as The Roman Era. Evora was seat of The Portuguese Court until the end of the 16th Century. For centuries the city was home to Portugal’s finest university. An anti-clerical epoch forced the university’s closure in the 18th Century; the university was not to reopen until 1973.

Evora is most famous for its so-called Temple Of Diana, the most important Roman-Era temple on The Iberian Peninsula. The temple was actually erected to Caesar Augustus, not the Roman goddess Diana. Fourteen of its twenty original columns still stand.

Evora has many historic churches. My parents visited Evora Cathedral and they visited the most important of the many churches in the center of town.

Evora Cathedral, the largest cathedral in Portugal, is a giant Romanesque structure erected in the 12th and 13th Centuries. It was restored in the 15th Century, and the restoration imposed a Gothic overlay upon the original Romanesque structure, consistent with the practice then prevalent throughout Europe.

Among the finest features of the Cathedral are the 12 Apostles that line the main portal. The statues of the Apostles are considered to be the finest Portuguese sculptures from The Gothic Period.

One of the Cathedral’s towers contains the Cathedral treasury. The treasury’s most valuable relic is a piece of The True Cross. My parents did not have an opportunity to visit the treasury.

A Gothic cloister is attached to the Cathedral.

The church my parents visited was The Royal Church Of San Francisco (“Igreja Real Do Sao Francisco”).

A large Gothic church from the 15th and 16th Centuries, the church is most famous for its fifteen chapels, including the Chapel Of Bones (“Capela Dos Ossos”), the walls and pillars of which are lined with human bones and skulls embedded in cement. Over the chapel door is painted “The bones here await yours”, a very cheery sentiment indeed. In addition to the bones, two complete corpses hang from the chapel walls.

The center of Evora is very compact. My parents had plenty of time to see the essential sights as well as have a nice lunch.

My parents explored the main square.

They also walked around the old university and visited its beautiful central courtyard.

All of these sights were within a ten-minute walk of Evora Cathedral.

From Evora, the tour group proceeded to The Algarve.

The tour group will stay in the small town of Alvor for the next three nights. The hotel, a gated private resort with its own beach, golf course and full amenities, is right on the Atlantic Ocean.