Category Archives: Entertainment

Marionettes and Mozart?!


Marionette Theatre Poster - Version 2I confess that I used to think of puppets as a fun diversion for children — but not at the Amsterdam Marionette Theatre.  I happened to bumble into the wide alley where it’s located, and the poster I saw was so compelling that I decided to investigate further.  Mozart?  Really?  I knew it would be in Dutch, of course, but how complex could the story line be?  The main thing was to hear the music and enjoy the visual spectacle.

After reserving tickets online, we arrived 20 minutes early — but after the aficionados, who had long since occupied their tables and were sipping their wine and tea.  A wise strategy, because the seating area is level, and the first row is quite rightly reserved for children and their parents.  The rest of us were grouped around tables for 4, and positioning ourselves politely but assertively to see the small, somewhat elevated stage.  Next time we’ll come earlier, as should you if you go.

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What we stumbled into is an art form that dates back indirectly to the 16th century, when nomadic performers brought this form of theatre throughout central Europe, and directly to the 18th century, when the likes of Haydn composed music specifically to be performed with marionettes.  It turns out that the opera singers of the day weren’t always great actors — but the marionettes were.

As we waited for the performance of an adapted version Mozart’s comedy “The Impresario” to begin, we learned that all the music was recorded only on original instruments, by a specific orchestra assembled for this theatre, and opera singers who work with them.  When they tour around the world, which they do regularly, the musicians and singers accompany them, but for the repeated performances in Amsterdam they understandably use recordings.

They don’t allow photography during the performance, but frankly it wouldn’t tell you much.  It’s the absolute magic of scenery as carefully constructed as the Metropolitan Opera’s, and the movement of figures just as carefully carved, painted, and clothed in exquisite garments.  Technically speaking, the star of the show to me was a frou-frou poodle which could raise its ears separately or together, of course wag its tail and prance or jump or shake its head.  The opening scene in which the impresario, Frank, is confronted with the extent of his bills had us weeping with laughter — not to mention the classic duel of the sopranos.

IMG_2722At the end, as a curtain call, they let us all crowd up to the edge of the stage and see the amazing art of the six people overhead, out of sight, each controlling a marionette or sometimes two, moving around each other with unbelievable deftness.  We could even see the intricate embroidery on our hero’s waistcoat.

Like so many good things in Amsterdam, this wonderfully successful and delightful enterprise is run by eccentrics.  The founder, Hendrik Bonneur, is a retired clinical psychologist who studied with the Aicher family of Salzburg, one of two families in Europe who have practiced this art for generations.  If you can possibly go, do.  It will open your eyes, whether or not you have a child you can drag along.

The Portuguese Synagogue Lit by Candles

Last night, the magnificent Portuguese Synagogue was lit only by candles for a brilliant concert by the Frans Hals Kwartet, four gifted musicians who met recently at the conservatory.  The Synagogue is a huge subject which I’ll address one day, but for now let’s just stick to the magic of last evening.  There is neither electricity nor heat in the Synagogue, so the woman who sold me the tickets warned me to “dress really warmly, and then add something else after that.”  I wrapped up in a down coat, polarfleece and a turtleneck, wore my hat and gloves and was reasonably comfortable.  These photographs are a very pale imitation of the beauty we saw.

IMG_2406Just like 1675  The Synagogue is enclosed in an outer square of one-storey buildings which house its precious library and exhibits, with small paved courtyard separating the Synagogue from the rest.  We crossed this in a fine rain or thick fog (depending on the moment), and pulled open the high wooden door to enter the immense worship space — perhaps three stories tall, with balconies on either side, the central space held up by immense columns.  Almost all the restoration done since builders finished the Synagogue in 1675 has been maintenance, so the place looks and feels as it did more than 300 years ago.

Brass chandeliers beyond any others   First, I smelled the candles burning, then saw the whole space radiant with a soft light that I’d only sipped at in home environments.

