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.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Downtime and uptime

By the end of last weekend we were worn out.

Chris was off work on Friday so we went out in the fresh air, into the Rockcliffe Park woods where I picked up some fallen white pine twigs to decorate our porch. I know they'll stay green till springtime.

In the evening, we walked again, to a philosophers' gathering with Barbara, Drew, Letitia, Nicola and Andrew. By means of a miniature whiteboard and markers that he had bought at the Dollarama store, Andrew described an "experiment" involving a mysterious "machine" that was able to make unexplained connections between a push-button and two different receivers, far apart, turnig their green or red lights on according to their settings ... or perhaps not! If the settings were identical, the same-coloured lights came on after the button was pushed. If not, there was a 25% chance the same lights would come on, although logically this ought to have happened more often. Even though it was simply enough explained, with no long words, I couldn't follow the reasoning too well; it turned out to be about "quantum entanglement" and "spooky action at a distance". Andrew later sent us an email telling us where he had found the idea: in a paper published by the Journal of Philosphy called Quantum Mysteries for Anyone, by David Mermin. Chris was grinning throughout, able to follow the train of thought, and our son who studied this kind of thing at university and whose pulsar research is full of references to General Relativity, would have been at home with it, too, although Andrew seemed to be telling us that the laws of General Relativity were inadequate. The quantum particles (or waves ... Andrew said there was no such thing as a particle) have some means of communicating with one another at a speed faster than the speed of light, apparently. I thought (but didn't say) that it must be telepathy, then. Somebody said that if we could grasp what was happening, there'd be nothing to prevent us from time-travel. Chris drew parallels with the non-intuitive Banach-Tarski paradox (a mathematical proof that you could cut an imaginary solid ball into a number of pieces, maybe as few pieces as five, and then reassemble those pieces into two solid balls of the same original size) which sounds to me like something the Sorcerer's Apprentice did.

Before our group was thrown out of the cafe at closing time, the subject of the conversation had changed to the difference between right and wrong, whether we can know the difference without being conditioned to know, and the influence of trends and fashions on people's thinking. We walked half of the way home with Nicola, still mulling things over, of course, and Nicola urging me to resume work on a book he once saw me struggling to write. I finally managed to fall asleep around 1:30 on Saturday morning.

We met Elva, Laurie and Carol for lunch on Saturday, but I spent most of the day tidying up and preparing supper at our house for five other friends who stayed here till after midnight --- none of us realised so much time had gone by. I thought the evening was going to be a disaster as it began with a disaster: I forgot to open the vent in the fireplace before lighting the log fire and so greeted our five supper guests with clouds of smoke in the living room and the smoke detector beeping ear-piercingly. Everyone was forgiving though and Farhang even said that the smell reminded him happily of his childhood in an Iranian village, where the tandoor (تنور) in the centre of their house had often leaked smoke!

With apple juice and ginger ale instead of wine or beer to drink, we ate a vegetarian meal (cashew stir fry), because, for Farhang and Guitty, any meat would have had to be halal, and also because Judy and Dick are vegetarians, have been so for thirty years. Barbara told us that in Mongolia, where she'd been in August, meat was all there was to eat, mutton mostly, or horse-meat. She described a sort of Mongolian pressure cooker in which a stew was cooked by means of the fire-hot pebbles placed in it. The conversation grew gradually deeper and more animated, so that by the time we were sitting around the fire again (we ran out of fresh logs) we were onto manners, the aims of education and the origin of fashions (which would have tied in nicely with Friday's discussion), history ancient and modern, and the impossibility of a secular state. A.C. Grayling was mentioned, as was the Gilgamesh epic. I forget how that came up, Farhang saying that he revisits the story every year and loves it, telling me that if I wanted to write a version for children, as I confessed I did, he would help me with that project. He pronounced the name Enkidu as En-KEE-doo. We had no idea how late it was getting until one of us suddenly glanced at a watch that told us it was already 10 to midnight. Then they applauded me, in spite of the smoke-out, for being a nice hostess.

That night I fell asleep more quickly.

For lunch on Sunday we met Nicola again, plus Maha, this time at the Scone Witch cafe on Beechwood, and made plans to visit them again at the end of December when their daughter would be home. Back at our house, on Sunday evening, we had Elva, Laurie, Carol and Don round, for a supper to which everyone contributed, Carol and Elva bringing meat pies, etc. Before they arrived I lay down in the dark in an attempt to snatch a moment's sleep, but hardly succeeded. Then I (carefully) lit another fire. Chris managed to resurrect some of the previous nights' conversations to some extent, but (with wine or beer on offer this time round) we were too relaxed to argue very much.

Finally, hot ashes in the fireplace now, a layer of snow all over the garden and a proper mess in the kitchen, then bed.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

A warehouse full of goodness

This blogpost was written with help from Tricia Johnson, for which I am most grateful. 

A corner of the Ottawa Food Bank's warehouse
On Chris' birthday we were invited to visit the headquarters of the Ottawa Food Bank, at 1317 Michael Street. Along with ten other people, we had been picked from the pool of this year's supporters to meet some of the staff, to hear what the Food Bank does, and to get a tour of the warehouse. It turned out to be quite an education.

"Wealth in Ottawa is hidden; so is poverty," said Tricia Johnson during her introduction. More than 41,000 people in and around Ottawa are helped each month, 36% of whom are children.

"We're looking for solutions, not throwing food and money at the issues!" she stated. Even so, $6-million is needed to operate the Ottawa Food Bank each year. The main emphasis is to solicit donations from private individuals rather than companies, because the former are a more consistent source of income. The City of Ottawa annually contributes 3% of the Food Bank's income, and there are also regular offerings from institutions such as the Trillium Foundation. For instance, a grant from Trillium recently allowed the Ottawa Food Bank to put $90,000 towards a new vehicle. The truck-drivers, by the way, are all rigorously trained professionals assisted by unpaid volunteers.

The list of local community agencies to whom the Food Bank delivers supplies is very long; there are currently 112 of them. We saw this list affixed to the warehouse wall, and it includes after-school programs and summer lunch programs. Also listed are the agencies that provide emergency food hampers for individuals and families, and agencies that provide hot meals for people in need of food immediately. Before the Ottawa Food Bank was first established as a "temporary measure" in 1984, church groups were the organisations helping hungry people in our city.

In the main hall of the warehouse, products are boxed and stored within defined categories. $125,000 a year is spent on providing baby food (and diapers). The other food deemed essential has green and yellow labels in the warehouse: peanut butter, baked beans, soups. The less essential items —desserts, bottles or cans of pop, etc. — have pink labels. These are still wanted, though, for the sake of variety in people's diets.

The Food Bank relies on the assistance of some 3000 temporary volunteers to help sort the donations from food-drives throughout the year. Paul Brown, the operations manager, attributes this year's unseasonally warm weather to the poor public response to this year's Thanksgiving Food drive, only half as effective as usual.

The expiry date of foodstuffs is strictly adhered to and perishable items are very carefully stored and dispatched at the right temperature; food safety is a top priority. Paul had a lot to say about this. He ensures that all incoming products are carefully labelled, because one piece of bad publicity could ruin the Food Bank's reputation. Fresh produce arrives in refrigerated trucks. The Bud-Lite boxes we were shown contained frozen meat, not beer! Collecting and delivering meat is a new venture, supplying protein for hot meal programs that serve people throughout the city. The local Metro or Walmart grocery stores freeze their excess meat in advance of the pick-up. For community food banks, the Ottawa Food Bank purchases ground beef and frozen fish for food hampers made available to impoverished households.

Tofu and dairy products are also donated by the store chains. In the walk-in fridge (we all walked in to take a look) were milk and milk-based drinks — even cartons of caramel latte! A grocery chain recently offered several boxes of fresh oranges which couldn't be sold at their stores because one or two of the oranges weren't in perfect condition. Fruit juices, cereal bars and apples are set aside for school programs. We also saw boxes full of potatoes and carrots. However, one type of food that is not acceptable at the warehouse is anything that's pre-baked. "I just don't want it sitting here, rotting!" said Paul.

They are exploring various possibilities to discover which model of Food Banking works best and liaising with the local press to make this a public conversation.

