Monthly Archives: June 2013

Popping into Palais Garnier

So, I was in the neighborhood of Paris’s Palais Garnier the other day—you know how that goes, just a weekday drop-by on a free afternoon—and I decided to invest in the 10 euro price to tour the opera house and its museum, since odds are low I’ll be attending a performance of the Paris Opera Ballet there any time in the future. Mind you, I’d love to. And for the next best thing, the chance to see the venue where the POB performs, wander the fabled halls, the glittering, mirror-and-chandelier-filled salon, run my fingers lovingly over one of the red velvet seats in the auditorium, gaze upward at the Marc Chagall ceiling, it would be well worth ten euros.

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Any of my ballet readers will be nodding their heads wisely at the mention of the Paris Opera Ballet, knowing its stellar international reputation, its legendary hold within the dance world since way back. Although ballet in some form had commenced centuries earlier in Italy, it was France’s Louis XIV, himself a dancer, who developed it. He founded the Royal Academy of Dance in 1661, and in 1669, the Academy of Opera. By 1672 it was The Royal Academy of Music, to be later known as simply The Opera. Louis XIV gave the ballet all his support, both personal and financial, and as such, ballet thrived in France. This is why all the ballet terms are in French and not Italian.

Back in those times, ballet companies were merely offshoots of the far more important opera companies and their performances. (And for many years, only men were allowed to dance.) This is why now, particularly in Europe, the term “opera” is tied in with the country’s premier dance companies. It’s not the Paris Ballet, it’s the Paris Opera Ballet, and both the opera and the ballet have performed at the Palais Garnier until 1989, when a second opera house was built (the Opéra Bastille, with more elaborate facilities for the sort of set and production changes required for opera). Today the Palais Garnier is used mostly for ballet productions.

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The Palais Garnier is gorgeous, ornate, sublime, truly palatial. Inside, I took page after page of notes, snapped pics, gathered impressions, immersed myself in the utterly delicious experience of wandering around without any time constraints (the boys in my family had gone to a war museum).

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Fortunate for me, the museum was having an exposition on the Paris Opera Ballet, complete with hundreds of photos, costumes on display, and a viewing room to watch video footage of Paris Opera Ballet performances. What a lovely, lengthy, detailed blog I could write, with all this.

Or not. Because the travels continue. And when you’re a tourist in Europe, you really need to focus on what’s there right in front of you. So, off I go. I’ll let my lame little cell-phone photos tell the rest.

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There are changes forthcoming at the Paris Opera Ballet: recently it has been announced that Benjamin Millepied (former New York City Ballet principal, choreographer for Black Swan) will be taking over as director of dance in October 2014, replacing esteemed director Brigitte Lefèvre. This is a bit of a shock to me, and to a lot of people in the ballet world, I imagine. The Paris Opera Ballet is such an iconic institution and Millepied is… well, he’s based on Los Angeles, he married actress Natalie Portman, he was in on Black Swan and indeed, that’s how I knew his name. Peak success, Hollywood-style. Taking over the Paris Opera Ballet, well… WOW! That’s big. Anyway. Wishing him the best.

And if you’re interested in how to take a ballet class in Paris, check out this blog of mine: http://www.theclassicalgirl.com/ballet-class-in-paris-i-dare-you/

© 2013 Terez Rose

Classical Girl’s Violin Debut at DWF Airport

I’m traveling this week, which makes for less blog time, so I thought I’d be lazy and deposit an old, favored blog in here that I wrote five-ish years ago. It’s about travel, so that counts, right? And it’s been a while since I’ve given my adult-beginners-on-the-violin readers a story, so here you go. I bet my adult-beginner-at-ballet readers will appreciate it too. New love, and all. It’s universal.

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“Folks, we’re having a bit of a delay.”

I hear the message through the crackle of a faulty public address system at San Francisco International Airport. I am slumped in my plastic chair, Starbucks in hand, waiting for my 10:20am flight to start boarding, now that it’s 10:25am. These are words no traveling passenger with a connecting flight wants to hear. The gate agent sings out the news and ensuing updates cheerily, as if announcing picnic plans.

My layover at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport was to have been fifty-five minutes long. Then American Airlines, unfathomably, pushed the connecting flight forward by fifteen minutes, days before my departure. I now had a forty-minute layover. With a thirty minute delay. You do the math.