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This was candlelight so pervasive, so bright, that you could read by it, see every nuance of the architecture around you.  And raising your eyes to see the candles themselves was another revelation.  The Synagogue’s glory to the Gentile viewer is the 17th century brass chandeliers, the model for others around the world.  They are endlessly elaborate, immense in size (at least 10 feet tall, perhaps 7 feet in diameter at the bottom) and hold 30 candles each.  Because the brass has been polished within an inch of its life, there are hundreds of brilliant surfaces which can reflect the candles when they are lit.  Four of these chandeliers hang in the central part of the Synagogue, plus countless smaller ones everywhere else.  There are even holders for single candles on the columns, standing candelabras here and there, small sets in windows, plus smaller versions of the huge chandeliers under the balconies.

There literally was not a single dark corner in any part of that huge space.  For the hour that the musicians played Mendelssohn’s Quartet No. 6 in F Minor and then Ravel’s in F Major, we were transfixed — not only by the music itself and its wending path through the range of human feeling, but also by being saturated, probably the first time in our lives, by candlelight.  We all know what a difference a single candle makes.  I can say that when there are hundreds (we stopped calculating at 500), the difference is multiplied by thousands.

If you go    You won’t find these concerts listed in the usual places.  Look here and hope for the best; they only happen about once a month.  Come early to see the candles lit.  We were 15 minutes ahead and it wasn’t enough.  Don’t bother getting tickets in advance; the place is huge.

 
 

Free Opera at the Stopera

Every Tuesday from 12:30 to 1:00, you can hear a free concert at the Stopera right on the Amstel River.  It’s a wonderful venue, easily reached by tram or subway, or best of all on foot or by bicycle.

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Because folding chairs are set up on the stairs leading down to the main lobby, there’s lots of room — and at worst you can always stand at the back or lean over the open balconies above. So the need to come early and stand outside is less pressing than at the free concerts at the Concertgebouw. The people at the door greet you warmly and provide a printed program, which is much appreciated.

This week was a particular treat: a superb young Dutch soprano, Maartje Rammeloo, accompanied by Nathalie Doucet on piano, doing classic arias from Verdi, Puccini, and Donizetti.

The singer appeared in a really stunning gown — strapless midnight blue with a full skirt which set off her substantial height. But it was her voice that really gripped us from the start, effortlessly hitting a wide range of notes at both soft and full volume.  Her ability to go through different feeling states and convey them intensely was remarkable, especially in a recital which involves snippets rather than the buildup to a full aria.  We had the delightful surprise of hearing her husband, Jan-Willem Schaafsma, a fine tenor, assist her in several scenes.  Their canoodling had the feel of true love!

Because the whole curved side of the building is glass, the natural light was excellent, and of course there’s no problem for an operatic soprano to be heard right to the top of the house.  In half an hour, we were transported back through centuries, but also into our own hearts.

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Valentine’s Concerts: Cello & Pianola

On Valentine’s Day, we went back to one of our favorite haunts for a 2:00 Saturday concert, the Noorderkerk where the February 1941 Strike was organized, right behind the organic market.

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The music is wonderful and reasonably priced, and usually involves young musicians.  Many people in the audience go almost every time, and it is a quiet group with deep attention.  One warning:  the space is always chilly, and the concerts are only held until it warms up outside, so wear your woolies.  

Valentine’s Day was no exception in focusing on young talent — Lidy Blidorp and Genevieve Verhage on cello, and Mike Fentross on lute and its relatives.  I would never have thought of those instruments  in combination, but they sounded wonderful, with solo opportunities for each.  The theme of love began with Caccini’s Amarilli, mia bella, a song of longing from the early 1600s which could have been written yesterday.  We heard a very difficult solo cello sonata by Kodåly, then back to love with Purcell’s Dido’s Lament, and finally a Boccherini sonata.  A couple of lute pieces were interspersed by Kapsberger and Sanz, so they covered the centuries from early 1500s to the 1960s.  It’s wonderful to see young people thoroughly absorbed in their art.  Lidy is in the foreground, but if you look closely you will see the lutenist listening to her.

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Still wanting even more music, we spent the evening at the Pianola Museum, a collection of player pianos and 30,000 rolls of music kept alive by the dedicated conservator Kasper Janse.  Notice all the rolls of music around the screen.

