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.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Not yet mentioned

(This post should have been published at the beginning of June. I found it still in the drafts folder.)

We went to a rehearsal of Verdi's Requiem at the NAC, some of our friends singing in the choir for this.

With the Diplomatic Hospitality group I had a guided tour of the new Van Gogh exhibition at the National Gallery and afterwards took a look at the other recently talked-about exhibit there, The Clock.

One day, Chris and I drove to Syracuse airport in the USA and I drove back across the border on my own, a one-way distance of over 300 kilometres, or 200 miles if you still think in those units (you have to, down there), for the sake of a replacement GPS unit that had been installed in PTN. Our newly equipped plane brought Chris back safe and sound and at the weekend he took me up for a flight as well so that I could witness the GPS in action during an instrument approach to Gatineau airport.

I joined in the gardening at the Flying Club on the spring clean day and helped a little at Elva's house as well. We found a garden centre in town that's run by someone I know and bought some plants there.

I've been reading books ("A Man of Parts" by David Lodge––about HG Wells, "A Sense of the World––How a Blind Man became History's Greatest Traveler" by Jason Roberts) and watching videos (Route 132, Passport to Pimlico, The Shipping News, Look Back In Anger––a good variety of films there) and next month I'll be attending quite a few concerts, having bought myself a festival pass to the Music and Beyond series. As one of the "Early Birds," buying my pass over a month in advance, I saved myself $15. Attendance at the festival costs me $85 and, impossible as it is, if I were go to all of the 21 performances that take my fancy, that would work out at just over $4 per world class concert.

The other thing worth recording is our visit to the city's sewage treatment plant, which I'll describe in my other blog.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

"It all starts here!"

I shall try not to be sentimental about the experience I had this afternoon which thrilled and touched me; it was a year's end concert given by the "OrKidstra" the local community initiative created and sponsored by the Leading Note Foundation, now in its fifth year of operation.
The Leading Note Foundation was inspired by a phenomenal youth music program in Venezuela that has taken the world by storm, called El Sistema. This program has changed and saved the lives of countless children and is now recognized in the world as a prime model for music programs starting up in Los Angeles, New York City and Glasgow. The main premise is that, if you offer a child the instrument and the education to enrich their life spiritually, they will find the means to feed and clothe themselves - but, most importantly, they will become active contributors to society.
The Leading Note Foundation, made up of professional and freelance musicians in the Ottawa area, felt inspired to bring music to all children in Ottawa, regardless of their socio/economic background, to make music together in a spirited and positive environment.
I've mentioned the Orkidstra once or twice before in this blog, have donated my old viola to it and have friends actively involved in the organisation, one of whom recommended I should come along to the concert today.

The children involved in the performance, none of whom have had to pay for their music lessons, were too numerous to count, but I'd guess there were around 150 of them, aged between about 6 and 16 years old; most appeared to be recently arrived immigrants––the gathering at Dominion Chalmers United church (the coolest available place the organisers could find during our current heatwave) was multiracial, reflecting the intake at the schools these young musicians attend. Towards the end a lady in the audience was thanked for helping to train a few of them to speak in public, using the microphone, since individual children had been introducing each item on the programme in a competent manner.

A lot more than music is being taught in the rehearsals of the OrKidstra and its satellite programs. There are very definite rules and rewards regarding punctuality and commitment, consideration and teamwork.

The first subgroup of the Orkidstra to be heard this afternoon was the KidPlayers wind ensemble, who came "marching in" blowing their instruments in a disciplined manner to the strains of "O when the Saints ..." and joining the rest of the orchestra on stage. The Artistic Director and co-founder of this whole enterprise (Margaret Tobolowska) explained to the audience: "That's how the Canadian Brass start their concerts!" ––so why not these children? There followed a rendering of the national anthem by the combined choirs and instrumentalists and a jokey, rhythmic number that went "We are the OrKidstra..." each section brandishing its instruments as its moment came.

The first part of the concert featured the very youngest musicians, the KiddlyWinks from the earliest grades of York Street school (in the immigrant neighbourhood between our house and Rideau Street) who came to the front to sing in French and English and to play the recorders handed out to them. They had learned to stand still and keep together and sing in tune which, with that age group, is a considerable feat on the teachers' part. When they sang, they fitted movements to the words, that too was slickly done. A slightly older group, the KidSingers, performed next, a jazzy number called "Splish Splash" unobtrusively accompanied by five OrKidstra players, a string quintet. Later on it was announced that these five young people had just been awarded scholarships to a summer music academy. When they're that keen, they advance rapidly!

Then we heard the Beginner Violins of York Street, introduced by a 9 year old. They're being taught by the Suzuki method, memorising rather than learning to sight-read the music, and bending their knees to capture the rhythm as they play together in a very nice, confident tone, no squeaks! "It all starts here," said Ms. Tobolowska. It does indeed. Two of the children in unison played a duet with their teacher on the other part.