He mentioned the Food Bank's own farm in Stittsville, where this year's squash, zucchini and cauliflower harvest was disappointing, because of the soggy fields. Generally though, the community farm has proven of great benefit to the city, school groups helping with the harvesting of (almost 100% organic) fruit and vegetables. The stated aim of the Food Bank is to provide their clients with at least 50% fresh food in their hampers, and they are starting to reach that target. A scheme that's been running for three winters now, reFresh, is an attempt to provide local fresh produce throughout the year, from various sources. One high school in town (I'm not sure which) is experimentally growing food in a top floor classroom garden year round, which they are donating to the Food Bank.

The Food Bank is responsible for 40-55 food pick-ups and drop-offs a day (14 tons of food are distributed each day. Inevitably, new immigrants from the middle-east want halal meat, chickpeas, lentils and such, rather than the more traditional sort of Canadian ingredients for their meals. A generous local supplier is selling bulk oatmeal to the Food Bank for a price five times less than what's charged in the stores. Apparently the Syrian refugee immigrants like to have such raw ingredients; they also prefer their food un-canned. Produce like this is quite often donated at cost.

What can individuals give that is welcome here? Well, not just food. Baby products such as boxes of diapers are also very much in demand. The conventional way to give to the food bank is to buy some extra items when you go shopping and (encouraged by the posters displayed in local grocery stores) leave these for the Food Bank in the receptacles provided. One of our fellow guests on Tuesday wondered whether a similar scheme might work for online shoppers.

A consulting firm recently donated the time and expertise of one of their young engineers to observe and then work on the logistics of the Ottawa Food Bank's truck routes, which apparently resulted in huge savings.

At the end of our tour we returned to the reception room where the Executive Director, Michael Maidment, spoke to us. He feels that Food Banks are the barometer for social conditions in a city, and his dream is for them one day to become unnecessary!

To acquire food, a person needs to register with the agency, showing some ID and stating where (s)he lives. The intake of clients is analysed, so that trends can be detected. One trend has already become noticeable: the number of seniors needing to be fed is growing.

There is never any income check, but usage rates and demographic statistics are tracked to better understand the need for food in our community. Nobody who wants help is turned away, but a few people might be redirected to a different agency for next time, if necessary. Families or individuals in need of food assistance are given "emergency" 3-5 day food hampers, usually available once a month. People in need of immediate food are directed to programs that prepare hot meals. Michael and his colleagues have initiated a 2-year study in partnership with the University of Ottawa to determine the effectiveness of various food bank models being used in our city.

The Food Bank also offers its resources and expertise in the event of disasters such as this year's spring floods, thus being a valuable part of Ottawa's emergency response preparedness.

There are fundraising, operations, outreach and event-planning teams, with 29 volunteers assisting the core members of staff.

Conversations between Food Bank personnel and Ottawa's Public Health authorities are nowadays taking place; this new initiative has led to the launch of "Health Smart", whereby substantial changes were made to ensure that the food given to hungry people has a lower fat, sodium, and sugar content, and increased protein and fibre.

I asked a question: "Are the recipients of the food given any guidance as to what to do with it?" and the answer is: yes. Into boxes containing eggs, milk, fish, ground beef, squash and such, recipes are often thrown in, too. Some of the distribution agencies even offer cooking classes for the people that need them, in foreign languages if necessary. One such encouragement program was entitled "Men Can Cook!" after which another came on offer: "Women Can Cook Better!"

The Food Bank network allows people to choose what to receive from their reliable service. The main message I heard from the kind and dedicated people in charge is that they are determined that all their recipients be treated with respect and dignity.

L'Économie, c'est nous

"Create your atavar and start to discover your role in the economy!" say the instructions at the entrance to the new Bank of Canada Museum on Bank Street. "We are all part of a vast, interconnected system ... L'Économie, c'est nous."

Entrance to the Bank of Canada Museum
Photo by Lisa Haley

Our tour group in the museum's foyer

This interactive museum which I visited last Friday replaces the former Currency Museum round the corner, on Sparks Street. The whole interior of the Bank of Canada building has been rebuilt and so the old museum is no more. The new one is still free of charge. In the foyer is a nice little shop and a Staircase, like the one in the NAC's new extension, where visitors can sit on the polished wooden steps, listening to an introduction. You then put on a "magical, interactive bracelet" as our tour-guide called it, looking like a bulky fitbit, that allows you first to choose a nickname and cartoon avatar and is then designed to activate the screens displaying information inside the museum. The bracelet allows children and other visitors to play video games in each gallery, such as the game that looks like the cockpit of a space vehicle in which you sit in the astro-pilot's seat and try to steer the Canadian economy along a safe trajectory. Under the injunction to Fly the rocket! visitors read:
How does the Bank of Canada control inflation?When inflation is rising quickly, we can feel unsure about the value of our money. The Bank helps by aiming to keep inflation low, stable and predictable. Like an astronaut carefully steering a rocket to a distant target, the Bank aims to maintain future inflation at 2%. This strategy is called inflation targeting. To hit the objective, the Bank analyzes (sic) economic data to form a forecast. This helps it adjust the interest rate at which commercial banks borrow and lend among themselves. Each adjustment takes time to ripple through financial markets and moves inflation toward the target rate.
The entrance tunnel to the galleries was all flashing blue lights like this summer's Kontinuum show, a block away from here (now closed).

Displays in the museum's first gallery (Zone 2, where you can "discover your expectations") showed

  • what can be done with money (save it, buy shares with it, or spend it). Apparently, the future is what drives our spending choices: the more optimistic we feel, the more we spend. As a company director, for instance, we might want to spend more or infrastructure, supplies and hire more staff, in the hope of positive outcomes.
  • how Canada fits into the global economy
  • the functions of Canada's central bank
A timeline showing the history of money was shown along one wall of "Zone 3", from 5400 BC (in Mesopotamia) onward. Our guide pointed out to our women's group how influential women were, during Canadian history at least, how they effectively controlled Canada's wartime economy, for example, while the men were away fighting. How lonely women took out Dominion of Canada war loans, like the $100 5% Victory Bonds "... pour que bientôt il me revienne." (I'm not sure I could have followed that 1940s' train of thought.)

An interesting display in one cabinet was of paper money giving evidence of runaway inflation in the past, from countries such as Mexico, Uganda, China, Viet Nam (sic), Turkey, Brazil and, of course, Germany, with their 50-million Mark bills of the 1930s. From Zimbabwe there was even a ridiculous, 100 trillion dollar bill.

Other unusual bills were pound notes from The States of Guernsey, the Isle of Man and the Royal Bank of Scotland, all different from a standard £ note. They had a 20 centisimos note from Montevideo, inscribed Banco de Londres y Rio de la Plata, 1865.

In another gallery, were the objects of value used for trading in the past, money substitutes. A long twisted rod from Guinea had been made by a shaman, adding the soul of a person who had died. Its value depended on the value of the soul!  If you broke the rod, woe betide you; the value was lost. In the old days, fabrics were used for exchanges between European traders and the chiefs of African tribes. Then there were the blocks of salt given as "salary" (salarium) for Roman soldiers, the salt being used to rub on wounds or to preserve meat. So we spoke of the symbolic worth of things, including gold. The more primitive peoples used beans, shells, beads as tender, and even wild boar tusks (teeth) — in the outback of Australia.

Nowadays too, there are money substitutes, such as the Oyster card for London transport.

In Canada, the banks originally printed their own money; later there were some "ghost banks" that only did this. However from 1935 onward Canada had its central bank, and in the present day, notes are printed at a secret location by the Canadian Bank Note Company (whose head office is on Richmond Road). They print our passports, too. The material used, which can't be torn unless you cut it with scissors, is polymer, polymer substrate being imported from Australia for the purpose. We watched a demonstration of how to tell a fake note from a genuine one. Look in particular at the holograms, and check for breaks in the smoothness of the banknote's surface. If you hold a genuine modern banknote up to the light, you will see small maple leaves in the top left corner. 

The images on the money we use "reflect who we are" as Canadians. Soon, the face of a black, female entrepreneur (Viola Desmond) will be featured on one of our new $10 notes. At the game station in this last zone, visitors can design banknotes with their own faces, but they won't be legal tender.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Some ancestors

What they looked like,
in those days
I happened upon a website that traced my ancestry back something like 11 generations, to the late 16th century.

