Jan 31 2008

Karneval in Cologne

Published by at 6:47 pm under PSO 2008 European Tour

Murray Crewe and Peter SullivanIt’s Weiberfastnacht in Cologne—the day the women take over the city in the events leading up to Shrove Tuesday and Lent. I’ve never been to Mardi Gras, but the atmosphere seems the same. It began at eleven minutes after eleven this morning, with a countdown and balloons and confetti. Two shopkeepers told me yesterday that they were closing and getting out of town. Any man wearing a tie can expect a woman to chop it off with scissors and then kiss him. Bass Trombone Murray Crewe and Principal Trombone Peter Sullvan enjoyed the ceremony and had their ties severed this afternoon. They wore brightly colored hats. Everyone has a bottle of Früh Kölsch, Cologne’s local brew, or some other refreshment. Bottles are discarded everywhere on the street. Little bands of musicians play traditional tunes with drums and tuba, and trumpet leading the way.

KarnevalWurst are charcoal grilled and topped with Heinz curry ketchup. The scene is similar all over town. Folks in the elevator, dressed in military garb with rifles, stood together with tigers, monks and medieval knights. It keeps up for the next five days, with live TV coverage. I bought a CD of Cologne Carnival Band Favorites at the Saturn store. I passed over another CD of Carnival hits, with a rude title leading off two discs—“Du Hast die Schönste Arsch aus die Welt” (“You have the most beautiful behind in the world.”) Really now. This is a religious festival, nicht wahr? Carnival certainly disproves the stereotypical image of Germans as being tightly-wrapped. The season is celebrated primarily along the Rhine, and mostly by Catholics. Among many high points is Rosenmontag (“Roses Monday”), with everyone in a grand parade.

Violin soloist Leonidas Kavakos said he was glad to be here for Carnival. He told me they celebrate Carnival in his native Greece, too. It’s nice to carry on a tradition that has lasted for centuries. Last night, Kavakos continued his tradition of knocking out an audience with the Brahms Concerto at the Philharmonie in Cologne. Leonidas KavakosHe wears black, has a black scruffy beard, and when playing seems so focused and intense that it was a delightful surprise to talk with him after the concert and discover his cheerful, warm personality. He hugged his godson, whom he said he regrets not seeing more often, and greeted everyone warmly at his dressing room door. They all raved. His publicist said the reaction was extraordinary for Cologne.

Kavakos played an encore— the Sarabande from the Second Partita by Bach. The previous evening he’d played Bach’s Andante from the Sonata in A minor. He chose Bach because Brahms was such a fan of J.S. Bach.

I spoke with the salesman at the lobby counter, where they were offering both Pittsburgh Symphony CDs of Brahms Symphonies. The newer one, with the Second and Third Symphonies, is just out. Marek Janowski signed them in the lobby after the concert. The sales guy said there was more than the usual inquiry for Kavakos, and that he isn’t that well known in Cologne. They’d had a similar reaction to a young Georgian violinist named Lisa Batiashvili and her new CD on Sony Classical. Also for sale—the classic Brahms and Beethoven Concerto recordings from Steinberg and the Pittsburgh Symphony on EMI Classics.

Koln CathedralAfter the Brahms Third Symphony from Janowski and the Pittsburgh, it was an encore of the Scherzo from Brahms’ Fourth. The Cologne Philharmonie is partially underground. The entrance is right next to Cologne Cathedral, and adjacent to several museums. The Cathedral is impressive at any time of day, and at night it is beautifully lit.

At midnight, I walked a block from the hotel to a sandwich place called a “Doener Kebap.” It’s the Turkish version of the gyro, with a salsa-like red curry sauce or a white sauce with garlic, onions, lettuce on your choice of lamb or turkey. Clarinetist Ron Samuels and Stage Crew members John Karapandi and Rocky Esposito had already figured out the ordering routine–and the lady behind the counter. The Doener kebap stands are everywhere in Germany, given the large number of Turkish immigrants in the country. I had a terrific piece of Bierstangel bread and a Berliner—the sugar coated round donut with a strawberry fruit filling popular in Deutschland. Remember JFK’s famous “Ich bin ein Berliner!” speech? It’s often claimed that he was saying “I am a jelly donut.” Those who lived in Berlin when the wall went up knew what he meant.

