Sunday, June 24, 2007

A Musical Flourish

Janáček’s Sinfonietta was simply an amazing wonder. I’ve heard extracts from the work before on the radio, particularly the opening brass fanfare. But this truly monumental work can only be fully appreciated when performed live, which was what I encountered this evening.

Enormous forces were arrayed. I counted eight double basses and ten trumpets, and let’s not forget to mention the horns and trombones and tubas as well. The work comes in five movements, and at the closing Andante Con Moto, the original fanfare theme is once again sounded, but with even more dramatic energy and force, resulting in a cavalcade and cacophony of brilliant, brilliant sounds.

Mere words cannot describe the experience. Neither can a lousy CD recording. One has to be there in person, fused to the seat, ready to receive the astonishing revelation.

The parents and I had been attending a concert at the Royal Festival Hall in the newly refurbished South Bank Centre. Also on the menu was the intensely German opening overture to Wagner’s Meistersinger von Nürnberg and Mozart’s Piano Concert No. 25, performed by the legendary Mitsuko Uchida. Serving up the delights was the Philharmonia Orchestra, resident at South Bank, under chef and conductor Sir Charles Mackerras.

The orchestra arranged themselves in an interesting order. For instance - from the perspective of the audience - the double basses stood at the rear of the stage, instead of the percussion section, the members of which were sprinkled throughout. Flanking the conductor on right were the second violins, not the cellos. The harpist sat on the extreme right hand side of the stage, and not the traditional left. Heck. I had always encountered lady harpists, but the Philharmonia had a fat, greying middle-aged man play the part instead.

But all in all, we left the Royal Festival Hall, impressed, walking into the summer twilight of a wet London evening. The parents leave for home tomorrow, and I sure hope they enjoyed themselves these past two weeks, first in England with the sister, and then in the Northern Baltics and London with me.

Earlier in the day, I had taken the two of them to Hampstead for a nice pub lunch at the Freemasons Arms, the same place which I failed to get in earlier in the month. We each tried out the roast beef, and I think none of us came away disappointed. The Freemasons Arms is one of London’s premier gastropubs, with a classy setting in the middle of one of the city’s most handsome districts.

My Sunday pub mates are slowly leaving London one by one, and I need to go look for new partners. It’s been interesting as well to visit different pubs, each with its own unique character. I hear of those who have made it their passion to visit all pubs in Britain. I think I’d be happy if I could get to visit just five percent of London’s pubs during my time here.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Wicked in London

The parents are now in London, and I spent part of today with them catching a matinee performance of Wicked. This is a new award-winning musical production, based loosely upon a novel which was based, in turn, on the more famous tale of the Wizard of Oz.

I think it was a pretty decent and enjoyable act, taking place at the Apollo Victoria theatre, located away from the West End theatric core. The complex was larger and more modern than many its old and cramped counterparts further north. The stage design and setting was very impressive, but I can’t say I came away with any memorable melodies in my head.

London on a Saturday afternoon in summer was extremely crowded and messy, a far cry from the sedate Tallinn and Helsinki just days ago. The Tube was packed to capacity, and there was so much noise, and color and people around. My mum found it overwhelming, and I guess this city isn’t a place for one to settle down for a relaxing break. Instead, your senses are assaulted from all angles.

But a large part of me relishes the experience tremendously. I have so much to do, so much to see, and even more to eat in the coming couple of months.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Back in Tallinn

Our final day back in Tallinn gave us the chance to tour the Old Town once more. We had a different hotel this time round, the Tallink, located near a large and modern shopping mall. And fair skies greeted us upon our return – a severe contrast to our first day there – although by the next morning, dark clouds had rolled in again.

I can see why the Old Town has received so much acclaim. I’ve walked on many ancient streets in Europe before, but rarely have I been in a place which reeks so heavily of the mediaeval. We’re talking about the 13th to the 15th centuries here – far older than many other cities. The age is evident in the architecture of the churches, for instance, which look far simpler and austere than the ornate baroque or classical churches we’ve found elsewhere. So, all in all, the streets were rather lovely, even charming.

We had a nice and relaxing outdoor dinner on Wednesday at the Balthasar, a newish restaurant located in an old medieval house right next to the central town square. And its speciality? Garlic! My kind of place, definitely.

This was what we had at the beginning – a selection of bread rolls, with creamy garlic butter.

Then came the fish soup. Yum.

And finally, my beef fillet, pervaded with garlic. Heh.