My father Walter Robert Tullett (b. 1915) was the son of Walter Tullett (b. 1864). Walter, the second of eight children, was the son of another Walter Tullett (also spelled Tulet), b. 1836. His father was William Tullett (or Tewlet), b. 1799. William was the son of John Tullett, b. 1775. John was the son of Edward Tullett, b. 1736. Edward was the son of Peter Tullett, b 1700. Beyond that, the records fizzle out.

From the mid-19th century back, all the Tullett men worked on farms on the slopes of the South Downs in Sussex, not far from Shoreham-by-Sea, and lived to a good age.

The Tullett name has variations: Tulet, Tulett, Tewlet, Toolet, Tollet, Tyllet, Tillet, and so on, so you can never be completely sure!

My grandparents Walter and Louisa,
with my aunt as a little girl, before my father's birth
And their wives were mentioned too, with frustratingly little detail about them. My grandmother's name was Louisa Hill; she married my grandfather in 1907, in Newington, London, just south of the Thames. No information about her parents, which is what I'd really like to have found out, because she died when I was seven or so and I remember her; she looked rather like I do now. Her pedigree has always been vague.

My great-grandmother, married in West Grinstead in 1863, was called Emily Goacher. I have a vague idea that in the 1980s I visited her grave and discovered that she had died within a few days of her husband Walter, my great-grandfather. She was born in 1839 in Bines Green, the daughter of Henry Goacher (1797-1870) and Martha Mears (1806-1861). According to the census of 1901, Emily, Walter and their family lived at a place — a farm perhaps — called Crouches.

William Tullett, my great-great grandfather *, married Charlotte Woodman, born in 1802, the daughter of John Woodman and another Charlotte (surname unknown). She lived to the grand age of 84, dying in 1887.

My great-great-great-grandfather John Tullett married a Rachel Sayers, who lived from 1779 to 1806.

John Tullett's father Edward got married in 1760 to Elizabeth Whiting or Whitten (1740-1793) who must have been illiterate, because she signed her wedding certificate with an X ("her mark'). They had 13 "known" children so she must have died of exhaustion. They must have been contemporaries of JS Bach, though I very much doubt they'd ever heard of him! She was the daughter of Richard Whitten (or White) and Mary Arnold (b. 1675), the daughter of Thomas Arnold and Elizabeth Grant (dates unknown).  If I have worked this out correctly, Mary Arnold must have been my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother ...

Edward was the son of Peter Tullett (1700-1749?) who married Elizabeth Gratwick, born in 1700; she was buried on 12th January 1786 in Slaugham as "Elizabeth Toolet an aged widow". Peter Tullett's origins are confusingly doubtful. Elizabeth's parents were married in 1697. They were Joseph Gratwick and Mary Arnold (1675-1735). Joseph was born in 1668 and died in 1748, 80 years old.

So Joseph's father Andrew Gratwick (1631-1704) and his wife Winifred must have been my 8x great-grandparents. Andrew Gratwick was baptised on 26 December 1631 in West Grinstead, the son of John Gratwick (1593-1656) and either Mary (surname unknown), who died in 1659, or more probably Ann Michell (1604/5-1658).

* I mentioned a different great-great-grandfather (as well as some other ancestors on my mother's side) in a blogpost I published in 2013.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Dabbling in philosophy

There must be several little groups like ours around the city that deliberately meet to talk about profundities. We recently heard of a small group of retired men who do so while taking a morning walk. There are larger groups around, too.

We are a bunch of friends (Drew, Letitia, Nicola, Maha, Andrew, John, Chris and I) who have decided to meet somewhere congenial once a month or so, on a Friday evening, to talk in a semi-structured way about philosophical ideas. Nicola and Drew came up with the idea back in March and we first met as a group at the end of April, when our starting point for discussion was an extract from the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, most of us having browsed through the Meditations beforehand.

Nicola's proposal for our series of meetings was that
... no previous knowledge of the text, the philosopher, or of philosophy should be required. What would be required, though, are a willingness to read the text, to speak a bit about our understanding of the text (or lack of understanding), to ask questions, and, especially to listen to what others ask and have to say. We would be meeting not to share what we know, but to share our questions, what we don’t know.
Our subsequent meetings have followed a similar approach and a similar pattern. We take turns. One of us chooses something to discuss and announces this by email well in advance (so that we can all do some reading and preparatory thinking), then he or she leads the discussion at the meeting; the rest of us join in with any thoughts we want to contribute, or we ask questions, or, if we prefer, we simply pay attention. Of course a lot of thoughts are generated spontaneously during the discussion. I find it makes for such a stimulating couple of hours that I have great difficulty getting to sleep on those nights!

So far, the other topics we have come up with have been:
  • Philosophical paradoxes (Chris leading), discussed at the end of May.
  • 'The Value of Philosophy' from the title of the last chapter of Bertrand Russel's book "The Problems of Philosophy" (Drew's suggestion), discussed in September.
  • Plato's / Socrates' allegory of the cave (my suggestion), discussed in October.

Next it will be Andrew's turn, and for a change we have no homework to do, because he is keeping us guessing about the philosophical purpose of his chosen subject. However, he has told us this much:
The topic for discussion this time will be "A Mysterious Machine". A machine will be described and the results of its simple operation analysed in detail to reveal that the World is a very strange place.
Andrew is a physicist.

The young man behind the coffee bar in Sandy Hill where we met last time, who happened to be studying philosophy at university, couldn't help overhearing our discussion of Plato's cave, took me aside at the end to ask, "Are you all teachers, by any chance?" --- an astute question.

I admitted that was so, because at one time or another, come to think of it, we have indeed all been (or still are) teachers of one sort or another.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Preventive medicine

Under the aegis of the Ontario Health Insurance Plan the Ontarians are quite thorough as regards preventative (or preventive) medicine. Unlike other parts of the world, Ontario, or Canada in general, provides generous health benefits, mostly free, although, as people never fail to point out, we do contribute to the cost of this generosity, up to $900 per resident, from our annual income tax.

Fair enough, in my opinion.

Now that we're old enough to start following doctors' orders, Chris and I have been taking advantage of various preventative services. During the last month-and-a-bit, we have been examined like a couple of old cars that need maintenance checks because of their high mileage.

My family doctor recently gave me a three yearly, hour long, routine check-up which paid attention to most of my organs, followed by a whole battery of blood tests: to analyse cholesterol levels, blood glucose levels, essential chemicals for liver and kidney function, along with a urinalysis and a colon cancer test. I was recommended to book a routine mammogram, at the local hospital. During the last few years I have had regular bone density tests done, as well as ultrasounds to look for heart and ovary defects, and a cystoscopy, all free, with all the results so far reassuring. The cost of my annual eye-test is covered by the OHIP, besides. This year I'm also getting free inoculations for more than 20 types of pneumonia as well as my annual flu "shot" (flu "jab", they'd call it, back in Britain) and a just-in-case vaccination against shingles. How much all these tests would have cost had it been a private service, I dread to think --- not cheap!

My husband has undergone a similar number of examinations, and a couple of weeks ago had two investigative surgical procedures done at the same time. The surgeon and anaesthetist offered Chris a local anaesthetic for this, but he was allowed to choose a general anaesthetic if he preferred. He did prefer the total knockout; OK, no problem, he was told. I was obliged to accompany him to the hospital and back that day, so that he'd have company and a ride home after the operation and recovery period; thus we both got to witness the impressive efficiency of the hospital and the friendliness of its staff who treated us with polite and cheerful calmness throughout; a nursing assistant brought him all the way to our car in a wheelchair at the end of the morning, for example. We had been at the hospital since 6:20 am, when it was still dark.

Once again, no charge for any of the services mentioned above, and if things were to go wrong in future and we needed rides in ambulances and either emergency or long-term treatment, there'd be no charge for that, either. The emotional costs would be high, at any rate; anxiety is not so easy to prevent or pay for in advance, but at least we wouldn't have to worry about going broke during those bad experiences.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Singing about a dead canary

I went to a most peculiar DOMS concert on October 18th, before which free coffee and cookies were offered to the audience, courtesy of the local Retirement Residence, the accompanists playing harpsichord, violin, viola, cello and oboe; a tenor sang. He (David MacAdam) was dressed in 18th century garb, complete with wig. The idea was to perform a little-known cantata (mini opera) by Telemann, the score for which had been discovered in a 20th century shop; it consisted of four arias, alternating with four recits, a lament for a pet bird. Apparently it was commissioned by a patron who really had lost his canary to a marauding cat.