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Silent films, mostly with a romantic twist, were shown to the accompaniment of either player piano music (can you imagine Scott Joplin recorded that way!) or live piano brilliantly coordinated with the action on the screen.  Our pianist/lecturer Yvo Verschoor was clearly an authority on the subject, and described the days when many theaters had orchestras and/or organs, and virtually all had the piano.  We saw the first people at the Paris World’s Fair in 1900 walk jerkily along by the Eiffel Tower, a few waving their top hats at us; we went through terrifying tunnels; we swooned with Rudolf Valentino and Gloria Swanson; and roared at the witty antics of Chaplin and heartier stunts of Buster Keaton.

The little in-house bar is a wonderful place to relax before or after the programs:

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See also my page elsewhere on these two venues for more information.

Tropenmuseum: Colonial Reflections

Tropenmuseum photo

Although the Tropenmuseum was built in 1926 to exhibit the cultures the Dutch had conquered, often brutally, its purpose now is almost the opposite:  to reflect on colonial history and the paradoxes it entails to this day, and to educate northern people about the world outside Europe and North America.  It’s one of the world’s great ethnographic museums, deeply involved in preserving local cultures.  Its imaginative displays are housed in an absolutely spectacular building.  Even the outside walls deserve study, replete with carvings of peoples from around the world.

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You enter a few steps below ground level, and mount a small circular staircase (or lift) into the main exhibit area.  Take a few steps forward, and you’re in a colossal central space with three full storeys of exhibits on broad balconies, in addition to a large area for kids.  The atrium has the grandeur we associate with the Victorian era in England.

As a sampler of the remarkable variety the museum offers, here are a few Tropenmuseum exhibits I’ve seen on two recent visits:


IMG_1796Soulmade:  Jasper Krabbé Meets Tropenmuseum    
A contemporary artist was let loose in the huge storage areas of the museum, and allowed to bring out and group anything he wanted any way he wanted.  He was then commissioned to make paintings in response to those objects, to be exhibited with them.  Nothing is labeled, which makes it much more intriguing.

 

House in South Turkey

West Asia and the Steppes    Where else could I sit happily in a yurt for 20 minutes and watch three screens’ worth of Central Asian steppes and the people who populate them?  I didn’t understand a word and it made no difference at all.  Apart from that, I was fascinated by the models of houses and villages of people in Islamic West Asia (the so-called “Middle East”).  On the news, we usually hear only about “terrorists” from that part of the world.  A whole section on the three great religions points out their similarities, and the sources of discontent in all directions, not just “us” versus “them.”  Like so many exhibits here, it makes the viewer think and question assumptions.

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Grand Parade – a theatrical art installation by Jompet Kuswidananto    
This almost indescribable convergence of life sized figures by a contemporary Indonesian artist brings together a quasi-military parade, a parade of artists and dancers, and a political demonstration – all done with costumes and equipment rather than sculptures of people!  Sounds and movement happen at prescribed times.

 

Sugar, Slavery and Spices   The exhibits on sugar and slavery, which I’ve visited in the past, are bloodcurdling as well they should be, giving only the facts.  The conquering of the Spice Islands is an especially horrific story.  I’ll never use a nutmeg again without remembering that a virtually whole island population was exterminated to ensure the Dutch monopoly on that product.  The 1,000 survivors of a population of 15,000 were enslaved and forced to work in the nutmeg groves.

The Tropenmuseum is a great place to get an education both about what is priceless about peoples whom Westerners know little about – Latin Americans, Asians, Africans and others – and about the history of our relationship with them and why it is so fraught.  You could spend days there, but you’ll relish even an afternoon.

A Silly but Stunning Opera at the Stopera

Even Rossini didn’t think that “The Voyage to Reims” had much of a future after it was performed four times for the coronation of Charles X of France.  Fortunately, the National Opera of the Netherlands under the direction of Damiano Michieletto thought otherwise, and has turned a silly story with glorious music into an ingenious and even stunning production.  And the setting is glorious, but with a past.

