Ireland: Part 1

For the next few weeks, I’ll talk about our week long driving tour of Ireland. It was a week of art, hiking, and lots of Irish music. Everything a girl could want.

Our trip started with a few days in Dublin. We arrived early on Saturday and took the bus into the city. It dropped us off about a block and half away from our hotel. We were staying off Dame Street, a main thoroughfare that felt like a combination of tourist and student central. We threw our bags down, as is our custom, and ran off to explore the city.

First, we needed to get lunch. We wandered a little bit, passing a little farmer’s market with a display of cheeses that I would regret not tasting for the rest of the trip. We went to a little cafe that had a glorious display of different hot chocolates. I was disappointed that their orange and cinnamon chocolate was not available; i had a caramel chocolate, which was okay.

Next, we headed off to Trinity College to see the Book of Kells. I had been in Dublin once in 2005 but we had missed seeing the Book of Kells because it was Christmas season and it was closed. As a lover of illuminated manuscripts, I was very keen on seeing it. There was a bit of a line but it went quickly. There is a room filled with explanations of everything from the ink, the binding, to the illuminated alphabet. I was thrilled that you can actually get up close to the Book of Kells. It’s crowded but you can make your way in and get really close. There is such an incredible amount of detail that no photo can do it justice. Several folks said it wasn’t the bees knees but they were wrong. It was well worth the wait.

After the Book of Kells, there is the delightful Long Room, a two story library with so many leather bound books. There’s even the harp that inspired the one Euro coin. When I asked one of the guards how one gets to the second story, he said, “Walk.” While it may sounds snotty, it was delightful and dry; I was reminded that Ireland is know for the gift of the gab. We chatted with him for awhile before making our way to St. Stephen’s Green.

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What a wonderful park! Talk about the greenery of Ireland. Ponds, playgrounds, and picnics. Everything a proper park needs. Apparently, during the Easter Rising, the Irish Citizen Army took over St. Stephen’s Green, a key strategic point. However, each day during the fighting, there would be a ceasefire to allow James Kearney, the park’s gamekeeper, to feed the ducks.

I wandered around a little bit afterwards and found what I think is a Luigi themed Stag party. This made me immensely happy.

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Plus many pub signs had extremely clever booze related messages. A sampling:

That evening, we were going to fight against jet lag by going on a ghost walk. As regular readers of this blog know, this is standard fare for trips with my husband. Ghost walks are a fun way to get to know a city and hear some great stories. This walking tour did not disappoint. The best story was about the ghost of Jonathan Swift. He was the Deacon of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and would regularly walk between the two cathedrals up a flight of stairs where beggars and prostitutes were known to ply their trade. He had pockets full of coins that he would give to people as he strode the stairs. After his death, beggars would find their cups with coins on them when no one came by. Those coins are attributed to Swift, making him the first philanthropic ghost I’ve heard of. (Well, a philanthropic ghost giving people things they want).

We ended the night with an attempt at some Irish music near our hotel. It was astonishing to see how many pubs and restaurants advertised Irish music. We walked in to some lovely fiddling tunes but as soon as we ordered a pint of cider, the music turned into US country music. Or covers of country songs. While I actually had a fondness for country, this was not quite what I was hoping for!

That’s all for now!

Prague and London: Part 3

Christmas day!

What a glorious thing to experience in other countries. Prague was hopping on Christmas day. People were on the streets (at least in Old Town) and many more shops and restaurants were open than I was expecting.

Our first stop was the Jewish quarter of Prague since we knew that it would be open. (It was Sunday). We’ve been on every trip but it feels like a necessary part of any trip to Prague. There’s several tours that you can do of the area with one ticket. We opted for the medium sized tour that first took us through the Pinkas Synagogue. The walls of the synagogue list over 77,000 names of Jews from Bohemia and Moravia sent to die in the concentration camp. It is a moving and powerful memorial to intolerance and hate. There’s a wall with many of the concentration camp names on it. We really have to work on making this all a thing of the history. Never again. I hope.

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Upstairs there is a room with drawings by children living in the ghetto during the 1930s. The adults tried to continue classes to give their children a normal life as possible. Some look like drawings that any child could draw, happy, and bright. Others show the repercussions of living in the ghetto amongst so much hate. As a child, I remember breaking down when I saw this room because it really brought home what happened here. Many of the children were my age or younger and they did not survive the camps.

