ice music


On the first full moon of the year, the mountain town of Geilo, Norway hosts the world’s only ice music festival and most amazingly, the instruments are made mostly of ice.

As short-lived as sandcastles, the ice-sculpted wind, string and percussion instruments give off surprising new sounds that vary according to the quality of the ice and the surrounding temperatures.

American ice sculptor Bill Cowitz is the creator of these unusual intruments which he has made for the IceMusic Festival for the past four years, including this year’s recently finished one. This tickles my Nordic bones (or ears) and makes me want to be there and hear them next year.

Somewhat related older posts:
Artscape Nordland, Norway
Snow Artist
The Snow Show
Snow Show Architect wins Prize

feast of Stephen


Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even

The words to the carol “Good King Wenceslas” were written by John Mason Neale and published in 1853, the music originates in Finland 300 years earlier. This Christmas carol is unusual as there is no reference in the lyrics to the nativity. Good King Wenceslas was the king of Bohemia in the 10th century. Good King Wenceslas was a Catholic and was martyred following his assassination by his brother Boleslaw and his supporters, his Saint’s Day is September 28th, and he is the Patron Saint of the Czech Republic. St. Stephen’s feast day was celebrated on 26th December which is why this song is sung as a Christmas carol. (From

A sunny bright, Christmas Day morning was followed by a cloudy, warmer afternoon with some thawing of our huge layers of snow. Today is Boxing Day as we call it in Canada, and Tapanipäivä in Finland, and it is snowing AGAIN! This inspired our girls (daughters and granddaughters) to sing this carol this morning before Anita and Richard departed for their long drive home.

For all of us this Christmas, Anita had made gorgeous booklets of Christmas carols, with snippets of information about them along with photos of her nieces and winter scenes from around her home near Kamloops. So it was that I learned that the music for this carol originated in Finland 300 years earlier! I could not find the composer’s name through a web search.


Happy Feast of Stephen to all of you! I hope you have all had a wonderful Christmas or other feast and continue to bask in the warmth of the holidays! We have lots of delicious leftovers to feast on for days, with turkey soup and ham and pea soup to follow in the days ahead.

Boxing Day 2007
Boxing Day 2006
Boxing Day 2005
(Photos taken in our backyard on Christmas Eve day.)

Eugene Onegin

Painting by Michael Abraham

We love opera, as some readers may know from the few times I’ve written about it here. Most exciting for us is to enjoy the colourful and lively visuals of theatre along with the inspiring music. We try to catch some of the offerings on television or DVD and very occasionally indulge and attend a life performance.

In the past, we’ve resisted season tickets to any one musical organization, thinking we’ll dip into a variety of offerings in our city. However we have a tendency to be lazy and leave decisions to the last moment, then end up not going out as much as we should for our own pleasure. Commitment-phobia perhaps? This fall, however, we impulsively decided to get some discounted season tickets to our very own Vancouver Opera.

So this past Saturday evening we attended the opening night of the first opera of this season, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. It was a delight! New to us as a whole production, sung in Russian with English subtitles overhead, we loved it all – the stage sets, costumes, the singers, chorus, dancers, the music and the drama. As others have written, Onegin is full of many contrasts especially country vs city, peasant vs upper class Czarist society, and so full of the emotions of melancholy, love, pride, jealousy, anger, as much of opera is.

Some of the lead performers are Canadian, including Rhoslyn Jones (as Tatyana) from Abbotsford, east of Vancouver. Hearing real Russian rolling from the voice of Oleg Balashov as poet Lensky was a treat for Vancouverites. Our very favourite voice, though, turned out to be that of bass Peter Volpe as Prince Gremin.

In doing my homework on this opera, I listened to some podcasts and discovered there’s even a blog. There are now some reviews at both sites, this one being my favourite.

We are looking forward to the rest of this season of opera.

Addendum Dec.1st, 2008: Photographer Alex Waterhouse-Hayward attended opening night and wrote the best thing I’ve read on it.

Arts funding cuts

Last Sunday afternoon, my husband and I went to a concert at the Chan Centre out at UBC. One of the UBC Centenary Gala series this year, it featured BC born, UBC alumnus and acclaimed tenor, Ben Heppner, and the CBC Radio Orchestra.

