Tuesday, November 21, 2006

22: Mozart, Picasso, and Toni Morrison

Ruprechtskirche, Vienna

TRUMPETS AND DRUMS in the bright, certain, open key of C major; violins and organ scrubbing away at their passagework; cello, bass and bassoon anchoring it all with their darker bass — that was Mozart’s business Sunday morning, in the Gothic-striving-for-Baroque Stephansdom.

I’d found seats up front, behind the conductor, but Lindsey and Hans and Anneke hadn’t followed quickly enough and were elsewhere in the crowd. A pillar stood between me and the priest, so I saw nothing of the service — there was probably Meaning there: I’m a terribly lapsed Christian, to the point of not being one at all, not even a monotheist.

I am a Mozartian, though. It was his K. 258, the “Piccolomini Mass,” intercut with a C Major “Church Sonata” and, of course, the sections of the liturgy supplied by the priest in a pleasant, focussed chanted German, with responses from the parishioners. For God, perhaps four hundred of them, standing and sitting, kneeling, crossing themselves, singing in response. For me, six violins, a viola, a cello and a bass, the bassoon and trumpets, the organ, and twenty-five fine singers, young for the most part, four of them singing solo at Mozart’s suggestion.

Next to me was a couple from the mountains, out somewhere near the Swiss border, a retired electrician and his wife, in their late seventies I’d say, in town to visit grandchildren and hear some music — and attend Mass, for they were clearly devout. And then we shook hands all round, I with the young woman next me on the other side, and those seated in front of me, and the older couples sitting behind; and we settled back for another homily by the unseen speaker — this one repeated, once I’d finally got a hint of what his German was trying to tell me, in much more understandable Italian; and then finally confirmed, as if for me alone, in English. And then it was over.

We’d been to church once before in the last few days, to a Friday night service in the Romanesque St. Rupert’s Church, the oldest in Vienna; it stands on a bluff overlooking the Danube (canal) in its own Platz, like all churches here; with a leap of imagination you can mentally erase all the buildings around it, fill in the missing slope below, and imagine the little settlement Vienna was twelve hundred years ago.

We’d been attracted by a meeting of the local St. Egidio cell. Egidio has interested us since we lived for a month in an apartment near his church in Rome, in Trastevere, and learned of the society that developed there in the break-through days of 1968, when John Paul was thawing Catholicism as others were to thaw Communism twenty years later, and when local youth and students determined to do something for the poor and the homeless who were beginning to be all too apparent, in Rome and Europe as in our own country.

The Vienna group was small Friday night, and their service was simple. A very pretty young woman welcomed us, in fluent English, and we sat forward in the small stone church on a wooden bench; perhaps a dozen others were in attendance; we sang our way through a few hymns and listened to a short lesson in German (and so incomprehensible to me; the young woman (who’d been playing “organ” on a small synthesizer with decent sound) said the Lord’s Prayer in German, then English; and we shook hands all round and went out into the night.

The St. Egidio meeting had the feeling, to me — and of course I am very much an outsider — of a small private group associated with groups in other places; and for that reason made me think of what Christianity must have felt like two thousand years ago. Or, for that matter, Mithradism, or any of a number of other religious movements. “Religion is the serious and social attitude toward that which is considered as determining one’s fate,” ran the definition in the textbook required in my first college class, a history of religion — I was sent to a Christian college for my first year — and that’s always seemed to work for me; it’s just that what I consider to determine my “fate,” to use a word that already loads the discussion, is a matter of genes and DNA, of the laws of physics, and of the grace of Life.

I THINK THAT MAY BE something of Mozart’s attitude, too, by the time he reached his late years. Sunday night we heard The Marriage of Figaro, sung in German at the Volksoper — a fine production with excellent singers, orchestra and conductor, none of whose names are at hand. This opera sounds odd to me in German, and there were no supertitles to remind us of the intricacies of this wonderfully humanist opera; but of course we’ve seen it so many times, the jokes are so familiar, and above all Mozart’s music is so clear in its depictions of not only emotiion but also repartée, that the chief disadvantage lay in what the sound of German does to the melodic line — especially the fast, busy, contrapuntal lines. Quick patter-songs in German have a humorous effect not intended, I think, by Mozart and da Ponte in the original Italian.

It’s Mozart Year here in Vienna. Scattered around town are red pylons with messages in German and English stating the relevance of their particular position to Mozart’s life in Vienna: his first public concert here, his residence there, and so on. There must be forty of these signposts, and they each have a telephone number on them. I called one of these numbers, and got a three-minute mini-lecture, in English, with eine kleine backgroundmusik; a pleasant way of getting a guided tour of Mozart’s Vienna.

But it is not only Mozart going on. At the Albertina yesterday we saw an amazing exhibition of late Picasso paintings and prints, room after room of them, beautifully installed in these intelligent, open, serene galleries. I remember the fashion for disparaging these paintings when they were new, in the 1960s; and I agree with the introductory panels in this installation (helpfully in both English and German) that Picasso was, once again, prescient, foreseeing the mood of the New Expressionism that would come in twenty years.

He was also really old, approaching ninety; and he was in contradictory moods — resentful of his aging body, aware of limited time, intent on producing work, still delighting in invention and discovery, and — but now I’m speculating — increasingly detached from earthly activity.

What does this mean? Basically, I think, the increasing awareness that it’s not one’s personal life that’s important, but the ongoing Life one’s own has been a part of. Picasso and Mozart have much in common, most of all their awareness and enjoyment and passionate, entertaining, pointed depiction of The Human Condition. The Marriage of Figaro has much in common with Picasso’s late depictions of models and artists, models and matadors, models and musketeers. Sex is life and life is sex, according to the laws of Nature: to the old and aging — even at thirty-five, Mozart’s age at death, Mozart attained these qualities! — both have become more comedy than serious business.

This is behind the absurdity of Count Almaviva’s lust for Susanna — and, because of its absurdity, its injustice: so much of the revolutionary quality of this opera, and of Beaumarchais’s pre-French-revolutionary plays, depends on a reading of the changed meaning of sexual activity in a society that has evolved past the primitive.

But the detached view of the busywork of life, of what James called somewhere the species’s great will to continue (he wouldn’t have used so blunt a word as “sex”), also facilitates the fond approval of Cherubino’s and Barbarina’s amorous play, which reminded me of the pretty young couple biting one another’s lips in the queue the other day at the supermaket. And, of course, the anticipatory flirting-and-bickering of Susanna and Figaro. And, for that matter, of the fondness, the affection, still clearly present between Marcellina and Basilio.

Picasso and Mozart are both clearly conflicted about being on the threshhold of retiring altogether from this busywork. Each was clearly aware of his mastery of his art, and of the essentially endless amount of work that remains always to be done, of further mastery to achieve. I think Shakespeare, Mozart, and Picasso pretty well sum up their metiers; in their respective forms of expression each is the outstanding modern reporter on the human condition.

AND WHAT ABOUT Toni Morrison? She’s here in Vienna participating in Peter Sellars’s New Crowned Hope festival, an exploration of this new century’s possibility of continuing to explore the themes preoccupying Mozart in his final days: the forgiveness and reconciliation of La Clemenza di Tito, the transformative magic of Die Zäuberflöte, and the valediction of the unfinished Requiem.

In conversation with Sellars last night Morrison addressed these themes, pointing out first that she deliberately courts inconclusiveness in her work, as the stories that fascinated her when she was a child avoided neat, told-you-so conclusions. More profound, to me, was her description of a four-stage process she hoped to work through in her writing — and which she apparently sees (and I would say with accurate insight) as describing the process of art: to move from Data, the raw stuff assaulting our perceptions every day; to Information, which is some kind of organization of such data; to Knowledge, which is the understanding (and, presumably, usefulness) of such information; to — “hopefully,” I’m afraid she said — Wisdom.

This is clearly the process of the three works Sellars chose as his jumping-off point; and of the three great Mozart-da Ponte opera (and, I’d argue, of all of Mozart’s work). It’s also, I think, the process Picasso was engaged with at the end of his long life.

And it may be the process the Western World is engaged with. Sellars’s festival seeks to bring the data of art from neglected worlds to Vienna, convinced that there is by now sufficient organization, in this postmodern world, to make a resulting contribution to the “developed” world’s knowledge. It remains for our artists, I think, to transform the result, through their magic, into Wisdom — and clearly those he has assembled here are capable of this, if we only pay attention.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

21: The companionship of strangers

BELLS ANNOUNCE THE TIME throughout the day here; I’m not sure about the night. I sleep pretty soundly, after a day packed with sensory input and several kilometers’ walking. This morning I heard them strike seven, but not seven-fifteen; I got up when they struck the half-hour. I don’t know where these particular bells are: perhaps on the Hoch Markt.

There a dozen historical figures parade across an elaborate mechanical clock, a new figure at the beginning of each hour. Every minute the figure takes a very slight lurch forward; in an hour he’s nearly off-stage again, and his successor is beginning another hour’s passage. Marcus Aurelius, I think — or possibly some other Roman emperor — is the first of these; the last is Joseph Haydn. Most of the others are important rulers, among them Maria Theresia; but I’m happy to see that Walther von der Vogelweide is there too, Haydn’s not the only musician in town.