The next part of the tour is the Old Jewish Cemetery. It’s not very big but it is supposed to have 100,000 bodies buried there! The earliest grave is from the 1400s as well! You can only walk the perimeter of it since it is covered in gravestones. Various graves have little stone markers, a sign that someone was there to remember. Just outside the cemetery was the Klausen Synagogue, which houses exhibits on Jewish religious objects.

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Then we caught a cab to take us to Discalced Carmelite Church of Our Lady Victorious to see the Infant of Prague. Unfortunately, our friendly cab driver tried to charge us 20 euros for a 4 dollar cab ride. Alas.

Outside, there was a pen holding goats and sheep again. We saw these all over the place. We caught the tail end of Christmas mass that was lovely with a choir. The altarpieces throughout this church was magnificent, covered in silver and wood. The Infant was resplendent in white robes on Christmas day. The Infant has created miracles. According to the church website, “During one invasion, all the children of the city were taken to the Church for protection—praying to the Infant, they were all saved.” (https://www.infantprague.org/about-the-infant-jesus-of-prague/)

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We had lunch at a lovely little pub where people wrote messages on coasters that were displayed throughout. It was a nice break from being outside. Prague is a bit damp and cold. It’s not quite like CHicago (or Krakow so we’ve learned) but I did not bring warm enough boots.

After lunch, we found ourselves at one of the towers flanking the Charles Bridge. We are fans of towers. Naturally, we had to go up.  We had a wonderful view of the city and the bridge itself. We then crossed the bridge to find the Museum of Communism!

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On our very first day, I saw a poster for the Museum of Communism that advertised that it was above a McDonald’s. I was intrigued especially since I’m a Cold War junkie. I also learned it would be open Christmas day (though closed on the 24th).

And so we went. It was definitely upstairs of a McDonald’s and on the same floor as a casino. THe museum told the story of Communism in Czech Republic. It became very apparent that they were very anti-communist. Outside there was a damning exhibition on North Korea. It’s not the most sophisticated of museums. Lots of text, a few mannequins. But it was worth the trip. They also had some video of protests over 30-40 years that were very sobering. Police beating people up, ripping banners, people running for their lives.

Afterwards, we discovered the most outrageous postcards in the gift shop. One postcard had a photo from a famous poster of smiling women that was celebrating good workers. The postcard said, “It was a Happy Shiny time. The shiniest were the ones who worked in the Uranium mines.”

Then we topped the night off with a concert at the Spanish Synagogue. In various European cities, churches and other religious venues host concerts on a seemingly regular basis. Usually it’s Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. I think it’s a great idea to open up these beautiful spaces to wonderful music. This concert was magnificent. It had  Carl Orff’s O Fortuna from Carmina Burana, which was magnificent. The setlist was a little eclectic; there were tangos, Don’t Cry for Me Argentina and Porgy and Bess. But the singer and ensemble were amazing. The space is astonishing.

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On our way to dinner, we passed through Old Town Square again and there was a truck covered in bells of all sizes. A person was playing the bells like a piano. We got here Carol of the Bells on Bells!

That’s all for now!

Part 13: France and England

Then it was our very last day of the trip. We had one final day in England so we decided to take a day trip to Cambridge. My husband had never been there. I had gone in 2003 as part of a high school band and chorus trip. I remember that it was a wondrous place.

My number one thing to do there was punting. Basically a punt is a long wooden boat that you maneuver with a giant wooden pole. The river Cam is fairly shallow so you just push off the bottom. When we were there in 2003, we had seen people punting and were keen to try it. Somehow we ran out of time. Since then, I had always wanted to return and remedy that error.  I also read Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome, which is a hilarious Victorian book. Yes, it’s about three men in a boat who are taking a vacation on the Thames. I highly recommend it. Even though they were boating down the Thames, I wanted to have a moment of that experience. So part of the plan was to quote some choice lines from the book as well.

We took the train in from King’s Cross, which was really convenient. We walked about 20 minutes from the station into the center of town. It was really neat to see all the different established colleges. Unfortunately, it was the holiday season so many were closed to the public. When we got near King’s College, we met some people offering punting tours. We decided to get the information about conditions, cost, etc. They were really trying to sell a tour to us. They said that it wasn’t really a good time to punt by oneself (of course, their conception of cold weather is a bit different from ours…). Plus the rains were coming so they suggested now was better than later in the day. We were a bit hesitant since I was hoping to have some time to do it ourselves. In order to seal the deal, they gave us a really good deal for us plus the promise that we could try punting for the last 10 minutes of the tour. Sold.

