Thursday, March 22, 2007

Why the Radio Orchestras have it so good

There are still remnants in Germany of labor protection that dates back to the fifties and sixties when there was such a shortage of trained manpower. They were paying Italians by the trainload to come in and work in the factories in the 1950s, and then in the 60s came in the Turkish "Guest Worker" influx.
And the orchestral musicians, because the orchestras were financed by the cities, became in effect civil servants, and civil servants have the most extraordinary job protection... many cities are now loosening these formal ties by forcing the orchestras into becoming, legally speaking, limited companies, but the job protection is still very strong unless the orchestra itself closes down (as is happening frequently now, especially in the old East Germany).
The radio orchestras enjoy a special protection though as the public radio and TV stations are a government entity (paid for by a generous mixture of state and federal tax revenue and a hefty licence fee), and the orchestral players and staff become for all intents and purposes government workers, enjoying all manner of health, insurance, and retirement benefits.
In all my time here I have never heard of a player being fired for incompetence (although I know many who should have been), and only know 2 players personally who lost their jobs-- one was a woman who felt that her orchestra was not good enough for her so she contrived through a series of pregnancies, illnesses, and "child-rearing years" to keep her position for 8 years without ever turning up for work. Another was a violinist in the radio orchestra here who was more interested in moonlighting with various playing jobs than playing in his own group; if the gigs coincided with radio orchestra concerts he would call in sick (it is very hard to prove someone is not sick if they say they are).
He was finally thrown out when he refused to do a tour with the orchestra, saying he was under doctor's orders not to fly, but used the time off to visit Brazil and Argentina with his girlfriend. this came out because the guy had the nerve to do a house concert at the house of the German ambassador, and it was in the local papers. Even then, he claimed it wasn't him but someone who had stolen his identity! It took 2 years and a series of lawsuits to get rid of him, and only after they confronted him with CCTV footage of him getting on the airplane to South America.
Still: he has his very generous pension intact, and last time I saw him was while we were playing in Vienna, he was playing in various chamber orchestras. Guess you have to admire his nerve and enterprenurial spirit.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Birthday Party

One of my former students, Katharina (left), had a birthday party last night... celebrating not only turning 29 but her new job in the radio orchestra (she will start in September). It is a great job: not only pays well but there are at least 10 weeks paid holiday per year, plus the employer pays half of health and social security payments. And there is no way they can fire you, ever.
There was lots of great food and of course a lot to drink, from some really good french wines (her boyfriend is a connoisseur) to grappa. It was a small party though, just her and Michael, plus the Ossie and me and some of the colleagues from the orchestra she presently plays with (on the right in the picture).
It is always a great feeling when one of my students has some professional success. I know I can't claim credit, but I can't have done EVERYTHING wrong.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

A (mostly) Free Day!!

Having done far more than my quota of stuff over the last 6 weeks, I have a few days with almost no work in the orchestra! I could actually go on holiday for a week if I wanted to, but I have a backlog of household chores and teaching to catch up on.
I hate ironing and put it off for months on end. Only when the Iron Mountain in the closet gets so big that it leaps out at me whenever I open the door will I finally get started on it (either that or go out and buy more shirts). I tune in to BBC Radio 4 (the Best Station on the Planet) on the internet and steam away.

Terrific Film

Yesterday I watched the film "Das Leben der Anderen" (The Lives of Others)--it is terrific. Without any action scenes, it is unbelievably gripping. The acting is superb. It is about an East German Stasi officer who is assigned to watch a playwright and his wife, and the internal conflicts he suffers as he realizes what he is being asked to do. (The film also won the Best Foreign Film category at the Oscars-- not necessarily a reliable recommendation but justified in this case).

Today I became the proud owner of a pair of Stasi binoculars. Well, to be truthful, I don't know if they were in the hands of the Stasi but they are the model preferred by the organization. Made by the Zeiss company in Jena, East Germany, they are a design originally from the 1930s but produced basically unchanged for 60 years, until the reunification of Germany. They still are considered as good as any binoculars made today (although today's casings are lighter and more waterproof). I had seen a pair in Berlin at a friend's house last year, and was so amazed at the quality-- his pair was about 50 years old-- and I asked him if he could find me some. It took him months to track some down, and they are not cheap (they now are coveted by collectors as well) but he found me a pair in absolutely mint condition, with the original case.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Riding Home

If this is global warming, I want more of it! It is really too early for spring to start, but it didn't feel like it today coming back from the recording session.
Have a couple of hours off now then it is back into town for a Wagner "Rheingold" performance.