The soloist in his greatcoat and breaches strode onto the podium at the start carrying a bird cage with a canary lying in it, not a real one, a stuffed toy, singing a translation of the German words O weh, mein Kanarin ist tot --- Alas, my little canary is dead! etc., etc. At the end of this, the oboist played an obligato counter melody as the singer took the bird out of its cage and enfolded it in a large and lacy handkerchief, singing of his inconsolable grief. The most entertaining part of the cantata was the aria where he paced back and forth singing a livid condemnation of the cat that got the bird, rolling his Rs: Eat until your throat is swollen, eat, you shameless plunderer! Crunch! Crunch! Crunch! Crunch! May the bird inside you scratch and claw your belly and innards till you spit him up again ... The crunches were repeated after the middle section. After that, music and words became solemnly mournful again, the tenor sitting on an antique chair to sing the aria "My sweet canary, good night!" clutching the little corpse, still wrapped in the hanky, to his breast. The final recit. ended with a furious upward scale accompanying a second curse against the "nasty cat": Because you ate my dearest friend, so be it. Now in turn should you be stoned until you're dead. (Actually it said "until your dead!" in the programme notes; DOMS needs to employ an editor.)

Laughter and applause.

The harpichord player / music director then announced "a moment while David puts the canary to rest and adjusts himself!" As it happened David merely discarded his fancy jacket off for the rest of the programme which was a recital of an aria in Italian from Handel's Alcina (also discovered in a junk shop) and another, in English, from Handel's oratorio Theodora.

The audience gave the concert full marks for originality, but oh dear, it really had been very odd.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

An ancient and eternal instinct

We had the good fortune to be invited to a brunch for five couples, last weekend, at which our host and his wife initiated a philosophical discussion over which I'm still brooding.

He is an educator (a Professor of Political Thought and Humanities) who has recently written a book about globalisation, civilisation and the human condition, and Chris, of course, asked questions. If I understood him aright, Dr. R. sees civilisation (civilization, if you prefer that spelling) as the enlightenment of decently governed citizens. Contrary to the conventional notion that civilisation began in ancient Athens, he feels that the ancient Athenians did not get it quite right, because their decencies only involved the elite. Europeans were never truly civilised either, so long as they sought power over others within their various empires. The Chinese, despite their impressive governments and achievements, have not yet allowed their citizens sufficient freedom of thought. Our host made the provocative comment that human beings never became truly civilised until the 20th century, when at last --- in North America! --- the whole of society was engaged in civic responsibility, with shared standards of decency, not just the elite.

Well, that is debatable.

Around the brunch table, none of us being native-born Canadians (we were an Iranian, Lebanese, Egyptian, Dutch, Latvian, German and British mix), we also began to talk about Plato's (i.e. Socrates') concept of Ideal Forms and later, related philosophies, but, as conversations do, the theme wandered, and at one point we were thinking about the "thin red line" that divides a civilised, moral way of life from its opposite. I am not very good on such occasions, full of l'esprit de l'escalier, always imagining after the event what I ought to have contributed to the conversation. Thinking about those borderlines, as I shall do for days, if not weeks, I keep recalling the novel Mr. Sammler's Planet by the Nobel Prize winning writer Saul Bellow (set in 1960s New York), which I am now rereading. Mr. Sammler, who has suffered a great deal from the perversity and brutality of other people, comes to the conclusion that there is after all, within every human being, an instinctive awareness of the border between moral and immoral behaviour, and at the end he exclaims in a prayer for a friend who has died: "For that is the truth of it--that we all know, God, that we know, that we know, we know, we know."

Saul Bellow himself said: "You read the New Testament and the assumption Jesus makes continually is that people know the difference immediately between good and evil... And that is in part what faith means. It doesn't even require discussion. It means that there is an implicit knowledge -- very ancient if not eternal -- which human beings really share and that if they based their relationships on that knowledge existence could be transformed." (My emphasis.)

Monday, October 16, 2017

October 1st - 6th, in Ottawa

The rest of the week was interesting, too. I have been reading Shakespeare's Kings, a history book by John Julius Norwich written with reference to the history plays, after Chris and I had taken part in a play reading of Richard II the other weekend. For reinforcement, and sheer appreciation of the poetry and the top quality British acting, I have also been re-watching our videos of the first four plays in The Hollow Crown production: Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V.

Last Sunday we cycled to Landowne Park's Horticultural Building to be at one of the Canada-in-the-world events in this year's series. Slovakia was on show, with dancers on the stage and costumed young men and women playing an accompaniment at the side, a colourful and friendly occasion. Outside the hall, two professional ice hockey stars from the Slovak Republic were thrilling a crowd of children by playing street hockey with them on the patio.

That same afternoon Chris and I continued up the bike path along the canal to hear a lecture at Carleton University arranged by the Ottawa Friends of the Canadian Institute in Greece (CIG), the Archaeological Institute of America in Canada, the Canadian Institute for Mediterranean Studies (CIMS), the Parnassos Hellenic Cultural Society and Carleton's College of Humanities. A representative from the Greek Embassy was present too. The subject was The Battle of Marathon,the Athenians versus the Persians. The famous story of the Athenian runner Pheidippedes bringing the news of victory across the mountains from Marathon to Athens before dropping dead, the inspiration for the Olympic Games, is probably just a legend. There is no historical evidence for this feat
Monday evening, I went to the talk about outreach work being done by the National Arts Centre Music Education department, as was described in my previous blogpost.

Tuesday was a day for blood tests, a pneumonia innoculation, gardening and shopping.

I was meant to be at the Mosaicanada garden in Gatineau for a guided tour in a group on Wednesday morning, but I overslept and went to the midday concert at the NAC instead, swimming afterwards. Thursday I cycled to an apartment block standing across the street from Mosaicanada to take part in a German conversation, our topic being the history of seaside holidays --- Urlaub am Strand, and in particular the Strandkörbe (wicker beach chairs) which adorn the Baltic coast of northern Germany. Thomas Mann sat in one to write his novels. That evening, Barbara and I went to the Sibelius concert.
The next day, Friday afternoon, after that girls' choir concert at the NAC mentioned in the last blogpost, I called at the Horticultural Building again to see what China had to offer. It was "Beijing Week" which meant that most of the exhibition featured images and artifacts that I recognised from my happy visits to that city, which made me feel nostalgic. On the podium, a series of Chinese VIPs were holding forth in Chinese about China's Cultural Financing Platform and so on, the audience valiantly trying to follow, but even more valiant to my mind was the girl with a microphone who was giving a simultaneous translation into English. I know her! it was my Chinese tutor Jingnan Xue, wearing a smart black dress with golden necklace that suited her.

I missed seeing the masked Chinese acrobats who were to follow the speakers, warming up outside, because from there, I had to pedal back downtown in order to get to the Westin Hotel where I and my friends from the German conversation group had been invited to part of the World Tulip Summit to see the excellent, hour-long documentary, Tulip: Light of the East, explaining how tulip bulbs had travelled the world and how these flowers had at one time or another have represented invincibility, wealth and  In Arabic script, the word Allah looks rather like a tulip and indeed, the Arabic word for tulip (laleh) has the same characters as the word for God. A Turkish-Canadian member of our German group has been on the Canada Tulip Festival committee for the last 25 years. It was she who had invited us to see the film.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

More northern music, and then some percussion, too

At the NAC the hugely successful Ideas of North festival lasted for 11 days. Chris and I went to another free concert in the series at midday last Friday, five members of the Lapland Chamber Orchestra playing wind instruments at the bottom of The Staircase on which we sat, next to a four year old boy who behaved attentively throughout. His young mother was Asian and the child's solemnity and intense concentration reminded me of our grandson Eddie. After the concert I saw his mother showing him the instruments at close quarters, left beside the performers' music stands. What excellent parenting!