Until fairly recently the average Viennese did not carry a watch, let alone a cell phone. The watch was born of the Industrial Revolution but wasn’t cheap enough for the average guy until fairly late in the Nineteenth Century. Until then these bells had a very real utility, marking each quarter-hour. Keeping track of time was a public utility, whether managed by the city or the Church.

This remains true, in a sense; both my laptop and my telephone set themselves by consulting with a public agency every now and then, figuring out where they are and adjusting their time-displays accordingly. I haven’t actually set a watch for a long time, except when flying across time zones, when I want to anticipate the arrival zone before leaving the present one.

But it’s easy to overlook our contemporary dependence on Public Time, so intimately connected are we with the time we carry in our pocket or strapped around our wrist. Our individual, private business, our comings and goings, seem entirely personal, reminding us of appointments we’ve made for our own personal reasons, whether business or pleasure. The passage of time is personal, almost never shared.

Yesterday, though, I participated in a rare example of public sharing of the passage of time. A group of us were gathered in the Hoher Markt watching that clock, wondering what would happen at the top of the hour. We waited several minutes, for either the clock is two minutes late or the rest of us were two minutes early. We stood there, some of us open-mouthed, gaping like village idiots, which I increasingly think tourists are — hicks from elsewhere marveling at unfamiliarity.

At the top of the hour, of course, not all that much happened. Maria Theresia took another little jump forward, almost offstage left; Joseph Haydn took exactly the same jump forward, just onstage right. The bell rang the requisite number of times. We separated and went our separate ways, the public moment dissolving back into a scattered collection of personal ones.

These figures ticking across the clock are fascinating but a little sad. They’re in constant motion but never get anywhere; they’re condemned by their machinery to repeat the process endlessly. Their only hope for rest is in the ultimate breakdown of the entire machine, a calamity we all hope does not occur in our lifetime.

The other day at the new museum of contemporary art, the building in yesterday’s photo, the one with the upside-down cottage crashing into its roof, we looked at a fine show of “New Realists,” those European sculptors and painters who manipulated reality in arresting modernist work in the 1960s and ’70s.There were two wonderful Jean Tinguely pieces, one of them quite enormous, with belts and flywheels and pulleys and bell cranks and eccentrics and springs attached to accordions and pianos and glockenspiels and drums and pots and pans, all making a subdued racket whose chaotic futility was charming to see and hear.

It reminded me, as did the Hoher Markt clock for some reason, of Epicurus’s explanation of the nature of matter: tiny tiny particles acting on impulses known only to them, swerving toward or away from one another through attractions (or revulsions, perhaps) of some kind of charm. Clinamen, was the Greek word for it. Inclination.

CLOCKWORK IS A MECHANICAL means of regulating these inclinations; public time provides a co-ordination of private business. We visited the City Historical Museum yesterday and took in, along with much else, an extensive exhibit on Railway. Here’s something barely two hundred years old; my grandfather’s grandfather must have ridden on the first railway to appear in his neck of the woods. But we have yet to come to public terms with it, and its relevance to contemporary society, not to mention life only a decade or two into the future, is questionable.

Some of the reasons for this of course have to do with energy sources, land values, competing transport methods, commercial demands and the like. But there’s another problem, and that is the changing address of the Public toward Regulation. Railways are intrinsically complex, far-flung, and costly. They demand huge outlays of capital, in terms of money, labor, land, and forethought; but they repay these outlays only over long periods of time.

They seem to me to be uniquely Public, like all other things pertaining to Transportation — which is, after all, the motion of personally or privately held material (or persons!) through public space. Society, which is chiefly urban, has evolved streets, ditches, high roads, canals, and byways to facilitate transportation; and public space, as noted here yesterday, to punctuate this constant shuffling about with points of rest or assembly. More recently, to accommodate technological advances, society has provided trams and tramlines, buses and bus shelters, railways and railway stations, air control and airports.

Much of this is taken for granted, especially here in Europe, where public transportation is thought of almost as one of the Rights of Man. The great railway stations are our version of the medieval cathedral, huge public buildings, reasonably central to the cities, but temples to Commerce rather than God, with cafès, newsstands, bars, tobacco shops, and banks; and the great European stations were designed to be imposing, to impress their users with massive scale and, often, extravagant decoration. (To an extent the great shopping streets of European cities have also assumed this function.) One subtext was the desire of the State to remind its citizenry of both its power and its service.

Rail travel is still quite popular in Europe, but it’s in trouble. Longer hauls are facing stiff competition from airlines. Twenty years or so ago the railways fought back by increasing their speed; high-speed lines were built across France, then into Spain and Italy. Even so, you can’t get from one European capital to the next by rail as fast as you can by air. And the rise of cut-rate airlines has changed things: we flew from Amsterdam to Bergamo for €29; from Venice to Budapest for less. There’s no way rail can compete with that, even forgetting about the time advantage.

But one factor is left out of this competition: the intrinsic difference between rail travel, which one thinks of as publicly facilitated, and air travel, which has become purely a business concern — and increasingly a losing business, like rail. I somehow find it easier to forget about the governmental aspect of air travel: traffic control, subsidized airports, subsidized airlines, subsidized airplane factories — it’s all behind the scenes, behind the corporate logos and the frequent-flyer cards and the flight attendants. The role of government in rail travel seems more apparent, partly because with very few exceptions it’s a national monopoly — in the United States as well as in European countries.

And along with that difference there’s another: travel by air seems like a few hours of forced exposure to the company of strangers, an interruption of a journey which is otherwise essentially personal. Rail travel seems like an embrace of the company of strangers, a willing entry into a traveling public space. At least to me. I think this difference has two or three chief reasons: the relative speed, more human in the case of rail (at least until the TGV started streaking across France); the greater ease of moving about the carriages (and the close but comfortable companionship with strangers in the six-person second-class compartments); and the view of human activity out the windows.

THIS COMPANIONSHIP WITH STRANGERS, enhanced by the presence of public spaces and public transportation, reinforces the idea that we share our lives with many other people; that there may even be some degree of shared responsibility for life and prosperity. I’m thinking along these lines partly because I’m reading — in an extraordinarily desultory way — Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract, chiefly because a copy happens to be at hand here in the apartment we’ve rented. But these considerations are forced on you when you spend hours looking at human history, shared human history, from the poignant bones found in a Neolithic grave to the technologically dreamy projects for a new Central Railway Station to be begun, some hope, within the next ten years.

It seems to me that the drift of human occupation of this planet — I can hardly call it “evolution” — will necessitate, in the long run, a greater sense of community, rather than greater trends to individual privacy, tribal independence, or national separateness. Much of the horror of the century recently finished resulted from a pride, even arrogance, of Nation. Rousseau suggests that social structure evolved from the most instinctual form of human organization, the paternally ruled family. If true, it’s time to abandon that model: our numbers and our technologies require administration, not rule.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

20: Public Space

The new MOMUK in the Museum Quarter

YOU TAKE THE BUS 48A here at the Dr. Karl Renner Ring, said the helpful lady at the Information office, and you ride it to the end of the line, and then you walk. It’s rather far.

We use information offices a lot. My favorites are the VVV offices in The Netherlands; there’s one in just about every town in the country, and they’re well supplied with information — though only for their own town.

In France it’s the Syndicat d’Initiative, or was; we haven’t toured in France for years. The name means simply Chamber of Commerce, but I like its assumption that a little initiative will be on display; and frequently it is.

In Italy there are Turismo offices in most of the cities we’ve been to. There was a fine office in Budapest, where a young man spoke fine English but no Hungarian at all, because he was from Spain. Thus does Brussels, one of the capitals of the European Community, normalize staffing in this recently integrated subcontinent.

In spite of its size and its dependence on tourism, Vienna seems to have only the one office, on the Albertinaplatz across the street from the Staatsoper. Nor does there, at least on grey days in November, seem to be much demand for it: we always step right up to a window for assistance from one of the bright and pretty young women, who always speak perfectly fluent English.

(The men are off doing more important things, I suppose; or behind the scenes, administering. Vienna, which has been a capital city for a thousand years, relies heavily on administration for the employment of her citizens.)

Getting about in Vienna has been simple, particularly since it hasn’t been raining. We walk most places, since our apartment is within the inner city, and many of the streets are pedestrianized. But we’re only five minutes or so from the Ring, with its trolleys tirelessly circling the inner city every five minutes or so, one clockwise and one counter-clockwise. We’re even closer to a Metro station, and they also run frequently.

Then there are a couple of mini-bus lines within the inner city; one stops a block from our front door. Their routes seem rather circuitous, and well they might be, for they must snake their way through a network of pedestrian streets, one-way streets, narrow alleys, and Platzen — for like all European cities Vienna has a liberal sprinkling of open spaces devoted to conversation, temporary markets, photo-taking, and a little bit of parking. Platzen, places, pleins, piazzas, plazas; the effect in all these cities is to open things up a bit, often in an unanticipated place, letting in sun (or rain), lending a bit of distance and perspective to one’s view of facades and towers, and reminding one that there are people in cities, that cities are, as someone memorably said, for people.

Of course these openings date from pedestrian days; these cities evolved without motor vehicles. They also represent cultures whose take on real-estate value, and the very purpose of social space, is not like the take prevailing, it seems to me, in the United States. Of course we have our public spaces too; Healdsburg with its formerly central Plaza and Manhattan with its downtown Squares testify to that at two different extremes; but our public spaces are both fewer and more closely regulated. And as our cities decay, too often these spaces are simply parking lots, for large expanses of the American city are not for People at all, but for Cars.

