The news is splashed all over the Internet this morning. Stolen 1696 Stradivarius worth $1.8 million, recovered by UK police in central England. The crime, three years earlier: Euston Station, London. Violinist Min-Jin Kym had stopped at a sandwich shop while inside the railway station. While in there, she was momentarily distracted by two teens. A moment later she looked down to find her violin case gone from its spot. Yet another successful railway station scam. Or not. Because a Stradivarius theft tends to be big news. There are roughly 512 Stradivarius violins still in existence, every one of them pedigreed and accounted for, and when one gets stolen, it’s big, international news, certainly in the classical music world. This theft raised so much attention that an appeal was launched on BBC’s Crimewatch program. Bolstered by security camera footage at the sandwich shop, an arrest was made: 32-year-old John Maughan, working with two teenaged accomplices. In 2011, the three were convicted, Maughan sent off to serve a four-year prison term, the teens sent to a detention facility. No surfacing, however, of the actual violin, until yesterday. The Strad’s owner, violinist Min-Jin Kym, is, as you’d expect, deeply relieved, thrilled, tearfully happy.
Very satisfying story. I love hearing these. But at the same time, reading things like this always plants these nagging little story-thoughts in my head.
Like, if you had a million-plus dollar instrument, why would you ever have your hand off it? In a crowded train station area, no less? She’d gone to a public sandwich shop. We can only assume she was seated, the violin by her side. Fine, she needed her hands for her sandwich. My violin and bow are worth $2000, pennies in comparison, but if I’m seated in public, my hands occupied, then my ankles are clamped on either side of that case, one foot looped into the strap for extra security. Someone tugs at it, you feel it, right? But, like hearing about an accident involving a child, supervised by a mother who “looked away for just one second,” I do have sympathy for the victim. You can be diligent 99.9 percent of the time, and when that unfortunate .1% meets the scrutiny of a talented thief, well, there it is. Heartbreaking. Lucky, lucky her that it came to a happy ending.
Next story-thought playing through my head: pity the thief who steals a Stradivarius. What could have otherwise been yet another semi-lucrative train-station heist became a big deal when the violin case stolen happened to have a Stradivarius inside it. Like that, your crime went from petty to a serious heist in the blink of an eye, one that garners international attention and support all too quickly. And you can’t just sell a stolen Strad, anyway. Try it, and the appraiser will know in an instant not only that it’s a Strad, but which Strad it is. And that it has been stolen. You would be tried and fried, on the spot. The thief, likely recognizing this, tried to sell it on the street, instead, offering it to someone for $150 (ish) dollars. The guy turned it down, saying, “nah, my daughter already plays a recorder.” How’s that for an unlucky heist? Too make no money on it, and then get caught? Man. Life is so unfair.
Story-thought number three: after reading about the owner’s happiness at the return of her beloved instrument, you tend to visualize a happy reunion, the violin placed in her arms like a newborn baby, her tears of happiness (careful – not on the violin!) at the sight and feel of her beloved instrument again. Well, consider this: the insurance company owns the violin now. Louise Deacon, an instruments expert at the Lark insurance broker, said this: “We are looking forward to the outcome of our experts’ assessment on the condition of the instrument so we can then liaise with Ms. Kym with regards to purchasing back the Stradivari.” Because, you see, she took their six-figure insurance settlement. And so, now I wonder, what if she doesn’t have that money anymore? Like, she spent it?
But anyway. This is still a largely happily-ending story (unless you’re John Maughan reading this from prison). I love violin-related stories, and love hearing about any valuable instrument, believed missing, that turn up. And lest we give Min-Jin Kym too much grief about her irresponsibility, I’ll offer these two scenarios:
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The dare, of course, was to me, thrown out by me. And once the thought had been floated out there, I sensed I had to do it.
You know how these things go: the bold idea that might prove to be too bold, and there are equal parts anticipation and dread in your gut at the thought of it. The idea grows; you can almost visualize it. The seed has germinated, it’s … well, doing whatever seeds do. Dividing, subdividing, taking on life, roots, shifting, making everything shift to make room for it, and it will only go away when you follow up and take that ballet class in Paris. Even if you are an adventure coward, like myself. Perhaps especially if you are an adventure coward.
I found a few more shared experiences online and suggestions from discussion forums. Armed with this knowledge, I decided on the Centre de Dance du Marais. Once in Paris, I went to scope out the studio, which is located in the Marais district, on the Rue du Temple. The building is gorgeous, old, historic. From the street you enter a passageway that spills into a courtyard, which holds a café, as well.
