Bach’s Goldberg Variations on Ivo Janssen’s houseboat

Ivo Janssen playing Bach in his boat (above)

On a perfect sunny evening on our second day in Amsterdam, we all walked down the street next to a broad canal heading for Ivo Janssen’s houseboat. To my great surprise, we were suddenly joined by Servaas van Beekum, my good Dutch friend from Sydney, visiting his family in his home town of Amsterdam. He was with his and his daughter Silke and we all crowded on to a large house-boat crowned with a fully fledged garden across its entire roof. Ivo, one of Holland’s leading pianists, had become sick of dealing with agents and travelling the world playing concerts, so decided to convert an old concrete barge to both a home and an intimate concert hall. Over several years, he rebuilt it himself with help from friends and it is now a beautiful double level recital hall seating 140 people, and includes his own apartment at one end of the boat.

We were treated to a mesmerising performance of one of the greatest works of the keyboard repertoire, JS Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Having met Ivo some years before through out mutual friend Don Ross, I rang him from Sydney to ask if he would play for our group and he agreed provided we didn’t mind if he sold the remaining tickets to the public. Asking me what I’d like him to play, I had no hesitation in asking for the Goldbergs. It was an evening none of will forget and afterwards I bought his recording of all Bach’s keyboard works – on a set of 20 CDs!

Tages Alte Musik Festival. Regensburg

We have just arrived in Amsterdam from Regensburg, after four days of their fabulous annual festival Tages Alte Musik. Regensburg is an ancient mediaeval town in Bavaria that is one of the very few in Germany to escape the destruction of World War II and its streets of old baroque houses, leaning buildings, and magnificent churches give you an uncanny sense of being in another ancient world.

Over four days, 16 concerts are given in these extraordinary old churches and mediaeval halls, mostly large, and even cavernous, and some with the most extravagant rococo decoration. Hearing wonderful, mostly unfamiliar music from the 15th to 18th centuries, mostly featuring period instrument and vocal ensembles from all over Europe, was really inspiring and gave us many touches of the sublime in music. Particularly memorable for me were Musica Fiata & La Capella Ducale in a re-creation of a Mass for the Reformation festival in Dresden in 1617 at the Dreieinigkeitskirche, Ensemble Alia Mens singing Bach cantatas at the amazing Church of out Lady, and the English vocal ensemble the Gesualdi Six singing Tudor music of England late at night in the huge Scottish Church. As a contrast to all the early music in these solemn and beautiful churches, we had a whole day in the magnificent countryside including a spectacular boat trip down the Danube gorge.


Two nights at the Vienna State Opera!

Vienna State Opera (Photo Johan Verfring, Wikimedia Commons, above)

Two successive nights at the incomparable Vienna State Opera! Arguably Europe’s greatest opera company in their splendid Empire style opera house, where nearly half the audience stand in semi-luxury, leaning on red velvet covered balustrades, and following the words (in one of several languages of your choice) on little screens under the balustrade. What a perfect way to discover and love opera where you can buy one of nearly 1000 standing places on the day – for three euros each!

But strangely the performances were disappointing. Never less than well sung and beautifully played – after all it’s the Vienna Philharmonic in the pit – the productions of Fidelio and Der Rosenkavalier, both great operas, were old and very conventional. Especially disappointing was the fact that the singer for the key role of the Marschallin in Rosenkavalier had been taken ill, and was replaced by a famous (old) exponent of Brunnhilde in Wagner’s Ring, Linda Watson looking and sounding every inch the stout Wagnerian grandmother in a part requiring the slender elegance and sophistication of a 30 year old princess. In my view it’s a disgrace that a great opera house can present such an embarrassingly inappropriate singer in a leading role.

Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament in Vienna

We are staying in Vienna at the Intercontinental Hotel, a grand old affair with vast and comfortable public rooms and charming staff who make even a cup of coffee seem a special privilege. It is next door to the superb Konzerthaus with its three gorgeous 19th century concert halls, The Schubert Saal for intimate recitals, the Mozart Saal for larger ensembles and the Grosse Saal for orchestra concerts, all with splendid acoustics.

But last night’s concert was a few hundred metres further way at the even more splendid 19th century concert hall, the Musikverein, one of the most revered concert halls in the world. It was Mahler’s mighty 2nd symphony (The Resurrection) and our seats were in the 2nd row. Too close we thought, but no, the sound was fantastic and the proximity to the players gave a visceral quality to the experience. When we applauded at the end, I turned to Sally and remarked on the young violinist’s amazing gold tipped high heels in the chair about two metres in front of me. Despite the noise of the enthusiastic applause, she must have heard me as she turned and smiled as if to say ‘thanks, I like them too.’

Yesterday we visited Heiligenstadt, now an upmarket suburb of Vienna, where Beethoven at the age of 28 wrote his famous Testament to his brothers agonising over his oncoming deafness. A remarkable quiet place and in the courtyard, I read the group the full letter from Beethoven (in English of course) but nevertheless a moving experience.