WELL: WE TOOK THE BUS out to the end of the line, yesterday evening, leaving home about six-thirty, lazing our way to Dr. Karl Renner Ring via foot and tram, and then riding all the way out to Baumgarten. As the bus drove out, the city grew more drab. There was more motor traffice, even though the Neustiftgasse is not a very wide street. (Gasse means, roughly, small street, or even lane or alley; the more usual German word Strasse would indicate what we think of as a normal two-way steet.)

Cars and bicycles sped past our bus when it was stopped, for whatever reason, often only inches from our window. More often it was we who sped past them, for buses and taxis have lane privileges. The storefronts and eateries offered progressively less upscale material, less for tourists, more for locals. The paving was smooth asphalt, not cobblestone. We were almost imperceptible climbing, west, away from the Danube, across what was for centuries fertile river-plain at the base of the hills bordering the citie with their famous Vienna Woods.

From time to time the vista opened further as we crossed wide railroad yards, I suppose, or other trafficways, on viaducts. At one point we were surpised by a soccer field, tucked away and a little lower and secure behind a high wall, but given away by its clusters of lights, and finally revealed, when we came to the end of it and took a slight curve: a couple of teams, amateurs playing without an audience, were in what seemed to me to be rather listless activity.

Suddenly there was an enormous building promising tennis, handball, saunas, exercise; and next to it the Merkur complex of shopping mall and discount stores: we were well into the suburbs. And then it grew darker, the street was bordered on one side by trees, on the other by a low dull-grey cement wall that seemed endless, pierced only at considerable intervals by driveways.

The bus had started out full, but there were now only a few people left. Some of us were clearly going to a concert, I thought; others were oddly talking quite loud, or making nuisances of themselves in some other way. They were behind me and I didn’t turn to see what was going on: drunks, I imagined.

The bus stopped at one of those driveways, next to a sign identifying the place as a psychiatric hospital, and the obstreperous riders crowded good-naturedly out onto the sidewalk. Patients out on leave, I thought, or perhaps visiting even less fortunate friends who are inside somewhere.

Further on most of the rest of the passengers got out at another hospital, but we did not: this was not the end of the line; there was one stop more. There of course we did get out, with one other person who quickly disappeared. There wasn’t much to see in the dark — one lone building with lights on a few meters away, a roadhouse of sorts. I asked the bus driver where the Jugendstil Theater was, but could not understand his reply, which came in an impatient Austrian dialect.

At the roadhouse no one spoke English. The cook-bartender, harried and suspicious, seemed to say that it was back in the direction we’d come from, but I couldn’t be sure. Still, there was nowhere else to go, so we started walking up the street.

BEFORE LONG WE CAME to a gate with a guard-porter in his little office. He signed and turned down his television set when I asked if he spoke English. Nein, he said, and began to turn the thing back up again. Kennen Sie wo is der Jugendstil Theater, I asked in my limping German, and he responded almost comprehensibly: up there (gesturing), five hundred meters, on the left, go in at the big doors.

I counted the paces, for my pace is just about a meter, and sure enough at five hundred there we were back at the next-to-last bus stop where a number of people had got off the bus. People were milling around uncertainly, then for no apparent reason heading up the driveway into the dark. I was reminded of the big flocks of chimney-swifts we watched a month or so ago, milling and wheeling in the dusk, then for no apparent reason all flying, first a few at a time and then en masse, into the chimney of a building at the Seventh-Day Aventist Acadmy outside Healdsburg.

We were not flying; we were walking purposefully, curving left to walk around the large building this gateway served — sure enough, a hospital — and then we came upon a bed of white plastic tubes with small yellowish lights in them at the bottom, set a foot apart or so in a grid of what must have been hundreds of torches — a permanent installation or a temporary one? No idea.

And then we were at the Jugenstil Theater in what I learn this morning is the Otto Wagner Spital: presumably it was Wagner who designed it, in his famous end-of-19th-century pre-Cubist style. It was the setting for a concert by the Kronos Quartet, who played Terry Riley’s The Cusp of Magic, an intricate 45-minute suite of six movements involving prominent parts for the Chinese pipa (effectively played by Wu Man, who also sang enchantingly) and, in one movement, a collection of children’s toys, whose sounds merge with pre-recorded toy sounds, and voices.

At one particularly magic moment, in the third movement (“The Nursery”), Riley’s music slowly disappears altogether; music and the art of music merge imperceptibly into the music of unseen human voices and activity. The fifth movement, “Emily and Alice,” returns to this quality in a particularly moving and absorbing texture, this time returned to the familiar textures of the string quartet — sonic textures I always think of as quintessentially Viennese, since it was here that Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert defined the norms.

After intermission we heard Henryk Górecki’s third quartet, written ten years ago but only released by the composer last year — one doesn’t know why, for certain; but it’s clearly a valedictory message, nearly an hour of extremely slow music (though the central of the five movements moves a little more quickly), beginning with the insistent rhythm of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” slow movement and growing steadily more somber from there.

I don’t know when I’ve heard Kronos play so beautifully, with such refined tone, with such impeccable intonation, with such precise but purely felt ensemble. The music was enhanced by very subtle plays of colored light, so subtle one might easily have ignored it altogether. The audience, quite full, was riveted; hardly a cough or a rustle to be heard in fifty-five minutes of concentration.

To my taste the effect was damaged by an encore based on an Icelandic rock group — I surmise from the strident distortion and reverb applied electronically to the quartet — but no one else seemed to mind, and the first violinist, David Harrington, even explained that Ligeti himself was inspired on hearing it after his own music.

And then the trip back. I’ve been struck by the rudeness of the young Viennese: they crowd in front of you in queues; they do not yield seats to old ladies; they slump in streetcar seats, monopolizing foot-room and even sitting in two places when people are standing. The concept of public space seems not to have handed down to the generation under, say, thirty.

This was particularly striking given that many of these people had just heard the same inspired, transcendent concert, a program clearly addressing the poignancy of human interrelationships — “intercourse,” it used to be called, until that word became pre-empted by too specific a meaning — in a world of too many people grown increasingly too self-absorbed. It’s one of the sub-themes of this Festival of “New Crowned Hope,” and Vienna, with its eternal juggling of traditions and rebellions, invention and politesse, City and Empire is a uniquely appropriate place to consider it.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Vienna 3: Beans and salt

Beans in the Nachmarkt

HUNDREDS OF PHOTOS have littered iPhoto in the last four weeks as we’ve travelled from Friesland to Piemonte to Budapest to Vienna, but one of my very favorites is this one, shot yesterday in the Nachmarkt.

The main reason is simply the visual interest, of course — the shapes, colors, light-and-shade, and implied texture of these beans, “käfir beans” they’re called, as they lie all jumbled in their bin. In the market, the biggest I think I’ve seen apart from Torino’s, only one stall had them; in that stall, theirs was by far the smallest bin.

I wrote about them a couple of days ago, after we’d cooked and eaten them. They were truly delicious, nutty and velvety, with a taste lying somewhere between bean and chestnut, and a smooth creamy texture that soaked up olive oil and sage and pepper and salt (the salt from the salami, you’ll recall) while retaining almost a meaty, substantial quality.

But looking at the photo this morning the writer-critic in me sees these beans metaphorically, and that contributes to its fascination. This will be complex, but let’s see if I can juggle three overlapping considerations on my mind this morning.

One consideration is social and political: the fact that millions of people, of colors as different as these beans and each as individual as any one of them, are crowding together on this planet, each person with his own innate right to life and prosperity.

Another consideration is esthetic: we’re attending a Festival bringing together sculpture and painting, dance and music, writing and installation from widely dispersed regions of the earth, all responding in individual ways to the social and political moment.

The third consideration is the miracle of Mozart, who was born 250 years ago, and whose long residence in this city (though far from long enough!) resulted in a body of work uniquely expressing the reciprocal influences of social and political context with individual artistic gifts and ambitions.

VIENNA HERSELF, OF COURSE, is a fourth consideration, intruding on my thoughts with monuments, malls, trams, tourists, museums, cafés; and there are distractions and entertainments enough to fill a month: the premiere of John Adams’s new opera A Flowering Tree, a rich art opening last night, the Kronos Quartet tonight playing Terry Riley and György Ligeti, The Marriage of Figaro Saturday night, a presentation by Toni Morrison on the plight of the globalizing world Sunday, Così fan tutte Tuesday night — you get the idea.

The other day we visited most of the Hapsburg family. You remember them: they provided money, “leadership,” and breeding-stock for many of the monarchies of the baroque Age of Imperialism. I was looking for one or two in particular: Rudolf, whose neurotic love-murder-suicide was the subject of Mayerling, a ballet we saw a week ago in Budapest; and Ferdinand, whose assassination in August 1914 plunged the Western World into The War to End All Wars.

Rudolf was not to be found; perhaps the nature of his demise left him too controversial for the family vault. But plenty of other members of the family were here, in huge ornate lead caskets. Admittedly a few of these were fairly modest, resembling overturned cast-iron bathtubs roofed over with a slab of metal. (They suggested army tanks to Lindsey, who is still struck by the sight of a brooding Soviet tank in the Terror Museum in Budapest.)