The music we heard was all Finnish and unfortunately I didn't manage to record the composers or titles of the pieces that we heard. The first was "new" music with strange, certainly northern, sound effects, made by the performers doing strange things with their instruments, tapping and blowing through them in unconventional ways, also making vocal noises with their mouths and throats and hands, concentrating very hard on the sheet music in front of them. Some of it ressembled Inuit throat singing; perhaps the natives of Lapland do something similar. Then followed two four-movement, dissonant quintets by modern composers which was impressive, and sometimes beautiful, though anything but easy-listening, and for an encore, they played a short piece by Sibelius which came across as quite old-fashioned, after all this.

On Wednesday (Oct. 11th) I also attended an unusual half hour concert in the DOMS series by a pair of percussionists, Andrew Harris and Zac Pulak, who have also performed at the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival. They took turns to introduce what they were playing. We were told that the drum set and marimba were not as old as some other instruments, therefore not so much music has been written for them.

They began with a South American danza for the snare and the tom-tom drum. "Next up", as one of them said, was an arrangement for marimbas of a Bagpipe by Bela Bartok, originally composed for two violins, therefore more melodic! We heard that marimbas can be played using hard or soft sticks, and that the softer kind gave a more lyrical effect, as in the following duet, by Tom Gauger. Even JS Bach's harpsichord music was possible on this instrument (pause, while the right sticks were searched for). Then we returned to the un-pitched percussion, hearing a syncopated number by Joe Tompkins, called In the Pocket, in which the snare drum was beaten with wrapped drumsticks, for a more muted effect.

Sitting near the front gave me a good view of what the performers were doing. From the back of the church it wouldn't have been half so interesting.

The next item, Triplets, by George Green, was a fast piece, ragtime style, incorporating bells, blowers, rattles, blocks, cymbals, etc. Great fun. They followed it with a Xylophone Polka, with both players on one marimba, using a variety of (five) sticks. Then came another duet that added some other "accessory percussion" --- a tambourine and castanets, banged against the knee.

Finally we heard a clever arrangement by the men on stage of familiar military field music from 18th century America (such as Yankee Doodle Dandy), originally meant for a fife and drum combination, the drummer here sometimes hitting his sticks together as well as banging his drums.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Out of the privileged bubble

Genevieve Cimon, director of "Music Education and Community Engagement", has been with the National Arts Centre for the last 15 years; she spoke to a gathering of CFUW women in Ottawa last week. Her boss Peter Herrndorf (President and CEO of the NAC and a Companion of the Order of Canada) has "put the national back into the National Arts Centre", she said. He it was who encouraged the National Arts Centre Orchestra to tour the remoter parts of Canada for the sake of educational projects such as its Music Alive Program in the prairies, Nunavut and (most recently) the Atlantic provinces.

What follows in this blogpost is a report of what Ms. Cimon told us and not necessarily an expression of my own views. I'll leave the value-judgements to you.

The touring NACO's initial mandate was to introduce children of elementary school age to classical music and modern composers, preparing teaching guides for the local teachers. This program has recently undergone some "rethinking", so as to pay more attention to the music of regional artists. Ms Cimon said that the experience for the NACO itself has been "transformative" --- a fundamental shift in the way that they see themselves. Previously, she told us, they had been living "in a privileged bubble". The role of a professional Canadian musician today, she said, is "to be an agent of change". The NACO has been working with youth at risk, which means first creating trust, recognising and showing one's own vulnerability and nurturing a common humanity. She compared it to the Sistema programs* in S. America and elsewhere.

In the past, "white composers" had been commissioned to write, for example, an "Inuit piece". Such an endeavour is no longer deemed respectful, condescending rather, and in any case, said Ms. Cimon, the northern audience's reaction to such compositions is "bad". It is traditional in such communities --- more appropriate, she implied --- to play one's own instruments and pass on traditional dances from generation to generation, some of which were taught by visiting whalers in the old days.

I felt that this rather contradicted what she was trying to say. She also mentioned the fiddlers of northern Manitoba who surely acquired their skills from Europeans, as well.

Alexander Shelley (from the UK) made a determined effort to learn about Canada when he took the post of the NACO's music director, and that includes the latest thinking about Canada's indigenous peoples: "reparation comes before reconciliation." Last year, the NACO and their associates created an experimental, collaborative, multimedia show called Life Reflected, about the life and thoughts of four Canadian women, one of whom was from the First Nations. Furthermore, through the Rita Joe Song Project, youth from the reserves and northern communities have composed their own responses to Rita Joe's poem about a Mi'kmaq girl in a residential school, "I lost my talk" ...

"We are building resilient communities by means of the arts!" exclaimed Ms. Cimon.

250 NAC events, this year (Canada's 150th) have put the spotlight on indigenous artists and often on female artists.

Not all of Ms. Cimon's talk was about outreach to Canada's rural or native communitites. She reminded us that, each summer at the NAC in Ottawa, there is an international Young Artists' program: a summer school for promising artists which, apparently, is becoming increasingly collaborative rather than competitive, the participants learning empathy and compassion. She says that this is a generation that wants to volunteer.

The new wing of the NAC is "Ottawa's new living room". More free programming is being planned, such as yoga and meditation sessions, on Mondays!

* This, I feel, is a misleading comparison, because as I understand it, El Sistema's mission is to bring classical music to the slums, a guiding principle being "the ambitious pursuit of musical excellence", rather than encouraging children to explore the familiar music of their own communities.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Northern music

The new "Staircase" at the NAC
It has been a good season for concerts; all those I've attended have had something to do with The North. The first was the Doors Open For Music concert at Southminster church on September 27th: A Salute to Finland, a celebration of Nordic culture featuring songs and instrumentals by Alfvén, Grieg, Merikanto, Sibelius and Sjöberg, honouring Finland's 100th anniversary.  The tenor Trygve John Ringereide (formerly the principal of a secondary school and music teacher / lecturer) sang solos by those Scandinavian composers, with Cecilia Ignatieff at the piano, and Jan Jarvlepp playing the cello.

This week, I was at three more, exceptional concerts, all of them held at the newly renovated National Arts Centre downtown. Two of these events were free, taking place at noon by the "Staircase" where an impromptu audience can sit on the stairs --- as on a bleacher at a sports field --- watching and listening to the performance on the floor below.

On Wednesday the performers were members of the New Orford String Quartet. First, the two violinists Andrew Wan and Jonathan Crow gave us Prokofiev's Sonata for two violins written in 1932, with its lovely Commodo third movement. (Apparently Prokofiev had heard a similar work by another composer and decided he could do better.) Then the violist came in with a substitute cellist from the Montreal Symphony Orchestra; all four musicians had been learning a challenging work, Glenn Gould's String Quartet (No. 1, he called it, but there was never a No. 2), which, when they played it to us, turned out to be absolutely tremendous music. Mr. Crow said that the musicians had detected strains of JS Bach, Beethoven (the Groe Fuge) and Schönberg in it. To me, it did sound like another version of Schönberg's Verklärte Nacht, but fancy this being composed by a Canadian! Extraordinary! Why don't we hear this work more often? I didn't even know it existed. All the people sitting on the stairs were bowled over by it.

The other free lunchtime event I caught was yesterday, a concert by the Cantiamo Girls' Choir of Ottawa conducted by their competent director, Jackie Hawley. She told us something about the choir's recent exchange trip to Iqaluit* where the choir girls had stayed with, performed with and made friends with their Inuit counterparts, two of whom had now come to Ottawa to join in the performance. During the programme they demonstrated their throat-singing skills and one of them later played the drum, but what touched me most was that they joined in the singing of the choir, having learned some of the repertoire along with the Ottawa girls. We heard them perform an arrangement of Qaujimavunga Kinaummangaarma, all singing in Inuktitut, and we as audience were encouraged to join in the mournful refrain "Ay-ay-ay-a" which was easier to pronounce and remember.

* The Gryphon Trio was also part of this collaboration.