The wind players had another go at playing a march and then came the seriously impressive part of the concert, a performance of three items by romantic composers: Dvorak, Beethoven and Mahler! (in arrangement, but even so). The KidPlayers and Senior KidPlayers played a movement from the New World Symphony, making an exciting sound, and an abridged version of the Egmont Overture, ditto, the little ones listening and watching with interest, and then all the children young and less young stood up together, including a double bass player, to give us the third movement of Mahler's First Symphony. This is the one where Mahler incorporates the singing of Frère Jacques, Frère Jacques, dormez-vous? transformed into the minor. Our announcer said that the minor key affected the little children so much when they were learning this, that some of them had cried. They performed it marvellously.

Towards the end of the concert, which went on for rather longer than its allotted time, the children, all wearing their coloured, OrKidstra / KidSingers T-shirts, were encouraged to give well-rehearsed cheers of thanks to the supporters of their music. The loudest and most sincere cheers were for their teachers.

Once again tutti, they finished with Beethoven's Ode to Joy. What they lack in perfection they make up for in enthusiasm, and they're getting better at it all the time.

Further notes about Van Gogh's flowers

The pictures in the National Gallery exhibition are limited to the last four years of Van Gogh's life, 1886-90. Flowers are in nearly all the paintings; he also noticed long blades of grass and butterflies or a Giant Peacock Moth (immortalised with Arum lilies in 1889). The same vase appears in several compositions, with its colour slightly changed to harmonise with the colours of its contents. When he observed flowers he was looking for "des oppositions de bleu avec l'orange, de rouge avec le vert, de jaune avec le violet, cherchant les tons rompus et neutres pour harmoniser la brutalité des extrêmes" (my emphasis).

The sunflowers admired by Gauguin
His tendency to concentrate intensely upon "one blade of grass," his outlining of of iris leaves, his cropping of trees to leave their heads out of the picture was all under the influence of the Japanese artists he studied. His impasto was not so Japanese, though. The red paint in his Poppy Field and the white in his Pink Roses was like sculpture in its application. He experimented with brushstrokes in a dynamic way, trying out pointillism or Cézanne-like streaks or even using the back of his brush (e.g. in Sunflowers, 1887––Gauguin liked this one). The blue sky backgrounds are full of movement. In the View of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, which is really a picture of lavender fields, layers of brushstrokes force the viewer to look at both foreground and background. His pictures of Arles are like this too, with a horizon line near the top of the canvas and a fascination with the plants close at hand; diagonals create the impression of depth in the middle ground. Arles was actually an industrial city, but looking at a Van Gogh painting of this area, you wouldn't think so. Sometimes he "zoomed in" as the exhibition notes put it, to concentrate on a mere patch of dandelions. A close-up of ears of wheat all but makes you hear the sound of the wheat swaying in the wind.

The elongated, horizontal canvasses he began to use in 1890 seem to indicate that he had finally "found his style" as our tour guide said. The trouble was, he didn't survive much longer, shooting himself after the last of the wheatfields.

Breakfast with the animals

It's going to be another hot day. I ate the last of my breakfast in the shade of my garden just now, though didn't take any peanuts with me. The chipmunk Chris has tamed climbed up on my lap a couple of times to see if I had any and I hoped the black squirrel wouldn't do the same; it stayed around my feet, and after a while was joined by its baby (a smaller, more glossy squirrel with a magnificently fluffy tail). I assume this one was just weaned because she kept pushing it away––this turned into a rolling game among the ferns.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Van Gogh's flowers

Almond Blossom (1890, the last year of his life)
There's a crowd-pleasing Van Gogh show at the National Gallery of Canada this summer and a couple of weeks ago I went along with the Diplomatic Hospitality Group to take a look at it. The exhibition is called Van Gogh Up Close and concentrates upon the artist's interest in nature, of which he was a close observer, like the Edo period artists from Japan whom he admired––Hiroshige, particularly, whose pictures he copied, the better to learn from them.

Van Gogh used to hang his pictures in threes, like triptychs, almost as if they constituted an altarpiece. He was inclined to be religious, saw himself as a pilgrim (the painting of a Pair of Boots is shown in this exhibition; when in England he spent three days walking to London on a sort of pilgrimage), even practised as a preacher for a while, before he was told to stop that. He was mentally unstable, probably bi-polar, and developed epileptic symptoms related to his poor health. All his teeth had fallen out, which explains why there are no smiles in the self portraits. The famous ear-cutting episode was due to a nervous breakdown and a familiarity with bull fights in which the bull's ear is traditionally awarded to the victor. In this case van Gogh imagined he was the bull and that his ear was Gauguin's prize. In Arles near the end of his life van Gogh sought treatment from a homeopathic doctor, but painting flowers and scenery was the more effective therapy.