Most of the studios are on the second level. To my right, on the ground floor, was the reception office. I went inside, studied the class schedule, asked all sorts of annoying questions to the man at the reception desk. (How intermediate is intermediate? Yes, but will it be… too much for me? Can you elaborate further? Because there is “advanced beginner” intermediate and there’s “one step down from advanced” intermediate. Will it be scary for me? What if it’s scary and I’ll regret the choice I made and feel bad for wasting my one Centre de Dance du Marais class opportunity? So are you sure this is my best bet? And can you explain again how I’ll know which studio my class will be located in? And will the class be… difficult?) He informed me I would pay the teacher directly. There would be no need for me to check in at reception on the afternoon of the class. I could [leave him alone and] proceed directly to the room.
Monday arrived and I was nervous as hell. Idiotic, really. I speak fluent French and I’ve taken ballet classes for years and years. But there you have it. Outside that old comfort zone. I gave myself plenty of time to get there, arriving plenty early for the 3:30pm class. Inside the courtyard area, the posted list of the day’s classes showed that mine would be in “Beethoven.” (All the rooms are named after composers, for whatever reason.) Another sign pointed in the same upward direction for the “vestiere,” or changing room. I took the grand old staircase to the studio level, and another increasingly smaller, narrower staircase to the top level.
There, in the vestiere, I received a jolt: the changing room was co-ed. There were no men there changing, but at any time, one might walk in. The woman who’d informed me of this seemed surprised by my unease. “Among dancers, you know, it’s not a big thing,” she said with a shrug. It’s true; I remember the intimacy from my performing days, the physicality of it, the scanty attire on warm rehearsal days, the flat chests of many of the females, the sexual inclination of many of the men, rendering us all sort of neutered. Truthfully, I’m okay with nudity. But really, a unisex changing room? Hadn’t seen that one coming.
After dressing (very, very quickly), I descended to the studio level. Another class in Beethoven was finishing up. Outside the room, there were other students waiting, stretching and chatting. In English. One of my fears was eased. At least there would be fellow English speakers in there.
At 3:33pm the doors opened, other students left, we went in. The studio was well-lit with natural light, big windows along two lengths of the long, narrow room. I went to the front to pay the teacher and introduce myself and discovered there was a substitute today. English-speaking. American, in fact. I explained that while I wasn’t a beginner, I’ve taken some intermediate classes that have proven too difficult (chronicled here: http://www.theclassicalgirl.com/?p=259). She confirmed that this class was more along the lines of advanced beginner to intermediate. Whew. And that the class would be taught in English. More whew. …Or maybe not.
Yes, an instant relaxing of my tense muscles and mind. But then, the inkling of disappointment, that grew during class. Listening to English direction was no challenge. It turned out that almost all the students were English-speaking, from various parts of the world, and that this class was regularly taught, by default, in English. And complicating the substitute situation was the fact that the sub was training a student to teach, a young Australian woman in her twenties. It was she who taught the class.
It was starting to feel disappointingly commonplace, like just another class in the U.S.. Except for the ceilings. The beamed ceilings were original and astonishing. Painted curlicues, scrolls, designs that looked like a violin, or perhaps the image of a face in the center? (Hard to file away impressions at the same time you’re watching the teacher demonstrate the next steps.) Golds, blues, a rich red color. There were some metal braces in a few spots, holding the beams in place, which are always a dead giveaway that you’re looking at the real deal. The building dates from the early 1600’s, this beamed ceiling around 1640. To be in this room, knowing this, glancing up at this, made the experience 100% Parisian.
Barre was traditional and reassuring, although some of the combinations felt lengthy and overly creative, like little adagios. I wasn’t sure if this was a product of the trainee’s own experience or if it were a reflection of the regular teacher’s class, or a Paris class in general. At 18 euros (close to $25) and my family to spend vacation with, sadly, I wouldn’t be taking a second class to find out.
As would be expected, center work followed barre. The adagio work, however, seemed more advanced than intermediate. It was a lot of choreography. A lot. With counter-intuitive combinations and progressions. Or was it only counter-intuitive for me and my California studio-grown habits? Maybe this was typical of Paris classes. I sensed the confusion and consternation from the dancers behind me, though, some of whom were at the beginner to advanced-beginner level. I felt their pain; this was no advanced-beginner adagio.
One flaw I found in the otherwise beautiful room was the way it ran deep. Windows along the length of the room meant the mirror was in the front, on the smaller wall. We arranged ourselves in three rows of three. Had there been fifteen students, we might have crowded in there five rows deep, or risked bumping into one another. In my regular class back home, the teacher will have us switch lines after doing the combination once, so that each row has a chance to be in front. But that was the other strange thing. We only did the adagio once before moving on to a second combination. That one, it seemed we did only on one side, commencing on the right side and never the left. (In retrospect, perhaps it employed the left side within the combination.) I remember thinking, wait, we’re moving on to the next combination already? And an instant later thinking, good. The choreography had been too tricky to retain.
