Monday, March 30, 2009

The Corner Store

I just needed to take a moment to give a shout out to our local corner store. It's about a 3-minute walk from our house and has one of everything one could need — including items such as sharpies and New Zealand food that you can't even get at the big grocery store down the road. How they do it and keep it inexpensive is beyond me. Hooray for the anti-big-box store!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Tradition Exchange

I've been saying for months now that the countries of the world should put their heads together (maybe even for more time than this week's ultra-hyped G20 summit — it doesn't even last a full day!) and trade ideas about what works and what doesn't in their respective countries.

A trivial example? Drinking fountains. I'm convinced that once Europeans are introduced to them, they'll never want to go back. Despite knowing for many months now that they don't exist on this side of the ocean, I still find myself looking for one every now and then.

Maybe a more meaningful example? Healthcare. Europeans have it. Americans don't. We should have been able to fix this a long time ago; maybe now we have another shot.

If the world's leaders can't or won't hold such an exchange in ideas, surely the world's musical leaders can. And they must! Last night I saw the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra on tour here in London, and it's not even that they were all that fantastic, but they were so German. Maybe I'm still starry-eyed after the Berlin Phil concert two weeks ago, but the Germans play with far more sensitivity than one might imagine. It's as though the tradition is about playing together and not necessarily being an individual virtuoso, and the result is stunning. Why can't the ego-centric Americans and Brits learn from how tightly these orchestras play? (And please make the switch to rotary trumpets — piston instruments are great for jazz and brass band but useless in an orchestral context.)

In such a musical summit, then, the German style of orchestral playing surely must be adopted as the model, and I propose that the British style of singing and the American style of composing should likewise become the models to which the rest of the world can aspire.

The British choral and vocal tradition is without equal; in fact, the only mar on last night's performance was the German soprano who warbled and wobbled her way through Strauss' Four Last Songs. Thankfully, I was sitting in the choir behind the orchestra and didn't have to bear the brunt of her Wagner-esque treatment.

Finally, I find the path that American composers are treading (since the 1980s with such pieces as Adams' Harmonielehre, Corigliano's Symphony No. 1, and Del Tredici's In Memory of a Summer's Day) far more convincing and useful than that of European or British composers (this is, of course, in the most general terms possible). While they are stuck still fighting the battles of the 1950s and 1960s, the Americans have found their own way off the battlefield.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

This Week: Friends and Enemies

Don't let the 'This Week' in the title mislead you: I don't think I'm disciplined enough to keep a running weekly 'column', as it were. Things just so happened to break down that way (note to anyone hiring freelance writers: I could just about whip up the discipline for a weekly column were it, ahem... paid). On with it!

Friend: The Ionian Singers. I've been itching to start singing again, and since the music director, Tim Salter, teaches at College, there's quite a few of my colleagues already in the choir. Tonight was my first concert with them and it was an all around great experience.

Enemy: Chamberlain, Powell and Bon. Why, one may ask? Because they designed the monstrosity that is the Barbican Centre — a behemoth, industrial concrete complex of concert halls (including the home turf of the London Symphony Orchestra), art galleries, and housing — that is almost perversely impressive in its seamless union of visual miscarriage and hopeless impracticality. Almost.

This evening's concert was in an old church (where, incidentally, Oliver Cromwell was married and John Milton is buried) in the midst of this 1970s wasteland. The church was nice, but to give an example of the sheer comedy of the design, it was surrounded on two sides by water (over which there was no bridge), and on the other two by housing towers. To get to the cafe terrace (which you can easily see; it's no more than 20 or 30 yards across the decorative fountain/lake), you must go up two floors to cross along the housing or walk about two blocks East before turning onto another road that leads you to... never mind. Surely the architects must have been drunk throughout the design process. Surely they can't really be that stupid.

Friend: Traveling. I love it and I'm giddy that we have so much of it planned.

Enemy: Papers to write for class. I'm spending time writing this; need I say more?

Friend: Barack Obama. I'm almost finished with The Audacity of Hope and it is, like his first book, illuminating and well-written. I don't agree with him about absolutely everything, but I do agree with him on almost everything. I'm proud he's the leader of my country.