KolschThe Germans know their brot. German bread is amazing at breakfast, or any meal. The dark, heavy loaves are rich with natural grains, and rolls are covered with big green seeds—we don’t see them in Pittsburgh, seeds that look like sunflowers. Delicious. At breakfast, there were at least a dozen types of bread with chocolate bits, raisins and much more.

After the concert, the Pittsburgh Symphony was offered a glass of Kölsch. It’s only brewed in Cologne by several local breweries. The tap is opened, and glasses are filled on a round tray. The orchestra deserved “Ein Prosit” for their Brahms at the Philharmonie.

Now it’s off to Wuppertal, 35 minutes from Cologne. Wuppertal was formed in 1929. Several cities were joined together just like Pittsburgh, Allegheny City and Lawrenceville. It’s an industrial city along the banks of the Wupper River. Tal means valley. The two biggest cities joined in a long, narrow stretch were Elberfeld and Barmen. Not everyone was happy with the merger, naturlich. Solingen, the company that makes the fine German steel cutlery, is just up the river.

The Stadthall is fabulous. Huge old building with marble everywhere. It’s been recently refurbished to pristine condition. Remy champagne drinkers in the lobby. The WDR classical radio has a huge display. Mathias behind the table says he can roll up his set up with a huge color backdrop in eine Minuten. Inside, the ceiling is painted with blue sky, like King Frederick’s Palace. Cream and green are the predominant colors. Stadthall reliefTen stone faces, all with different expressions, and ladies in stone line the only balcony. Five rows of seats are beneath the organ case behind the orchestra. Only a handful of seats were empty. Marek Janowski was born in Poland but grew up here with his Mom. His Dad was lost in the Second World War. He came here as a child, but has never conducted in Wuppertal till now.

Tonight, we have Julia Fischer playing the Brahms Concerto. We heard her last season at Heinz Hall for the first time. The orchestra checked out the sound in a 30 minute session. I head to the bar for a butter pretzel at 1.50 euros. What’s this? Here comes someone I know! It’s Florian Wiegand, who went to CMU for his masters degree 1999-2001. Now, he’s the Artistic Director of the Dortmund Konzerthaus. He drove about 35 minutes to see the Pittsburgh Symphony. He worked for the PSO during the 2000-2001 season. Florian said the area is terrific, with five theaters all with active concert life—Essen, Dortmund, Dusseldorf, Cologne and Wuppertal within an hour of one another.

He’s having a big season in Dortmund, presenting the Vienna Philharmonic with Georges Pretre, and the Concertgebouw with Andre Previn and violinist Anne Sophie Mutter (they’re still good friends after their divorce.) Later, the Cincinnati Orchestra and Paavo Jarvi are coming over. Florian still raves about the Pittsburgh Symphony’s visit to his Dortmund hall in 2006, and he hopes to return to Pittsburgh soon.

Wuppertal StadthallJulia Fischer is gorgeous. She wore a burgundy velvet gown with bare shoulders, plunging neckline, and blond hair tied back. It’s intense physical playing. She bends way back in the big moments. She’s trim and petite with a big smile and bright eyes. How was her Brahms? I loved it. Sensational playing. The encore was the last movement of a solo sonata by Paul Hindemith that only turned up in 2003. Flat out fireworks.

Julia ushered me into her dressing room for an intermission interview. She moves her hair dryer off a chair so we can sit. She loved working with Pittsburgh and hopes she can work out a return visit to Heinz Hall in September, 2010. The bell rings, and she hops up saying “I’ve got to change!” I got a hug and a kiss. I’m not complaining about the rush.

At the end of the Brahms Fourth on the second half of the concert, there she is at the edge of the stage among the first violins, next to PSO violinist Emma Hancock. Julia has changed gowns and joined the Pittsburgh to play more Brahms. Only once in a great while does the soloist go out to play in the orchestra after intermission. Yo Yo Ma was the last I can remember.