He wrote touchingly to his Dutch brother:
...met een linnen kiel aan, [ik] rook mijn pijp en kijk in de diepe blaauwe lucht––of naar het mos of het gras. Dat calmeert mij.
(Wearing a linen smock, I smoke my pipe and look up into the deep blue sky––or at the moss or the grass. That calms me down.)

Saturday, June 16, 2012

"Avec les yeux de mon âme"

Chagall's parents
The documentary that I watched was directed by François Lévy Kuenz and called Chagall, à la Russie, aux ânes et aux autres (from the title of one of his paintings). It included a lot of footage of the artist, Russian-French-Jewish, speaking in his "bel accent" and smiling impishly. The film also showed him putting some last touches to his paintings, though he was clearly inhibited to be doing this in front of the cameras. (Je ne travaille pas devant les autres.)

He came from a shtetl (Jewish ghetto) in Vitebsk, Russia, where an uncle was the archetypal fiddler on the roof (literally––he liked the view from up there), so this image appears in many paintings. The flying goats and heads of goats are reminiscent of the days when Chagall as an adolescent used to go and comfort the animals during their last hours before slaughter. His father worked for a fish merchant. His mother bribed a schoolmaster to get her son an academic education. He managed to get into the Imperial Academy of Art at St. Petersburg, but kept breaking the rules and moved to Paris to live a Bohemian life, befriended by Apollinaire, Delaunay and Léger where, though lonely and homesick, he managed to acquire some fame, compiling what he called his inventaire of the poverty of Vitebsk. In 1914 his work was exhibited in Berlin but he soon returned to Russia to establish an academy at home, after marrying a Vitebsk girl, Bella, at the start of World War I. The Soviets, when they came to power, dismissed him and ransacked his studio, though the scenery he'd painted for a Jewish theatre in Moscow was rescued, hidden away by one of the actors.

Chagall lived an impoverished life teaching war orphans in the 1920s. Because the paintings that had been on show in Berlin had been lost, he set about recreating them. Returning to Paris, he worked as an illustrator (of Gogol and of La Fontaine and the Bible). Then came persecution by the Nazis––his Crucifixion Blanche was painted at this time. He never understood "why men can be so cruel." In May '41 he and his wife left for America (where his wife died––tout est assombri, he commented). Matisse had Chagall participate in the Artists in Exile exhibition and he designed the backdrops for Stravinsky's Firebird ballet.

La Vie
After the war he was based for the rest of his life in the south of France and eventually opened his own museum in Nice. Not only did he paint canvasses, he also designed the costumes for a New York production of The Magic Flute by Mozart (his favourite composer), painted the domed ceiling at L'Opéra in Paris, then created a wall of mosaics for Chicago, murals for the Met in New York, and stained glass windows for cathedrals and the United Nations HQ. At the age of 75 he made a vast painting that summed up his visions, calling it La Vie. He saw the act of painting and particularly the painting of stained glass as a window to another world, or "from my heart to the heart of the universe." He looked at things "through the eyes of the soul" and art was as necessary to him as food, he said.

Thursday, June 14, 2012


Time management is not my forté on sunny days that tempt me out of the house, so this blog is getting out of date.

I've just come in from seeing an enchanting documentary about Chagall projected onto a screen at the Alliance Française and he's not the only artist I ought to mention in conjunction with my last post about Klee. I see many parallels between Chagall and Klee and maybe most artists have this otherworldly quality. Last week I joined a guided tour round the new Van Gogh exhibition at the National Gallery and while I was there also took the opportunity to look at the Gallery's other much talked about exhibit, The Clock, created by Christian Marclay. As I'd been warned, this is compulsive viewing and prevents you from whatever else you're supposed to be doing. Yes, it is about time(!)––I'll post further details anon.

Elva gardening at the Flying Club
Since my return from abroad I've been compiling and editing a new edition of Crosswinds for the Flying Club. I took photos of / joined in with the annual spring clean at the Club, doing four hours of gardening there (Carol and Elva did five). A last minute submission from a club member that held up the completion of the newsletter had to be inserted because it made such a gripping read: the story of "Another Long Flight" (a couple of years ago he flew alone to the Yukon and back in a small 'plane and wrote about that too)––this time it is a journey through cancer that he describes. I'm glad to say it has a happy ending
The surgical team told me that mine was the best outcome they had yet seen for a Whipple [a surgical procedure taking 8 hours]―not one of the best, the best.
and the article begins and ends with the man's sheer joy at being able to fly solo again. It's not been published yet but the draft version has already moved one of my fellow editors to tears. I'll post a link once it comes on line.