The last concert I want to mention in this post also happened to be a free one because I had picked up vouchers for two complimentary tickets for it, at a talk about the NAC which I'll describe in a separate blogpost. Chris couldn't make it, so Barbara came with me; we found we had quite good seats, near the front. The NACO's director Alexander Shelley was sitting near us on the same row; the auditorium was packed. The music was Finnish and Canadian, since this was part of Mr. Shelley's Ideas of North Festival that's happening just now; this performance was being conducted by an energetic Finn, Hannu Lintu. We heard The Oceanides by Sibelius (which I didn't know), an impressionist piece of music that lasted 10 minutes, Sibelius' answer to Debussy's La Mer, perhaps, with its evocation of the surging high seas, and, after the intermission, his 2nd Symphony (which I did know, very well, having wallowed in it in my youth), such exciting stuff, especially where he goes triumphantly into the major in the Finale, trumpets, trombones and tuba blazing away and all the string sections swaying along.

However, the most interesting part of the concert was the long piece for piano and orchestra premièred just before the intermission, by a Canadian composer who admittedly lives in Finland, a musician called Matthew Whittall. He and the conductor are both close associates of Ottawa's most famous pianist, Angela Hewitt, who has written a "Reflection" about the première we attended:
I went [to Kittilä in Lapland, north of the Arctic Circle] not just to [...] see this remarkable landscape, but also to learn the new piano concerto of Matthew Whittall, "Nameless Seas". 
The wooden house where I was staying was built especially for the small Fazioli grand piano that sits in its very centre, surrounded by glass windows through which you can see nothing but trees and undergrowth. A magnificent lake is only a few steps away. There is nobody else around for miles. The setting is perfect for the concentration needed; the inspiration from the surroundings similar to that which has inspired its composer. 
Although Matthew was born and raised here in Canada, he has made Finland his home for the past sixteen years. When I realised that Canada and Finland were both celebrating significant anniversaries in 2017, and that Finnish Radio already had the idea of asking him to write a piano concerto, it seemed the logical thing to have it also performed here. I am thrilled that it has finally come to fruition and that our mutual friend, Hannu Lintu, is conducting.
The music was experimental and amazingly evocative of waves breaking against rocks or the sparkle of the water and the wind on the shores. The percussion section had the use of a wind machine; the woodwind produced special glissando effects on their instruments like bird cries dying away. The piano often played a single line of notes, echoed by notes at the same pitch on steel drums or the xylophone. In the last section "...the piano is progressively engulfed by a series of ever-taller waves, ultimately dissolving into a tolling, rippling continuum of sound."

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

At St.-Antoine-de-L'Isle-aux-Grues

Being on the island feels like being in a dream, a good dream, I must add. Most of the time for the two days we were there we walked in silence, taking in its beauty, its simplicity, and the quiet. Up from the ferry dock to the village on the other side of the island, a narrow country road leads through wide open fields, with a row of telegraph poles (none of them quite vertical) on the left and a fantastic view of the Laurentide Mountains ahead, standing in line beyond northern river channel. Wild flowers on the verges, including clumps of ragwort, pretty but poisonous, and invasive. All we could hear were the crickets in the grass. Once over the brow of the hill where the long, low barn stands, its lonely aspect reminding my husband so much of the setting of a novel by J L Carr that he nicknamed that barn Pollock's Crossing, the roofs of the village and church spire become visible.

The catholic church has been there since the mid 19th century and still seems to be the focal point, people gathering there for social occasions and special traditions at certain times of the year, such as for the Sale of Souls raffle in January or an opportunity to disguise oneself in fancy dress at the Mi-Carême festival in March. There aren't many shops on the island. The museum sells a few cards and souvenirs and the Riopelle Cheese Factory shop sells its delicious cheeses. There's one dépanneur along the main street which stocks the basic necessities; I gather this is going to be situated elsewhere in the near future. The Café-aux-Quatre-Vents likewise sells a few touristy things, as do the two auberges. And that's it!

In order to keep the village cheerful in winter and on grey days, some houses have been painted in bright colours. In their gardens stand artistically crafted models of cranes or herons, under the white birches or among the garden flowers. For our visit there was colour enough in any case, a field of sunflowers in full bloom next to the church, all their heads facing the road, green marsh grass and the blue water beyond. Other crops grown on the island are barley and two kinds of beans. We noticed structures for drying hay. Apple trees, at this time of year, are bearing healthy looking red fruit. Fishing and hunting are other productive pastimes here. In the depths of winter the community gets a canot team together to compete in the ice-canoe races across the frozen river. Before the airport, this was the only means of reaching the mainland in winter.

In the churchyard are the graves of the local population although one man obviously didn't want to be buried with the riff-raff because one solitary gravestone stood in the middle of the beanfields futher up the hill, away from the village. I didn't go close enough to inspect it in detail.

English doesn't come easy to the francophone people who live here. The most famous inhabitant of the island was Jean-Paul Riopelle, the rebellious abstract painter. The museum, housed in an old barn, features videos of him as an unkempt old eccentric, working obsessively on his paintings, squeezing paint straight from the tubes onto the canvas. The myriad white blobs in his later paintings are probably a reference to the snow-geese that migrate via the island in their tens of thousands twice a year. He was born nearby and died on the island.

On Thursday we lingered over breakfast at the Grand Hérons, watching the tide start to dribble in over the mud where the sandpipers were foraging under a grey, wet sky. Chris went to sit at the business end of the dock watching the activity around the ferry that sat low in the water waiting for the incoming tide to lift it high enough for vehicles and passengers to get on board, while I remained at the breakfast table reading a book. Eventually the rain eased off and we set off for a walk along the rivage, following the track past the cottages, through the trees, till it fizzled out and left us on the shore, with deer footprints all over the sand. From where we stood, it didn't look so far to the tip of the island at the western end, but that headland is elusive, and it turned out to be further away than we thought. We wandered for about 2 and a half hours that morning, the best part of our hike being the marked trails around the Pointe aux Pins which we had explored before, on our previous visit. Here we met one other couple, the only other people we encountered. We remembered the views from the look-out points. A bonus sight this time was of a large-headed bird, probably the short-eared owl that's supposed to frequent this spot, sitting on a rock at the end of the island, so motionless, that at first I thought it was just an upright stone or piece of driftwood. Then it took off, on wide wings. We saw another such bird fly out of the forest as we walked further along.

There's an even wilder area of untouched woodland at the eastern tip of the island, where we have not been; this is a hunting reserve. Closer to the inhabited part, east of our lodging beyond the tipis, you can follow more trails through the forest and the fields and then turn left up the hill to cross the island towards the airport and village, again. At the edge of the woods in this direction was a clearing where we noticed a surprisingly large number of small wooden structures ... "They look like dog kennels," I said to Chris, breaking our companionable silence, at which point all hell broke loose, the pack of huskies (probably used as sled dogs in the winter), having heard a voice they didn't recognise, leaping out of their kennels, barking, howling and frantically pulling on their chains. We were mighty glad they'd been chained up, I must say. It was quite an alarming encounter and we didn't linger.

Hoping to see stars after dark on the first night we'd gone up the road to sit by the lonely barn, but too many clouds surrounded the clear patches of sky. I did spot one shooting star. On the second evening it clouded over again, but while we ate our supper at a window table, seeing the hills of Maine beyond the water, the setting sun behind us tinged the clouds above them pink, and then a distant rain-shower lit up with all the colours of the rainbow. Everyone in the dining room was awe-struck by it.

Monday, September 4, 2017

On the Isle again

I am starting to write this post in our waterside room at the Auberge known as Maisons du Grand Héron on the Isle-Aux-Grues that we are revisting for the first time since we stayed at the other Auberge on the other side of the island.

Papa Tango November is cleared to the Montmagny airport via direct TAKOL, Tango 731, AGLUK, Tango 781, PESAC, YQB, Victor 98 to FLEUR, direct CSE5.

That was our clearance yesterday morning as we left Ottawa-Rockcliffe for Montmagny, 2 hours 20 minutes away to the northeast. The total flight time was in fact 2 hours 24 minutes. The flight was remarkably smooth through very hazy air, although we had clear views over Quebec City; having been diverted left by 10-degrees for traffic avoidance in the airspace around CYQB we were then set back on course right across the city, seeing the Plains of Abraham, harbour and downtown as we went.