Heppner’s repertoire from his recent recordings, such as Ideale: Songs of Paolo Tosti and My Secret Heart as well as Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder. Earth Songs, a newly commissioned work for orchestra and choir by UBC music Prof. Stephen Chatman was also performed. It was a wonderful concert with an excellent orchestra, though we were a bit disappointed that Heppner did not sing any operatic songs which we so admire him for. Chatman’s work is exciting in concept but was at times to us it sounded too loud, noisy and confused when the University Singers and the orchestra battled for dominance.

Here’s more about the concert and Heppner, plus a good review.

Interesting thoughts went through my mind, triggered by the host, well-known writer and TV and radio personality Bill Richardson. He mentioned the fact that this was one of the last performances of our beloved CBC Radio Orchestra, for it will be disbanded at the end of November 2008, thanks to one of numerous cutbacks by Prime Minister Harper’s government. There’s some hope that it may still be rescued in some form, there’s even a petition.

I could not help wondering how Harper’s massive cuts to arts funding will affect these kind of concerts and venues. Some may survive if they increase ticket prices, already high IMHO, way beyond what would be affordable for most people. And what would happen to all the musicians and singers?

Richardson also joked that, this being a ‘gala’, he wandered around all over to try find some champagne and there was none, just lots of ordinary people. The audience laughed ruefully, recognizing the reference to Prime Minister Harper’s recent comments:

You know, I think when ordinary, working people come home, turn on the TV and see … a bunch of people at a rich gala all subsidized by the taxpayers, claiming their subsidies aren’t high enough when they know the subsidies have actually gone up, I’m not sure that’s something that resonates with ordinary people.

I thought we all looked like ordinary people!

I recalled our national treasure Margaret Atwood’s concerns over a year ago, and especially her most recent statement in the Globe and Mail. It is so good that I’m copying it here in full:

What sort of country do we want to live in? What sort of country do we already live in? What do we like? Who are we?

At present, we are a very creative country. For decades, we’ve been punching above our weight on the world stage – in writing, in popular music and in many other fields. Canada was once a cultural void on the world map, now it’s a force. In addition, the arts are a large segment of our economy: The Conference Board estimates Canada’s cultural sector generated $46-billion, or 3.8 per cent of Canada’s GDP, in 2007. And, according to the Canada Council, in 2003-2004, the sector accounted for an “estimated 600,000 jobs (roughly the same as agriculture, forestry, fishing, mining, oil & gas and utilities combined).”

But we’ve just been sent a signal by Prime Minister Stephen Harper that he gives not a toss for these facts. Tuesday, he told us that some group called “ordinary people” didn’t care about something called “the arts.” His idea of “the arts” is a bunch of rich people gathering at galas whining about their grants. Well, I can count the number of moderately rich writers who live in Canada on the fingers of one hand: I’m one of them, and I’m no Warren Buffett. I don’t whine about my grants because I don’t get any grants. I whine about other grants – grants for young people, that may help them to turn into me, and thus pay to the federal and provincial governments the kinds of taxes I pay, and cover off the salaries of such as Mr. Harper. In fact, less than 10 per cent of writers actually make a living by their writing, however modest that living may be. They have other jobs. But people write, and want to write, and pack into creative writing classes, because they love this activity – not because they think they’ll be millionaires.

Every single one of those people is an “ordinary person.” Mr. Harper’s idea of an ordinary person is that of an envious hater without a scrap of artistic talent or creativity or curiosity, and no appreciation for anything that’s attractive or beautiful. My idea of an ordinary person is quite different. Human beings are creative by nature. For millenniums we have been putting our creativity into our cultures – cultures with unique languages, architecture, religious ceremonies, dances, music, furnishings, textiles, clothing and special cuisines. “Ordinary people” pack into the cheap seats at concerts and fill theatres where operas are brought to them live. The total attendance for “the arts” in Canada in fact exceeds that for sports events. “The arts” are not a “niche interest.” They are part of being human.