Enemy: Everyone who is graduating from ASU in May. Why? Because Barack Obama is speaking at ASU's commencement and I'm furious that it's not at MY graduation!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

These Next Nine Days...

...are going to be madness. At the end of next week, I have an orchestra piece and a paper due. Who designed the two-major-assignments-due-on-the-same-day thing? I protest!

I know what you're thinking: "Tom, why did you go to Berlin this weekend? And then write a blog post of considerable length about it yesterday? And why are you writing on your blog right now instead of making progress on your projects?"

Touché. Off I go.

Monday, March 16, 2009

A Weekend in Berlin

Perhaps moreso than our other upcoming trips, Teriann and I were excited to go to Berlin because we were going, in part, to see one of our favorite bands: the Killers. Plus, neither one of us had ever been to Germany before.

We were traveling with our flatmates Ed and Julie (here's us at the Killers concert),

and the four of us started off the trip by visiting the Checkpoint Charlie Museum and seeing a piece of the Berlin Wall that was left standing as a kind of memorial. While one is tempted to think of them as distant and ancient, I think it's astonishing how recent historical events like WWII and the civil rights movement really were; it's all the more astonishing, then, that the Berlin wall still stood during my lifetime.

Teriann's on the west side of the wall... get it? Ha!

We also visited the much-touted Daniel Liebeskind-designed Jewish Museum. It's ultra-conceptual (the most straightforward exhibit is the 'memory void' which is a series of completely empty and blank rooms that, in a legitimate museum, would have stuff in them... I get what they're going for, but it's disappointing as an experience) and is pretty much a multi-million-euro playground for Liebeskind to show us all how deep and artist-y and important he is. He needs to get over himself — I would argue that the numerous "Mr Liebeskind's work continues to be open to interpretation to all our visitors" signs posted actually detract from the true subject of the museum: the Jewish people and the horrors they have suffered. It makes me shudder to think that the new building on the site of Ground Zero in New York is a Liebeskind design.

And yes, I did take a picture of the Christmas tree in the Jewish Museum.

Our first night finished up much better: with the Berlin Philharmonic. They truly are a fantastic orchestra and I felt privileged to have heard them live. This is their beautiful-looking and -sounding hall, the Philharmonie.

The next day, we ate breakfast along a row of shops and restaurants with several figures/mascots (what does one call them?) outside. Of course, Teriann needed pictures.

It made us realize, though, that Berliners (and maybe Germans in general — who knows?) love their mascots/figures/somethings. For instance, immediately upon arriving in the city and getting off the underground, we were greeted by this cheery chap.

(We had dinner here on our first night and it was fantastic! More on that later...)

And since the bear is a symbol of Berlin, all kinds of bears, stuffed and painted, line the streets, subject to our picture-snapping whims.

That day, we went to the Reichstag — the German parliament building crowned with a late-90s glass dome,

the Brandenburg Gate,

Gendarmenmarkt, a beautiful square with two nearly-identical churches on either side (only one church is pictured below — it's impossible to do justice to that space with a camera),

and an enormous chocolate store (supposedly the largest in Europe) with chocolate versions of the famous landmarks.

Teriann even caroused with the less-than-reputable locals.

That night was the main reason we came to Berlin: the Killers. After another spectacular and surprisingly-cheap dinner, I was incredibly glad that (even though we had general admission tickets) we got a seat and didn't have to stand on the floor with the masses. For old fogies like me, it's never much fun to be smashed into the masses in front of me by the masses behind me. And Teriann wouldn't have been able to see hardly anything on stage if we were on the floor.

It was a great show, and though photos can never capture the energy of a rock concert, there are a few in the facebook album (linked at the bottom of this post).

On our final day, we visited the underwhelming Friedrichskirche, a church nearly destroyed during WWII but left standing as a memorial (Coventry Cathedral is far better), the victory column, and the German History Museum.

The victory column is where Barack Obama gave his wildly popular speech last July, and offers a great view of the city. Below is the column, the ubiquitous graffiti on the stairwell, and the view of the Reichstag from the top.

Is Teriann holding it up or pushing it over?