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Back of King’s College from River Cam

We wandered with them to the dock and all packed into the boat with 9 other tourists. We were put next to the boatsman so we could have easy access when it came time for our turn. This did mean we would occasionally get sprinkled but I didn’t care. We were finally doing it!

It was magnificent to cruise on the River Cam, seeing the backs of many of the major colleges. We passed under the various bridges, including the Bridge of Sighs. Two theories about its name: one is that it looks like the Venetian Bridge of Sighs. (Sort of). The second is that students had to pass over it to go to their final exams. The tour was fine, not quite as in depth as I would have liked but it was worth doing. We learned that one of the colleges gives giant rooms with chandeliers to its honors upperclassmen. Some rooms even have grand pianos.  We also saw the Mathematical Bridge at Queen’s College. A bridge held together by physics and math (well, I suppose all bridges technically are). Rumors say that it was built without bolts and nails but it does have them.

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Mathematical Bridge, Queen’s College

Then it was our time to try punting ourselves. I tried it first. That pole is really heavy. I think I had a decent hand at it. I could turn the boat and move it in a straight line. Then Scott tried it…he managed to bump into a houseboat nearby. 🙂 I did get a line or two of Three Men in a Boat in as I had planned.

Some day, we’ll come back and do some more punting solo. 🙂 I’m so pleased we were able to do it! 

After some lunch, we went to King’s College to check out the famous chapel. It was as beautiful as I remembered it. It’s a really astonishing building. There’s the beautiful stained glass, the carved wooden organ, and the soaring delicate ceiling. There were still some old symbols of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII. We wandered a bit on the grounds afterwards, which was nice. It was so pleasant to walk around, even if it was mildly overcast day. (Thankfully the terrible rains held off until we got back to the train). We wandered a bit into various colleges that were open.

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King’s College Chapel

We ended the afternoon at the Fitzwilliam Museum. It’s a bit like the British Museum in that it has a lot of pieces from very different eras and places in the world. They have Ancient Greece and Egypt, beautiful Meissen ceramics, Impressionist paintings, and so much more. In the Ancient Egyptian room, they had a case filled with cigar and other similar boxes from the Victorian era. These were used by archeologists to store artifacts. These boxes showed the kind of products archeologists used at the time. Very fascinating.

Another part of the museum had occupation currency from WWII. Basically, it’s the currency issued by the occupying country. There was the Japanese rupee and Japanese peso. Fascinating! I was also pleased that they had a little exhibit on political cartoons; some were extremely naughty. (Apparently scatological humor was in). In the 19th century section, there was a giant room with a balcony overhead. All along the balcony were tiny paintings. You could climb a wrought iron staircase and walk (carefully) along the balcony to see these tiny paintings. Very neat!

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Victorian Artifact Storage

 

 

If you go to Cambridge, I highly recommend the museum. Oh yeah, it’s free too.

Then it was time to go back to London for a wonderful performance at St. Martins in the Fields on Trafalgar Square. We had seen advertisements for a candle lit concert of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. So we decided to go to a concert. It was lovely. We sat in the pews surrounded by candles. What a wonderful place to have a concert! They played several pieces from Baroque composers. The second half was the Four Seasons. I realized that I hadn’t really heard the entire piece. I guess I really knew Spring. I adored the Summer movement. Scott was entranced with Winter.

It was a great end to a wonderful trip!
That’s all for now!

Waiting for Godot, Red Army, Folk Festival

So to continue the theme of awesome things in Chicago, I’m going to talk about three things going on right now. You can still catch them…if you go quickly!

The first is the Court Theater production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot directed by Ron Oj Parson. It’s all African American cast, an idea that had ruminated with the director and some of the actors for years. It’s fantastic. August Wilson and Allen Gilmore as Gogo and Didi were magnificent. I’d seen August Wilson before in Seven Guitars; it was such a pleasure to see him again. Anthony Lee Irons was sublime as Lucky or Pig. (Next line is a spoiler.) I always feel such pleasure when he goes from mute silence to thinking. It’s a magnificent moment in theater.

Waiting for Godot has to be one of my favorite plays. I’ve now seen it four times, the most for any play even Shakepseare. I’ve even put together my ideal cast. Nathan Lane as Didi, August Wilson as Gogo, John Goodman as Pozzo, and Anthony Lee Irons as Lucky. This production was better than the famous Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan show from 2013. Stewart and McKellan just weren’t convincing as Didi and Gogo. Alas.