Most of these tombs, though, are really quite huge and covered with sculpture, relief, and frieze; and all of them are made of lead, a metal I’ve always thought beautiful — my father worked in metal, and we sometimes had a sheet of lead to play with — but is certainly somber and unforgiving, especially when present in room after room of gloomy dim monument to death.

Mozart, of course, is famously buried in an unmarked grave. “Even now experts are unsure which body is his,” says one of the Mozart notices I’ve read in the last few days, as if the passing of two hundred fifteen years might have singled him out among the thousands around him, even with today’s technology.

So much about Mozart seems inevitable and therefor for some reason appropriate. His gifts and genius were for life; his physical remains, after the departure of that life, can have no importance to any of us. In the Mozart House near Stephansdom yesterday we wandered among the rooms he inhabited for the few short years in which he was something of a success, when he composed the last of the quartets he dedicated to Haydn, and Le Nozze di Figaro, and many of the great piano concerti, and so much more. On the walls, among portraits of friends and enemies, letters to and from his father, notices from contemporary newspapers and handbills, and lists of furnishings and household effects, were some pages of his manuscript: it is these pages, now, that contain the life and genius of Mozart.

After over two centuries we rightly see him as standing well out from even the gifted and varied artistic and social context of Vienna at the close of the Age of Reason, one of the three capitals of Europe, one wall-label said — the others being London and Paris, of course. Vienna was the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the center of Central Europe, the commercial and intellectual nexus of the known world, with input from Africa and Asia and the New World, secure in its awareness and understanding of history, thriving with new technology at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

It was all beginning to crumble, though. The Turks were constantly at the door to the south. Masses of exploited citizens were ready to rebel. A structure had grown intricate with administration, overloaded with decoration, and out of balance between what it used contrasted with what it provided. The point of sustainability had been passed, and history provides few examples of such runaway systems being successfuly analyzed and corrected and returned to working order.

Toward the end of his life Mozart was admitted into a new branch of Vienna’s Masonic lodge, a branch composed of thoughtful and aware men (no women, of course, in those days!) who were quite well up on these social and historical events. Mozart and his father were both quite savvy politically, and though guarded in public no doubt outspoken in safe society. (Their letters to one another frequently resort to a private code, for letters in those days were read and copied by the government — unthinkable today.)

Peter Sellars, the director of the festival some of whose events we’re attending, decided to use that fact, and the climate in which Mozart wrote his last great works, as a point of departure for his own contribution to this Mozart celebration. I think he is not trying to present the work Mozart would be doing were he alive today; Sellars is too intelligent for that; he’s trying to see how Mozart’s mind and expression would deal with today’s crises and opportunities.

The last three great works, according to much of the apparatus I’ve read these last two or three days, are the operas La Clemenza di Tito and Die Zaüberflöte and the unfinished Requiem. They are “about” ineffable generosity and forgiveness; transcendent justice and rightfulness and the qualities of rulers, nobles, and the common man; and Death.

I think, and I think Sellars thinks, Mozart spent his last few months trying to Get It Right. Not only understanding what it’s all about — life, love, marriage, paternity, business, art, society, politics, and all that — but, once understood, coming to terms with it all, dying knowing that he’d done what he could by that, made his contribution, lived up to his promise.

It’s ironic, of course, that he left the Requiem unfinished. Perhaps it was, for some personal reason, unfinishable. It is an artistic problem, of course, though the current new edition seems persuasive to me. Perhaps it’s best to think of it as complete, as forming not a finished statement but an invitation, Mozart’s way of introducing his listener — and his performer! — to Death.

Three quotes among the many in facsimile of Mozart’s hand, writ large on the walls in the Mozart House, stand out in my memory, like white beans in the photograph. When I looked at them yesterday they were so striking I didn’t bother to write them down: and the result is, of course, than I can only paraphrase them here.

One was a line he wrote out in English, as part of an exercise when he was studying that language: Calm and tranquility do more than any medicine to overcome the physical disorders that confront us in this life.

Another was the famous passage in a letter to his father, describing Mozart’s own attitude to Death: Since it is the true and inevitable end of our life on this earth we must think of it as natural, our last true friend accompanying us. I wish I had the text at hand; you can look it up I’m sure on the Internet. It expresses an Epicurean view of life and death with unique eloquence.

The third was a note he wrote on a page of musical exercises he’d given to an English-speaking student: I will not be at home tomorrow at the usual time so please come at three and a half.

WHERE DO THESE BEANS come from, I asked the young woman in the market — I’d already established that she herself came from Uzbekistan, of all places. From here, she said, from Austria. The market itself, of course, draws from every continent, as Vienna has always done, since it was a stop on the Neolithic amber-trading route. Globalism is always with us and perhaps we should get used to it as our Last True Friend; stop fretting about its discontents and try harder to administer it in a sustainable way that provides justice to all.

But things are close to a major tipping point, it seems to me, and Mozart’s best lesson may have been his example: play by the rules, do the best you can, make your feelings and observations known to your own time and to posterity, work constantly, never give up aspiration.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

18: Vienna, 2: Where’s the salt?

Wipplingerstrasse, Vienna

BEFORE ANYTHING ELSE, a couple of additions to yesterday’s notes about A Flowering Tree, John Adams’s opera whose premiere we saw last night. The singers, all quite fine both vocally and as actors, were baritone Eric Owens, soprano Jessica Rivera, and tenor Russell Thomas. The dancers were Rusini Sidi, Eko Supriyanto, and Astri Kusama Wardani.

Adams led the Orchestra Joven Camerata de Venezuela and the Choir Schola Cantorum de Venezuela. The stage design was by George Tsypin, the costumes by Gabriel Berry, the lighting by James Ingalls, the sound design by Mark Grey. I’m sorry I left these names out of yesterday’s notes, but it was late and I was tired. The more I think about the evening, the more impressed I am with all the performances, the composer’s included.

But that was yesterday, and today was a very different matter. It started with a walk down Wipplingerstrasse to the tram, but it centered on the Naschmarkt, the huge central produce market out by the Secession Gallery. “Naschmarkt” means, roughly, noshing market, and that’s what you do there. You buy food, too, of course: meat and cheese, fish and shellfish, fruit and vegetables, pasta and beans, oil and vinegar, beer and wine. The stalls, one after another, offer tantalizing selections. Citrons, jackfruit, pommelo; apples, pears; quinces; starfruit, carambolas, bananas; potatoes, beets, carrots; beans, tomatoes, peppers.

The vendors are Austrian, Russian, Uzbek, Ukrainian, and nationalities too fugitive to mention. Everything was clean and brilliant: we were there from a little past noon until two or three o’clock, and the weather was bright and warm. People sat at high tables, or on café terraces, or stood here and there, eating sausages, sandwiches, schnitzels, fish; Chinese food, Thai food, kebab and falafel.

There were a number of shops featuring “bio” food — organic — and there we bought a bottle of olive oil, a small package of sage leaves, a fennel and some lettuce. At another stand I was excited by a bin of beans, not yet dry, as big as an oval half dollar, each of them a different configuration of speckles, streaks, and spots; maroon, brown, deep red, white, purple, bluish, greenish. We bought a pound or so and cooked them for dinner, dressed with olive oil and sage.

We had meant to have lunch at a place called Ubl, but by the time we found it it was two minutes of two, and they close between two and six, so we were out of luck. We went back to the Naschmarkt looking for a café, but they were all full — it was such a nice afternoon! So we went across the street to an ordinary echt-Viennese joint and had the house special, kalbschnitzel with a bit of lettuce, a lemon, parsley-flecked steamed potatoes, and a glass of the nice fresh white wine that goes down like water but has much better flavor and acid.

Otherwise a lazy day. The Secession gallery was closed for re-installation, of course, but we went down to the basement to see the Klimt murals, so oddly placed; and a historical documentation with photographs on the building, decline, destruction, and restoration of this amazing building — dating from 1898, it looks Cubist; historical in one way, absolutely modern in another.

We stopped in at the Café Europe for a cappuccino — a good one, by the way — and a piece of Sachertorte, also good. And then we slowly made our way home for a rest and dinner. Lindsey simmered the beans for a good forty minutes while we ate our fennel and some ham and salami. Alas, there was no salt in our apartment. I’d thought to buy a small pepper-mill, but it hadn’t occurred to me to buy salt. When we realized it I rushed out again, but the shops were closed. I stepped into a bar, meekly asked if I might speak English, and explained that we were cooking beans, and had no salt: might I have some?

The bartender looked at the other guy in the bar, a clean-looking businessman sitting at the bar with a drink, and he looked at the bartender, and they both looked at me, and then at one another again, and they exchanged a few sentences in German — a language I know virtually nothing about — and then looked at me again, even more dubiously.

I held out a cupped hand. You can just put a little in here, I said. The bartender had been looking nervously at his salt-shaker, but on hearing this he visibly relaxed. Really, he asked, you just want some salt there, in your hand? Yes, I said; and he shook a half-teaspoonful into my hand, and I managed to unlock the outer door of our building and pull it open, and push open the door onto the court, and pull open the door on the other side of the court, and go up the three flights of stairs and get our own apartment door unlocked, all without losing a grain.

I chopped the salami that was left — not much of it — into the beans, so they’d share its salt; and we flavored them with the sage and oil and black pepper; and then had a lettuce salad dressed with oil and lemon juice and the salt I’d brought from the bar. Too salty, Hans thought: You know, we Dutch sprinkle a little sugar on our salad, that makes it tasty! His eyes twinkled, but we were firm, and he was a good sport. And then tea, and an apple, and time to pack it all in. It’s a pleasant life.

