blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Ruhig und vergnügt

"This drop in temperature is wreaking havoc with my harpsichord!" said Roland Graham, artistic director of the lunchtime concert series, Doors Open For Music at Southminster church in Ottawa. He was today's accompanist for a recital by the soprano Isabelle Lacroix, performing nine arias by GF Handel, these being unusual in that the words were in German, whereas Handel usually wrote settings of English or Italian words. The performance lasted nearly an hour, so was quite demanding for her, although her voice seemed to improve, rather than tire, as she went along. Her fellow soloist was Adam Nelson on the violin, playing the obligato part to each aria, which might also have been done by a flute or oboe player. All three performers were excellent.

Perhaps I was in the right receptive state to hear this music and the church was a warm, bright and peaceful place to be today; I found it all very satisfying. The first aria -- Künft'ger Zeiten eitler Kummer stört nicht unseren sanften Schlummer... set the tone in words and music. The words were by a long-time friend of Handel's, Barthold Heinrich Brockes (1680-1747; I'd never heard of him), singing God's praises for creating such a magnificent and peaceful natural world for us, in which ambitions are irrelevant (my own paraphrase). With the life the Creator has granted us, said this aria, we have every reason to be ruhig und vergnügt, tranquil and gratified. The running passages of the second aria, remarkably well executed by the singer in this instance, echo the lyrics that describe streams rushing along and water glinting like jewels. The third one (Süsser Blumen Ambraflocken) was in a minor key, slower, sounding not unlike the famous I know that my Redeemer liveth from The Messiah. Ms Lacroix embellished the repeat of the first section here with lovely musical decorations.

And so on. I basked in the mood and melodies and appreciated the quaint old German too (sei gepreiset, sei gerühmet...) which I could easily make out, so good was the soloist's articulation, even though we in the audience were only given the translation. Alles jauchzet, alles lacht! Everything rejoices, everything laughs ... at the splendours of Spring in full bloom. Well, a little premature maybe, at -24 C today and the canal still frozen solid, but it was all very upbeat.

We got free coffee and cookies before the concert, too, as well as the free Wednesday rides on the busses for those of us over 65.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

A silly dream

Details of dreams fade fast, once you wake up, but let's see, at this early hour, if I can record some of this one from which Chris has just woken me. It was, as always, a dream about travelling. We were in a "Cloudhopper" hotel in Paris with George. I'd had trouble remembering the name of the hotel, but got it in the end. Rob and Sally had just confessed to us that they had just paid $50 for a taxi fare from their hotel opposite the art gallery in Ottawa to a restaurant on the next block. "That is ridiculous," I'd said.

Neither Chris, George nor I had remembered to pack trousers for our trip to Paris, although we wanted to sight-see from one of the posh modern skyscrapers nearby, but to my surprise a notice in the hotel room written in Dutch ... something about Undemokratie ... advertised that spare clothes would be provided if we had forgotten any. I ordered the three pairs of trousers from reception and they were soon delivered to our rooms above the swimming pool (full of children), but they were unusable, too long and narrow, and coloured pink!

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The artist from Cold Lake

Morning Star by Janvier, at the Canadian Museum of History
This season's special exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada is a retrospective of the works of Alex Janvier. Born on a reservation by Cold Lake in 1935, he belongs to the Dene people, but at the age of 8 he was obliged to live at a residential school. The school staff recognised his artistic talent and encouraged him to go for formal art training at the Alberta Institute of Technology and Art in Calgary whence he graduated with honours in 1960. During his education he came across the art of Kandinsky, Klee and Miró, which was to have a big influence on him, although his style is all his own.

Fishy Flowers Talk
The exhibition in the National Gallery is not laid out chronologically, so I picked up Janvier's life story by degrees as I went through the rooms. (I had only intended to walk through for 10 minutes, out of curiosity, but actually spent over an hour there, which indicates how fascinated I became.) The first gallery is full of circular paintings from the artist's gallery at Cold Lake, an unusual format but one that appeals to someone whose native culture and beliefs have a lot to do with circles. Many are watercolours on paper; some are linen canvasses stretched drum-skin like over a circular frame, painted with acrylics. One of these is called Drum Talk (2011). Native drumming was banned at one point in Canadian history, although the people say that this sound represents their heartbeat. Eagle Song (same year) includes the likeness of an eagle's head and wings, the eagle denoting spirituality for North American native peoples. The colours are what strikes you first. October Sun revels in the many colours of autumn; Fishy Flowers Talk incorporates dots of colour like the dots in Australian aboriginal art.

