Thursday, January 19, 2012

36 Hours in Arabia

It's time for a pop quiz!    Who can tell me (without using Google) which country the following flag represents?

Not sure???   Here's a clue:  its capital city is Musqat.

Still don't know?

Well, of course I'm referring to the well-known and not at all obscure Sultanate of Oman!

What's that, you say?? You've never even heard of Oman?   Neither had I until recently, when I decided to learn the flags of the world.   Do you want to know how I remembered this one?   Whenever I saw the distinctive curved dagger in the corner, I would think, "Oh, MAN! I'll never get this one!  Oh-man = OMAN!"   I obviously never thought I would EVER have a chance to visit this little-known nation on the eastern end of the Arabian Peninsula, but this week it became my foreign country number 37!

The Philharmonic had originally planned a two-day stay in Abu Dhabi, where I've visited already twice, but the plans fell through somehow and instead we helped break in the brand new Royal Opera House of Musqat with a program of Russian music under the baton of Valery Gergiev.   Sultan Qaboos, the leader of Oman since the 1970s, has a reputation for being dedicated to a policy of modernization and tolerance, quite similar to his neighbors in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Bahrain.  He owns a humongous yacht, several elaborate palaces, and is reputedly a huge classical music fan.   Naturally.

I mainly want to let the photos tell the story, but I have to lay a little groundwork first.   You see, this Gergiev 'block' got underway last week with another two-day tour to Germany.   We visited Hannover and Cologne (Kölsch and a meterwurst highly recommended by the way), returned to Wien to perform our normal weekend subscription concerts, and then immediately following Sunday's concert rushed to the airport and took off towards the desert.   

With the time difference, we arrived in Musqat at around 12:30 AM on Monday.   Airports don't tend to be fully staffed at that time of night, as we soon found out.   There were 2 windows open at immigration and it was very slow going.   Immigration took about 2 minutes per person, times 100 people... let's just say we were there for a while.  

Not what you want to see at 1AM
At least Sultan Qaboos was there to greet us!

We finally made it to our hotel around 2:45 AM, and I crashed hard.    The next morning I awoke to see this outside my balcony: 

That's a pleasant surprise if I ever saw one!
Not sure what that island is, but it's HUGE

The Arabian Riviera??

Some beautiful foothills in the distance
I didn't make it out of bed in time for breakfast, but I did manage to drag myself downstairs for a wonderful buffet lunch with some colleagues.    Much hummus was consumed.    In the afternoon I did some practice and then decided to do a bit of walking around.

I can't imagine a more stark contrast to Vienna in January

Seems like all the buildings are white... suppose it helps with the heat

I spent some time reading in the hotel garden
The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque (2nd largest in the world)
The concert went really well, and I was blown away by the over-the-top splendor of the hall.   The acoustics were not very well suited to our orchestra, but it worked out okay in the end.   

We did a couple pieces I had never heard of, but that I was really glad to be introduced to.  First was Rimsky-Korsakov's Invisible City of Kitezh Suite, which is a real gem in my opinion.   Second was a brilliant and fun jazz-influenced piece by Rhodin Shchedrin entitled Concerto No. 1 "Naughty Limericks".    And we were again treated to a rousing performance of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 by the 2011 Tchaikovsky Competition winner Daniil Trifonov.   The guy is 20 years old and makes the most amazing music.   Really inspiring stuff.

The Royal Opera House Musqat after the concert
On the way back to Vienna we were treated to some breathtaking views, particularly over southwest Iran and southern Iraq.

The Omani landscape just after take-off

Gorgeous mountain ranges in Iran

If you'd like to see even more photos, check out this album.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

New Year's Concert Thoughts (plus Videos!)

On Sunday I had the privilege to take part in the Vienna Philharmonic's annual New Year's Concert for 2012.    What a blast!!!    I thought the concert went really well, and judging from the flurry of calls, emails, and Facebook messages I've received over the past 24 hours, it seems like lots of other people really enjoyed the broadcast.  