Cанкт Петербург

I’m here in Tallinn again for a brief layover before returning to London, still not quite believing that I had actually spent the past four days in St Petersburg. I guess it’s just a place that I never thought I would return to, but right now, I’m already looking back at a pretty interesting and memory-rich trip into the past.

All the old sights I first encountered seven years ago were still there – including the stunning Palace Square outside the Winter Palace. When I first saw a postcard image of the Square, with its imposing Alexander Column, my attention was seized instantly, and I knew it was a place I just had to visit. For who could have imagined that a city of such palatial grandeur could exist in such relatively obscurity in Europe?

But of course, perhaps some don’t consider Russia to be part of Europe. Certainly many Russians don’t. But that’s getting into another deeper discussion altogether. However, when St Petersburg was built as a new capital for the country – by Peter the Great, in fact – it was done consciously to steer Russia towards European enlightenment, away from “Asiatic” Moscow.

And what a great city was erected along the Neva river, upon which a flourishing court, cultural and artistic life soon developed. But many of us are also familiar with the convulsions it’s gone through, visible in the name changes from the Germanic St Petersburg, to the Russified Petrograd, and then to the Communist-inspired Leningrad, before reverting back to St Petersburg after the fall of Communism.

The Palace Square itself might look entirely anodyne today, but a hundred years ago, in 1905, Russian peasants had gathered there to petition the Tsar, only to find themselves targets for his soldiers and their guns, in what turned out to be a bloody Tiananmen on the Baltic. That was also the event which inspired Shostakovitch’s monumental Symphony No. 11, which I count as one of my favourites.

When I was last in St Petersburg, it was a different time in my life, and much has changed since. I was with someone else then, and now, I’m travelling with my parents. Unfortunately for them, in terms of comfort, St Petersburg cannot compare with Helsinki or with Tallinn. The streets are visibly grubbier, the tap water is totally undrinkable, and although there were quite a few head turners around, the people are generally, well, rougher and gruffer.

The language difference doesn’t help, and I had to re-learn my Cyrillic alphabet in order to read the street and other public signs. But it’s kinda neat, once you get the hang of it. For instance, Nevsky Prospect, the main city artery and shopping thoroughfare, is rendered as Hевский Просрект in Russian.

Together with the parents, I reprised some of the trails I did back in 2000, swinging by the St Issac’s Cathedral, the Kazan Cathedral, the St Nicholas Church and the Church of Spilled Blood, along with a visit to the Peter and Paul Fortress, where the tombs of the Romanov Tsars can be found. This time round, we checked out the Menshikov Palace, but it was a palace definitely worth missing.

One of the highlights of this return visit was a trip back to the Hermitage, probably one of the world’s greatest art museums, ranking alongside the Louvre of France in terms of the comprehensiveness of its cultural holdings. On display were sizeable quantities of Old Masters, such as Rembrant and Titian and what about this incomparable Matisse, La Danse, which, with its strong tones, heightens the drama and concentration of the dancers, totally lost in their movements.

Perhaps one reason why my previous visit to St Petersburg had seemed to surreal, so different from my other travels, was that it was a place infused with so much meaning and mysticism, symbolic of the deep and rich culture that is Russia. You get a sense of that right away when you step into a darkened Orthodox church, suffused with incense, replete with iconography, and swarming with the pious and the penitent. Some things seem beyond comprehension, but this return trip has, however, made it more real for me.

Travel Notes: We took a daytime train, the Sibelius, from Helsinki to St Petersburg’s Finland Station, the very station Lenin stepped out from when he made his triumphant arrival in St Petersburg in April 1917. Our hotel was as the Dostoevsky, located on Vladimirsky Prospect, opposite the Vladimir Church. Nice pancakes to be had at Teremok, with a few chains across the city.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Rampant in Helsinki

It really takes some getting used to. When you head to bed late at night, the sky is bright. When you toss and turn in the middle of your sleep, opening an eye, the sky still kinda seems lit up. And when you finally wake up early in the morning, the sky is already sunny. It’s pretty amazing.

So this is Finland - land of a thousand lakes, land of Nokia, and land of cool Nordic blondes. I’m in Helsinki right now, in the week leading up to the summer solstice, when the days are at their longest of the year. And with this city being so far north, the sun hardly sets. It makes for a rather pleasant experience in this most pleasant and agreeable of cities. Nice, clean, bustling, obviously prosperous, and, after Estonia, with perfect weather.