The Lobkowicz Palace and art collection in Prague Castle

‘Haymaking’ by Brueghel the elder at Lobkowicz (above)

In Prague we stay in the Century Hotel in the centre of town. It’s a refurbishment of a big old insurance office and one of the rooms where Don and Fe Ross stayed on our previous tour here, is the actual office where Franz Kafka, the famous writer worked as an insurance clerk. it has Kafka memorabilia on the walls and Don said it was really spooky staying there!

The Century has a very friendly bar and barman who makes anyone superb cocktails and after performances we hang out there far too late. By contrast in the morning, I give my talks in the bar on the next evening’s performance. At 9 am, it’s deserted and ideal for everyone to bring their cup of coffee and to listen in desultory fashion to my words of wisdom and selections of the music to be played on my Bluetooth speaker set.

Today is our last day in Prague on our visit for the annual Prague Spring Festival, one of the oldest and finest music festivals in Europe. and this morning we had a fantastic tour of the Lobkowicz Palace and art collection in Prague Castle. Prague Castle on the hill over the Vltava river is an extraordinary treasure of art and artifacts and magnificent buildings, more like a royal enclave or small town than a castle. In its middle is St Vitus Cathedral. The great Lobkowicz collection is one of the great private collections in the world, exploited and dispersed for personal gain by the Nazis, but recently fully restored and generously given to the state of the Czech Republic by the Lobkowicz family. We had a private tour of the collection and it was followed by a wonderful performance in a great room of the Palace by the Lobkowicz Trio of Brahms Piano Trio op 87 and Shostakovich Piano Trio No 2.

Arriving in Venice at the Hotel Fenice et des Artistes

Teatro La Fenice (Photo Andreas Praefcke, Wikimedia Commons, above)

Yesterday everybody gathered for the tour in incomparable Venice! What a city it is and what a lovely group we have. So far there are 15 of us and our two English friends Vicky and Andrew Neill join us in Vienna. We are staying in the suitably named Hotel Fenice et des Artistes, literally around the corner from the famous old Fenice Opera House where we see the Barber of Seville tomorrow night and then a concert from Italy’s top orchestra of the RAI, based in Turin. The hotel is not super smart, but is perfect for a group like ours next to the theatre and where all the artists singing or performing at the Fenice stay. The staff are steeped in operatic lore and the walls are covered in theatrical art and signed posters.

Tonight we had the Welcome Dinner in a waterside restaurant near San Marco and were served various Venetian delicacies for the perfect start for the tour.

Edinburgh at the famed Festival – last tour for Academy

This has been my last tour for Academy Travel and in many ways the most interesting and unusual. I had spoken to the ACO about the tour being built around their London and Edinburgh Festival tour, and Robert Veel of Academy had met Marita Supplee of Sydney Festival and the Festival had agreed to be part of the overall plan for the tour. So the group was drawn from Academy clients, ACO subscribers and Sydney Festival donors, a very unusual mix of backgrounds. Marita was there to look after her donors, I was there to lead the tour, and Robert was there to make sure the disparate interests were properly served. In addition the Edinburgh end of the tour was supplemented by the presence of Wesley Enoch, newly appointed Director of the Sydney Festival, who was in Edinburgh looking at talent that might be invited to Sydney. In some ways there were too many cooks, who in the view of some of the group, were spoiling the broth.

Partly because of the connections we had between us, the tour was brimful of fabulous events and performances, probably the best of any tour I have led so far. Highlights were:

  • Barry Humphries and the ACO’s performance of his Weimar Republic tour de force at the Cadogan Hall in London followed by a marvellous after party at the Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square where Barry made a hilarious speech taking time out to send up Alexander Downer the host
  • An utterly unforgettable performance of Berlioz’ Romeo and Juliet at a Prom at the Royal Albert Hall given by Sir John Eliot Gardiner, his Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique and Monteverdi Choir and soloists
  • An interview by me for the group at the Royal College of Music with Sir John Eliot Gardiner
  • A performance of Janacek’s delightful opera The Cunning Little Vixen at Glyndebourne on a perfect day, preceded by a fascinating interview for the group I arranged with Tim Walker, Artistic and Managing Director of the London Philharmonic Orchestra which for many years has played through the summers at Glyndebourne.
  • A hilarious performance of Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist at Stratford and a really profound and moving all black production of Hamlet
    In Edinburgh Wesley took us all on whistle stop journeys through the Fringe and its countless performances all over the city
  • In intimate Queens Hall we saw two fabulous concerts, first the ACO with an extraordinary performance of Mahler’s Song of the Earth in Schoenberg’s chamber arrangement with Alice Coote and Stuart Skelton the incomparable soloists, then a couple of days later Mark Padmore and Kristian Bezuidenhout singing Schubert’s Schwanengesang
  • But the highlight of all was the amazing production of Bellini’s Norma starring the incomparable Cecilia Bartoli in the remarkable Salzburg Festival production updated to the French Resistance in World War II. It made real sense of this creaky story about druids and the singing was exceptional

The Bach Festival in Leipzig

Bach’s Thomaskirche Leipzig  (Photo Ad Meskens, Wikimedia Commons, above)