We ended with grand allegro runs across the floor, an easier “tombé, pas de bourré, glissade, grand jeté”, and it was a wonderful way to end—joyous, exhilarating, bringing a smile to every last student’s face. Grand allegro, in my mind, is the dessert, the crème brulée of class. It’s the reward for training for the previous eighty minutes. It’s where it’s all about the joy of movement. We were a close-knit group by then, the nine of us, a tribe, Those Who Love Dance, and it’s a delight, the way dance transcends geography, culture, language. We were dancers; that’s the language we spoke, and those last ten minutes our bodies sang.
I got a heck of a workout in. When you’re in an unfamiliar class, your body can’t do anything by rote. You give not your usual 110% but even more. My muscles were trembling and I had that depleted-but-buoyant feeling that is so delicious.
I’d done it. Stepped out of my comfort zone and taken a ballet class in Paris.
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PPPS: Ooh, I’ve struck further gold. Here is an actual class in Paris, intermediate level, judging by the students, but hoo boy, does the instructor, Evelyne Cohen, teach a complicated adagio in the center. Really, it’s like a little ballet. Ridiculously long, with a huge amount of time devoted to learning it and not just being allowed to dance it. So maybe this is indeed a Paris ballet class thing, and my own experience had been spot-on. With the exception of the English being spoken. When I saw this Youtube clip, I was utterly mesmerized, but, gotta say, had I been there, I would have been nervous the whole class. I very much picked the right ballet class to take in person, and the right one to watch on Youtube. (I am not certain where in Paris this studio is. If anyone knows, I’d love for you to share the info in the comment section!)
Ballet Class taught by Evelyne Cohen, filmed by Leslie Jean Porter
John Cage’s organ composition “As Slow As Possible” is, at the risk of sounding obvious, intended to be played slowly. Its 1987 premier lasted twenty-nine minutes. A subsequent performance lasted seventy-one minutes. Some musicians have made it last for over eight hours. But a few years after Cage’s death in 1992, a group of musicologists, theologians, philosophers and musicians began to meet regularly in order to discuss and ponder aloud just how slow “As Slow As Possible” could be.
The answer: 639 years.
They came up with this number after much slow (what else?), careful consideration. Halberstadt cathedral’s famous Blockwerk organ—granddaddy of the modern organ with its twelve-note claviature—was completed in 1361 (639 years counting back from the year 2000). Therefore the piece should last as long as the modern twelve-key organ has. This also made the town of Halberstadt, in eastern Germany, an obvious location for the performance. The venue is the medieval church of St. Burchardi, which, since being built around 1050, has served as a monastery, a barn, a distillery, an abandoned building and an East German pigsty. It has been cleaned up, though. Quite nicely. And in the middle of the empty church sits an organ. It is a decidedly makeshift sort of instrument, built specifically for this project, currently fitted with only the pipes required for the current notes being played. Taking 639 years to perform a piece tends to lend itself to such flexibility. An electric bellows sits in the organ’s left transept. The right transept houses a wooden frame with six pipes. The pedals producing the sound are held down by weights. And that’s about it. (Note, this was an observation in 2008, when I first wrote this. Today’s version looks a little more like… something instrumental, at the least. It will look more like a “real” organ in, oh, several decades.)
It was surely an auspicious moment, on September 5, 2001, as the performance commenced, albeit a tad anticlimactic. The piece begins with silence, you see. Several counts’ worth. This is, after all, the composer who brought us the famous, soundless “4’33” composition [a must-watch that is posted below]. From September 5th to February 2003, the only sound was the low whoosh of the electric bellows as they filled with air in preparation for striking that first chord.
Finally, on February 5, 2003, it happened. The first chord. Then, on July 5, 2004, notes were added and the tone changed. January 5, 2006 saw a chord change. (Changes always occur on the fifth day of the month, in honor of Cage and his birth date.)
And here’s where it gets exciting. On July 5, 2008, the weights holding down the organ pedals were shifted. Two more organ pipes had been added alongside the four installed and at 3:33pm local time, the sixth chord change in the piece occurred. The crowd of 1000 gathered for the event murmured appreciatively at the increased tonal complexity. Then, thirty seconds later, upon realizing that was it, that was all that was going to happen that day, that month, they commenced a spattering of uncertain applause that grew heartier as officials confirmed the full change had actualized.
How whimsical, how philosophical, to ponder such slowness in comparison to our fast-paced world. Each movement of “As Slow As Possible” (officially titled the less catchy “ORGAN2/ASLSP”) lasts roughly seventy-one years. Think about it. The mind-expanding nature of such an endeavor reminds me of the 2007 British cheddar cheese website (www.cheddarvision.tv) where a web-cam allowed you to watch a fifty-pound cheddar age, real time, 24/7, for twelve months. In fact, that’s what the John Cage Project website needs. Think of all the classical music people out there who could tune in to listen to this performance. To say you’ve heard part of this performance, in real time. And not have to pay the air and train fare for a trip to rural eastern Germany for a ten minute visit, because, face it, you’re probably not going to want to listen to that drone for much longer than that.