Finland’s history resembles that its immediate southern neighbour, with tales of foreign occupation – first by the Swedes, and later by the Russians. In fact, many of us may know of Finland and of Finnish nationalism because of one tune, and one person – Finlandia, that stirring work by Jean Sibelius, who was born, ironically, into a Swedish-speaking family. Today, only about six percent of Finnish citizens are Swedes, but both languages have official status, with road signs and official names rendered in both Finnish – a totally inscrutable language related only to Estonian and more distantly, to Hungarian – and Swedish, which bears greater resemblance to English.

And so we ventured to the Sibelius memorial, located in a picturesque park just slightly north of the city centre. It wasn’t a conventional monument which greeted us. Instead, we found a pipe-like installation, plus a metal cast bust of the great composer’s face, with, well, things sticking out on both sides. What were they? Our guide informed us reliably that they were supposed to represent Sibelius’ thoughts...

Downtown, and sitting at the top of the main Senate Square, above steep steps, was the all-white Lutheran Helsinki Cathedral, which commands a good view of the city. This is probably Helsinki’s most famous icon, built in the shape of a Greek crucifirm, but only one of its many architectural offerings. There were many many others.

We also wandered through other parts of the city, checking out the Market Square by the harbour, walking past the park by the Töölönlathi lake (I have no idea how to pronounce that!), and the incomparable Temppeliaukio Church, carved into solid rock. Throughout our jaunt through the city, there were no communicaition problems at all, with the Finns of Helsinki appearing very conversant in English.

We spent the afternoon at Porvoo – pictured above – a town some 50km east of Helsinki, founded next to a river in the 14th century, with a heavy Swedish presence. Many of the old and narrow streets remain. In the 19th century, Porvoo became a haven for many notable artists and intellectuals, including painter Albert Edelfelt and Finland’s national poet, Johan Ludvig Runeberg. Since I can’t read what he wrote, I enjoyed another of his legacies – the Runeberg Tart. Hee. It’s a tasty piece of Finnish pastry, small and cylindrical, with jam and a suger ring on top. Absolutely delectable.

Travel Notes: We managed the sea crossing to Helsinki from Tallinn under two hours in a fast Superseacat ferry. Accommodation at the extremely agreeable Hotel Sokos Presidentti, which offers free wireless Internet surfing. It’s located next to the new Kamppi shopping centre, where we had a very good time dining at the Empire Plaza and at Minos.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Rampant in Tallinn

I’m on a tour right now with the parents through the Northern Baltics. Our first stop yesterday was in Tallinn, capital of Estonia. It was my first visit to an ex-Soviet state, apart from Russia itself, but I can’t really give a fair account of the city. Landing in the afternoon after a flight to London, we were greeted with miserable weather, the grey skies giving way soon to a torrential downpour.

Tallinn has, reputedly, one of the best preserved mediaeval town centres of Europe, one worth checking out, without the hordes that now descend onto places like Prague, so I’m told. We did an afternoon walking tour through the city, past sites such as Toompea Castle, which serves as the current Parliament House, the Tall Hermann’s Tower next to it, and the Town Hall Square, reaching it only after winding our way through narrow and wet cobblestone streets.

This is a small country of less than a million and a half inhabitants, of which only about two thirds are ethnic Estonians. The rest are mainly Russians, who found themselves on the wrong side of the border when the Soviet Union disintegrated. In the run up to this trip, both countries had been involved in a cyberwar, with Russian hackers attacking parts of the Estonian electronic infrastructure, after the government in Tallinn decided to remove a memorial to Soviet soldiers from the Second World War from its prominent central location.

I guess it makes for difficult relations between both communities. Our guide, a former Estonian teacher, seemed pretty strident in her anti-Communism, even talking about how her family had once been scheduled for deportation. In fact, hearing her account of Estonian history, you’re reminded of the fate small countries invariably suffer from, with this small territory having been occupied successively by the Danes, the Swedes, the Germans and then the Russians. Apart from the interwar interlude, independence was only secured in 1991.

The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral – a Russian orthodox cathedral pictured above – occupied prime high ground, directly opposite Toompea Castle. It’s a striking building, worth celebrating for religious, historical and aesthetic reasons, but to Estonians, it serves only to remind them of earlier attempts to russify their country. Our guide, who seemed happy to take us into the nearby Cathedral of Saint Mary the Virgin – which was itself full of hatchments belonging to foreign nobility – was resolute in not entering the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral with us.