Hope springs eternal. At DFW, I run, push, vault luggage and small children as I tear through the terminals at an Olympic clip. I arrive at the gate, panting, sweating, just in time to see my plane trundling down the tarmac toward the runway. Or perhaps it wasn’t mine, I tell myself, as the gate agent, having taken my boarding pass, peers at her computer screen, taps furiously, then prints out a new boarding pass. “Here you are,” she says with a bright smile. “Your flight will board in…” she consults her watch, “approximately four hours.”

I stare at her, jaw agape, my mind a chaos of angry confusion. This can’t be happening. I’ve flown on this specific day, forfeiting spending my fifteen-year anniversary with my spouse, in order to be with my sister—recovering from brain tumor surgery, single-handedly raising three teens, her husband just shipped to Afghanistan for six months. Today is her birthday, and thanks to American Airlines, I am going miss a much anticipated—and needed—dinner celebration.

I splutter. I rant. I slap my hands on the counter for emphasis. I stop only when tears sting my eyes and clog my throat. Throughout, the airline agent retains a serene smile, the likes of which would have impressed—or chilled—the Buddha. As I stomp off, the ticket agent calls out for me to have a good day.

Teary, impassioned phone calls to both sister and spouse fail to quell the rage in me. It does, however, consume thirty minutes. Now only three and a half more hours remain before boarding my next flight. Drinking copious quantities of alcohol in the soulless gloom of an airport bar is a likely option, inevitably followed by an overpriced, over-processed, high-fat dinner in an equally soulless venue.

And then I remember what I have by my side. My violin. My baby. What luck.

There is one catch. Well, two. I took my practice mute out of the case that morning because it is metallic, heavy and vaguely suspicious-looking. If I am to practice my violin, it will have to be in a decidedly public fashion. Secondly, I am still a beginner. As an adult beginner, I often see people’s eyes light up with expectation when they see the violin case slung over my shoulder. Adult violinist, in their minds, equals proficient violinist. I feel like posting a sign on my case that reads, “It’s not what you’re thinking.” Yes, I can play, but the sounds I make are more befitting a seven year old in a taffeta dress and patent leather shoes. Further, I am an introvert. It is both daunting and humbling, perhaps even ridiculous to consider a public debut under such circumstances.

And yet…

My heart begins to judder. The gauntlet had been thrown. I need to do this.
I find an area, an abandoned waiting room and gate in the corner of Terminal B. The chairs have been pulled out, so no passengers loiter here. Beneath my feet is tired blue carpet, overhead, despondent fluorescent lights. Just outside the window I can see airplanes drawing up to the gates to disgorge passengers and load up more. I take a deep breath, pull my fiddle from its case on the floor, tighten my bow and begin.

The violin works its magic. The mellow tones of the open strings, followed by slow scales, are like the call-to-worship sound of church bells. They put me into place, encircle me in a aura of focus. And like that, I’m safe.

After scales and arpeggios, I play tunes—anything memorized, since my music followed my mute into the checked bag. Short, simple pieces, snippets of Bach and Mozart, folk tunes, Celtic fiddle tunes. It becomes all about the pleasure of creating resonant tones, of hitting that note right on the sweet spot, of finding the music within the music.

Although I’m not facing the pedestrian traffic, I still have a peripheral view of people walking by, regarding me curiously. Many of them smile. Some slow down. One guy approaches and watching me play up close, resulting in instant butterfingers on my part. Afterwards he confesses his eternal fascination with the instrument and I tell him, with a wry, self-deprecating shrug, that anyone can do it, trust me. An older couple passes, stops, and begs for a chord. I comply with a rousing double-stop. They applaud and tell me I should have my open case up front for them to throw their tip into.

I laugh, wave the people on, and glance down at my watch. To my astonishment, an hour has passed. As I pack up my violin ten minutes later and plan for dinner, I realize I no longer have the slightest interest in stopping at the bar for a drink. I don’t even feel like indulging in some heavy dinner—normally a prime source of entertainment and comfort to me. I no longer need it. I’ve found deeper nourishment.

A Royal Exodus?