Vienna 1


Vienna 1

ACROSS THE STREET from our kitchen window is another five-storey building, an older one than ours, brick I suppose but stucco’d to resemble stone as are all the prewar buildings in European cities; with balconies, gables, reliefs, architraves, cornices, spires, garlands, coining and the like to an effect almost excessively baroque — like much of Vienna.

The building, like ours, is on the corner of a block, so it’s roughly triangular, except that the point at the corner is cut blunt, presenting to the intersection a three-window-wide side. At the center of this side, above a balcony whose rail is covered with pots of geraniums which provide the only color to this otherwise beige-bland building, is a sort of cove within an arch under a gable, and in that cove is a statue of a woman wearing a Greek sort of robe. I don’t know who she is. Her left hand rests gracefully on her left shoulder; her right hand gracefully descends to point toward the street.

From her index finger hangs — not a scale, indicating the goddess Justice, but a perch; and on that perch sits a very large crow or, more likely, a raven. This bird has been perched there since we arrived, thirty-six hours ago. It moves about from time to time, adjusting itself on the perch, but we have never seen it leave. I think perhaps its wings are clipped, or perhaps broken. It seems well fed, but not particularly active. I think of it as essentially Viennese.

Don’t get me wrong. Vienna’s streets are full of engaging people who seem intent on their affairs — whether business or pleasure, they seem purposeful. Tourists aside — and there are plenty of us, of course — these Viennese are far from apathetic. It’s just that you can’t know what they’re about.

We’ve only scratched the surface, of course, because much of yesterday was by way of business — a meeting with a colleague at lunch; an evening at the premiere of a friend’s opera and the post-concert reception. In between we fit in some walks, for that’s the simplest way to get about here; and of course a dinner or two, and a café or two.

Our apartment is a ten-minute walk from the center, which I take to be Stephensdom, the cathedral. Vienna has lots of churches; there’s one right across the street, Maria am Gestade (I take that to mean Town Mary, but that’s a dubious translation); and religion is in the vernacular; people still say Grüss Gott when meeting, instead of Hello or whatever. But I don’t think religion is what these Viennese have in mind as they stroll the streets.

Like every European city Vienna has devoted a number of downtown streets to pedestrians. Deliveries are made along these streets in the early mornings, I suppose; and many of them have parallel streets a short block away, facilitating deliveries and the like; but during the day and early evening they are very much walking malls.

Strolling malls, actually. The shops are mostly high-end retail outlets: their rents must be astronomical. But there are also a few small shops — tobacco shops (the Viennese smoke more than the Budapesters, even); bookshops; now and then a café (I had a nice Gerstnertorte at Gerstner). T-Mobile has a big shop, where I got a chip for the telephone. No one bothers with phone booths any more.

Just outside the center, on the other side of the Ring, I found a little shop with chips and batteries and accessories for all kinds of telephone, but the chip for mine would have cost €20, and given me €5 worth of telephone calls. At the T-Mobile store exactly the same cost €15, with €9 worth of calls. Thus does the high-rent corporate-owned outlet undercut the storefront operation run by some poor immigrant who’s just trying to eke out a living, and there’s the lesson for us all. Of course I opted for the savings, not the ethics, and there’s another.

The opera was by way of commenting on this and other things. John Adams and Peter Sellars co-wrote the libretto, based on a fairy tale of a girl who turns into a flowering tree by night; John composed the music and conducted the premiere. A Flowering Tree is a joint commission; it goes soon to Berlin, London, New York, and San Francisco. It was performed here in a festival Sellars has been commissioned to present within the overall citywide celebration of Mozart’s birth, 250 years ago; but Sellars refused to present Mozart — who was already well enough represented elsewhere! — and instead chose to present the revolutionary and visionary spirit that animated Mozart, especially in his last years, when he belonged to an idealistic society called New Crowned Hope.

And so the opera was performed by three young American singers, a pair of Indonesian dancers; and a chorus and orchestra from Venezuela — the musicians a Youth orchestra, at that. The stage was dominated by a stylized tree upstage center; stage left there were three wide lilypad-like platforms on which the stylized action took place; stage right another platform high and back, with the orchestral winds seated in front, and the strings in the pit.

The opera is in two acts, each about an hour long; the music is continuous, with very few silences; and in Adams’s familiar style, with chuffing repeated figures providing energy and motion, and long phrases riding over them providing emotional charge and color. The story: a girl turns into a tree whose blossoms are sold at the village market to provide for her aging mother. They attract a Prince who falls in love with her, but demands she continue to turn into a tree during their nights of love. A jealous sister of the prince tricks her into repeating the trick, but stops the process by which she returns to human form, leaving her a limbless torso.

The Prince wanders disconsolate; the torso is carried by beggars from city to city, where she sings her sad songs for what pennies she can. Ultimately the lovers are reunited, and her sacrifice and love returns her (and, presumably, her Prince) to their rightful form. We don’t find out what happens to the evil sister.

All this is presented at one remove, sung by a tenor Narrator, and directly, by a soprano and baritone. The action is also danced throughout, and the story is commented on by the chorus (they sing in Spanish, the soloists in English, the whole supertitled in both English and German).

I found the opera long but beautiful, and the effect tranquilizing in the end (I mean that in a good sense), a sort of corrective and logical sequel to Doctor Atomic, the previous Adams-Sellars collaboration, given last season by San Francisco Opera. I’m very glad to have seen it, and to be able to report on it here. But I look forward to Mozart later in the week, by way of Figaro’s Wedding.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Leaving Budapest

The Hungarian countryside

THE TRAIN OUT OF BUDAPEST, like any train leaving any metropolis, goes past railroad yards, playing fields, factories, governmental centers, lower-priced housing. Budapest, I’m told (but have not confirmed), is a city of two million; the entire country has a population of ten million, so the countryside must be pretty empty. One person in five lives in the capital.

Our taxi driver said the country is buying 30,000 new cars a year, which seems a lot. We’ve been staying in the center of the city, barring one excursion to the Ecseri flea market, so we haven’t seen the traffic jams; but they must surely exist; certainly the taxi driver mentioned them. But central Budapest is well furnished with public transportation; and as I’ve mentioned earlier it’s completely free for those over sixty (if they are citizens of European Union countries). There are three subway lines, trams, buses, and trolleybuses tracing a bewildering spiderweb of routes on the giveaway tourist maps.

We shared our second-class train compartment with a young woman who could speak English but in fact said nothing the entire trip. I spent the time taking photos through the closed window and writing a little.

After crossing the Danube on the new bridge to the south of the city, blocks of nicer apartment buildings; offices (IBM, HP); villas. Then the countryside, rolling plains, much in corn and wheat, with low hills in oak woodlands. Sandy terrain at first; later, limestone, and quarries. Low hills once or twice revealing big hollows: caves? Quarries?

Ninety minutes to Györ, Hungary’s second city I suppose. Many new cars on lots. Then fields; in one, eight or ten deer in a herd. WInd-generators. Passport control: first a Hungarian border cop comes to our compartment to inspect and stamp our passports; then, a few minutes later, an Austrian. The last Hungarian town; then Nickelsdorf, looking more prosperous, the buildings newer, the paint fresher, and the fields more varied. Vineyards. Many more wind-generators.

We pulled into Vienna’s Westbahnhof ten or fifteen minutes late; I don’t know why. My Italian cell phone called our new landlady with no trouble at all. Bancomats were where you’d expect to find them, and worked. The taxi driver didn’t know where Passauer Platz was, but pulled a pair of thick spectacles out of the glove compartment and eyed my map closely, then drove right to it — past those huge Baroque monumental buildings that define Vienna, and then as a final flourish past the Stephensdom, and then we pulled up in front of Maria am Gestade and rang the bell at our new apartment.

It’s not bad: two bedrooms, a sitting room, a fully equipped kitchen, a bathroom with tub, all an easy walk from the historical center. We walked out about seven to find a restaurant for dinner, and there one was a block away: a Dalmatian trattoria, Matovia, Farbergasse 8. The host-waiter and possibly owner was a friendly fellow who spoke good English and, surprisingly, a little Dutch — but not Italian, though the kitchen certainly leans in that direction. We had decent mixed salads and then our main dishes, for me lamb chops, cooked just the way I like them, then set atop steaamed eggplant slices. For dessert, four kinds of cheese, drizzled with honey and Balsamic vinegar.

The contrast between Vienna and Budapest couldn’t be stronger. There’s just a lot more activity here, and clearly a lot more money. We’ve had a number of conversations about money, the Euro, the European Union and what it’s done to national economies. Virtually without exception everyone complains that prices have doubled at least since the Euro replaced the guilder, the franc, the lira, the schilling. When I ask where the extra money has gone no one has an answer, unless you call a shrug an answer.

Of course it’s not that bad. Hans says everyone he knows has some index commodity he uses to measure this kind of inflation, and among his friends and associates that index is the cup of coffee. The price of coffee is up, no doubt; but — asks Hans — what about telephones? Television sets? Cars, even? They haven’t doubled, not at all; in some cases prices are even demonstrably lower.