The all African American cast gave it new layered meanings. It added some more tension with the already painful sequences between Pozzo and his slave Lucky. The director aptly writes in the Director’s note, “In its “absurd” way, this play is about the waiting we all do in life—waiting for life to resolve, waiting for love, waiting for peace, waiting for heaven, waiting for an answer, waiting for freedom, waiting for justice, waiting for change…Waiting…for Godot.” Goodness, it’s so good that it hurts.

Show ends February 15th.

The second show is the recently released documentary Red Army at the Music Box. It’s about the Soviet hockey program. I thought it was absolutely fantastic. I do have a fascination with Soviet Union cultural histories (or generally any cultural histories under socialist/communist regimes). Also, I do have a fondness for hockey. It focuses largely on famous hockey player Slava Fetisov, whose list of awards and medals covered the entire movie screen. It’s such a compelling story of the apparatus that supported these hockey players to become the best in the world.

You get the good and the bad. There’s a wonderful moment when the documentarian asks Slava Fetisov, “How was your first Olympics?” Fetisov’s face immediately falls. That Olympics was the famous “Miracle on Ice.” And you feel for these guys when they lost. I felt that it was an interesting critique of Soviet society. These men were playing hockey as a team for their country. Of course, Soviet society was repressive; one man wasn’t allowed to see his dying father. But teamwork was drilled into these men. Fetisov talks about his unhappiness with Soviet policies but he never chooses to defect. It’s amazing to see how much loyalty and pride he has to this day.

I don’t know how long it will be in theaters so check it out soon.

Last but not least, I just wanted to let you guys know that my favorite event in Chicago is coming up. The 55th annual University of Chicago Folk Festival is this weekend. Friday through Sunday nights, there will be incredible concerts of folk musicians from all over the country (and sometimes international). This was where I heard Irish music for the first time and learned that I really like Bluegrass. During the day on Saturday and Sunday, there are a series of workshops that cover a variety of topics from guitar theory, dance music, to Russian choral singing. The workshops are free and the concerts are affordable so consider checking them out.

That’s all for now!

 

Best Concerts 2014

I’m going to try something new. I’m going to talk about music. I haven’t really done a lot with this since I wasn’t sure I knew how to talk about music. But I’ll give it a try for my top nine list of best concerts of the year.

In no particular order:

  1. Carolina Chocolate Drops at the Blues Festival and City Winery

This all African-American blue grass group is so good I saw them twice in three days. I already had tickets for the City Winery (strange place with disappointing wine), when I heard they were also playing at the Blues Festival. Since the concert was free and I had time, I also went. Sure, they played most of the same songs but they are so good, that I didn’t care. The lead singer Rhiannon Giddons has such an amazing voice. And there is a bones (two small flat wooden sticks) duel. You have to love that. I will see them as many times as they are in Chicago.

  1. Nickel Creek at the Taste of Chicago

To clarify, this is not Nickelback. This is a folk band led by the fiddler Sarah Watkins, a regular on Prairie Home Companion. I was really excited about seeing her fiddle and sing and was not disappointed. The band was great, silly at times, serious at times. Well worth the trip through Taste to see them. One of their new songs, “Hayloft”, blew me away.

  1. Anna and Elizabeth at the University of Chicago Folk Festival

Yes, there is a lot of folk music on this list. It’s my preferred music right now. This duo wowed me at the Folk Festival. They’ve been collecting songs in the South, talking with old musicians, and bring that tradition to life. They also have a visual component to the show where they use a “cranky,” a scroll with pictures moved by a crank, to tell a story. I think my favorite song of theirs is “Sun to Sun” about working in a chain gang. It just blows me away every time.

  1. Arcade Fire at the United Center

There are few bands that I’d see in such a huge venue. Arcade Fire might be the only one. The show was great. The band marched in wearing giant papier mâché heads, like it was a giant party. They had dancers, sparkles, and flickering lights to accompany their amazing songs. My only disappointment was that they did not play “We Used to Wait.”

  1. My Brightest Diamond at Lincoln Hall

My Brightest Diamond was my find this year. I had tried to go see her play at Millennium Park but the rains came and canceled her concert. But the two and a half songs she played had me hooked. Her music is haunting with a touch of electronica. Her opening piece “Pressure” includes a marching band in each city she goes. In Chicago, she had the amazing Mucca Pazza play with her. So neat. During the Lincoln Hall concert, she wore a white suit with red sneakers, which is just awesome. She also is seems to be a very caring and thoughtful person who is willing to share the spotlight.

