Friday, March 14, 2008


Reuters reports:
“Taking the gross domestic product of both economies in 2007, the combined GDP of the 15 countries which use the euro overtook that of the United States when the European currency surged to a record high of more than $1.56 per euro.”
(Full article here)

The people who are going to be hurt by this are not the ones who caused the problem in the first place. The banks thought they would be clever by taking mortgages off their balance sheets.. pocket the fee-- lose the risk-- but it meant that there was no incentive to actually check the transactions (what is the real value of the property? Does the buyer actually have enought income to pay the monthly bills? Is there a balloon clause hidden in the fine print?) and so the real estate bonds' value cannot be realistically estimated.
The banks are now waiting for government handouts to save them. The bill for this goes to the taxpayers.
Meanwhile the homeowners find themselves forced into foreclosure, and the ensuing glut on the market means that house prices are going to be weak for the next few years.
We should hope that the next Administration is better able to balance financial resposibility and social justice, and repair some of the damage done to America's international reputation.
Or am I missing something here?

Monday, March 10, 2008

A Day in Terezin, Czech Republic

Going through some pictures, I ran across the one above that I took just after playing one of my pieces, and I thought, this is the kind of story that could be put on a blog:
Some years ago I was commissioned to write a piece for a memorial concert commemorating the 50th anniversary of the transport of many Jewish musicians and composers to Auschwitz from the prison town of Terezin, which had been turned into a ghetto. Almost none survived.
The piece I wrote, called "VLAK"- Czech for "train"-- is for solo violin, and I played it not in the concert hall, but standing in the rain on the actual train tracks leading out of the town.
At the time, I wrote a description of that day:

