Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Choir tour! St Peter's, Radovljica

I suppose it was inevitable that on Friday 13th, things should start to go slightly awry. It was raining in the morning, so our scheduled trip to the Bled Adventure Park- and the famous Summer Toboggan - was called off. Instead the kids went rafting before returning for a last lunch at our hotel. I'm going to miss those Slovenian salads.
That evening, we were scheduled to perform in Radovljica, about half an hour's drive from the hotel. We arrived to find a little town that looked like something from a movie set. Pristine houses with beautiful frescoes lined the town square, while the gingerbread shop, Lectar - with its lovely little hearts (lect) decorated with flowers and mottoes - is famous throughout Slovenia.
It all added to the impression that Slovenia is not quite real - it's a fantasy place, like Ruritania (if you're old enough to remember Stewart Granger in The Prisoner of Zenda) or Genovia (if you're only old enough to remember The Princess Diaries). I even saw someone wearing lederhosen.
Indeed, it seemed almost too good to be true, and I had to sit firmly on the journalistic bit of my brain, which was busily noting that there seemed to be no poor people, no rundown areas and absolutely no ethnic communities whatsoever. Being Protestant seemed to be about as multicultural as it gets in this part of the former Yugoslavia.
Historically, Slovenia is the most liberal - as well as the most wealthy - of the former Yugoslav states. After independence, however, non-Slovenian Yugoslav nationals had their residency rights rescinded. Around 30,000 people - ethnic Croats, ethnic Serbs, Bosnian Muslims, Albanian Kosovars and ethnic Roma - had their names erased from the civil registers, a move described by human rights campaigners as "administrative genocide".
Browsing in the gingerbread shop, the owner showed me a selection of mottoes which were available in English. "Home Sweet Home" and "With Love" and "From Me To You": that sort of thing. They had French versions, German versions, Italian versions - "any language you like," he said, "even Hebrew and Japanese". "And Slovenian, of course?" I said. "Yes, Slovenian," he said, laughing, adding: "For the Nazi slogans." Hmm.
Wherever you go in the world, and whatever image you might have of a place, it is odd how often the people you meet - the ordinary citizens - turn out to be charming and generous. I have Iranian and Iraqi friends, for example, who rank among the warmest, most civilised people I know. Whenever I see them, I wonder how we came to be at odds with nations that produce such affectionate, tolerant individuals.
It was the same in Slovenia. One could spend one's time feeling slightly uncomfortable about certain aspects of Slovenian history, but it seemed a bit churlish in the face of the kindness that our hosts showed towards the choir.
St Peter's was a pretty little church to match a pretty little town. There has been a church on this site since the tenth century, and this building dates from around 1500. We were intrigued to find that it was hung with garlands and wreaths and wondered whether there had been a wedding. No, we were told, the decorations were for the installation of a new parish priest the week before. Lucky priest - what a welcome.
The ceiling, in particular, was fascinating - painted with flowers both real and imagined. You could pick out a pansy, or a thistle - inspiration from the meadows and hillsides - alongside more fantastical blossoms which had flourished in the painter's fertile imagination.
Beside the church, there was the Rectory, a two-storey building built around a courtyard hung with windowboxes that overflowed with scarlet geraniums. We were shown into a large room where we could dump our stuff and change into our cassocks. Windows opened out from the corridor onto the courtyard, and to our delight, there were hummingbird moths feeding on the geraniums.
In such a small, quiet town, it was difficult to see how we were going to generate any kind of audience. (This became a recurring theme as the tour went on, always with the same result.) However, we processed into the church to find it crowded with people, and each piece of music was greeted with rapturous applause - so much so that it was sometimes difficult to start the next item.

Linhart Square in Radovljica's medieval old town, with its stone fountain and painted houses. The square is named after Anton Linhart (1756-1795), a Slovene historian and playwright, who was born in the town.

Sivec House, which has a fresco depicting the good Samaritan. Note the paint-effect stonework - many of the houses have this sort of decoration, but this was the most spectacular example.

A baroque fresco on the wall of the Koman House.

St Peter's Church, with a bust of St Peter, holding the keys to Heaven, above the door.

The green garlands inside the church were part of the decorations put up to welcome the new parish priest.

