Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Barcelona's Palace

Catalan news these days is full of Felix Millet, the director of The Palau de la Musica, a historic and important Catalan institution. Millet and another person are thought to have embezzled (outright stolen, really), something like 23 million euros over a period of many years.

The Palau de la Musica isn’t just an ordinary concert hall. Declared an UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997, it is an artistic phantasmagoria made of mosaics, sculptures, stained glass, and iron, in which you pass into another, magical world. Built in 1905-08 it was designed by Lluis Domènech i Montaner, a Catalan architect of less renown than his contemporary Antoni Gaudi, who was perhaps less brilliant, but who nonetheless created some of the most beautiful modernist buildings in Barcelona, the Palau de la Musica and the Hospital de Sant Pau being the best examples.

The primary and original purpose of the Palau de la Musica was to house the Orfeo Català, the main chorus of Barcelona. In those days, this and other choral groups were becoming very popular in Catalunya. They were promoted as a means to keep the new workers of the industrial revolution occupied and out of the bars, much as did the YMCAs in the United States. Money for its construction was raised by private donations, and its first director was Lluis Millet, the grandfather of our modern crook.

It is coming out now that there were many suspicions about grandson Millet over a period of many, at least twenty years. But somehow none of them were fully investigated except for one where he was found guilty and spent a few months in jail. Amazingly, in spite of multiple suspicions in multiple venues, Millet was still appointed to the posts that he held at the Palau. The 23 million euros (or maybe more, it isn’t clear that the investigation has concluded) were taken from money that should have gone into the artistic programs, the chorus, the building. The main chorus is made up of unpaid volunteers; the Palau pays for their travel when they are on tour. Many of those tours had been cancelled in the last ten years because of supposed lack of funds, and sometimes rehearsal space was denied the chorus because the room was to be used for some other money-making activity. Money for whom?

Whereas this might sound like just another case of public fraud, here in Catalunya it is much more than that. The Palau de la Musica and the Orfeo Català are among the most important of Catalan institutions. Even I, as a newcomer here, feel that the Palau is a very special building and the chorus is a very special group. They represent the best of Catalunya and its identity. Art and music, more specifically the music of an ensemble, represents the group spirit that is prevalent in Catalunya while the Palau is treasured as an architectural jewel and center of Catalan cultural life. So a betrayal such as this, and not just by any functionary, but by the grandson of the founder, is a wound that goes very deep into the Catalan soul.
(Photo by courtesy of the Palau de la Musica)

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Tarragona, candles, and crepes

Manuel and I went to Tarragona today, he to pick up library books, and me to get my watch from the repair, buy some envelopes for the Christmas cards I made, and also to poke around the old town and maybe buy some soap and candles. I use church candles for commemorations, since I can’t get yarzheit ones here. Since it’s all the same God, I figure he doesn’t mind.

Tarragona has three main things going for it: the Rambla Nova, a big, plane tree lined boulevard that starts (or ends) at the cliff overlooking the sea, the promenade that goes along that cliff, and the old town that includes structures as old as ancient Rome.

I used to have a shop in the old town, just down from the Cathedral, and that was where we were headed. It is always nice to walk around that part of town, although since my shop failed, I still harbor a grudge against the shoppers of Tarragona. Maybe because of that I am always curious about shops that have opened and the ones that have closed down. I also like to say hi to some of the other merchants in the area who I used to know. One of them, the man who owns the nicest antique store in Tarragona is always friendly. He came to my opening, I bought a few things from him, and when I closed down I gave him my huge rolls of bubble wrap and wrapping paper. Then, last year when I was looking around for garden furniture, he gave me a hundred-year-old metal chair that used to sit on the Rambla Nova. In the old days they would keep chairs along the big boulevard and would charge you to sit. It was the same in Barcelona on Las Ramblas.

The candle shop is in a wonderful old space. It is always a pleasure to go in there, so I always look for an excuse. The only soap she had that was vaguely interesting was something made out of donkey milk which would have been interesting, but it was a bit expensive so I passed on that and just bought my four inexpensive candles.

Lunch was at the creperie at the Placa Pallol, the nicest little square in the city. The crepes are authentic and excellent.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

1930s Berlin

The Berlin StoriesI’m currently reading Christopher Isherwood’s Christopher & His Kind. I read his Berlin Stories two years ago and liked them a lot. Then I saw Cabaret recently, having never seen it before, but one of the Catalan newspapers was giving it away for only one euro as a promotion. Since it was an original language version with subtitles (rather than the dubbing they mostly like to do here), I bought it. Strange that it took so many years for me to see Cabaret, it being such a successful movie and one of my mother’s favorites. Well, maybe it wasn’t really a favorite, but she had a video of it and played it over and over during her last few years when she was in the senior residence. Maybe that was only because she had no other video that that she liked or that was a musical?
Christopher and His Kind
Later, I’m not sure how or where, I became aware of this book by Isherwood called Christopher & His Kind. I thought his writing excellent, and I tend to gravitate to things European, so I found a used copy on the internet and bought it. Then, recently, I saw a documentary on BBC TV about Cabaret and the Berlin cabaret scene and pre-war culture that the music and the story were based on. That reminded me of Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera, and so I asked Manel to borrow his CD that I had given him after he performed two of the songs from it in a theatrical performance in Tarragona a few years ago. Hearing it was intriguing so I looked on the internet to find out more about the Threepenny Opera. It turned out that I knew one of the songs (Jenny’s pirate song) from somewhere – I must have had a recording of someone (who?) singing it in English when I was young. Now that I've heard it again, I can hear it over and over again in my head. I don't think I liked the rought gruff style of singing all those years ago, but I do like it now. And compared to the original, the American version was sweet stuff.