Earlier in the month, the first bit of news reached my ears: principal dancers Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg were leaving the Royal Ballet at the end of the season. Noooo! I am such a huge fan of this couple, partners onstage and off, even though living in California, I harbor little chance of seeing them perform live. Still processing this, its implication for Royal Ballet patrons, I spied this news from the ballet world yesterday: Royal Ballet principal ballerina Leanne Benjamin had just given her final performance on their London stage. Or, wait – was it principal Mara Galeazzi who was giving her final performance and leaving at season’s end? Gasp! Both of them?! This, on top of losing Alina and Johan. On top of losing Tamara. On top of losing…

Yikes. Let me catch my breath. Let’s back up, shall we?

The Royal Ballet, London, spring of 2012. In the final months of artistic director Monica Mason’s ten-year tenure, Sergei Polunin, prodigiously talented, alluring young principal, flakes out and quits, mid-season. (Don’t get me started on him. What a spoiled, petulant, prima dona of a dancer, dropping responsibility and commitment whenever it suits him, which he can do because of his extraordinary gift. Whoops. You got me started. Did I tell you not to get me started? Now look what’s happened. Here, read this. Then let’s move on to discussing more worthy dancers. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/dance/10084739/Sergei-Polunin-Whoever-thought-of-making-ballet-Its-definitely-not-my-passion.html )

Where was I? Oh. Sorry. Exit Sergei Polunin. Exit Dame Monica Mason in July 2012, retiring as director of the Royal Ballet (and a former company ballerina-turned-administrator, a total of 54 years with the organization). Exit, around the same time, the sublimely talented prima ballerina Tamara Rojo, who leaves the company to become artistic director of the English National Ballet, as well as continuing to perform, now with them.

Enter the Royal Ballet’s new director, Kevin O’Hare, most recently the company’s administrative director. 46 years old, Royal Ballet School-trained, a former principal with the Birmingham Royal Ballet before shifting to administration. In my uninformed opinion, he looks and sounds like a great guy, with the right skills, ethic and attitude for the job. And observe his first coup as director: signing on internationally acclaimed prima ballerina Natalia Osipova, the 26-year-old star, formerly of the Bolshoi, who will join the Royal Ballet next season (in addition to dancing with the Mikhailovsky Ballet in St Petersburg and the American Ballet Theatre).

Only now, look what’s happening over at the Royal Ballet. While the retirements of principals Leanne Benjamin and Mara Galeazzi were expected, the departures of principals Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg were not. Dispute with management, perhaps made worse by Osipova’s imminent arrival? Falling out of favor? Speculation and opinions abound. One thing is certain: losing this duo is a huge loss, not just for the Royal Ballet but for all its patrons. As is the loss of the two retiring longtime principals.

I must confess I’d never heard of Leanne Benjamin or Mara Galeazzi, but that’s likely because I live under a rock out here on the West Coast. That’s why I now rely on the Internet and online dance forums and fellow bloggers.

Leanne Benjamin first. Powerfully talented and hard-working. Spirited. An Aussie. I have never met an Aussie I didn’t adore. She has a beautiful, striking face, a perfect sense of dramatic timing, and seemingly boundless youthful energy, even at age forty-nine. It’s been said that age has not detracted from her skills in the least and that, if anything, she’s been dancing better and better in past years. Dang. You have to admire a woman like that. And she took that risk I love hearing about: choosing to have a family as well as a dance career. Her daughter is now ten. Isn’t that the greatest?

Benjamin has been with the Royal Ballet for 21 years, a principal since 1993. Her last performance will be in Tokyo on July 10th in A Gala Evening with The Royal Ballet. (Her final performance at The Royal Opera House was June 15, in Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling.)

And then there is Italian ballerina Mara Galeazzi, who joined the Royal Ballet in 1992 (made principal in 2003), whose final performance with the company will be in Monaco on June 29, where she will perform the title role in Manon. Galeazzi, who had her first child in the spring of 2012, has an unusual post-ballet life and career awaiting her. First, a move to Muscat, Oman, to rejoin her husband where his work is based. There, in addition to teaching dance, she will devote time to her charity foundation, Dancing for the Children, which raises funds to help children in Africa affected by HIV. How incredible and worthy is that? Further, all of this has transpired since she fell ill in 2005 and was diagnosed with a serious kidney disorder. Doctors told her she only had two more years of dancing left, and could never have children. Happily, she ignored their prognosis. It was at this challenging time, as well, that she began her active involvement in international charity fundraising work. Wow. Another warrior woman.