These questions quite elude me; I haven’t any idea how economy or economies work. It seems to me society is becoming much more technological; that the technological society spawns management and administrative jobs; that those jobs in the final analysis contribute next to nothing to the commodity market that everyone says drives the economy — but that we need to employ vast quantities of people, preferably without generating to many more dingettjes as the Dutch say, things.

I was struck by the acres and acres of new cars sitting in lots in Györ, and the numbers of auto-transport railroad cars on the sidings. But then I saw Austria. The auto-transport railroad cars in Austria are designed to carry twice as many cars. They must be pouring into the country, into all these European countries, at an alarming rate. One can only wonder where it will all end.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Budapest 6: Through asperity to the opera

Picking our way through repaving on the Kossuth L.

THE DAY FELL INTO FOUR PARTS: Getting to the Opera; The Opera; After the Opera to the Park; The Park. There’s a fifth part, too, of course, namely dinner and winding down before bedtime, but we can skip that.

This was our last full day in Budapest, at least for this trip — I quickly add that because I’ve decided I could easily come back for another stay. Strange, the number of times I’ve said or thought that, these last few years, about places I’d at one time never dreamed I’d ever visit — Madrid and Budapest for sure.

But the day began with the usual amount of uncertainty, trepidation, mistake, back-pedalling, and all that. After our customary (this week, at least) nine o’clock breakfast the first order of business, believe it or not, was to see a production of Madama Butterfly — like Salamanca and Roermond, something I once thought I’d never want to revisit, but something so insinuating and resonant I turn out not to mind exposing myself to its siren call once again.

But to get to the Opera we needed to take the Metro, and the Metro was not running this morning, at least not our metro, the Red Line: it’s undergoing repairs, like so much of this rather shabby capital of Deferred Maintenance. And it was raining: lightly by northern California standards, but still noticeably. And that meant that the lady who speaks only Hungarian and who sells Metro tickets was not at her card-table with her tray of money and tickets out in front of the closed Metro station, because she wouldn’t have wanted to sit out in the rain. And that meant that we’d have to take a chance and ride the Metro replacement-bus without a ticket, and hope we would not be controlled, because that results in a Big Fine.

But we were only going one stop anyway, because we would have to stop at the train station to correct a little problem that had developed in the train tickets we are using tomorrow to get from here to Vienna. Hans clearly explained to the train-ticket lady that four of us were going to Vienna tomorrow, and two of us were returning to Budapest on the 20th; but on checking the tickets this morning he discovered that she had two of us going to Vienna tomorrow, and all four of us returning the 20th. So it seemed advisable to set things right.

The four of us took two different buses to the train station, because the first was really crowded, but we managed to meet there and conduct a pretty thorough search for an appropriate office of ticket-mistake rectification. This led us to just about every side and level of the station, and ended, predictably I thought, with a lady who spoke only Hungarian who kept saying No Change, and finally Just Go. So we’ll find out tomorrow.

Then it was a matter of getting to the Opera. I insisted on having tickets this time, and that led me downstairs to a Metro station, a tobacco store, an information desk, and finally a ticket window. Next to it two elderly men were boxing, in earnest I would say given their rather fierce expressions. Boxing, stripped to their undershirts, in the drizzling rain, on the slippery terrazzo floor, looking as if they’d been lifted out of the 1930s to the present moment — which, come to think of it, is how a certain amount of this city has struck me all the previous week.

We took the next metro replacement bus, but it took a different itinerary from the expected one, and we got off when we realized it, and hoofed it back up to the Astoria station, where we grabbed a tram — running now on pure intuition and my dependable sense of compass directions — to the old familiar Deak Tér, where we grabbed the little friendly Yellow Line metro, the oldest underground railway in continental Europe, and emerged at the Opera.

We dashed into the building just at eleven o’clock, when the performance was to begin. Oh no, the usher said on looking at our tickets, Not this way, you must go out of the building and around the side entrance and up to the third floor.

Another dash into and out of the drizzle, and up several flights of shallow marble steps, two at a time, and then to the mandatory coat-check where a couple of guys helpfully stepped in front of us just as our turn was finally coming up. I threw down our coats and a 500-forint bill and scooped up the checks and the change and shouldered my way past the usher who was closing the door.

Lindsey and Anneke had gone ahead, and stood and waved, so I lurched down the aisle to join them. We were sitting in the front row of the top balcony, and I accidentally looked down over the railing on my way to my seat: nothing but forty or fifty feet of air between me and the people below. But I got to my seat just before the music began, and Hans arrived soon after, and then we heard and saw the best production I’ve ever seen of this opera, and I’ve seen a few.

Afterward we went to the Artist Café for a sandwich and a piece of pastry — which came, predictably, in reverse order — and then, discovering that credit cards would not be accepted, Hans and I went out to find a Bancomat to take on yet another 10,000 forints, even though we’re leaving tomorrow. And then a continuation on the Yellow Line to the City Park, where Hans took the waters in the Baths, and Lindsey and I took in far too many Spanish and Dutch paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts. And then home by way of a trolleybus, having found the stop without too much difficulty (or, for that matter, too much help from maps, or signs, or passersby); and dinner in the hotel — steak in green peppersauce for me, with a dish of Hungarian pickle on the side (fresh sauerkraut, this is, and delicious), and a glass or two of the local red. And so to bed.

I’ve put more photos of Budapest up on the web, including photos of the flea market, and the opera house, and various other things that find their way into the camera: you can find them here.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Budapest 5: St Martin’s Day

Tabáni plébániatemplom, Szarvas té

ST. MARTIN’S DAY is the day you eat goose, at least here in Budapest; so it was a lucky thing that we had postponed until today a visit to my cousin Roxanne’s favorite Budapest restaurant, Aranyszarvas, just across the “Elizabeth Bridge.” She had described it as just across the bridge and a little north, maybe on Atilla Út; and the fold-out guidebook I bought a few days ago happened to list it too, a little more specifically as at Szarvas tér 1. The tourist-office lady helpfully told us how to get there from our hotel, on the black bus number 7, do not take the red bus number 7, it will not help you; and get out just after the bridge, and then walk.

And so, in general, we did, and it all worked out. The Elizabeth Bridge is in fact a high-speed road bridge; it ends in swooping ramps not at all conducive to pedestrians; and there’s virtually nothing — if fact, literally nothing — by way of signs helping pedestrians figure out what to do next. But we knew it was upstream from the place we got off the bus, and the book suggested it was near a baroque church, and the Tabán Church was clearly visible and nicely lit, so we headed for it, and there was the restaurant.

We had reserved earlier in the day at the tourist office, and a good thing too: a few parties showed up without reservations, and were sent away with regrets. Last night we ate at a very upscale restaurant further upstream on this Buda side of the Danube, and there was only one other party there by the time we left, quarter to nine. Here at Aranyszarvas there were only a couple of empty tables when we arrived, promptly at eight.

Our guidebook describes it as specializing in game, and the menu confirmed this. The menu mentioned venision cottles, dear, and a number of other things; but we forwent the English-language menu in favor of the daily special — St. Martin’s goose menu. We had
goose broth with potato dumpings
goose neck farci
goose breast with potatoes and a crèpe stuffed with something
an untranslatable Hungarian dessert involving egg and custard
and with this we drank
as an aperitif, Jagermeister, and (for me) a typical Hungarian cocktail involving Tokay
new Hungarian “Beaujolais”
special house-made prune snapps

Everything about this place was memorably pleasing. The rooms: two of them, the furthest the largest, with perhaps seating for forty, one of whom was a middle-aged man who set about playing a synthesizer in rather an unintersting fashion; the other of which — the first as you entered — held only three tables, one of which was ours. The walls were a pleasant pastel green, set about with antlers and such, and the room was broken up with pots of ferns and, as I recall though it seems odd now I think about it, poinsettias.

The staff: friendly but professional and maintaining a professional distance. English-speaking, fluently so, without any dancing about as to what language you’d prefer to speak. Perfectly at ease explaining the special St. Martin’s Day menu, even though it was entirely in Hungarian, and — some of it, anyway — apparently untranslatable.

The aperitifs: Jagermeister for three of us, but I was interested in a special item, a puszta koktél involving, I later learned, dry Tokay, apricot brandy, and a “sweet brandy,” a Hungarian specialty otherwise never explained or described. In it were floating a couple of small ice cubes and a black olive, and it was really quite delicious.

The wine: this may have been a Hungarian version of Beaujolais, but it lacked any component of headache. The wine was crisp, fruity, a little complex, with a good acid balance. I couldn’t identify the grape, but the waiter said it was a green Portuguese. Well, it was red, of course, with a fine tobacco-red color and a bit of oak on the nose, and we drank nearly two bottles of it.

The broth: salty, deep, flavored with minced parsley, deeply colored. The goose neck stuffed with a bread-based stuffing laced with goose-reduction flavor. The goose breast slices as thick as slices of prime rib of beef, but with no fat at all, dark and complex, tender and perfectly sliced across the grain, nothing stringy about it.

The dessert: Lindsey had never met anything like it. It was a square of a sort of cake, but what was it made of? It had a texture recalling fine shreds of coconut, but there was no coconut flavor at all. I myself think it was egg-custard cooked firm, then somehow shredded and re-configured, lidded with an extremely fine layer of crèpe. But I’m no pastry chef.