My bike loves this weather too.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

My Day with Richard Wagner

Well, I managed to get through yesterday more or less in one piece... did some practice early in the morning, but not too much because we had such a marathon day ahead of us. The first opera in the cycle is Das Rheingold, then comes Die Walküre (with the famous "Ride of the Valkyries" number, featured in "apocalypse now"). Anyhow millions of notes, we started at 10 a.m. and finished at 10p.m. And that is only half of it, the second part ("Siegfried" and "Götterdämmerung" (Twilight of the Gods) starts today at 10 a.m. and will finish at about midnight, to thundrous applause no doubt.
People come from all over the world to see this spectacle, but they are a very special sort of Wagnerians, they all know every note and all the text, often planning their year around various productions of Wagner operas. They are often somewhat wierd and fetishistic, but always interesting. They have no inhibitions about booing singers they don't feel are adequate to the roles, but so far our singers have been spared this treatment (we will wait and see how today's marathon goes). In any case the orchestra has been given an enthusiastic response after every act.It is good that we know the operas so well-- I doubt that there is any orchestra in the world that has played as much Wagner as we do. I am not counting the orchestra at the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, which only does Wagner-- that is a special case, a festival whose orchestra is made up of the best Wagner players in Germany (many come from my orchestra).

After the show last night, the Ossie and I ran over to the Radio Building, because a friend of mine was doing a concert there. Bruce is a violist and very old friend of mine, he has worked in a number of european orchestras but is originally from Seattle.I managed to talk my way past the doorman (the concert had long since begun, and in theory we should have not been allowed in) and we caught the last 2 numbers in his program.
By this time I was really starving, and suggested we go to a local brewery which has good beer and Wurst. We sat down there and waited for the others to come, but then my friend came in and said apologetically that the conductor of the orchestra had refused to go to a brewery and wanted to go to the fancy restaurant next door to the Radio Building. So, grumbling, we released our table and went with him. A big mistake: the waiters at the restaurant were unfriendly (they didn't like us pushing tables together-- we were a party of about 15) and the place is overpriced and (worst of all) the kitchen had shut down already. So: no Wurst, and an overpriced beer after a whole day of Wagner. Luckily the Ossie had some noodle soup at home.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Congratulations Ruth!

it is a VERY hard week for me, I am doing not only my rehearsals and concerts with my orchestra, I am also moonlighting with the local Radio Orchestra, it pays well but even more notes to deliver. And tomorrow we are starting our "Wagner's Ring Cycle in 2 Days"-- this is a marathon that no other orchestra in the world does, we do the complete Ring of the Nibelungen opera cycle in just 2 days, four Wagner operas lasting up to 6 hours each. Horribly difficult to play and requiring enormous forces, a normal opera house does one of these operas per year, so the cycle takes 4 years. Even at Bayreuth, the home of Wagner opera, the cycle is done over a period of 2 weeks. We did this for the first time 2 years ago, and it was such a success that we have been forced to do it ever since. It is crazy. But people fly in from all over to see it. Masochists, all of them.

Got some great news tonight though, my student Ruth, who is just 16, won a big national competition on the viola. She entered the regionals playing both violin and viola, and has now gotten into the national finals. Fantastic work, especially since I only started her on the viola in September.

Picasa Danger

Just a heads up for those of us who use Picasa Web Photos-- now Blogger counts the pictures you have used on the blog towards the quota on Picasa, a quite underhanded trick because it is also retrospective, that is, the photos are all being "migrated" (their verb, not mine!) from Blogger to Picasa, so a lot of us may be forced to "upgrade". OK, I know, Nothing Is Free, but at least they could have warned us. Stealthy and underhanded I call it.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Cultural Differential

You may see a sign like this in German homes, it is a reminder that it is not allowed to urinate standing up. I am polite enough to follow this when I am visting friends... but this reminds me of some of the things that the Ossie and I disagree about, maybe I will list a few of them here. We get on generally quite well, but it is not a coincidence that we don't live together...