Wishing all of these women the very best of luck.

What lies ahead for the Royal Ballet, in 2013-2014 and beyond? I will be all eyes and ears.

Dvořák Saves the Plane

Remember the movie Snakes on a Plane? Yeah, me neither. But let’s call this Strings on a Plane. It’s a warm afternoon in Beijing and a plane full of people are buckled in, awaiting departure that the crew can’t seem to get permission for. The plane has been grounded on the tarmac for not one, not two, but three hours. Patience is dwindling. Tempers are mounting. Recycled airplane air is growing toxic with frustration, with irritation toward the controllers, the pilots, the situation. The flight attendants are wringing their hands, unable to do anything about the delay.

This sounds like a job for….

Antonin Dvořák!!!

Well, him and four members of the Philadelphia Orchestra, who happened to be on the flight, on their way to join the rest of their crew, all part of the orchestra’s 2013 Residency & Fortieth Anniversary Tour of China. The four musicians on this flight — Juliette Kang, Daniel Han, Che-Hung Chen and Yumi Kendall — had recently performed Dvořák’s String Quartet no. 12 (nicknamed “The American”). There they were, instruments nearby, music nearby, with all the time in the world, there on that grounded plane. So. They decided to play the fourth movement and entertain the ready-to-mutiny-passengers.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dFhYPsgroMk&feature=player_detailpage
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This is fun for me on so many levels. First, what hilarious, unedited footage. What a performance – and a darned good one! Second, I’m crazy about “The American,” and have been since 2003. Even though I’d heard string quartets before, it was only during that year that my interest in the violin and its repertoire exploded. In the course of one year, I inhaled about a dozen violin concertos and probably an equal amount of string quartets. But this was the first one. I fell wildly in love with it (as a listener, never a player, mind you). I bought a score of the quartet so I could follow along with the music. I listened closely to each of the four instrument parts. I swooned over the beauty of the second movement. I listened to the jaunty, spirited first movement over and over and over. It is, I’ve decided, one of the most delightful, delicious accessible quartets for any non-classsical music person to listen to, much as Dvorák’s New World Symphony is a wonderful symphony for classical music newbies. I’ve kind of burnt out on the latter, but the former, the quartet, still charms me.

Another thing about this whole situation that I love. The YouTube footage, as well as the story, has gotten picked up in national news, international news, online forums (thank you, Trevor Jennings, at Violinist.com!), publications, blogs, etc. The YouTube page shows over a million views and over a thousand comments. All this, about classical music.

Classical music has gone viral. People are talking about it. Arguing about “The American” and quartets and classical musicians and their lives and how hard could that be, anyway, this music-playing? (The answer: plenty hard.) You gotta love it.

Thank you, Antonin Dvořák, and Juliette Kang, Daniel Han, Che-Hung Chen and Yumi Kendall. Together you saved the day. The plane. Humanity. We, the people, are humbly grateful.

And for those of you interested in hearing Dvořák’s Quartet no. 12 in its entirety (oh please, oh please, do this for me — you’ll thank me for it some day), here it is as well, performed by the Kubin Quartet:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yqcI1CgD9_Y&feature=player_detailpage

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A Perfect Moment via “O Mio Babbino”

Friday night, just before 6:00pm, I was driving my son to the middle school he will be graduating from in a matter of days. Eighth grade dance night. He’s developing that closeness with his classmates, male and female alike, that I remember doing at the end of my own eighth grade year. In some ways, that golden, almost-summer, king-of-the-hill feeling at my school, coupled with budding other feelings, far exceeded anything socially or romantically I would experience for another three years. (The tragedy of the social disaster that comprised my high school years is best left undiscussed further. Call me a late bloomer and we’ll leave it at that.)

It was a particularly lovely evening, trees in full, green, leafy bloom, sun still high in the sky as though it were afternoon. It felt odd, driving along close to 6pm, this brilliant gold sun shining down during a time of the early evening where I expect the scenery to be obscured by shadows, the way it is the other 10 months of the year, here in the San Lorenzo Valley. It’s that “summertime” feeling, no doubt. And who doesn’t remember the golden feeling that came over you, maybe around age fourteen, maybe later/earlier, of taking that next step into young adulthood, via a dance, a romance, an adventure?