Janvier's most famous work of art, Morning Star (see above) is based on a circle too. I had assumed that the four sections around the circle represented the four seasons, but I was wrong. The yellow quarter stands for the old days, when native tribes lived in harmony with nature. The blue segment stands for the turmoil that resulted when the European settlers began to interfere with them. Red symbolises the struggle to preserve the native languages and culture in the face of opposition. In other paintings too, Janvier's use of red is a way of expressing anger. White, the final quarter, represents the recent healing and reconciliation that has taken place, or is taking place.

Now in his 80, Janvier has been awarded the Order of Canada. When he was 50, already famous, he was part of Pierre Trudeau's delegation to China which I mentioned in a previous blogpost, and (like me) was enamoured by the public gardens of Beijing. His life was not always so happy. He suffered a great deal at the residential school, partly from empathy with the other children. One little girl died there and he never forgot her, bringing references to her into his paintings. Apparently her body was sent back to her parents on a train, in a cardboard box, delivered to the wrong station. Such injustices and disrespect rankle to this day. One of his earlier pictures was a representational one of a native woman holding a young-old boy on her lap who is crying. After being sent to school, the artist rarely had the chance of a reunion with his mother. When he was 15 he did a large and, to me, garishly grotesque painting of Jesus with a bleeding heart, for the Catholic missionaries. The Vatican took notice and gave him an award for it.

Until the late 1970s, Alex Janvier signed all his artworks with his Indian Act number, "287". Then he went on a work-related trip to Sweden and realised that such numbers mean absolutely nothing to the international community, since when he has just used his name. Inevitably, some of his paintings are charged with political implications, such as Coming of the Opposite (i.e. the European church and system of government) and Lubicon Lake (1988), to which he added a bright red background in a fury against the injustices dealt out to the Cree of that region. Quite recently (in 2005) he did a rare, representational painting of a flowering plant in close-up, called First Call, distressed that Dene lands were going to be appropriated by the military as a bombing range. The oil sands around Fort McMurray displease him too.

Other paintings are more serene. He has used all kinds of media: watercolour, tempera, acrylics, inks, chalk pastels and oils. At one point in his career he became a member of the so-called Group of 8 (an oblique reference to the more famous Group of 7) –– a group that also included Morrisseau, Odjig, Reid... One of the works Janvier displayed in their exhibition was Alberta Rose (1977), its predominant pinks and pale greens inspired by that wild flower. There's a wonderful abstract blue painting done in 1994 which he entitled Cold Lake Air as a tribute to the clear skies of his home. Big Fish Waters is a huge painting that also represents Cold Lake and records the idea that whales swam there in prehistoric times (bones have been found that give this legend some substance).

North Primrose, a circular, mixed media painting, looks like a satellite image of merging rivers on the Alberta plains. Grand Entry, similarly, could be seen as a bird's eye view of the start of a Pow Wow ceremony, the Elders, dancers and youths swirling in to join the circle from all directions.

Janvier's most recent creation is a very large scale piece called Tsa Tsa Ke K'e. It is a mosaic spread out on the floor of a public space, a stadium in Edmonton. At the end of the exhibition you can watch a short documentary video about its installation, featuring the artist himself at its opening, looking very proud and moved, while people of all denominations and origins join the circle dance on top of it.

Friday, March 10, 2017

The people in the zoo

The Ulrikab family of Hebron, Labrador,
photo taken in1880 (Wikipedia), when
they did not have long to live.
On Wednesday evening last week, during an International Women's Day event organised by the local CFUW, I heard a horror story. The person who told it was a CFUW member, France Rivet of Ottawa, founder of Polar Horizons, an endeavour to spread the word about the arctic, its history, resources and people. She was a fluent and fascinating speaker.