The flower-painted ceiling - some flowers are recognisable, some are imaginary.

An orchestra of angels adorns the ceiling over the central nave.

Gingerbread on sale at the Lectar House, which is also a B&B and a restaurant.

Isn't this gingerbread house sweet? I had precisely 10 minutes to get into the shop, take pictures and catch up with the rest of the choir. Just as well, really, or I would have bought the whole shop.

Many of the hearts carried mottoes, which made it even more difficult to choose. I bought four, very quickly, for me, my daughter and two of her friends, thinking they would like to keep them as souvenirs. I turned round five minutes later to see my daughter stuffing hers into her mouth.

Gingerbread hearts ready to be decorated. I tried not to think about E numbers!

Girls aloud: from left, Becca, Kitty (Becca's mum), me and my daughter, Nevada, dressed in the dreaded cassocks.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Choir tour! The Postojna Caves, Slovenia

Thursday 12 July was a day for chilling out - literally. It began with a trip to the Postojna Caves, an amazing warren of chambers adorned with stalagmites and stalactites of all shapes, sizes and colours.
Our tour guide, Sara, had warned us that the temperature below ground would be really cold, around 8C, compared to 28C outside.
I've been to limestone caves before, and was inclined to be of the opinion that when you've seen one lot of stalatites, you've seen them all. However, Postojna was very impressive, not least because you were taken into the caves on a little train, which rattled you through tunnels and under overhanging rocks at top speed.
The cave system was enormous - chamber after chamber of different formations. Some looked like tattered flags or pieces of cloth (or prosciutto, said one of the permanently hungry Year 7 boys). Others looked like melted candles, and on some of the ceilings there were "spaghetti" formations, with endless small stalactites hanging from the roof.

We weren't allowed to take pictures, unfortunately, but in the very last chamber, called the Concert Hall, the chamber choir were able to perform, and here they are. They call themselves Vocalicity and they are directed by my daughter. They're very good (though I say so myself!) - they've been working with the a cappella group Voces8 for two years and they sound very professional.
The woman who was conducting the tour of the caves was about to announce that Vocalicity were singing when suddenly someone in the crowd of tourists collapsed. I'm not sure what was wrong, but she seemed all right once they got her outside. Perhaps it was a panic attack, brought on by being underground for so long - and we had walked a long way through the caves before rejoining the train.

When we emerged, the sun had come out to warm us all up.

Choir tour! Our first concert

Our first concert in Slovenia was in Ljubljana, at the Franciscan Church, which dominates the town square. We had a couple of hours to rehearse, then the concert, which began at 8pm.
I'd been warned that my daughter that although we might wear a cassock over our everyday clothes for a concert at home, on tour it would be too hot to wear anything but underwear. This proved to be true.
The people at the Franciscan Church were very welcoming and showed us into a big, cool room, where we could change and leave our stuff. We then trooped into the church for the rehearsal. The church was magnificent.

It took us all at least half an hour to stop gawping. It was great to see the kids appreciate all the decorative detail, and get their cameras out.

The organ was probably one of the best organs we had during the tour. It was huge, with a fantastic growly sound like a jungle beast, which really suited the first piece we sang, the Kyrie from Louis Vierne's Messe Solennelle.

Ljubljana is a very pretty, relaxed city, where you can sit at one of the riverside cafes and watch the world go by.

Here's the marketplace, closed up for the day by the time we finished our rehearsal.

 The staff, enjoying a brief break. My daughter's school, Emanuel, has four full-time music staff, all of whom studied either at Oxford or Cambridge. One holds a Fellowship of the Royal College of Organists (FRCO) and two others have Associateships (ARCO). There are a host of instrumental teachers who come in on a part-time basis, including four singing teachers. As you can tell, this is a school that takes singing - and music - seriously.
I'm going to pause to have a little rant here. There is an attitude these days that classical music is somehow exclusive, or "posh". Working-class kids, the argument goes, don't have access to instruments, or expensive lessons, so singing Bach, rather than rap or cover versions of pop songs, is beyond them.
I find this attitude quite patronising. Anyone who can sing vaguely in tune can sing choral music; you just need to learn the notes (although it helps if you have a competent choirmaster or mistress). And of course, you need a certain level of commitment to turn up for rehearsals and concerts.
However, music is not seen as a core subject in many schools, and you have to rely on dedicated music staff - in the state sector or the private sector - to get good music-making.
The weird thing is that numerous studies have found that musical instruction improves cognitive ability in children. It's not quite clear why, and it seems that the improvement may disappear again if the children stop learning music. You'd think that would make schools - and parents - rush to put music slightly higher up the agenda, but no. It's still seen as something that's a bit trivial.