Then followed the romantic stretch across the Isle d'Orléans and the archipelego of islands round this one, the Isle-aux-Grues lying almost adjacent to Montmagny. Children who live on the island go to school by plane every morning (a free, 5-minute Air Montmagny flight to the mainland, or le continent, as they call it in these parts). It must be one of the shortest regular flights on the planet. We saw the school plane in its hangar --- we saw this twin-prop. being taxied right inside the hangar before its engine was turned off, only the tail sticking out! --- and, once we took to the air again to do our own short hop across to the island, we spotted the school below us, too. Our midday meal had been a packed lunch at the Montmagny airport picnic table by the bullrushes, a far cry from lunch at Heathrow, where I shall be next week.

I had loved our stay on the island in 2011, when we had our meals on the Auberge des Dunes' delapidated old boat Le Bateau Ivre (its name inspired by Rimbaud's famous poem) still stuck in in the mud on the northern shore, and have loved it again this time round, this being the first time we actually landed on the island in our plane. The previous time, PTN having a flat tyre or something, we had flown in a less familiar, substitute plane (a Piper Cherokee) that may not have been so easy to land on such a short runway, so had left it on the ground at Montmagny and had come across on the ferry.

The Isle-Aux-Grues makes good memories. This time we were staying at the Maisons du Grand Héron on the rue du Rivage of the southern shore, facing the ferry dock; in fact we had a good view of the dock and distant mainland from our bedroom window. During supper on our second evening there, once again next to the windows, we even had the rare privilege of seeing a sunset sky complete with extraordinary, widely spread rainbow colours, as the setting sun lit a distant rain shower over the hills of Maine, beyond Cap St. Ignace.

The hotel has rooms within the Auberge itself, where the meals are served, as well as two yurts (yaourts) and two wooden "tipis" in the trees alongside. Their interiors are nicely furnished with all the requisite amenities and a barbeque outside; the only snag might be mosquito bites in the bug-season. Anyhow, the manager, Gilles, came to pick us up with our bags from the airport by pre-arrangement and drove us 3km along the quiet country roads to his place. We had chosen to take advantage of the four-course suppers and breakfasts offered as part of one of their forfaits (packages at $110 per person, per night --- not bad value). During our breakfasts one of the live grands hérons who frequent the muddy river edge when the tide is out, flew in to entertain us. Sandpipers and snow geese made their apppearance there too.

Gilles told us a heartbreaking story about the snow geese. During the last migration season / hunting season, earlier this year, one of the geese we saw was shot in the wing and not killed, but incapacitated, unable fly north, so (s)he had to remain on the island. Geese being faithful creatures, its mate and family stayed too. And when the winter comes, and the other thousands of snow geese stop by on their journey south, this particular goose family will be stuck on the island and will doubtless all die of cold.

Supper at the Maison des Grands Héron deserves a description. It was served in a leisurely fashion which meant that we were sitting at our supper table for about two hours. Drinks first, while we studied the Table d'Hote menu. The entrée is concocted with smoked esturgeon, whether you like it or not. Never fear, you will like it, fresh from the local sea water, nicely presented with an artistic salad and subtle dressing. We had slices of this smoked fish on the first night and a little ball of smoked sturgeon mousse on the second night. (Sturgeon can grow 2 metres long, so there is plenty for everyone. I just learned that they can live for 60 years, if you don't catch them.) The second course is a small bowl of tasty and fairly thick homemade soup, served with slices of homemade bread in a basket. The piece de résistance course is some kind of meat or fish in a sauce (presumably slow-cooked during the day) which they serve in individual casserole dishes with a not-too-heavy helping of rice or potatoes and carrots or similar on the side. I had curried sturgeon (!) on the first night and veal on the second. The dessert course is a slice of homemade cake or a fruit sorbet, once again artistically served, with tea or coffee.

I also appreciated the good taste with which the Auberge had been decorated. I dare say that Gilles' wife Nicole was responsible for this. The surroundings, despite all the activity at the dockside, make for a peaceful night's sleep. With our windows open, all we heard at night was the natural sound of rustling leaves or rain falling.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

And finally ... J.S. Bach

Music and Beyond's performance of the B-minor Mass on July 16th was the climax of the festival, and we had didn't need to pay to get in! It was a Festival-Plus concert, which means that I ought to have paid extra, and Chris was ready to buy his own ticket. But the organisers had given me (and other disappointed patrons) two complimentary tickets for the Bach, to compensate for the cancellation of Wednesday's lecture.

I knew this concert would be tremendous, because we had also been at the St. Matthew Passion performance on Good Friday, a few months ago, which had thrilled me then and for a long time afterwards. The soloist who had taken the part of Jesus in the oratorio was now singing the bass arias in the mass, so we knew the standard of singing would be high, as indeed it was, very, and we were to have the same able conductor at the podium, Kevin Mallon. We had many of the same instumentalists too (the Thirteen Strings plus their friends from the NACO -- its lead flute, oboe, trumpet, horn) including Julian Armour again, taking responsibility for the continuo part on his cello. The choir singing the great choruses of the mass, highly competent and well rehearsed, as we could see, since we sat near them, was from the Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal. We particularly admired the stamina of the first sopranos!

It is impossible to describe Bach's music in words. "The culmination of the Baroque!" my school notes used to say, but that is only a text book phrase. Perhaps a painting would do better justice to it, using all the colours. I have sung the B-minor Mass ... when I was 19, as one of the 2nd sopranos in London's Imperial College Choir, an experience that gave me a very good idea of what "in Heaven" means. Even though that performance wasn't half as good as what we heard in Ottawa, I remember how the last half hour of it was like flying through a night sky full of stars, making all my self-centred little worries null and void. Probably my mother once felt the same, because she has told me that she'd like a recording of the Sanctus from Bach's B-minor Mass played at her funeral.

Mum came up with another simile too; she once said that singing the Sanctus was like being on a big ship sailing the high seas.

I have found this blogpost about Sir John Eliot Gardiner and his more detailed response to the Bach mass, worth reading if you're interested.

Bach's greatness wasn't as obvious to his contemporaries at it is to us, and it wasn't until Mendelssohn's day, over a hundred years later, that he acquired his stature as a great composer. The 1720s clergymen at Leipzig had thought his St. Matthew Passion far too long and over-dramatic so hadn't given it a good reception. In a fit of pique, perhaps --- although this is undocumented speculation --- Bach decided to offer his large scale choral music to the court at Dresden instead, after that, setting Catholic Latin texts, what's more.

In Ottawa, the following day (July 17th) I went to visit the Syrian family I've befriended, who have a new baby, and coming home through the city in the afternoon I realised that I'd have time to attend one further concert, a performance of Bach's The Art of Fugue (Die Kunst der Fuge) on period instruments (or replicas?), viols of different sizes and timbres, all held vertically, by a consort of four instrumentalists known as Les Voix Humaines. Not looking them up beforehand, I must confess I'd supposed that a group calling itself Les Voix Humaines would be singers, and so did others of the rather large audience, and so we were taken by surprise.

Again, it was very warm and humid that day, so it was essential to sit still in the non airconditioned church to hear this rather same-ish, soft music, lightly played, and the lack of resonance in these instruments so lulling that many of us had a hard time keeping awake. Sad to say, the nave wasn't half so full after the intermission because many of the audience had made their escape. I was sitting with Jingnan and Lee from my Chinese class during this concert, and we were among the few who remained. Jingnan told me that the word for 'soporific' in Chinese is cuīmián (催眠). During the break I walked up to the podium to take a closer look at the viols that had been left there. They constituted a visual work of art, too, each one decorated with a plume of coloured ribbons, as were their music stands.

The music sounds serious, intellectual, to us but the chief viol player (Susie Napper), who introduced everything, claimed that Bach himself saw the composition of the Art of Fugue pieces more as an after-dinner pastime and she informed us that Bach had a sense of fun, as well as a great liking for wine. She apologised for "the lack of seriousness in this performance", although actually I failed to identify any humorous moments in what followed. The fugues and canons were composed, maybe as a challenge from one of his family or friends, during the last ten years of Bach's life, in 2, 3 and 4 parts: Contrapunctus I, Contrapunctus II, Contrapunctus III, etc., all the way to Contrapunctus XVIII.

In complete contrast, the encore the instrumentalists gave us was an arrangement of Gershwin's Summertime for viols with the song part played on the recorder by Mélisande Corriveau.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Czech musicians and composers

In the second week of the Music and Beyond festival we had the good fortune to welcome the Bennewitz Quartet to town, who are from Prague.