WE LEFT THE RESTAURANT FULL AND HAPPY and tried to find the place to board our bus back to our hotel. We took the first bus we saw, which was headed the wrong way: but a pretty slender tall young woman who spoke excellent English told us to stay with it, she’d show us where to get out to catch the right bus going back in the other direction. We stayed with her, needless to say. She turned out to be a Budapest native, a student of Sociology and the Contrabass; she’d played that afternoon in a performance of the Mozart Requiem; we traded tunes and jokes about violas and condutors, and she showed us the right bus, and we were easily back to our motel.

Earlier today we went out to the fabled Budapest flea market, which reminded me of the Paris flea market in the old days — porcelain, glass, old furniture, salvaged army mementos, amateur paintings, old clothes, bricabrac, more violins than you could shake a stick at, a few steel-engravings and ceramic busts of composers (chiefly Beethoven), auto-repair tools, watches, coffeepots, mortars and pestles, fake leather jackets, hats and helmets, swords, corkscrews, eyeglasses, and (as Burl Ives used to sing) things too fierce to mention.

I’ll write later, if I feel like it, about the bus ride out there, the suburbs, the shopping plazas, the paranoid changed bus schedules, the old ladies and young lovers, the shoppers coming back from Auchan with plastic bags of sausage and onions.

We also went today, surpise, to another concert: the Buda county orchestra playing the overture to Don Giovanni, the d minor piano concerto, and the “Prague” Symphony — an entire Mozart program in D, minor and major. Who could resist such a program? The main Budapest concert hall, on Ferenc Liszt Square, is a fine building from the turn of the 19th century, roughly a short shoebox seating about 1200, with splendid acoustics. The concert was sold out, so we bought standing tickets which allowed us to take unsold seats in the first row. We sat in front of the cellos, and didn’t see violins until after intermission, when the piano was rolled away. Nevertheless the sound was splendid. The orchestra was perhaps not fully professional, and there were missteps: but what a pleasure to hear this key so splendidly explored, and the “pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-ge-no” theme so nicely varied, and Mozart so entitledly sure of himself, and making such fine friends and productive allies of every instrument in the orchestra.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Budapest 4: A little louche, but fun

Buda: Hess András tér, toward the Matthias Church

THIS IS HOW YOU CAN spend your day in Budapest:

Up a little before eight to check out CNN’s fourth reprise of the news. Nancy Pelosi, we’re proud of you.

Breakfast: a big bowl of granola with chocolate chips in it and two cappuccinos from the push-button machine on the hotel breakfast-buffet table. There are two of these machines, and this morning for the first time the one I’ve been using didn’t work, so I used the Nescafé machine next to it. The result was virtually undrinkable. Fortunately the waiter poured a pitcher of water into the other one, Dallmayr it’s called, and I could overcome the Nescafé taste with what I’ve been drinking these mornings; machine-made but acceptable.

By Metro then across the river — under the river, in fact — to Buda for the first time. Until now we’ve been in Pest. You’ve seen how we’ve felt about Pest: re-reading these quick accounts, we seem to have reservations; to be less than completely besotted with the city. Today I finally threw off all these reservations and simply gave in to the experience, and it helped that we started the day on the other side of the river.

We did that by first visiting a church which was closed, of course; and then visiting a promising covered market which had been turned into a shopping mall upstairs, a supermarket downstairs. (But, as was pointed out to me, the result was to save the structure from demolition. And the project suggests another: perhaps one day supermarket buildings in our own country will be preserved from destruction by converting them into covered markets.)

Then we walked up the Fö utca — I do love these street names — to leave a reservation for dinner tonight at Kacsa, pronounced Kotcha, which means “duck,” on the corner of Kacsa ut. For six-thirty, we said, knowing it was an absurdly early hour, but we had our reasons. And then I asked the host if there were another restaurant we should try in Budapest — it’s a ploy that sometimes works. We’re the best restaurant, he said. Yes, I said, but where might we eat tomorrow? We’ll still be the best restaurant tomorrow, he said.

Then we walked back south a few blocks and then turned southwest to climb the hill to the old city, up flights and flights of steps — I have no idea how many they eventually were; I usually count steps somewhat compulsively, but neglected to this time, out of pure joy with the day, the air, the weather, the trees above us, and the quiet. Behind us was the Danube; across it, the unbelievably gothic Houses of Parliament; on it and spanning it, the anchored tour-boats and the series of bridges.

Up and up we climbed, stopping to sit a minute or two on a bench, nodding to a young woman pushing a baby-stroller, nodding again to a fellow with a number of plastic bags and baskets of domestic items — he seemed to live on one of the benches. Finally we reached the top, a sort of castle surrounded by walls easily penetrated and then revealing a village of two- and three-storey buildings housing shops, restaurants, little museums, perhaps an apartment or two, all in neat repair, painted in fetching pastel colors and facing streets whose sparse furnishings of street-signs and the like could, or can, easily be struck should anyone want to shoot a movie here.

The effect is a bit unreal — hyper-clean, unnaturally calm and attractive. But it’s pleasant as hell, and a contrast with what we’ve been dealing with on the Pest side of the river — a big city full of traffic, run by internal combustion engines lacking the anti-smog devices we’re used to, and endlessly cluttered with signs, advertisements, sculpture, electric wires, lamps and lamp-posts, streetcar lines, and block after block of repairs involving scaffolds, wheelbarrows, piles of sand, paving stones, bricks, fences, and the like.

We visited the Matthias Church, a magnificent building contrasting greatly with the St. Stephen Basilica across the Danube. The Basilica is only a century or so old, Victorian-baroque, stuffy in its stony way; the Matthias Church has Gothic bones under Art Nouveau clothing, for it was entirely painted inside in the late 19th century with geometrical patterns and representational figures, and is marvelously lit by a combination of stained-glass windows worth comparing to Chartres and clear glass windows cunningly directing sunlight into the interior.

We had tea and pastry at Ruszwurm, the best pastry in Budapest I’d been told, and my sour-cherry strudel was in fact absolutely delicious (though Lindsey’s Dobos Torte wasn’t the best she had tasted). We walked back past the now closed restaurant museum I mentioned the other day — I mean past its previous site, a fine 18th-century hotel — and then caught a series of buses down-river to the other end of the old city of Buda to investigate the famous baths.

Our first choice, the Rudas gyógyfürdö (God, what a language), was off-limits unless we were bathing, so we walked on to the Hotel Gellért, stuffy and uninviting, and then to the adjacent Baths, where for 800 forints apiece we could walk around the lobby and peek into the capacious room where the main swimming pool was to be seen. There it was among its pillars and marble, about the size of the Berkeley YMCA pool but considerably more sumptuous, with a score or so men and women slowly moving counterclockwise around the perimiter of the pool.

We looked at the Soviet-realism statues of female nudes, done in the 1960s and apparently celebrating the ideal feminine tractor driver; and we walked upstairs to look at things from above, and then back down to take another look from that level; and then we walked across the Szabadság Bridge — a handsome Paris-green steel affair that might have been designed by Gustav Eiffel — to the huge Central Market, where we had a late lunch at a workman’s cafe upstairs.

I had a plate of dill pickles and a glass of prune schnapps; Lindsey had a plate of potatoes and a small bottle of water. It was all quite delicious and I’d do it again in a minute.

We went home to the hotel for a short rest and then set out again. Dinner at Kacsa was, well, mixed but good. It’s a self-absorbed restaurant. The bar cart came by first, and though Gordon’s gin and Martini & Rossi dry were in evidence, along with olives, I bypassed my Friday Martini for another prune schnapps — this one much tenderer and friendlier. Then I had pheasant-stock broth with a goose-liver-filled dumpling floating in it, and then grilled duck with a rice timbale, a single steamed potato, and a glass or two of decent local Merlot tasting as if it had a fair amount of Cabernet sauvignon in it.

During dinner we were serenaded by a violinist and a pianist — csardases, but also The Yellow Rose of Texas, and The Tulips of Amsterdam, and Oh Susanna, and bits and pieces of many other things. The violinist mentioned to me, in an undertone, without a moment’s hesitation in his bowing, that he had a CD if we wanted to buy it.

And then we took a cab to the Operetta House, only slightly larger than the Opera House — seating 1400 or so, I’d say — to hear a short one-act “operetta gala,” a succession of solos, duets, dance routines and the like from German and Hungarian operetta of the 1920s and ’30s.

I dearly love this music; it is among the earliest music I recall hearing, from 78 rpm recordings my parents had before World War II. Gypsy Baron, Countess Maritza, Fledermaus — it’s all beautiful. There were a dozen dancers and another dozen singer-dancers, and they did all the old routines, Charlestons, shimmies, vaudeville stuff, sentimental love-songs; and a send-up of the Three Tenors.

What a contrast with the previous night’s Mayerling! That had been neurotic, convoluted, stifling; this operetta was healthy, direct, and fresh. Sex and Life is so much more attractive than Sex and Death, I always think. And then the music is so much more engaging than Franz Liszt’s. I sang along, internally for the most part, and snapped my fingers quitely, and called Bravi to the tenors; and hummed Du bist mein herz allein to myself in the cab home; and we had a last beer, and so to bed.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Budapest 3

Lovers, Central Café

OKAY, EATING. We’ve had four dinners here now, none extraordinary, none particularly Hungarian, none unfortunate. The first was in our hotel: we arrived so wound up that it was time to wind down, and we just stayed in our hotel for dinner.