Anyway, back to Ljubljana. Wandering around the narrow streets, there are lots of architectural details to admire. One of the landmarks is the three bridges, or Tromostovje, across the river. That's two of them, in the picture below. The original bridge was quite narrow, so two pedestrian bridges were added either side in the 19th century to ease congestion. Now all of them are pedestrianised.

One of the biggest thrills of going on choir tour for me was to hear my daughter's composition, Aurum Stella, being sung by the choir in public for the first time. The choir was featured on a Slovenian television arts programme, and the concert was recorded on Italian radio and Russian television, so if I manage to get my hands on a recording, I'll post it here.

Choir tour! We arrive in Slovenia

I'd been a bit worried about going on choir tour with my daughter's school. Sitting in a cafe on rainy London afternoon months ago, it had seemed like a fun idea to go with them and sing in St Mark's in Venice.
My friend Kitty (the mother of my daughter's friend Becca) and I had suggested it as a joke.
To our surprise, the girls seemed very keen on the idea. To our greater surprise, so did the school music department (though we do sing in the parents' section of the choir for big concerts, so they knew vaguely what they were letting themselves in for.)
Perhaps it would be too exhausting. Perhaps it would be too claustrophobic, spending our holiday with 40 schoolchildren. Perhaps sharing a room would drive us mad. But then Tuesday 10 July arrived and it was too late to worry about it any longer. We flew out from Gatwick to Venice, then travelled by coach to the lake resort of Bled. 
Our tour guide, Sara, had been told by the teachers to tell the kids that the journey would take a couple of hours. In fact, it took four (including a quick stop for lunch). Kitty and I didn't realise that this was a ruse to stop the kids moaning about the length of the journey, so we spent the first few days making jokes about "Slovenian time", in which every hour seemed to be twice as long as its British equivalent.

Choir tours can be quite hectic. The point, of course, is to perform concerts, which means you need time to rehearse as well. In between, there is a chance to do other things, such as a bit of sightseeing, but there's not that much time to sit and do nothing. So when we saw the castle sitting high above the lake, and the clouds lounging lazily on the mountains, below, you could almost feel everything start to relax.

It is a lovely place, quite close to the border with Austria and about 50 miles from the capital of Slovenia, Ljubljana. Slovenia's neighbours also include Italy, Croatia and Hungary, and these different influences are particularly noticeable in the cuisine. You might be offered goulash, schnitzel and pasta on the same menu.
The Slovene language is Slavic, so quite similar to Russian (especially in terms of grammar), but basic phrases for thank you and please, for example, are quite different. It doesn't look like Russian, as it uses the Latin alphabet (ABCD etc) rather than the Cyrillic alphabet. In fact, the written language looks more like Hungarian or Polish, with various stress signs to change the pronunciation of vowels and consonants. Most of the population is Catholic, and there are hundreds of old churches, some dating back to early Christian times.
Our hotel, the Hotel Park, was modern and spacious, and the food was good too - lots of salad and fresh fruit and vegetables. The sight of bowls piled high with peaches, apricots, and cherries was a treat for English eyes. (Cherries, in particular, cost a fortune in the UK.)
The service was excellent and there was a pool, with a hot tub, on the top floor, so you could sit in the hot tub and gaze out at the lake and the mountains. Bliss!

If you wanted some gentle exercise, you could walk or cycle round the lake (cycle hire was €1), and the more energetic could walk up to the castle, where there was a restaurant and a panoramic view of the surrounding hills and mountains.
There was a tiny little church on an island in the middle of the lake, and you could hire a boat to take you over. Legend has it that if you ring the church bell and make a wish, your wish will come true.

Between the trees, below, you can just see the summer toboggan zig-zagging down the hillside. A chairlift takes you up to the top, and then you whizz down a kind of monorail on a little cart. It's got a brake, so you can control it. 