The point of the John Cage ORGAN2/ASLSP Project, its creators argue, is to challenge our precepts of time, of speed. Challenge the inexorable acceleration of the world’s pace. If it, in turn, challenges the patience of classical music and/or John Cage detractors everywhere, well, that’s not a bad thing. In fact, that’s precisely what John Cage would have wanted.
If you go to the project’s website – http://www.aslsp.org – you can hear the chord currently being played (by clicking on “Aktueller Ton” on the right-hand side). It’s a rather horrible sound to sustain, a cross between a dial tone and an approaching train sounding its horn. Those living nearby have complained, which, in truth, doesn’t surprise me. In fact, the concept of never hearing silence in your home in your lifetime is daunting, another issue that merits pondering by philosophers and musicologists. They have ample time to do it, after all. 629 more years, to be precise.
The next note change is coming up soon: Oct 5, 2013. After that change, you will have to wait until September 5, 2020 for the next one, so best to get checking those October airfare rates to Halberstadt ASAP. (And it’s ironic to note that ASAP also stands for As Slow As Possible. Yikes. No wonder they chose ASLSP instead.)
And just for fun, check out John Cage’s “4’33”. High entertainment no classical music lover (or detractor) should miss. You have never seen a classical music performance like this one before. Trust me.
A version of this essay first appeared in 2008 at Violinist.com.
In my blog, “A Royal Exodus,” (http://www.theclassicalgirl.com/?p=487), I elaborated on some of the changes taking place at the Royal Ballet over the past twelve months. Prima ballerina Tamara Rojo off to serve as artistic director (and principal dancer) for the English National Ballet. Longtime principals retiring. Last month, Alina Cojocaru and Johann Kobborg’s shocking, unexpected announcement of their imminent departure, precipitating the question “where next?” particularly for the extraordinary 32-year old Cojocaru. Today a press release from the English National Ballet has answered that question: Alina has joined the ENB as lead principal.
The English National Ballet is suddenly getting very, very interesting to me.
The company has taken on another dancer as well, albeit with less fanfare, but of equal interest to me. Madison Keesler has left the San Francisco Ballet’s corps de ballet to join the ENB in the same capacity. if you’ve read my earlier posts, you’ll know that I’m so proud and admiring of the SFB’s corps dancers, many of whom seem just a hair’s breadth less of technique and talent (and/or the artistic director’s favor?) shy of that of the soloists. I’d been waiting for Madison Keesler to make that jump up to soloist with the SFB (as was, I suspect, Dance Magazine: http://www.dancemagazine.com/issues/February-2012/On-the-Rise-Madison-Keesler). Instead, at the end of the SFB’s 2013 season, Keesler left the SFB to move on to the English National Ballet. It’s a move that made me sad for us, her San Francisco admirers, but happy for her, because invariably, such a move is productive, even necessary, for a dancer’s career. Fortunately, she’s active on Twitter (@MadisonKeesler), interesting and entertaining to follow, so her fans can stay in touch in that capacity.
So, at the English National Ballet, allow me to salute these three women: the impressive Tamara Rojo, who’s proving to be not just a stellar ballerina (we knew that already) but a sharp-minded artistic director; the poetry-in-motion Alina Cojocaru, a wondrous coup for the ENB; and the lovely, graceful Madison Keesler, lending her SFB touch to the company’s corps de ballet. I will certainly keep my eye on the English National Ballet this coming year.
I’m a meditator as well as a ballet dancer, as you might have surmised, if you got the chance to read my “Silent Retreat” entry a few months back. ( http://www.theclassicalgirl.com/?p=355) Following that retreat, I dove back into life, but continued to apply the precepts and techniques I learned during those three days of wrestling with my thoughts. It all paired oddly well with my dance practice, as it turns out. Maybe because dance practice, or any hobby or endeavor we take on as adults, has a certain Zen nature to it, the way it is both humbling and illuminating. I put together my thoughts and ramblings about the subject, and shot it off to the wonderful Nichelle Strzepek, administrator and editor at Dance Advantage, who today has featured the article. Here it is: http://www.danceadvantage.net/2013/07/09/zen-and-ballet/. I hope you’ll take a minute to check it out. I’ve incorporated, within it, a list of “ten tips for the journey,” which is to say, the journey of life, of learning, of growing. My thought is that, whether you have a dance practice or not, a special hobby or not, you will find yourself nodding, saying, “Yup. Yup, that covers it. Yup,” as you read.
Well. Maybe you’re not the kind of person that says “Yup.” But maybe you’ll be doing some nodding.
Give it a try. And check out Dance Advantage, if you haven’t already. It’s a great site, with some great contributions and wisdom from all around the Web. Tell Nichelle the Classical Girl sent you.