My son was sitting next to me in the car. He was pumped; you could tell. Although he wore the same jeans and tee-shirt as he might for school, he’d showered. He’d put on cologne. He was Ready for Anything. He was scrolling through his music on his iPod that was connected up to the car stereo. Such an important journey, that drive to the big Eighth Grade Dance, deserved only the best of music. Now, a few things. He is not a Classical Boy, much to my sorrow. He does enjoy listening to work by classically-trained contemporary musicians who compose background music for those utterly violent PC/X-Box games that his friends are allowed to own and he is not. The music, in truth, is quite good. (Ex: Hans Zimmer, Sean Murray, Michiru Yamane.) If I can’t have a son who listens to classical, I have to say, we have found a happy medium. And I, too, have stretched my tastes, and will now listen to pop, rap (you know, Eminem is really poetic and worth listening to) and some hilarious parodies that he’s found that are better than their originals. I like the raw, crass energy of much of the music he enjoys. I like liking what he does. It’s another way to bond. It’s nice.

So. Big night. There’s my son picking and rejecting tunes from his iTunes playlist. He does that channel-surfing kind of thing so that the piece of music perfectly reflects his mood. Tonight is particularly important, getting just that right feeling. A few boom-boomy songs. A parody song we both laugh at. And then, up pops “O Mio Babbino Caro,” new to his playlist last week. I don’t know how he got that into the mix. I only knew that it was a song I’ve always loved. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a well-known Puccini aria from his opera, Gianni Schicchi. It was the opening music for the Merchant-Ivory film,  A Room With a View, decades ago. (Didn’t see the movie? Go see it. I’m afraid I must insist.) Since it was just before a teen dance and he isn’t a classical music kid, I thought he was going to scroll right past it and put on something more pop-music or teen oriented. Nope. He kept it there.

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Oh, reader, I have to tell you. It was A Perfect Moment. Perfect happiness. You could feel it fill the air, the car, the valley surrounding is. This buoyancy that made you feel like your feet weren’t on the ground and that indeed, you didn’t need them to be, because you are flying. And the feeling wasn’t just a glimpse, a quick flash, the way life tends to dish up Perfect Moments as you grow older, less full of illusions about this life business. This was perfect, golden happiness that lasted the length of the song, as our car winded through the redwoods, the deep green profusion of trees around us now infused with gold from the sun.

The song came to its hauntingly beautiful conclusion. Regretfully. But that’s how it goes. Perfect happiness is so fleeting, like a butterfly landing on your shoulder, and you know there’s no point in trying to keep it there longer than it wants to stay. The song was over. But to my surprise, my son reached over to the control panel and pressed “repeat.”

More Perfect.

I want you to listen to it again, dear reader. If it’s not too much of a nuisance. And here’s a very different version for your ears. (The first one, by the way, was sung by opera superstar and legend Kiri Te Kawana.) It’s a nine-year-old girl performing in a local singing contest in 2009. She’s heartbreakingly sweet to look at, and sings like an angel. Her performance lacks professional polish, and thank God for that. She’s got a nine-year-old’s set of lungs, not a seasoned professional’s. Her voice wobbles in the wrong way sometimes, and she doesn’t know what to do with her hands. But she’s all heart, she’s got perfect intuition on how to sing it, on the composer’s intention, and there is something so clenching-of-your-throat beautiful about this version.

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The young singer’s name is Jackie Evancho, which meant nothing to me, until I Googled her afterward and discovered, to my chagrin, that she is quite famous and mainstream now, courtesy of a near-win in 2010 on America’s Got Talent. The whole world knows about her now. She’s thirteen now. Beautiful as a model, an actress, a professional. Oh, wait. She is those things now. I didn’t look at any of the other performance links, the glossy publicity photos of her, the press, her upcoming performances (Las Vegas!). I just want to remember her as that sweetly nervous nine-year-old girl in a sundress and plastic sandals, singing her heart out. I want to stay there, because it’s so similar to that lovely, golden place, of driving my fourteen-year-old son to his eighth grade dance, both of us so happy with anticipation over the good time he would have (and miraculously, nothing got sabotaged, ruined, like it tends to do with middle-schoolers, and he did have that dreamed-of good time).

“O Mio Babbino Caro” has just gotten one step more beloved in my mind.