Our group has just concluded six terrific days in Leipzig at the Bach Festival, one of the most inspiring festivals anywhere in the world. Here is our brochure for the whole tour: June 2016 Tour Brochure

But not only is Leipzig one of the most friendly and fascinating German cities, its musical heritage is second to none: Bach’s home for the greater part of his professional life, residence of one of the oldest and most famous orchestras, the Leipzig Gewandhaus, and the spiritual home of at least two other great composers, Mendelssohn and Schumann. During our stay, we:

  • Attended a performance of the St Matthew Passion directed by John Eliot Gardiner and his English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir – can’t get any better than that
  • The superb violinist Christian Tetzlaff playing Bach’s solo Partitas and Sonatas
  • The incoming Music Director of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, Andris Nelsons conducted the orchestra for the first time since his appointment, playing a stupendous performence of Mahler’s 3rd Symphony, sounding glorious in the rich but clear acoustic of their great concert hall, the Gewandhaus (Cloth Hall)
  • Visited both the Schumann and Mendelssohn houses and museums
  • Last night, on the last day of the Festival, William Christie directed a wonderful performance by Les Arts Florissants of the Bach B minor Mass in Bach’s own church, the Thomaskirche. During the Agnus Dei at the end, the sun poured through the clouds and lit up the east end of the great church as if handed down from on high in honour of the sublime music

Julia meets William Christie after the B minor Mass

Four Days in Paris

Paris Opera, Palais Garnier (Photo: Eric Pouhier, Wikimedia Commons, above)

Four days in Paris! We are staying in a rather cramped hotel a few minutes away from L’Opera and the Galeries Lafayettes, but then eveywhere you stay in Paris is rather cramped unless it’s the Georges Cinq or its ilk. Paris is not so much for the music but for being here, window shopping and observing the ever-fascinating French. We saw Traviata at the Bastille with the stunning Sonja Yoncheva but the lighting was in such stygian darkness we could barely make out who was who. The designer seemed to want each scene to be a floating blob of light in the middle ot total blackness. Nice concept maybe but most of Traviata is in daylight or brilliant party scenes. In comparison, last night’s Lear by German composer Aribert Reimann, (commissioned in the 1970s for the great German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau) was prison bars next to Traviata’s gilded cage. A fearsome opera by turns with discordantly shrieking orchestral paasages then groaning, moaning stasis. Depending completely on outstanding singing actors, it was well served and received tremendous applause from the remaining audience who had not left at the interval! Our group had very mixed responses, some loving it, some hating it, but all loved cruising around the magnificent foyers of the Opera’s Palais Garnier before the performance and during the interval.

But the highlight of our Paris visit has been the visit to the wonderful new Philharmonie de Paris designed by Jean Nouvel who designed the Central Park complex in Broadway Sydney. This hall is designed with the Berlin Philharmonie’s concept of ‘hanging vineyards’ with a huge inverted mushroom baffle over the auditorium giving magnificently even acoustics to all seats. We heard Richard Goode play the Emperor Concerto and Herbert Blomstedt conduct the Orchestra de Paris. After the interval they gave a superb performance of Mahler’s 1st Symphony.

Philharmonie de Paris (Photo: BastienM – Wikimedia Commons)

Opera Everywhere in Berlin

One of our group, Philip Levy recommended our hotel, the Camper Casa and it has proved to be a great success and its facilities much enjoyed by all. It is very simple with a plain foyer and front desk, large utilitarian guest rooms with every convenient facilty you could want. Best of all is a 24 hour cafeteria style lounge dining area on the top floor where you can have self serve food and drink on an honour system any time you want, ideal for a group like us when we come home after a concert at 11 pm wanting a drink or three, gossip and a snack. Berlin is such a wonderful varied city these days, a place where everything happems for whatever your taste is – at all times of the day or night. in nearly a week here, we have been to a performance at all three of the full time professional opera companies here. The Deutsche Oper, the Staatsoper Berlin, and the Komische Oper, the last run by the redoubtable Australian Barrie Kosky, once our-love-to-loathe director of horrible productions, now the poster boy of European high opera, soon to debut at Bayreuth. At the Deutsche Oper, we saw Graham Vick’s controversial production of Tristan and Isolde set in a retirement home with often inexplicable goings on. In many ways it seemed completely illogical, even incomprehensible, but there was a painful dreaminess and angst that gave it a powerful dimension. At the Schiller Theater, (while the Staatsoper Berlin is being endlessly renovated), altogether more entertaining was Martinu’s Juliette or the Key to Dreams, an absolutely wonderful staging and performance of this mysterious surrealistic opera about a man and his lover locked in some kind of separate time capsules. The director, Claus Guth, (who directed the sensational Messiah Leo Schofield and I saw in Vienna a couple of years ago) had a field day with a set of madly opening and closing sets of doors and windows plus extraordinary performances by Rolando Villazon, singing gloriously and looking and moving like a young Charlie Chaplin and the gorgeous Magdalena Kozcena. This was a completely memorable performance and production that you wait years to see. A mad Don Giovanni at Komische Oper like marionettes on speed completed our opera in Berlin