France used to be a reluctant IT consultant, unhappy in her job, in a state of mild depression until, about 10 years ago, she treated herself to a short holiday at a lodge in the far north, on Cunningham Inlet, Somerset Island. It is nothing like Somerset in the UK, up there, the lodge only open for half the year, the surroundings bare and wild. Beluga whales play in the inlet, rubbing off their old skins in the summer, and you can observe them from a watchtower rising from the shallow water.

France was so cheered up by her arctic experience that she went back again the following year, by which point, having been inspired by like-minded people from Europe whom she met at the lodge and on an icebreaker trip, she had decided to quit her job and dedicate herself to the creation of a polar centre within Canada. Back in Ottawa she organised a photography exhibition, the first initiative of Polar Horizons. A film festival followed and the creation of a bookstore dealing in Arctic themed books. France kept taking herself to Northern Canada. In 2009 she went on a cruise up the north Labrador coast, meeting a German photographer who told her about the tragedy concerning Abraham Ulrikab and his family, nineteenth century Inuit from the "Hebron" community, a Moravian mission in Labrador.

Abraham (who didn't actually have a surname: Ulrikab is an amalgam of his and his wife's given names) was a converted Christian who worked as an interpreter for visitors such as the Norwegian explorer Jacobsen, whose plan was to bring native people to Europe, to exhibit them there. At the end of the summer of 1880, he took eight Inuit with him on a ship across the Atlantic: Abraham, who was 36, his younger wife and their three children, plus another family of three. They arrived in Hamburg in September and by the end of the following January all of them were dead. Their story is shocking and remembered in some detail, because Abraham, who was literate, kept a diary, written in Inuktitut, which has since been retrieved and translated into several languages. Incidentally he was also an accomplished violinist. He had agreed to go abroad because he was promised enough money to pay off his father's debts to the Hebron mission. "Our way is destined by the Lord!" he wrote, poor man. His pastor was not keen for him to go.

When they reached Germany, instead of being given the opportunity to meet other Moravians, as Abraham had expected, and to visit the sites of Europe, they were moved into an enclosure in a zoo, into purpose built huts, beside the animals. Every day at the zoo they had to give demonstrations of their traditional culture: seal hunting (with real seals if they could be obtained; if not, their son had to dress in a seal skin and act the part of the seal) or showing off their dogs, who had been shipped over too, or their kayaks. By October Abraham had already realised that he had made a terrible mistake in agreeing to leave Labrador; then in December, at Christmas in Darmstadt, his fifteen year old son fell sick and died. The families were transferred to another zoo, in Krefeld, where Abraham's wife Ulrike also became ill, and then her three year old daughter was taken to hospital where they diagnosed smallpox. By law, Jacobsen should have had them all inoculated before leaving their homeland, but he hadn't bothered. The little girl died on New Year's Eve when her parents were already far away, in Paris, on show at the Jardin d'Acclimatation in the Bois de Boulogne. They didn't last long. On January 9th, 1881, all the others were admitted to hospital with the smallpox, not one of them surviving, the mother Ulrike the longest; she died on January 16th.

They were buried in St. Ouen cemetery, but it wasn't long before their bodies were exhumed for "research" purposes. By 1886 the remains of five of the Inuit were being stored in the Museum of Natural History in Paris, where skulls and skeletons of other "primitive" peoples were also on display, from Australia, Africa, etc. The skeletons were hung upright and plaster casts were made of their brains, even though the Inuit believe that a corpse has to lie horizontal so that its soul can be at rest.

When France Rivet learned of this tragic story she decided to make it her mission to bring the still archived remains of the Inuits back to their homeland. She couldn't do the job unaided. A living relative of the Inuit family had to make the request via the Canadian Embassy so this entailed a lot of research and administration. France crowd-funded $17,000 to help with this work. In the end both government officials and native Elders collaborated with her, including Zippie Nochasak, a lady Inuit Parks Canada guide who may have been a relative of the other Inuit family taken to the zoos. The Elders of various tribes quickly reached a consensus that the remains must be brought home. France also met the great-grandson of one of the zoo owners as well as descendants of Jacobsen. They all co-operated; her presentation included photos of these present day people. Apparently, at one point in the meetings, a butterfly suddenly appeared, flying around in a library. The researchers were in awe at its appearance, butterflies being representative of human spirits in Inuit culture.