Got up before 7, get ready to go, pack violin, tape recorder, music,camera, lenses.
Very foggy morning, the motorway out of Prague shrouded in mist. I wonder what the weather was like 50 yrs ago on this day.
I try to imagine how it was then, the musicians, the composers, how they felt about the coming Osttransport. They had been through so much already, they didn't know exactly what was in store for them.
Viktor Ullmann packaging up his works, carefully, numbered and wrapped up, gives them to his sister in the camp. He gives her instructions: Whoever has to leave gives his manuscripts to someone who is staying. Gideon Klein takes all his works with him, in the hope that there will be an orchestra or musicians to play his pieces where he is going: he doesn't know that he is going to his death, in Auschwitz.
There is a light rain, I worry about my violin, it cannot get wet while I am playing or the glue will dissolve and the instrument will come apart in my hands. We have to drive very slowly because of the dense fog. We settle in behind a brave Czech truck that looms up in the distance and stay on his taillights all the way.
Terezin was never a real town, although it looked like one, it has a big Baroque church, and orderly streets and neat 18th century buildings of all sizes.
But it was built as a garrison town, with a marvellous fortress, state of the art in 1750, containing some 30 km of underground passageways and an elaborate moat system. built as a defense against a Prussian enemy force that never came, the village housed varying numbers of troops over the next 2 centuries, and its prison was used for deserters and political criminals. Its most famous prisoner before WWII was Gavrilo Prinzip, assassin of the Archduke Ferdinand, and unwitting starter of the First World War.
This town that never was a town lost even the few soldiers it had after the German occupation, and in 1939, its few permanent residents were paid to move elsewhere, and the fortress was used as a Gestapo prison, for politcal prisoners. The town became a temporary home for Jews assembled from the conquered territories. They were mostly from the Czech ghettos, but nearly all of them were German Bohemians, that is, they lived in Prague and other Czech towns, but thought of themselves as German. Kafka, for example, could speak Czech, but he thought and wrote in German, and although he lived his whole life in Prague, he is not considered even now by the Czechs to be one of their own, and they don't publicize his presence here. His sister was one of the inmates in Teresienstadt, and Kafka himself would certainly have landed there had he lived so long.
Prague now is, from the motorway, much like any other European city. there are the same road signs, the same markers, the same traffic even, the blend of car makes is not different from those you see in Dresden or other eastern cities.
Out of town, the countryside is flat and rural. Dvorak was born 3 miles from this road. This was Bohemia.
Having arrived in Terezin (about an hour's drive), we park in front of the house where the concert is to take place. There is a friendly Hausmeister. Nearly everyone can speak some German. English is not so common here, after all the East German border is only 20 miles away, and even before reunification, this was the road that the East Germans used to visit their socialist comrades.
I find a room downstairs and shut myself in to do the last frantic rewriting of my piece, now titled VLAK, which is Czech for "train".
None of us know how many people to expect. The town itself has only a handful of residents, mostly people who run the restaurants and hotels, so they can't come, the whole audience arrive somehow from Prague, this on a cold, foggy Sunday morning, in October.
Gaby Flatow, who has organized the memorial concert, has invited many people, including 700 survivors of the camp who are known to still be alive. (Only a tiny number still live in the Prague area, but Gaby has written to everyone anyhow). People from the embassies have been contacted. The room holds maybe 250.
(The first year of the Nazi camp, cultural events were forbidden. but in the second year they were actually encouraged, partly because it was to be a propaganda showplace. There were no gas chambers here, no real mass crematoriums. Musicians were encouraged, there were plays, satirical reviews, etc...)
In this room, concerts were given by the inhabitants. Not only here--there were several rooms in the town that served as concert halls. I look at the floor, the ceiling, Just as these musicians, Hans Krasa, Gideon Klein, Viktor Ullmann, must have looked at them in those days. Did they sit in this chair where I was sitting? They certainly waited in this room.
I go to the toilet downstairs. There is a marking on the door, in Czech. Men or Women? I have no idea. Go in tentatively.... Mens, to judge by the old urinals. The plumbing is from the socialist era, the floor obviously dates back to the early 19th century, the toilet is prewar. They must have sat on this toilet, I muse, and stared at this set of old tiles, just as I am doing now, waiting for their turn in the program, just like me.
A handsome trio of local teenagers man the cloakroom, 2 boys and a girl, 15 or 16 years old, wearing starched Scout uniforms. There is a military tradition here which won't die, even now that the Feindbild is so blurry.
The first audience members drift in. After I count ten or twelve, I decide it is worth it to play, even if more don't come
Speeches are to be given by the Mayor of Terezin, and by one of the survivors of the camp; and the German Ambassador. and Gaby.
The occasion for the concert: Gaby has discovered in the course of her research for a program that 4 composers central to the musical life in the camp plus the concertmaster of the Czech Phil, were among camp inmates transported to Auschwitz on this day, October 16th, 1944, exactly 50 years ago. Also transported on this day: the wife of Karl Ancerl, conductor of the Czech Phil and their infant daughter (1 and a half). After this day the music in Terezin effectively stopped.
These composers, all of whom were active in Prague's musical life before the war, were actively composing right up until their removal from the camps. Their styles were different, but reflected the progressive expressionistic school that Berg and Schoenberg also followed in Austria. There is little in this music which is recognizably Czech, or Jewish. None was internationally famous, but their talents were recognized before the war and they were respected.
As the 11:00 starting time drew closer it began to be obvious that we had underestimated the number of people who would come.
In the end there were close to 300 people. The room was packed, we moved chairs in from all other rooms and everyone got a seat, but there were many without programs.
The speeches were greeted with applause, for which I was grateful, because I was afraid that there would be silence after the performances out of respect. but this is not what the composers would have wanted, I am sure.
The program:
Gideon Klein: Trio for Strings (Jan Jouza, Violin, Josef Spacek, Viola, Petr Verner, Cello.
Pavel Haas: 4 Songs based on Chinese Poems. (Richard Novak, Baritone, Drahmoira Riszova, piano
Hans Krasa: Dance for String Trio
Viktor Ullmann: Hölderlin-Lieder (Olga Cerna, mezzosoprano, Cornelis Witthoefft, piano)
Victor Ullmann: Arias from "Der Kaiser von Atlantis": Das waren Kriege; Ich bin der Gärtner Tod (Krassimir Tassev, Baritone, Cornelis Witthoefft, Piano
Viktor Ullmann- Piano Sontate Nr. 7 (Cornelis Witthoefft, Piano)
GW: VLAK for solo violin