Proper Position to Pee: I maintain that it is unmanly to sit down, she says it is uncouth to stand up. Our present compromise: In the privacy of my own home, I stand erect.
How to store Butter: I think it belongs in the fridge, she keeps it in the pantry. She goes nuts if I don't cut the butter parallel to one of the edges.
Slicing Bread: In Germany bread is never presliced. I like one-inch slices, she insists on no more than 1/4 inch.
Television: She has never owned a TV, says it is unsocial and is complete crap. I have to agree with her but still like watching from time to time. I feel that you have to see some junk to appreciate quality.
Coats: In winter, it rains here most days. I like to wear rain jackets. This is logical, right? She says it is unbecoming of a man in my position, and makes me look like an American tourist. She prefers that I wear long wool coats, which are a real pain in the ass to bicycle in.
Backgammon Rules: We started playing backgammon at Christmas, neither of knowing the rules, we kind of made some up after finding out the basic principles of the game. Then I started reading up on the backgammon and realized we were not playing it properly... with our version, each game took ages to play— but now she refuses to play with the standard rules, saying "we have always played that way and I don't intend to change now!" (It would be easier to accept this if she didn't win every single game.)
Furniture Positions: I like rearranging my furniture at irregular intervals. It keeps my mind fresh and there is nothing like having a table in a new position to provide one with new ideas. More disturbing perhaps is my habit of moving my bedroom... at one time or another my bedroom has been in 6 different rooms in my apartment. Not bad considering the apartment has only 7 rooms (not counting kitchen and bathrooms). She finds this totally ridiculous, and says anyhow my furniture doesn't match. Which is true, when I look around the living room here where I am sitting, there is a bookcase from about 1840, flanked by 2 CD racks from Habitat; a very nice music cabinet with is surrounded by pretty ugly 1940s German shelves filled with cardboard boxes from Ikea filled with music scores; a huge Belgian glass front cabinet (ca 1890) has the most ridiculous collection of old cameras, violins piled every which way, a motley array of cups and things that I never use, and drawers full of violin accessoires. Under the lovely Steinway grand that belonged to my father, a stack of nasty Ikea three-legged stools. The inlaid antique dining table I am now seated at has a protective cover of really inferior formica, and around the table are four 80-year-old chairs and a particularly cheap-looking office chair on wheels. And that is only the north end of the living room.
I like her living room, it is beautifully arranged and very harmonious. But I cannot help but feel that it will look exactly the same for the next 30 years, I feel like you do at your grandma's house, where nothing can be moved so much as 2 inches for fear of assaulting the symmetry.
Parties: She loves parties, and says it is very impolite to leave one before midnight. I don't mind parties per se, but when I have had enough I want to go home.
Films: We do go to movies pretty often (she refuses to watch TV), but they have to be carefully chosen. She likes the documentaries on sheep farmers in Serbia and I like romantic comedies. (We share however a love for any film by Jim jarmusch)

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Berlin Visit

This is the tram stop across the street from the hotel Lionel was staying at. They don't make trams stops like they used to!

Then we went to the musical performance, the last one they did in Berlin... they will take the piece on tour in May and June. I thought it was great, and the best parts were the bits Lionel did: a lot of the arrangements were his, he had written some of the songs, he did all the incidental music live from his keyboard, and he had trained the choir perfectly. it is unusual to hear the choir so in tune and with such a tight ensemble.

This woman was terrific, really brought the house down with some very powerful singing.

Then we went for dinner-- Lionel, Ken, my ex, and Karla (Lionel's old piano teacher)

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Sleep Deprivation

It has been a long time since I was so sleep-deprived! Concert on Tuesday night, followed by terrific birthday celebration for our conductor, got to bed at 3, up again at 4:30 to get to the airport, flew to Berlin (after having to change flights because mine had been cancelled), met up with Lionel and my ex, had breakfast, walked to the Music Instrument Museum at the Berlin Philharmonic Hall and was severely disappointed because a harpsichord that I had donated to the museum was not on display.
Then to the Sony Center on Potsdamer Platz to see "Dreamgirls", a really excellent musical film, met up with Christina and her Man, they were just as I had expected: friendly and witty.
Then to see Lionel's musical, which was a huge success, it was the end of the Berlin run before they go on tour, even the normally staid and stiff German audience on their feet and cheering at the end.
Afterwards the obligatory End Of Tour Party at a Mexican restaurant, got back to the hotel at about 2:30, had to get up again at 4:30, taxi to the airport, only to find that I wasn't in the computer for the return flight, a real bind because I had a rehearsal in Cologne at 10:00... the kind Lufthansa girl worked out that I had booked my return flight not for February 28 but for March 28. "But it is not a problem sir, we can change the flight for you! Of course there will be a fee, plus the upgrade.. $300...!"
Then the flight to Cologne, getting back at 8 a.m., rushing to the OPera house to rehearse the Walkyrie (Wagner) for 4 hours, then teaching (a student from Italy, now living in Freiburg, I couldn't very well cancel her lesson as she had travelled about 300 miles to come).

Anyhow I am exhausted and am looking forward to going to bed, having slept about 3 hours in the last 3 days.

Addendum: While writing that post, I had a pizza cooking inthe oven. With great forsight, I put the oven on a timer, so it wouldn't burn. Finished writing the post, looking forward to having the pizza as a reward.... went downstairs to discover the whole place filled with smoke: I had not only started a pizza, but had put on some vegetables, which had in the interim hapily carbonized.

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