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After decades of controversy, the National Opera and Ballet building was built in 1982, combining the City Hall and Opera House in one space.  When construction began, rioters protested many aspects of the building — its cost, its vast size, and the destruction of many medieval landmarks on the site, once inhabited predominantly by Jewish people who died in the Holocaust.  The building was nicknamed the Stopera after the protests, and the name stuck for years.  Now I notice they are rebranding, with National Opera and Ballet in large letters atop the building.  Set right beside the Amstel River across from historic buildings whose reflections glimmer at night, the Opera House was bound to be a striking contrast to its surroundings.

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As we approached from the River side, we could peek inside the huge windows to see the sleek interior.  It is definitely in keeping with the Amsterdam tradition of letting in as much pale northern sunlight as possible, and encouraging others to see in.  Even in private homes, curtains are often left open so that people can see indoors.  Coming closer to the building, we began to see more details, including the suspended balconies which all look into the main, immense lobby, providing excellent vantage points to look back out and see up and down the River.

 

Once we got settled in the red-red second balcony with a program, we grasped the fundamentals of the opera’s plot.  It didn’t take long:  a group of aristocrats are supposed to travel to Reims for the coronation but don’t, and instead entertain each other.  (The first half hour is taken up with a woman throwing a fit because a piece of luggage has been lost, which gives you an idea of the richness of the story’s arc!)

To the extent that we had an image in mind of where aristocrats might disport themselves, it was certainly some pastoral vale gussied up with urns and columns.  Instead, to our delight, the curtain rose on the following:

We were treated to a completely other, surreal experience while Rossini was sung unimpeded:  a gallery opening of “The Golden Lily” and all it takes to put it in place.  It was a romp of brilliant staging, which I won’t spoil for you in case some of you are lucky enough to see it one day.  But if you’d like to see some professional photos and read a proper review, look here.

The Concertgebouw Orchestra — Free!

After standing in “the cold line” outside the Concertgebouw for an hour, we were rewarded by a half-hour concert by one of the world’s great orchestras in a hall with acoustics which are close to perfect.  (Read about the logistics of the Concertgebouw’s Wednesday free concerts here.)

Musicians of All Ages  What felt so different that day was seeing the members of the Orchestra come in wearing ordinary clothes, as if each of them hadn’t been picked out of thousands of musicians after years of giving their lives to their instruments. A pregnant woman wearing a plain black sweater, her golden hair clipped behind her ears. A sporty young man in jeans and a crew sweater, as if on his way to the café for a beer with his friends. The more predictable people in their forties and fifties – but there were plenty of thirties, reflecting the fact that studying classical music is still cool for lots of young people.

The pianist (a man, not Maria Jao Pires whom we expected) arrived, wearing a brown sweater with elbow patches, and played scales. At 12:30 precisely by the clock on the back wall, the first violin raised his bow, and tuning was accomplished swiftly. Even conductor Herbert Blomstedt wore a sweater without a tie. Everything was in place to remind us that these were ordinary mortals. An announcer told us that the pianist was Martin Helmchen, whom we later learned was playing there for the first time, a remarkable chance for a younger person to break in.

Flawless and Complete Performance, Not a Rehearsal  Then, with the lift of the conductor’s baton, everything changed, and those singular individuals with their barrettes and trousers and boots became one. Mozart lived again, and whatever disappointment the audience may have felt at not hearing Pires lifted immediately. Unlike some other free concerts, which have been recitals for the evening’s performance, this one proceeded through the whole piece one perfect note at a time with no hesitation or interruption for correction. Helmchen, who also received strong reviews that evening, seemed utterly at home, not a note of music before him, utterly absorbed in the music and yet also attending to the conductor and the orchestra. At the end, we applauded and applauded, and the orchestra dissolved away as if it had been a dream.

Pictures aren’t allowed during the performances, but I did manage to catch one cellist before he left.

A cellist who couldn't stop playing

A cellist who couldn’t stop playing

As you enjoy the beauty, don’t forget that the Concertgebouw was forced to fire its Jewish musicians and play music by non-Jewish composers, and it was the site of an early Nazi speech that warned non-Jews to abandon their fellow citizens.  Read about it here.