Photo: ©Kamil Ghaisption
I went to two of their concerts, the first one with Chris. This was held at the Horticulture Building at Lansdowne Park, but I don't think Music and Beyond concerts ought to be held there next year, because, despite the pleasant nearby surroundings, it wasn't the best venue. The underground parking is expensive and inside the hall, the intrusively loud hum from the airconditioners, working at full revs, compromised our appreciation and must have been quite off-putting for the musicians themselves. It was also very hot and humid in there.

Carping aside, the concert was still wonderful. If he were writing this blogpost, my husband would doubtless observe that the viola player in particular attracted my attention (as does the German actor Henry Arnold or the President of France for that matter, with their similar good looks).

Enough of that; let's concentrate on the music, which in this concert was all Czech. The Ambassador of the Czech Republic said a few words from the front row, the second violinist made the rest of the introductions, and the first piece we heard was Dussek's Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 60. Dussek (1760-1812) is better known for his piano music, but he also created a large output of other chamber music, including three string quartets. This was the last of these. We were encouraged to listen for the classical and romantic elements in this piece which can be classified as "pre-romantic".

Here's the Scherzo:

Janacek and his wife when young
A very different piece followed, Janacek's Intimate Letters (his String Quartet No. 2, 1928, written at the end of his life). This is programme music, or music as a secret code. The amorous feelings the elderly Janacek was attempting to convey were for a certain Kamila Stösslova, 38 years younger than he! They apparently exchanged about 700 real letters as well. Janacek's wife, unsurprisingly disgusted, obliterated his verbal references to the various intimacies in the original manuscript with a thick black pen, so performers simply have to guess at what he meant. These four performers made a most passionate job of it and deserved their break in the cooler fresh air during the intermission.

They had played so well that Chris and I decided to stay for the second half of the concert despite that noisy competition from the air conditioners. This time we heard Smetena's From My Life (Z mého života) Quartet, the work that first attracted my husband to chamber music. Czechs always feel that Smetana expresses their soul better than does Dvorak; especially when they hear his most patriotic, symphonic work Ma Vlast, Smetana is the Czech composer. Both Ma Vlast and From My Life were late works from the 1870s, after he had lost his hearing. The quartet expresses a personal turmoil, Smetana trying to come to terms with his tragic memories of the 1850s when three of his children and then his wife died. Although mostly in the minor, it is not unhappy music. The second movement is a Polka, the Czech (not Polish) national dance, and the gentle Largo was written in memory of his wife. The Vivace at the end first expresses his sense of triumph at having succeeded as a composer, but then comes the sudden long note, the harmonic high E on the violin that signifies the tinnitus he heard as he began to go deaf. Touchingly, the previous movement's wife-theme returns as a consolation after this fateful shock, and so the quartet ends, resolving gently into the major, on a soft pizzicato.

As the second violinist said, "It's a very beautiful music!"

Of course, the following day I was back in town to hear the Bennewitz Quartet perform again. At this event they offered only two pieces of music: Schubert's great Death and the Maiden Quartet followed by a quartet by Dvorak after the intermission. What sets professionals such as these apart is their mastery of pianissimo playing. I also noted their utter subservience to the music and their respect for one another. If you are going to do this properly, there is no room for egotism. A good lesson for all those in the public eye, if you ask me.

Once more, the second violinist stood up to tell us about the music. This Quartet in D minor, no. 14, was one of the last things Schubert ever wrote, knowing (in 1824, at the age of 27) that his life would soon come to an end, or so people claim. That's debatable, although he did know he had syphilis, but the solemnity and the emotion is certainly there, especially in the way the Bennewitz Quartet handled it. This piece of music is 40 minutes long. I have heard it several times before played live, but this was the best performance I've heard to date. The Andante movement is the one based on Schubert's song of seven years earlier, with five variations of that theme.

Dvorak's Quartet in G, Op. 106, No. 13, may also have been written with death in mind, or at least Dvorak thought of his end when he heard it rehearsed for the first time because on that occasion he abruptly left the hall during its Adagio movement in which all four strings are given highly melodic lines. When someone went out to find out what was the matter, and whether the instrumentalists had upset him with their interpretation, Dvorak was found standing by the river in an emotional state, and he said, "I just realised that I'll probably never write anything so beautiful again!"

We were told a little more about the composer. He had come from a a "gloomy, impoverished background" and music had been his escape. He became internationally famous, especially when asked by New York City to move there to direct its new Conservatory of Music. Travelling back and forth Dvorak also used to write his music aboard transatlantic steamships, including this and his previous (Op. 105) quartet. During the time he spent living in America he was also invited to visit a Czech settlement in Iowa constructed in the style of a Bohemian village, and wrote some of his "most enjoyed pieces" there, as Stepan Jezek of the Bennewitz Quartet put it.

Incidentally, in his last few years, Dvorak succeeded Antonin Bennewitz (for whom the ensemble is named) as director of the Prague Conservatory.

A Canadian selection (continued)

This was the fourth of the 150 Years of Music in Canada series in the Music and Beyond festival. I came along that day (July 13th) because Paul Marleyn and Frédéric Lecroix were going to play, and I like those two U of O musicians.

For the first half of the concert, though, Elaine Keillor was on stage, a lady now in her late seventies who has been a pianist all her life, researching and specialising in Canadian music, and who has been awarded the Order of Canada for her work at the university and elsewhere. She played a series of derivative, light classical pieces by 19th century and early 20th century Canadian composers, some of which reminded me of the music my uncle Frank (1915-2010) used to compose. He used to be a good pianist, too!

Each piece was a dance. The first one, called Yvonne, was a waltz written in 1903 by Alexis Contant. Ms. Keillor spoke to us about the composers and mentioned that that Contant was a student of the man who'd composed Canada's National Anthem, Calixa Lavallée. (O Canada was originally written to be sung in French on Quebec's Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day, you know.) Then came the Chanticleer March & Two Step (1910) by a woman, Jeanne Delmar, of the Delmar music publishers' family. The next composer featured on the programme, Wesley Octavius Forsyth (d. 1937), used to preface his pieces with a poem he'd written. This one was entitled In the Vale of Shadowland --- I'm afraid I don't remember anything about it, but can recall the following piece, by a friend of Forsyth's, Clarence Lucas, born on the Six Nations Reserve managed by his Methodist father. Lucas junior composed no fewer than 300 works, said Ms. Keillor, and this one was a Chopin-like Mazurka (No. 2, 1890). Goodness knows what the natives would have thought of it, sounding nothing like their own music. Finally we heard a lively gavotte, Conversazione, composed by Joseph Vézina (d. 1924), leader of the Quebec Symphony Orchestra, again composed in the popular style of those days.

With the appearance of Paul Marleyn, who (I think) looks remarkably like the British singer Ian Bostridge, the mood and style of the concert changed, and my interest perked up. Now we were into more serious compositions by contemporary composers, first a piece for solo cello by Chan Ka Nin, called Soulmate (1995) dedicated to the composer's wife who, said Mr. Merlyn, is also a composer. "Good music!" I noted. There was fire and intensity in this. For the next item the cellist was accompanied by his friend Mr. Lacroix to play Still Time (1987) by John Burge, a tribute to his wife. Again, an intense piece, abstract and atonal, but I can't find a reference to it on his website. They then played an extra piece, not listed on the programme, by a female composer whose name I didn't catch. Anyway this one, by contrast, was "extremely tonal" and Mr. Marleyn apologised for this!

The final item in this noon hour concert was for Frédéric Lacroix alone, a piano suite he had composed himself. The same age as my daughter, he studied at the University of Montreal, and this composition stems from those days. He wrote it in a light-hearted way in response to the pigeons who had so much disturbed his post-graduate studies of Couperin on the 8th floor of the music faculty by their coo-ing (roucoulement, he said, unable to think of the English word for it!) that he tried had to recreate this sound on the piano. Apart from the trills, there were many references to Couperin's music in the five sections of Lacroix' Le Club du Jardin (1999), each headed by the name of a different creature: Le blaireau ... La castor ... le lievre ...le pigeon ... l'écureuil. Therefore it was most enjoyable to listen to and we applauded with enthusiasm at the end.