Roch Brunette made a documentary film about all this, that was shown on TV about a year ago.

France Rivet's life is no longer "meaningless and unrewarding," she told us. She is no longer depressed. She quoted a French ethnologist Paul-Émile Victor who wrote: "Adventure is a state of mind. It lives in a man's heart."

Our evening of "Northern Footsteps" continued by a musical performance by an aboriginal folk group, Twin Flames, their origins Algonquin / Cree / Métis / Mohawk / Inuk.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Youth Orchestra, 2nd Division

At the nearest concert venue to my house, St. Patrick's on St. Patrick's Street (not a church these days but an Arts Centre, though the interior trappings of the church remain intact) I saw a concert advertised. It was to be a Sunday afternoon performance of Berlioz' Marche Hongroise, Stravinsky's Firebird Suite, Sibelius' Karelia Suite and Beethoven's 8th Symphony, by members of the the Ottawa Youth Orchestra Academy. That sounds promising, I thought. I have seen and heard the OYO in action before; they are well nigh professional in accomplishment.

When I arrived for the concert, a stranger approached me whose children were among the performers, and insisted on paying for my ticket! The grandparents couldn't make it, so he didn't want their tickets to go to waste. He didn't linger while I thanked him, off in search of another senior to treat to a free seat. I sat down, took a closer look at the programme and realised that the orchestra tuning up on stage wasn't the orchestra I'd expected; this was the Ottawa Junior Youth Orchestra (OJYO), not the OYO. Oh, I thought. They might not be as good.

However, the moment they picked up their instruments, my fears were allayed. These kids are mainly younger than in the OYO, but their standard of achievement is still astonishingly high and their discipline and stage presence exemplary. Apparently they audition for a place in the large junior orchestra for training, and then audition again, to be part of the top one. Ability counts above age. I learned this from a mum who sat next to me.  Her son was in the 2nd violins; her little girl had just begun learning the 'cello; "I'm on Suzuki Book 3," she said. Previously this family had lived on Rhode Island in the USA where there are similar programs, but not producing such high level instrumentalists.

The junior orchestra began with Canada's National Anthem, slickly done, then launched straight into the lively Berlioz march. One of the 1st violinists immediately caught my eye, a young boy leading from the back desk, as it were, who didn't seem much older than my grandson (10). I worked out later, when after the intermission the same boy appeared at the first desk as "co-concert master" that this child is called Justin Saulnier. I'm making a note of the name in case he has an impressive future ahead of him!

The Firebird opened with an attention catching bang and was played with tremendous energy. Sibelius and Beethoven gave the orchestra slower, softer, more subtle passages which stretched the players a little, but they rose to the challenges without making fools of themselves. Bassoon, horn and other woodwind solos all succeeded. The concert programme had obviously been chosen to allow everyone to have a chance to shine, even a harpist taking part. Mind you, I hadn't remembered there being a xylophone part in the Beethoven symphony! I think that had somehow got added to the original score.

That these adolescents, a good half of them Asian, it seems, are being exposed to and challenged by music of such calibre in such large numbers, I find excellent and up-lifting. They will remember it all their lives, an extremely important experience for them. The applause at the end was idolatry, proud parents wielding their cameras. An encore followed, a jazzy number by Bernstein or some such composer, in which the OJYO kids were entirely at their ease. The pale young co-concert master and the dedicated conductor, Angus Armstrong, had fulfilled their obligations and (having rehearsed and performed since noon) could finally take a bow and relax.