  1. Lúnasa at Old Town School of Folk Music

Lúnasa has been my favorite band for 14 years. They play traditional instrumental Irish music and they wow me every time I see them in concert. Their songs are simply marvelous examples of Irish music. Their stage presence is fun and delightful. This concert I learned that the fiddler Seán Smythe is not only this world renown fiddler, he is also a medical doctor. That’s just blows my mind every time I think about it.

  1. Nellie McKay at the Space

Nellie McKay is full of mischievous glee. She seems shy, she barely talked to the audience but that’s okay by me. Her songs are delightful and bitter at times. She plays piano and ukulele. At the end, she ended taking suggestions from the audience and played a medley of her best hits. I got to hear my favorite song “Caribbean Time” as part of the medley.

  1. Sarah Donner at a house concert

Sarah Donner is a singer songwriter on guitar. She is simply wonderful and thoughtful. She has witty songs like “The Rebuttal of Schrödinger’s Cat”, which imagines the response of the cat to this experiment. Her songs have some wonderful geek friendly themes but also many are about the Northeast too. Just lovely. Yes, the concert was in someone’s home which made the experience extremely intimate and fun.

  1. Ari Eisinger at the University of Chicago Folk Festival Workshop

I saw Ari Eisinger, a folk guitarist, as part of a workshop he held at the Festival about folk guitar. It actually got really technical; he talked about chords and whatnot with the audience members that was lost on me. But the two songs that he performed at the workshop earn a mention on this list. He seems to play songs that herald back to 1920s-1940s of folk music in the south. He’s simply magnificent. I hope I can hear him at full concert sometime in the near future.

Tomorrow, I’ll end on best movies in theater that I’ve seen this year.

That’s all!

Review: 1925 Ben Hur

On Tuesday, I went to see 1925 production of Ben Hur with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Stephen Copeland, formerly of the Police. As readers of my blog know, I’m a big fan of silent films and will take any opportunity to see silent films on the large screen. It’s so much more fun that way. I was particularly keen to see Ben Hur with the CSO because many silent films had orchestras accompanying them. Most of the silent films I’ve seen have had a live organist, which was really cool. So I was curious how it would sound with the full orchestra.

Reading a bit about it beforehand, it’s a curious film. It cost $4,000,0000 in the 1920s to film, which is the equivalent of $200,000,000. Also, there were some accidents with the pirate attack scene. There are unsubstantiated rumors that actors may have drown when the fire got out of control on the ships. Also, the chariot race killed at least one person. Eventually, rules and regulations about film safety were instituted as a result of all of these problems.
The experience was not quite what I expected. Part of it was the score; the other part was the movie itself. Stephen Copeland, a percussionist and composer, actually composed the score and played along on a series of percussion instruments. As a result of this performance, I really think that full drum sets and full orchestras shouldn’t mix. It was an uneasy clash of jazzy/pop drum with a classical sounding orchestra. It really jarred me through the entire piece. Some of the orchestral music itself was poppy, which did not jive with the 1920s film in front of me. Maybe this is a sign of my age but I really disliked it. I’ll admit that there were parts when the music worked with the film. The parade scenes, the great naval battle, and the chariot race were thrilling. But the rest of the work did not work for me.
Then there is the movie itself. Now, I haven’t seen the 1959 Ben Hur with Charlton Heston yet. I’ll probably get around to it. But the plot didn’t work for me.
I thought the character of Ben Hur was dull.He didn’t have a personality aside from “good guy.” Spoilers ahead. For instance, when the slave ship he is on is attacked, he saves the commander’s life. I don’t understand why. He was working in the galley as a slave because of the Romans. I don’t get why he would turn around and save any of them. The film emphasized the brutality of the Romans on people.
There were also too many conveniences for me. This doesn’t usually bother me but it did in this film. For instance, the young slave girl happened to know to go to the Valley of the Lepers to find Ben Hur’s mother and sister. Everyone had thought they had long died. Too much Deus Ex Machina. Anyway, I will admit that I prefer silent comedies to drama. I’m not sure why this is.  Perhaps it’s because comedic characters have more of a personality. Or the film takes itself less serious. I may not have seen a really good drama yet.
Oh well. It was worth checking out but I don’t need to see this version again. I may see the 1959 version but I won’t go out of my way to do so. I’ll continue with my beloved series at the Music Box with an organist.
That’s all for now!