I thought I would share some thoughts about the concert, as well as some YouTube videos I found of my favorite selections.

- I thought the program was fantastic all-around.   There was lots of variety, which is really something when you're speaking about a New Year's Concert where it's normally waltz after waltz after polka after polka... ad nauseum.   Tchaikovsky was included this year, and the Vienna Boys' Choir made a couple appearances.     There was a noticeable up-tic in the amount of stuff for the trombones this year, including probably my favorite piece on the program, Josef Hellmesberger's Danse Diabolique.   This wonderful little piece, written by a former concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic, served as a great fast and furious (not to mention virtuosic) opener to the second half.   And we get to play real loud.  Here's a video:

- The flowers were amazing this year.   I'm sure they featured prominently in the broadcast, but in person there is the added bonus that the entire Golden Hall smells awesome!

- I've been asked by lots of people in years past, "Do you get to meet Julie Andrews?"   No... she records all her little featur-ettes well in advance, and doesn't even show up at the concert.   Well, apparently this year was different because I look up to the balcony in the second half, and who do I see but Maria v. Trapp herself!   Pretty cool she came, though I almost missed an entrance or two looking up to see if she was enjoying herself.

- A major feature of any New Year's Concert is the Austrian attempt at 'having ze fun'.   It usually involves a cleverly-titled polka and a bit of schtick.   In my first New Year's Concert, the entire orchestra gradually exited to stage while performing Haydn's Farewell Symphony.   The year before that, the orchestra played the Sport Polka while wearing soccer scarves before they were given a red card by the conductor.    In 2010, it was the popping of corks and spraying of fake bubbles during the Champagne Polka.    This year, we had two nice bits of 'ze humor', JA??   Enjoy:

- You might've noticed some really unique overhead shots in the broadcast.   There was a new cable cam that ran diagonally from the back left corner of the hall all the way up behind the organ.   Looks like it got some really cool shots... though it does draw attention to my (ever so slightly) receding hairline/high forehead.

- I realized this year that the Strauss family is not that complicated.  First, you've got the DAD: Johann Senior (composed the Radetzky March and forbade his kids to go into music).  Then you've got THREE SONS: Johann Junior (the Blue Danube), Josef (Waltz of the Spheres), and Eduard.    Eduard did something that was apparently pretty common back in the day... he ripped off Bizet and put his most famous melodies from Carmen into a Quadrille.   What's a quadrille, you ask?   This is:

- I was asked by a friend if it was really hot in the hall or if Jansons was just a prolific sweater.   The answer is YES to both.   Jansons (and funnily enough his student Andris Nelsons) both are EXTREME sweaters.   They are usually dripping by the end of concerts.   They are the only conductors I've ever seen go through multiple shirts in one performance.   Must be a Latvian thing...

By the way, I thought Jansons did a great job.   He picked a really good program and conducted it very well the whole week.

- Some of you might not know that the PBS broadcast in America is only the 2nd half of the concert.   My favorite waltz of the concert was on the first half, and was *gasp* NOT by the Strauss family, but rather Karl Michael Ziehrer (sounds like Tseerer).  It's called Wiener Bürger (Viennese Citizens):

- My favorite polka of the concert was also on the first half.   It's called Entweder-Oder, which means "Either-Or".

- During the intermission of the live broadcast, ORF (Austrian TV) played this awesome video which features the city of Vienna and a chamber ensemble made up of VPO members.   It's 23 minutes long, but nevertheless VERY HIGHLY recommended.

Thanks to everyone for all the nice comments and well-wishes you've sent me in response to the concert.  Thanks for watching, and please tune in again next year.   I don't know who will be playing 2nd trombone in 2013... possibly me again... but theoretically we will have a new colleague from our audition in March (replacing the retiring Karl Jeitler), and he/she would be in the rotation to play on New Year's.   Guess we'll see!

I wish all of you the best in 2012.   I hope it is a happy and blessed year for all BRP readers!