The Hotel Veritas is on an outlying ring road near a big stadium — the Nepstadion, or “People’s Stadium”: but, as Hans says, they seem to be slowly removing the “Nep” from the name, perhaps because it’s too much a reminder of the communist days here, and it’s slowly becoming simply the Stadion.

It’s not an attractive part of town, of course. We walk a short block down the street to a very wide fast avenue that forms the ring, with a sign pointing to Ikea sixteen kilometers away in one direction, the Stadion across the avenue, a couple of grimy restaurants, and, down a somewhat longer block, the metro station.

But we didn’t explore any of that our first day: we simply stayed in the hotel. The menu was in three languages as I recall, and I had a big salad and chicken-and-bacon on skewers, which was quite tasty. Lindsey had a pork fillet that turned out to be twice as much as she could eat, and we heard the cook pounding away at it, so it was prepared to order. With dinner, local Rizling, as they spell it.

The next day, Tuesday, our friends Hans and Anneke arrived, and we ate at home again. This time, still suffering from too much meat in Italy (I am too old now to eat meat twice a day for ten days), I settled for a Greek salad, an old favorite of mine from college days, and it was good. Someone had told us there were no vegetables in Hungary: that is not true.

Yesterday we ate at one of the places on a list of some kind, the Central Café. We got there early enough to have a glass of wine while waiting for our friends, and to watch the room; and for the first time in Budapest we saw style, youth, smiles. Across from us a pretty girl sat with her telephone, wearing a head of hair the most amazing colors of blonde, red, and strawberry blonde, certainly natural; no one would dye each hair a different color.

Hans and Anneke showed up before long, and I found a grilled duck breast on the menu to follow my obligatory green salad. The duck came with “cabbage noodles,” which turn out to be square noodles with caramelized cabbage-scraps, a very delicious thing; and with crisp-fried thin strips of leek for texture. It was a nicely thought-out dish, and I’d order it again in a minute.

We lingered a bit over the dinner, long enough to see a guy turn up to join the blonde across the way. The young people here seem to be nearsighted for the most part; they hold their faces very close to one another when they meet, often keeping them that way for several minutes. It’s sweet.

Today we found ourselves next to the first restaurant on the Zagat list — first by virtue of its name: Abszinte. The menu wants to be primarily Provençal, and succeeds pretty well; but on the wall was a blackboard with daily specials, and leading the list was rumpsteak with mushrooms for only Ft 1895. Hungarian forints are an easy exchange, you think of them as pennies and halve them, so this was $9.50: even after lots of Italian meat, I couldn’t resist. The steak was cubed and long-braised; it came with lots of brown gravy and nice morels, and enough roast-fried potatoes to smush up with my fork to sop up the gravy. Not at all bad.

TODAY’S AMUSEMENT consisted of a museum and the ballet. The museum was another disappointment: the museum of applied arts, much of which was closed for repairs. Only a few items from the permanent collection were on view, to provide a chronological history not of applied art but the accession activities of this museum — which collected assiduously in the last half of the Nineteenth Century, then slowed down for a variety of reasons.

I’m not nuts about old furniture, but I like five-century-old faience as well as the next man, and there were enough keys and clocks and glasses to keep me interested. There isn’t enough Art Nouveau on exhibit, though there’s a fine Josef Hoffmann side-table and quite a bit of Tiffany glass. There was one startling explanatory label pointing out that in the “difficult days” of the second world war many people, who had to leave their homes, had to leave many of their possessions behind; some of them somehow came into this museum’s collection. Sobering.

The ballet was Mayerling, choreographed by Sir Kenneth MacMillan to John Lanchbery’s arrangment of Franz Liszt music, very well produced and performed at the Budapest Opera House. I’ll have more to say about the house itself later; we’re seeing Butterfly there in a couple of days. Mayerling is hokey, long-winded, and boasts a story plot so complex and arbitrary it can only have been translated from fact: no one could have invented it. But it lends itself well to both costume story and the thinly dramatic music of Liszt, who since he was Hungarian is a national hero here.

The audience loved it, and I applauded too; and then we went out into the cold clear night to catch the metro home. Once again the Rakoczy metro, undergoing repairs, was replaced by a shuttle bus; once again some of us were unsure where to catch it. I asked half a dozen different people where Rakoczy Street was, and not one of them could tell me. One guy said But hey, I can speak English, and he was right, he spoke English quite well: but even though he was a local he did not know where Rakoczy Street was.

Years ago we were in Prague, driving to an apartment house where we would be crashing for a night or two. The street signs were wrong, off by a block and then turned ninety degrees; and when we asked about it we were told they’d been deliberately moved to confuse Russian tank drivers. I think they do that here, too.

Speaking of tanks, during the demonstrations here a couple of weeks ago someone commandeered a tank. Apparently it was prepared ahead of time, as a few locks had to be broken. A guy jumped into it and drove it straight down the avenue toward the demonstraters, then swung around at the last minute and headed for the police. Bystanders said he seemed like a guy old enough to have learned to drive a tank in the war, or perhaps in the 1956 uprising.

The tank only had enough fuel to go 150 meters, so no harm was done.

12 Budapest

other photos of Budapest streets here

OUR FIRST IMPRESSION of the city: subdued. We spent an hour on what’s said to be the main shopping street, a pedestrian street, and in mid-afternoon on a Tuesday there were few people abroad. And they were for the most part not young; and they were for the most part not fashionably dressed. I was reminded of Bucharest, Romania, which I visited in 1983; but Budapest, at least here, is more tightly built, with uniform five- and six-storey buildings fronting rather narrow streets.

After two more days I still don’t have a feel for the city. It is not a western European city, I think, though I hardly know German cities at all; it certainly feels quite unlike a Spanish or French or Italian city. There’s a fine variety of goods on sale — Italian clothes, hand-made luxury albums and journals, many bookstores and music stores, quite a number of shops selling cameras, laptops, and the like.

It’s a pleasure to walk into a music store and find shelves of miniature orchestra scores — something that hasn’t existed in San Francisco or Berkeley for many years, to my knowledge. But most of the scores are to standard repertory compositions, and the prices are as high here as anywhere. When I recall that fifty years ago I could buy a score of a piece by Enesco, for example, in a shop on Hollywood Boulevard, for three dollars... But let’s not go there.

We’ve been to two concerts so far. The first, two days ago, was very interesting: a small string orchestra playing a very early suite by Janacek, the Martinu harpsichord concerto, a strange flute concerto by Pavoi Simai (a contemporary Slovakian composer), and Dvorak’s A-major sextet arranged for string orchestra. I’m not sure what the ensemble is called — as noted previously, my Hungarian is totally nonexistent. But Gabor Takacs-Nagy was the conductor, and a pert, active, engaging fellow he is, especially seen from only a couple of yards away.

We were in a studio at the Hungarian Radio, an amazing studio with honey-colored walls and ceilings made of bent and angled panels perforated in many patterns and decorated by a scrap-metal Socialist Realist Abstract (yes, there is such a thing) mural over the on-the-air lights and control-panel windows. There were perhaps a couple hundred in the audience, in seven or eight long rows of seats, and the music was bright and lively.

It contrasted greatly with last night’s “Repríz koncert” at the Museum of Commerce and Catering. Here we heard six pieces for varying combinations of synthesizer (a Yamaha SY77), trumpet, flute, and cello, with some live electronic processing — mostly tape-loop pulse effects. The music was surprisingly old hat; there was nothing you wouldn’t have heard forty years ago in San Francisco — but maybe that’s what the “reprise” signified: a look back at early postwar modernism. The composers and performers seemed very serious yet somehow disengaged; they went about their work like professionals, but also tradesmen. Someone introduced each piece to the small audience, who looked like relatives and colleagues, but of course we understood nothing.

MUSEUMS: two so far, one exceedingly absorbing, one quite disappointing. The Hungarian National Museum turned out to be a survey of Hungarian history, from about the Roman times until the fall of the Berlin Wall. There was a sufficient number of English-language summaries on the wall panels to keep us oriented, and room after room of paintings, armor, weaponry, maps, china, jewelry and the like, together with a few installations of period rooms.

We were astounded at the number of vellum manuscripts on view, many with elaborate initials or miniatures, fading away under the light. It was a pleasure to be able to read passages, where my Latin rose to near comprehension, in beautifully written letters and deeds dating back across the centuries; and it was fascinating to watch the ebb and flow of the Hungarian national confines from post-Roman times to the present.

Alas we were spent long before the collection ran out, so gave less attention that we should have to the twentieth-century rooms. Here, though, even a quick survey reveals the reason for the Hungarian joylessness reported here yesterday. Hungary was a proud country and a rich one for centuries, but the Austrian empire, the horrible wars of the 20th century, and the communist administration took a lot of the joy out. We left the museum a bit dispirited.

The promising-sounding Museum of Commerce and Catering boasts a fine collection of historical items pertaining to the trades and industries and particularly those of the restaurant business, and we looked forward to seeing it. A chance conversation with a tourist-office clerk, though, revealed that it had recently moved to new quarters just across the street from the Basilica, and when we went there we found only a few advertising posters on exhibit; the permanent collection is not yet re-installed.

Much remains, of course, and we’re out now to get tickets to opera and ballet, to see art and history, and no doubt to eat. I see I haven’t reported on that yet. Tomorrow.