Fabulous Food and Fado by the Amstel

If you can’t get to Portugal in person, go to Restaurant Girassol on the banks of the Amstel River in Amsterdam. Even in winter, the expansive hospitality will warm you, the very drinkable house wines will charm you, and the imaginative, beautifully presented food will win you over. If you are a lover of traditional Portuguese fado music, you will find yourself in heaven on the restaurant’s twice-monthly winter nights with singer Maria de Fatima. In summer, the terrace on the River would make the trip worthwhile in itself.

Girassol’s dining room is small in the best sense, just 20 tables nicely clustered, including a glassed in porch at the front.

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Murals and fine tiles set the atmosphere indoors, but it’s the people who really make you feel that you’re in Portugal. As much as I enjoy being in the Netherlands, the service in many restaurants and cafés is often slow and indifferent. In only five minutes, three different people at Girassol had greeted us and offered us drinks, including co-proprietor Wilma Texeira. Every one of them smiled and showed concern for our welfare.

At that very busy time right before the fado was to begin, I asked to taste two of the house wines. No problem. The other owner, Carlos Texeira, brought them over himself and was gratified to discuss them. In moments, we had a bottle of superior rosé, crunchy bread hot from the oven and a luscious tapenade. Next, I chose a duck confit that any restaurant would be proud of, falling off the bone for only good reasons. The main dish was a fish whose name I didn’t catch cooked to flaky perfection, then served atop creamy potatoes and a variety of other vegetables that melted away on the tongue.

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When dessert arrived, it was the piece de résistance: four mouthfuls of superb flourless chocolate cake with a side of sponge cake, accompanied on the journey by strawberry and lemon mousses divided by a fine green line of mint. It looked like a fine painting but tasted much better.

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Between courses, we were treated to fado of a far, far better quality than we had any reason to expect in a tiny venue in Amsterdam. Maria de Fatima looks the part, with the black shawl and dress, the beautiful and wise features of a woman who has seen a lot in life, the well cut but simple coiffure. Her voice is as good as the best French wine you have ever been lucky enough to drink: rich, deep, longlasting and varied.

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She grew up in Lisbon and began singing this music at the age of eight, and was performing only a few years later. It is literally in her blood, and she has never tired of it, only held it closer and closer. Her accompanists on the Portuguese guitar, guitar and string base are as tuned to her as other human beings could be. When they play on their own, you realize what amazing musicians they are in their own right.

The mood of fado always includes a melancholy, or at least nostalgic, strain; they are after all songs of fate with origins in Moorish and Brazilian slave music. Maria also varied the program to include more upbeat moments, and she was skilled at luring the crowd into singing with her. Many seemed to be regulars who knew the songs. I can’t wait to join them.

Brain Science and the Piano

If my Dutch were better, I would have realized that the piano program at the Recital Hall of the Concertgebouw involved a lecture first, especially since it was titled “Music, Imagination and the Brain.” We swept into our seats at 8:15 precisely, ready for a glorious Schubert sonata. Instead, Erik Scherder, a professor of psychology, entertained us even in Dutch (of which we have only scattered words), as we speculated about what his slides of the brain might mean. He’s a thin man with white hair and trimmed beard and a vivacious manner. We were amazed to see a brief film of an Alzheimer’s patient playing a complex classical piano piece; the slide was titled “Unforgettable?”

The Recital Hall

The Recital Hall

When the music began, it was well worth the wait. Katia Veekmans emerged in a gown that was the exact opposite of the subdued décor around her: a tall woman with a fine figure wrapped in bright red crushed silk, a strapless gown that fitted close to her body until it broke into two wide ruffles at the bottom, caught up in a huge bow-like flower. A dreamy Schubert sonata, fiery Liszt, clanging Bartok and lively Prokofiev, punctuated by an intermission with wine or soft drinks for everyone, included in the price of the tickets. Under the glittering chandeliers in the lounge, who could resist?

More information about the beauties of the Recital Hall is here.  To glimpse the Concertgebouw in 1940-45, click here.

After the concert, most people climb onto their bicycles or the tram, also free with your ticket. In an era of global warming, that’s my idea of civilization.

Concertgebouw from the Tram Stop

Concertgebouw in the Mist  from the Tram Stop