The performances are committed, sure. The performers involved know and respect this music and are not doing it for the first time. (Except for me, of course) During the concert, I sat in the lighting gallery, recording the music. I also took some photographs. After the concert, there was applause for the whole group.
I packed up my recording and photo equipment and rushed out to the short stretch of train tracks that were built to transport the prisoners to the extermination centres further east, built by the prisoners themselves. There is only a short section of rails, about 20 m, left. On one end, they disappear under the road surface, asphalted over, on the other end they have been cut abruptly.
The tracks are found on the outskirts of town, not far from the crematoria. It was here that prisoners arrived from the west, from Bohemia , from Germany, from points west, some from Holland, even Norway.
The audience have to get ther coats from the trio of Scouts, it is a cold and foggy fall morning, so I didn't really need to rush out, anyhow I am first to arrive on the tracks, about a 5 minute walk from the building where the concert has just taken place.
I set up my recorder in the bushes, so it won't be too obvious. It is cold, but fortunately there is no wind and no rain, although the humidity is around 95%.
The rails here have been decked out with white flowers and black ribbons.
People were sent to Auschwitz in a series of transports, 63 in all during the years 1941 to 1944. An Osttransport was the thing that all the ghetto inhabitants feared the most. They didnt know about the gas chambers that were at the end of those tracks--only the Gestapo knew this--, but they did know that no one had ever come back, and that they would be leaving a community they knew, where all their friends and relatives were.
Osttransport was a common punishment for violations of even trivial rules and regulations in the camp.
As the audience filtered through the trees from the town, the sun shyly got stronger. There wasn't much talking, the atmosphere was hushed. Dr. Blodig, head of the Ghetto Museum in Terezin, stepped forward when everyone had assembled, and read out, first in Czech, then in German, a description of the meaning of this short stretch of rails, the former staging area for the Osttransport. Flowers were handed out and I took out my violin.
I discovered that the violin wouldn't fit on my shoulder because of the bulky jacket I was wearing (it was bitter cold and the fog made the town fade in the near distance) . I hesitated, then took the jacket off. After all, I thought the camp inmates didn't have good coats either, had to play and practice in unheated rooms.
My manuscript, hastily inked the night before, and with pencilled additions made only minutes ago, was held up for me by Astrid , a pianist from Münster. She was staring into my eyes the whole time, which made me uncomfortable.
I try to explain to Gabi and Astrid later the genesis of the piece, how I knew I wanted to start with an f-sharp because I liked the sound of that note on the violin. I wanted to have the melody broken up..I imagined a violinist who is about to go on the transport, has to give up his violin, playing the last few notes he will ever play, playing fragments of melodies...and then on the train imagining, or hearing through the noise of the moving train, a choir singing a Jewish song...
The music I wrote is simple, deliberately so. The works of Ullmann, Krasa, etc. are dense, concentrated pieces, and full of the echoes of Viennese expressionism. I wanted to get as far away from that as possible, and chose to write something that (I hope) is poignant and accessible, like a series of sighs; the second part a four-part chorale heard dimly through the sound of the moving train.
When I changed over to the second part of the piece, where I have to change bows, I tried not to break the concentration of the audience. When I finished there was absolute silence. The police had blocked off the road, and were listening attentively.
I packed up the violin, put on my coat, switched off the tape recorder. People drifted away, deep in thought. A boy came over and asked if I spoke English, and requested a copy of the music. I took his address and promised to send him a copy.
I wandered around the town for an hour or so afterwards, in the cold fog. The town was deserted again, a ghost town once more, and I walked to the highway and caught the local bus, full of chattering teenagers from Teplice, back to Prague.

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