That evening, we had dinner at Olde Hansa – referring to the Hanseatic League – a charming mediaeval-themed restaurant, in which every part of the décor, the menu, even the loos, were done up to provide an atmosphere of ages past. If only I had taken a photo or two within. But never mind. The meat soup I had was good, as was my duck, and the bread with garlic butter. Plus, we had a very young and pretty waitress serving us, clad delightfully in mediaeval robes. Heh.

It’s not goodbye to Tallinn or to Estonia yet. We’ll be back in about five or six days, spending another night there before we return to London. Let’s hope the weather clears up by then. This city really deserves a much closer look. And I’ve not even gotten any souvenir pieces yet. I play the part of a tourist very well indeed.

Travel Notes: We journeyed to Estonia as part of a tour of the Northern Baltics, organized by Travel Editions in the UK. Direct flights from London Gatwick to Tallinn are available from Estonian Air, with good accommodation at the Grand Hotel Tallinn, located just outside the inner city.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Cars in Canary Wharf

Here’s an image of my dream car, the Aston Martin V8 Vantage. How often have I lingered over her sleek lines, jaw dropping, dreaming of being able to floor it and head to heaven and back.

But since it’s entirely permissible to be promiscuous in these matters, here’s another dream car of mine, the new BMW M6. Not bad eh? And the selling price in the UK? A wee £87,000.

And of course I have more dream cars : ) Unfortunately, cars are probably the only items that cost more in Singapore than they do in London, hideously expensive though this city is. And what a veritable smorgasbord of cars the SSG and I saw this afternoon, when we ventured east along the Jubilee Line to Canary Wharf, venue for the London MotorExpo 2007. The weather was brilliant and the crowds were thin and the cars were encased not in some giant warehouse, but were instead displayed all around the parks and squares around Canary Wharf, amidst the people and towers in the area. All in all, a very lovely setting.

And all the major marques were there – from the BMWs and Mercedes Benz and the Audis to the posh Maybachs, Maseratis and Morgans.

It was cool just sauntering around all the metallic marvels, and wondering what could have been, if only I had more money. Of course, the SSG, who will be staying on in London, has set her sights on a BMW Z4, and she made sure she conveyed her preferences to one of the sales staff here.

One of the really fun bits came when we stumbled upon a demonstration area set up by Land Rover. Of course, I’ve spent way too many nights cooped up in green Land Rovers (Defender series), back when I was in the army. But the vehicles on display here were radically different. Here a Range Rover was put through a series of gravity-defying stunts, like climbing and down up a 35 degree ramp, and driving along a steep incline. They were offering free joyrides, and the SSG and I hardly hesitated in lining up for the (cheap) thrill.

After an enjoyable afternoon at Canary Wharf, the SSG and I linked up with the CM, HM and the GNK at Shiok, the Singaporean restaurant on Southampton Row. Four out of the five of us settled on the chicken mee soto, which came with nice slices of cut chili and a tremendously fulfilling broth. It really was very good. The folks there took a liking to us – because of the presence of the beautiful ladies, they claimed – and we were treated two dessert dishes on the house.

I’m really going to miss London so much when I leave this place three months from now.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Lunch At The Easton

After a pretty long absence, we got together this Sunday afternoon for a most enjoyable and satisfying pub lunch at the Easton. We were blessed once more with gracious weather, good food and great company. Part of the reason for the gathering today was to bid a friendly farewell to the Singapore Doctor, who will soon leave London and resume his highly profitable upstairs and downstairs practice back home. He shall be remembered for things like blue sofas, blue ropes and the striking blue polo shirt of today. He's been fun to have around, having joined us on quite a few trips over the past months, and, with any luck, having also picked up some semblance of a Singlish-speaking ability. Heh.

The Easton lived up to its fine reputation. Today I ordered a serving of pork belly, and was rewarded with a huge and succulent slab, accompanied by some of the best roast potatoes I’ve tasted. After this and the meaty meal the evening before, it’s no wonder I had to go on a long run to the Gherkin later in the afternoon. But for now, it’s time to put thoughts of food away, and focus instead on the looming assignments. How wonderful appetizing. My mouth’s simply watering with eager anticipation.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Mecklenburgh Smokeout

Today turned out to be one of those eat-until-burst kind of days. The weather was kind and the sun lingered long in the sky. The ever capable GNK had arranged a lovely barbecue over at the park on Mecklenburgh Square just outside my hall. Putting aside my shitty essay, I sauntered in and then ended up having way too many helpings of salad, sausages, stingrays, beef chops and chicken wings. And potato chips too. And beer. Wah lau. And since I’m now too full to write more, let’s just enjoy this brief series of images from this most lovely of gatherings.