So one thing led to another and here I am reading the Isherwood that I have no idea how I heard about and bought used from some AmazonUK supplier. He is a very good writer and it is amazing to me how open he is (this was written in the late 70s) about his homosexuality, not just the fact of it, but all the erotic details.

I love how the internet enables you to find information. If not for that, I wouldn’t have been able to pursue this little interest of Berlin cabaret, and Isherwood’s writing.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Gredos - Anglos in Spain

Saturday I got back from a week away, having been one of the participants in an English language program for Spaniards called Vaughan Town. The 10 Anglo volunteers and 14 Spaniards, plus the master of ceremonies and program director, were all housed for six days in a resort hotel in the province of Avila, in the Gredos mountains, near the village of El Barco de Avila. We volunteers were not paid (obviously) but we did have free room and board and transportation between the program hotel and Madrid. So the only costs involved were drinks at the bar, getting yourself to Madrid, and lodging before and after the program if your transportation schedule and desires required it. Basically, for me, it was a cheap and unusual vacation.

Friends of mine had told me about the program and suggested several times that I should go, that you meet some nice and interesting people and that since I was fairly social, I would like it. They were right. I was also hoping to make a professional contact for editing work.

It was a bit like going to camp, everyone riding on the bus together from Madrid (except they didn’t sing), having all our meals together, scheduled activities throughout the day, the evening activities with amateur theatrics and skits. The meals were far better than any food I had at camp, the theatrics and skits were fabulous (our masters of ceremonies is a pro), and although we spent a lot of time together, we each retired to our own private luxury hotel room (with Jacuzzi in the tub). This was definitely not like camp. The wakeup call was a phone ringing instead of a bugle, although the ring was so loud it could cause a heart attack, and actually I think I would have preferred the bugle.

I was a bit worried that I would be the oldest one there, but that wasn’t the case; in fact, there were several Anglos hovering above and below my age. Others had worried that this would turn out to be some sort of cult and they would be trapped. They were even more pleasantly surprised by the program than I, who had no such fears. What had really worried me was surviving a twisting mountain road on a bus.

Activities varied, but mostly they were one-on-one’s to give the Spaniards practice in speaking and comprehension with partners who were native English-speakers from different parts of the world (we were from USA, England, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Greece/South Africa each with a different accent, making use of different expressions). We would tell the other about ourselves, ask questions, talk about all sorts of things. There were also some foursome discussions and some practice on the phone (the hardest part of conversing in a new language for many people, including me when I have to do it in Catalan).

The one-on-one conversations that dominated were an opportunity not only for the Spanish to practice their speaking and comprehension, but also for us to learn about each other and for the Anglos to learn a lot about Spain and Spaniards. I can think of no better way for someone who travels to Spain to meet Spaniards and find out something about their culture and their country. Generally when you travel, you might have very short conversations with hotel receptionists, waiters and possibly tour guides. You rarely have entry to people’s homes unless you have friends who live there. It isn’t easy to meet people when you travel except, perhaps, other travelers. On this program, you had fourteen friendly Spaniards just waiting to tell you all about themselves, their families, the city they come from, their country, and their hopes and aspirations! It was a fabulous experience that I hope to repeat, maybe next year.

I arrived in Madrid just the day before, so I didn’t have much time to explore although from the walking I did, I could tell that it was a very big and beautiful city. That evening there was a wine and tapas get-together for the Anglos who wanted to meet each other. Early the next morning some of us showed up before departure time at the café across from the bus stop and found we were already old friends. A few minutes later we were on the bus with our group of Spaniards and off for Gredos.

When the program was over and we were back in Madrid, most of the Anglos met up in the evening to go out for tapas. Luckily we were hosted by Silvia, one of the Spaniards, who came with her husband Ivan. We met at the bear in the Puerta del Sol and they took us to a tapas bar in the beautiful Plaza Mayor. I had wandered over there earlier that afternoon and was struck with the size and beauty of the plaza, so it was nice to go back and spend some time at a table in the plaza, watching the Madrilenos go by while eating tripe and drinking beer (favored in Madrid over wine).

The next day I met up with Jack, Pauline, and Oscar at the Prado. I had very little time and the others were in no rush, so after a while I said goodbye to go off on my own. I had already seen Velazquez’s Las Meninas before I met my friends, but I wanted to see as many of the Goyas as I could before I had to leave. I don’t think the Prado is a user-friendly place, but I wasn’t shy and asked many guards and finally found the Goyas (which are actually spread out over several floors and two different buildings that are connected). I’m afraid I didn’t give them (or the museum in general) the time they deserved, but I did get to see the few I that had interested me, including most notably the two Majas (clothed and nude), The 3rd of May 1808 in Madrid, The Colossus, and his black paintings, with the Dog half-submerged being the one that struck me the most. It is amazing to me how his style and feel could change so much in his paintings, from what seem like carefree country scenes, to one of the strongest outcries against war and brutality.

There are many more paintings to see at the Prado, and many more Spaniards to meet and get to know, so I think I will have to go again. Maybe next year.