The final attraction before our final (and characteristically mindblowing) dinner was the German History Museum. I thought it was expertly presented and fascinating. It's like the British Museum — if I had the luxury, I would go back to it day after day until I had taken everything in. I was likewise impressed by its unflinching account of WWII and Germany's role therein. Both in the museum's case and in general: if Germany went through a phase where the subject was taboo or relativized, in Berlin, at least, that phase has long since passed.

In all, though I enjoyed the trip immensely, I'm not sure I'm sold on Berlin. Though it's undeniably cosmopolitan, its spread-out design and grungy-modern buildings make it seem more like a typical American city than one with cozy, old-world charm; though every local one meets is both nice and helpful, the constant graffiti and dodgy neighborhoods make you feel less-than-welcome.

In my opinion, the best thing about Germany? The food. It's at least as delicious and distinctive as Italian food, so why isn't it as widespread? I can stand on any street corner in London (or, for that matter, most of America) and find several shops with something — pizza, pasta — Italian Why not a schnitzel of a wurst? After this weekend, I'll be looking for sure.

If you want to see more pics from the trip, here's the facebook album.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Theataah, the Theataaah

Teriann and I have been to three shows in one week: Oliver (with Mr Bean as Fagin!) last Wednesday, La Clique on Sunday, and Mamma Mia tonight.

The verdict is in: London theatre is not hacking it. While Oliver was mostly very good, there was a character that clearly could not sing his role (why then, one must ask, was he cast in it?); La Clique was very entertaining but wasn't traditional theatre — certainly no singing; Marguerite, which we saw all the way back in September featured the worst performer in a leading role I've ever seen —professional, community, or high school; and tonight's show was one of the most bizarre theatre experiences I've ever had.

Not even one or two, but most of the actors were not professional caliber. Solid enough for community theatre, I suppose, but you don't pay 30+ pounds for the cheap seats in community theatre. The sound was poorly balanced. The spotlight operator was either new to his job or drunk. The whole production came to a grinding halt five or ten minutes in when they couldn't get one of the set pieces to move. The best part of the show by far was after the initial curtain call when the director dropped all pretense of a paper-thin story and just had the cast dance and sing ABBA's hits. 'Waterloo' — which I was under the impression was one of the most popular songs from the show — wasn't even sung in the course of the story, and was tacked on in this sing-a-long of sorts. Given how lazily most of the other songs were wedged into the story, why not another popular, peppy one? And these afterthoughts were choreographed with much greater care than the 'stand there and sing' approach taken to the rest of the show.

And our fellow theatregoers... I could moan for ages about this, but let me keep it short: usually, when I go to the theatre, I am refreshed by the number of like-minded, civilized people gathered to share in a communal experience. Not so tonight. On my left, a pair of women that would comment on the action in normal conversatory volume; on my right, a man who munched on corn nuts and (I'm not exaggerating) answered his cell phone during the first act; behind us, a family from Spain who was under the impression that the audience was encouraged to sing along with the numbers they knew, including a 7-ish-year-old girl who was constantly jumping, kicking my seat, and at one point swatting the back of my head; in front of me (as I said, we were in the cheap seats), the theatre was liberally peppered with the sort of tottering folks who clap with the music whenever it's even mildly catchy. Hmm... I kept that as short as I could.

The moral of the story: the West End is no Broadway. Be thankful for theatre in New York and the touring shows that go through Phoenix. In seeing dozens of those shows, I've never once come across the sort of disappointments that I'm learning are all too common in British theatre.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Six Months

Looking back on it, it's hard to believe that six months of our two years in London have passed. Granted, almost a month of it was spent back in Arizona over Christmas, but it has been quite a ride; it would be impossible to try to list the amazing things we've done and seen in this city.

Travel-wise, we haven't done as well as we should. We took weekend trips in October to Venice and in December to Bath, but for six months, that's paltry! We already have plans to get back on the horse, though:

March 13-15: Berlin
April 3-7: Ireland
April 25-26: Barcelona
May 2-4: Strasbourg, Basel, Freiburg, Colmar
May 23-25: Brussels, Bruges, Ghent
June 6-7: Munich and Neuschwanstein Castle
July 13-24: Paris, Rome, Florence, Pisa, Cinque de Terre

We'll no doubt add to this list (those two free weekends in May are looking mighty tasty!) and there's plenty more Europe to see, but we're glad to start digging in.