Hampton Court - the fun side of flower shows

Several people asked me if I went to the Hampton Court flower show. I sort of did - and didn't.
I was working on press day, so it was Thurday by the time I got there. One of the reasons I wanted to go was to pick up some cannas from Keith Hayward. And it marked the first day of my holiday, so I felt in festive mood.
I'd taken some cash to pay for my cannas, but by the time I got to the canna stand, I'd spent it all. So I had to go to the cash machine and get some more. The cash machines weren't working, so everyone had to queue up at the bureau de change windows and do their transactions manually. It took me 20 minutes to get to the head of the queue.
If you wanted more than £50, you had to show ID. Had I got my passport with me, asked the man behind the counter. Oddly enough, my passport is not the first thing I think of slipping in my pocket when I go to a flower show, so no, I didn't. I eventually persuaded him that I was a responsible, solvent member of society and he handed over my cash. He also charged me £2.50 for the privilege of standing in line. You can always trust a bank to ruin your day!
By the time I'd faffed around at the mobile bank, spotted some bargain Chinese pots that I just had to have, picked up my cannas, and made several laborious journeys to the car with my various purchases, it was time to go home. So I didn't see any of the show gardens - but hey, I had fun. And that's what Hampton Court is for, in my opinion.

Here's a chrysanthemum display in the Floral Marquee, where I spent most of my visit (and most of my money)

I don't grow bonsai, but I always love the displays. This one was fabulous. Going on a public day made me realise how privileged I am to be able to go to shows on press day - it was really busy, and it was quite difficult to take pictures.

For me Hampton Court is a fantastic opportunity to see flowers that are at their best in mid to late summer, such as these lilies.

These dahlias, exhibited by the National Dahlia Collection, were spectacular and thoroughly deserved their gold medal. The display was designed by Mike Mann, their new operations manager, who used to be with Winchester Growers, one of the UK's biggest dahlia specialists. If you think this is a wonderful display ...

 ... here's the other side. And there were two more sides as well! It was a good illustration of how sticking to a particular colour range can provide fantastic impact.

Downderry Lavender, from Kent, deserved a medal simply for scenting the whole marquee.

There are so many tempting things on offer at Hampton Court. I loved this fountain, designed by Humphrey Bowden, and inspired by acer leaves. Luckily it was WAY out of my price range,

Hampton Court visitors are always determined to get into summer celebratory mode and have their Pimms, come rain or come shine (or black clouds).

Isn't this an adorable henhouse? One day...

Jubilee fever is still going strong, now overlaid with Olympics fervour. That is, unless you live - and drive, or work - in London, in which case everyone seems to be in a thoroughly bad temper.

My favourite canna stand! I bought 'Wyoming', which I think is a bit more subtle than 'Durban', and C. musifolia, which has olive-y green leaves with a bronze edge, so it looks good with 'Wyoming'. You don't really get flowers with musifolia, but it's a wonderfully exuberant plant.
So what else did I buy? The same old, same old, really: more heucheras from Heucheraholics ('Sweet Tea' and 'Electra'), two Mina lobata (which I meant to grow from seed but never got round to it), and a colocasia.
The Mina lobata (aka firecracker vine) was a bit of a drawback. People kept asking me what it was, and how you grew it, and whether it set seed, or whether you could grow it from seed. I didn't mind that, because I like chatting to people, but they were big plants, on canes, and I kept poking myself in rather tender places. Worse, I poked a rather grumpy woman in the leg, and she told me I had no business inflicting injuries on other visitors and I should take them back to the car forthwith. So I did.
However, if anyone is interested, they grow as annuals in the UK, and they are unlikely to seed themselves around in the garden because they need a good deal of heat to germinate.
You can buy seeds (from Thompson & Morgan) and the packet will tell you to soak the seeds in warm water for at least 24 hours to allow germination to start. In my experience, the best thing is to pour BOILING water on to them, and leave them for a couple of days. You can see very clearly which ones are viable, because the seeds will start to swell and even split.
Once they start to swell, you can plant them up in seed compost in the normal way. Don't plant them too early in the season unless you have a greenhouse - they will just get very leggy and tie themselves in knots long before they are ready to go outside.