Obviously a lot depends on the patient's own attitude where cancer is concerned, but Ottawa seems a good place to be if you're suffering from this disease. Last weekend Chris and I had another encounter with a local cancer survivor, a friend who said that his surgery had taken as many as 13 hours and that twelve doctors had worked as a team to treat him before and after––the treatment's not over yet but he too seems very optimistic and marvels that he hasn't had to fork out any money for it. At Carol's instigation nine of us drove to his house to help deal with an extra twist of fate, so to speak: a tornado has just felled several trees on the property and his wife, strong as she is, my goodness, can't clear up the damage single handed. So there we all were in the hot sun lumberjacking, Don with the power saw, the rest of us clipping and dragging branches to a large bonfire by the pond (for which a permit had been granted by the authorities). It was sweaty work, but I can't say we didn't enjoy it. We did. I also got to drive a small tractor, "rather alarmingly," according to some.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Paul Klee and his world

A sculpture inspired by Klee

Entrance to the Paul Klee Centre

Each building here is called a "hill"

The "hills" of the building become buried in farmland

Nearby footpaths are named after Klee's works of art 

Paul Klee and his wife are buried in the Schosshaldenfriedhof
The Zentrum Paul Klee is a new museum on the edge of Bern, close to the place where you can find the artist's grave. On the gravestone a quotation from Klee is carved:

Diesseitig bin ich gar nicht fassbar––denn ich wohne grad so gut bei den Toten wie bei den Ungeborenen––etwas naeher dem Herzen der Schoepfung als ueblich und noch lange nicht nahe genug.

(My attempt at a free translation: In this world I am not understood at all––for I live just as comfortably with the dead as with the unborn––somewhat closer to the heart of creation than is usual and yet not close enough by far.)

Hauptweg und Nebenwege
(Museum Ludwig, Köln)
Born in 1879, Klee was the son of musicians and the husband of a pianist and was never sure if he should have been an artist rather than a musician himself; every day before he started work he did an hour of violin playing. The notion of art as a sort of music inspired his abstracts, mingling colours and shapes in repetitive patterns with intervals or divisions between them and playing with chromatic variations on a theme. He was an amateur naturalist too and a tireless walker (living in Bern, that was inevitable), so he brought his contemplations of nature into the images he created, imitating, as well as he could, the gradual growth of plants, making the shapes of fish or birds.

What he experienced he daubed onto paper, the cuboid buildings of Tunisia for instance became an abstract juxtaposition of rectangles in harmonious colours. As a young man, he'd liked mosaics and had been influenced by the post impressionists Cézanne and Delaunay.

In an increasingly disturbed world (he died in 1940) he was forever searching for a point of balance; he made mobiles and tried to reconcile the "battle of the circle and the straight line" both in theory (Schriften zur Form und Gestaltungslehre) and practice. More and more he came to express himself in hieroglyphics and symbols, dream images, while sensing, like the poet Yeats) that "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold."

At the museum I saw a room full of Geister und Gespenster, spirits, goblins and ghosts created by Klee in two and three dimensions, one with a black head made out of matchboxes with a black cloth beneath forming a cloak. It had a whimsical feather in its "hat"-- that humorous touch was typical. A watery scene had horizontal stick figures for mermaids. Other mermaids were blotchy, red and grey (Meerjungfer im Sand) and there was a green-blue nymph in a vegetable garden with a red heart for a mouth: "ausgeruhtes / göttlich Wesen / liegt im Garten / Bohnen Fenchel Wirz Salat / vollgefressen," (he wrote).

In the next room I encountered his invention of an imaginary beast, the Urchs (perhaps intended as a cross between an Urs -- bear -- and an Ochs -- ox). Entertained by a museum guide, a group of Swiss children was loving this. The Urchs was drawn in various moods, "ärgerlich ... unschlüssig ... horchend" (with two ears on one side of its head) and "Über-Urschig" (invented word). Other creatures were a tom cat-cum-bull, a denkende Katze, and a Hunds-Löwen-Affe with triple ears and a double tail. He thought of  halb-Tiere, humans taking the forms of animals (i.e. escaping) in times of trouble, like the narrator of Kafka's Metamorphosis, or like shamans.

Other surrealistic notions of Klee's were the wandering head that appears in various parts of the body and the cloud figure with closed eyes (mir deuchte, ich schwebte als Wolke ...), sketched in a style not unlike the line drawings by Kästner that accompany his children's books (Emil und die Detektive and so on). Klee sketched himself as a "fool / jester in a trance" (Narr in Trance) and as a "poor angel," trying to smile at his fears. One piece was entitled Entseelung ("The Soul Departs").

I liked the inclusion in the exhibition of the books Klee had used at school as a schoolboy, full of extraordinary doodles in their margins; even then, his artistic genius could not be suppressed.