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.