Saddo abroad

Saddo abroad: June 2012

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Happy Birthday Olly!

I reckon that during a lifetime you might be lucky enough to meet one person you could safely call a genius. And when I say genius I don't mean someone who is adept at, say, kicking a football or cooking a risotto. I mean someone whose mind, skills and creativity are at a level the rest of us can only dream about.
I think I've been lucky enough to meet and even work with two. One is Carlos Kleiber, whom I've raved about before, and the other, who I hold even above Kleiber on the genius front, is sixty today. He is Oliver Knussen. Olly. The Olster, Master of All Things Ol.
Now, I can think of nothing more boring than me trying to describe why Olly is a genius. But it won't stop me having a go. His music alone is enough, so transparent and yet so concentrated with detail. He may not have produced many works but they are extraordinarily rich in content, each like a fine silk cloth folded and compressed to the size of a napkin which when unravelled covers a whole table. As a conductor, he is extraordinary. Economical of gesture yet stunningly expressive, a dream to follow, unrivalled in his clarity and his ability to illuminate the trickiest of scores. As a colleague, especially to fellow composers, he is simply extraordinary; supportive and generous to a fault.
All that stuff is what you can read in any tribute. What makes Olly so adorable is that while he takes his work very seriously, any pretension of seriousness, of pomposity, makes him laugh. And what a laugh, his face folding in on itself, his massive frame wheezing in a gigantic chortle of joy.
I'm not up to the task of describing why Olly is so very beloved by those who are lucky enough to know him. And I don't use the word "beloved" lightly. He really is loved, not least (or should that be "at the very least"?) by me.
There are so many Olly stories. There's a rehearsal we were doing of Henze's "Voices" where he gave a troublesome bass player a lesson on how to play some harmonics in the correct octave. There's the time he asked a gorgeous Dutch keyboard player at the Hammond organ if she had "a swell box" (snigger, snigger). Best of all was a rehearsal in the Concertgebouw of his "Where The Wild Things Are". A junior percussionist was making a bit of a fist of things during the final run and, unusually, Olly suddenly stopped the rehearsal during the Rumpus (and if you don't know Olly's music then for a taster, the Rumpus is a good place to start). There was a silence while Olly looked at the score and up at the percussionist, then back at the score and back at the percussionist. He made a chewing face, his baton still raised. Then he said "oh fuck it", gave an upbeat and carried on.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Thought of train

Yesterday, my housemate Stephen and I went up Mount Generoso. This sounds like an achievement but it was really quite easy.
It was certainly a lot easier than the last time I did it three years ago. Then I took a train from Milan to Como, walked across town to another station, where I took a train across the border in Switzerland, then switched to a Swiss train which took me to Capolago at the bottom of Lake Lugano, where I boarded the cog train that climbs the mountain. Back then, the mainline train was scheduled to arrive at Capolago a minute before the cog train left. Given that this was Switzerland, where the trains really do leave and arrive on the dot, I assumed that this was all part of some slightly smug planning, a demonstration of immaculate time-keeping. If I'd been in Britain I would have planned to arrive in Capolago on an earlier train - a whole hour earlier - absolutely secure in the knowledge that if I didn't, my mainline train would pull into the station a few minutes late and I'd be watching my funicular connection slide away from the station without me. And probably empty to boot.
Still, I did think that allowing just a minute for a connection was cutting it a bit fine, even in Switzerland. But far be it for me to tell them how to do things. After all, taking advice from foreigners doesn't really seem to form any part of the national psyche.
When my train arrived I could see the cog train waiting, brim full of passengers. It looked much like a tram, standing on the street just outside the main station. I jogged towards it and was about to hop aboard and buy a ticket when the conductor fussily pointed me towards a ticket office and told me to get my ticket there. I ran into the office where a couple was at the ticket window, the man asking a string of questions about quantum mechanics and its effect upon the price of fondue, or so it seemed to me as I huffed and puffed and pointedly looked at my watch, the cog train, the impatient-looking conductor and my open wallet. Eventually the man finished his penetrating inquisition and I got to the window and asked for a ticket.
"The train is waiting to leave. Hurry up! No I won't take your credit card! It will take too long and the train will be late! Quick, give me your entire last month's wages!" was the general gist of the rather one-sided conversation. So I handed over a rather large wodge of euros (not having any Swiss francs), grabbed my ticket and dashed back to the conductor, who inspected it rather more closely than seemed strictly necessary given he'd just watched me buy the damn thing, shooed me onto the train and closed the door.
The train was packed, mostly, as far as I could tell, with elderly German-Swiss men - the type who wear short-sleeved shirts and beige cotton waistcoats covered in loads of useful pockets - who, to a man, treated me to some pretty poisonous looks for endangering the prompt departure of the funicular and whose pacemakers were working overtime dealing with the enormous anxiety about being Swiss on a Swiss train that appeared to be facing the very real possibility of leaving a minute late.
It does beg the question: why schedule the trains that way? Why not, say, reschedule the funicular to leave a good ten minutes after any mainline train arrives at the station, just in case it might carry someone like me who wants to buy a ticket and make the connection? Or would that be an affront to Swiss efficiency?

I decided to walk down the mountain that afternoon, even though I didn't have a proper map. After losing the path on a couple of occasions and stumbling around in woods and on the funicular track itself (which is utterly forbidden) I made it back into rural suburbia, past the usual gauntlet of barking dogs, and into a different Swiss town which, it being Sunday in Switzerland, was more shut than a clam in a vice. I can't remember what the town was called because in my head I was too busy planning a whole ceremony in which I was awarding it the Toblerone Single Most Boring Place On Earth Prize, and in which all its citizens looked rather pleased with the compliment. Not even washing machine doors are opened on a Sunday in Switzerland. Anyway, I found a station, caught a train and returned to the reassuringly wayward timekeeping of Italy.

This time around, Stephen drove us. Switzerland is but a fifteen minute drive from our digs - on a recent Italian public holiday we popped over there for a pint of milk - and Capolago just half an hour. We got there in good time and had no trouble buying tickets with a credit card. Just as well as the return fare for the 45 minute ride to the very top of Generoso is 42 Swiss francs, which is about £28 at the moment.
Still, it's worth it. The views across the Alps are stunning, cows wander around clanking their bells and swifts zoom around in a swirling congregation. The sound of a swift whizzing within a few feet of your head is particularly special. These swifts don't seem to chirrup very much, possibly as the result of some canton regulation against making noise on a Friday. What you hear is a high swoosh of air rushing past their feathers. It sounds as if someone is slicing the sky with a knife. And not any knife. A Swiss Army knife. The short blade. Not the big one. Not allowed. "The big blade is NOT designed for slicing the air and should NOT be used for this purpose!"