I walked the short distance home with a spring in my step and straight afterwards set out again to go swimming: my fastest swim to date.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Respite day

Ottawa River lighthouse at Montebello, March 6th
On his day off work, Chris drove me to Montebello and back, via the "Presque'île" on the Ottawa River between Plaisance and Papineauville: the Parc National de Plaisance. We hadn't been there before but have seen it from the air innumerable times, flying home from the east along the river. In the summer there are hiking and cycling trails here, boardwalks and campsites, but just now the swamps are all frozen solid and the walks under snow. Its temporarily abandoned look has an attraction of its own. We saw a splendid wild turkey at close quarters, with blue cheeks, as well as an eagle. We had the area to ourselves and drove slowly along the access road from one end of the park to the other, then continued, still slowly because of the bumps in the road past cottages and farms, through farmland. Speed limit 70kph, but you'd need good tyres and suspension to keep to that speed; we drove carefully at about 30kph. Every now and again we glimpsed views of the extensive river and the Ontario or Quebec shores. From the eastern end of the peninsula, the big church at Papineauville is visible across the water (i.e. ice). Again, it must be very different in summer.

We ought come here on bikes when the weather warms up, but that would mean buying a bike rack for the car, as it is rather too far to cycle from home. It took us an hour to get here in the car, using all of our electric car's battery supply. For the 20 minute ride further on, to Montebello, and for the return ride, we were drawing from our gas tank. The mystery voice that gives directions in our car, not francophone, told us to drive along the Roo Presk-queue-Isle till we reached the Roo Princey-pally (rue Principale) at Plaisance. One disappointment, when we reached Montebello: the advertised fast charging station at the Tourist Information Centre didn't have a plug-in connection compatible with our car, and in any case we would have needed a Quebec Hydro charging card for it to operate, which we did not have either. It seems that Quebec residents get better service than Ontarians.

Ottawa River, Montebello
We lunched at Le Bistro in Montebello (a three course meal plus bread and hot drink for $15) which was cosy. They have an open-flame pizza oven there. Then a chilly walk along the main street, rue Notre-Dame, to the Auberge where I once stayed with my mother, its swimming pool currently obliterated with snow, down to the docking area at the river's edge, also white and very wintery still.
River's edge in winter

On our way home, to my surprise, the sun came out and brightened the white fields, so that it was a pleasant drive, along Rte 148, the quieter way back, now that Highway 40 takes all the heavy traffic. We crossed over into Ontario on the Cumberland ferry.

What a peaceful respite from work and other worries, despite the bitter cold wind.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

At the DocFest

Wakefield, 33km north of Ottawa, an easy drive, worked its magic on us again, when we drove there today to take a walk round the village with Elva and Laurie. We kept to the streets this time, passing the Vorlage ski centre and the school. Chris had been in an angry mood when we reached the parking lot outside the Wakefield community centre; the cable from the one electric car charging station wouldn't reach the car, because of the snowbanks in the way (this has occurred before). He went inside the building to complain and discovered that the man in charge there was a friend of his whom he hadn't met for a while, so that defused the situation.

The river looked as wide and serene as ever, with its snowy surface, but the ice is thin this year and will soon break up. In the warmer season the Wakefield people are going to construct a new boardwalk parallel to the main street, right beside the river: an excellent idea.

Chamberlin's Lookout was closed today so we couldn't have our usual sit down there; we sat down at Le Hibou instead for hot drinks and a piece of lemon tart and carrot cake. Then while Chris talked to Rink* in the lobby of the community centre again, Laurie, Elva and I went into the auditorium there to watch the last film of this year's DocFestDark Horse, about a Welsh community that pulled together to breed and train an extraordinary racehorse named Dream Alliance, and it had a gripping story line. The film was a subtle commentary on British society too, poignant and cleverly put together. Everyone watching broke into applause at the end.

This entertainment seemed to resonate well with the people of Wakefield, enjoying glasses of wine or beer with Welsh Bara Brith and other goodies, afterwards, maybe because they too are (obviously!) a tight-knit community.

I wouldn't mind living there.

* Rink's wife Leanne (whom we also briefly met today) was the subject of an article published in the Ottawa Citizen in 2009, an article that makes for compulsive reading. We got to know the couple around that time and visited them in their house beside a lake near Wakefield where they still live. I have also read the heart-rending book Leanne wrote, about her and Rink's experiences with Médecins Sans Frontières: A Cruel Paradise