Moreover, “ordinary people” are participants. They form book clubs and join classes of all kinds – painting, dancing, drawing, pottery, photography – for the sheer joy of it. They sing in choirs, church and other, and play in marching bands. Kids start garage bands and make their own videos and web art, and put their music on the Net, and draw their own graphic novels. “Ordinary people” have other outlets for their creativity, as well: Knitting and quilting have made comebacks; gardening is taken very seriously; the home woodworking shop is active. Add origami, costume design, egg decorating, flower arranging, and on and on … Canadians, it seems, like making things, and they like appreciating things that are made.

They show their appreciation by contributing. Canadians of all ages volunteer in vast numbers for local and city museums, for their art galleries and for countless cultural festivals – I think immediately of the Chinese New Year and the Caribana festival in Toronto, but there are so many others. Literary festivals have sprung up all over the country – volunteers set them up and provide the food, and “ordinary people” will drag their lawn chairs into a field – as in Nova Scotia’s Read by the Sea – in order to listen to writers both local and national read and discuss their work. Mr. Harper has signalled that as far as he is concerned, those millions of hours of volunteer activity are a waste of time. He holds them in contempt.

I suggest that considering the huge amount of energy we spend on creative activity, to be creative is “ordinary.” It is an age-long and normal human characteristic: All children are born creative. It’s the lack of any appreciation of these activities that is not ordinary. Mr. Harper has demonstrated that he has no knowledge of, or respect for, the capacities and interests of “ordinary people.” He’s the “niche interest.” Not us.

It’s been suggested that Mr. Harper’s disdain for the arts is not merely a result of ignorance or a tin ear – that it is “ideologically motivated.” Now, I wonder what could be meant by that? Mr. Harper has said quite rightly that people understand we ought to keep within a budget. But his own contribution to that budget has been to heave the Liberal-generated surplus overboard so we have nothing left for a rainy day, and now, in addition, he wants to jeopardize those 600,000 arts jobs and those billions of dollars they generate for Canadians. What’s the idea here? That arts jobs should not exist because artists are naughty and might not vote for Mr. Harper? That Canadians ought not to make money from the wicked arts, but only from virtuous oil? That artists don’t all live in one constituency, so who cares? Or is it that the majority of those arts jobs are located in Ontario and Quebec, and Mr. Harper is peeved at those provinces, and wants to increase his ongoing gutting of Ontario – $20-billion a year of Ontario taxpayers’ money going out, a dribble grudgingly allowed back in – and spank Quebec for being so disobedient as not to appreciate his magnificence? He likes punishing, so maybe the arts-squashing is part of that: Whack the Heartland.

Or is it even worse? Every budding dictatorship begins by muzzling the artists, because they’re a mouthy lot and they don’t line up and salute very easily. Of course, you can always get some tame artists to design the uniforms and flags and the documentary about you, and so forth – the only kind of art you might need – but individual voices must be silenced, because there shall be only One Voice: Our Master’s Voice. Maybe that’s why Mr. Harper began by shutting down funding for our artists abroad. He didn’t like the competition for media space.

The Conservative caucus has already learned that lesson. Rumour has it that Mr. Harper’s idea of what sort of art you should hang on your wall was signalled by his removal of all pictures of previous Conservative prime ministers from their lobby room – including John A. and Dief the Chief – and their replacement by pictures of none other than Mr. Harper himself. History, it seems, is to begin with him. In communist countries, this used to be called the Cult of Personality. Mr. Harper is a guy who – rumour has it, again – tried to disband the student union in high school and then tried the same thing in college. Destiny is calling him, the way it called Qin Shi Huang, the Chinese emperor who burnt all records of the rulers before himself. It’s an impulse that’s been repeated many times since, the list is very long. Tear it down and level it flat, is the common motto. Then build a big statue of yourself. Now that would be Art!

Numerous art organizations and artists of many disciplines have spoken out in alarm over the past weeks. Today, even our Governor General Michaëlle Jean Lauds Artists of Canada:

In a world in which we are bombarded by images, we can become strangely blind to everything around us. But our artists encourage us to see things differently, to look beneath the surface. Yes, you, our artists, reveal to us something of the intangible, of the essential and of the truth, allowing us a glimpse of the world through your eyes. You show us life as it exists behind outward appearances. As Jacques Ferron once wrote, ‘Your vision can be at times serious, at times playful, always unique. It seeks to challenge us, to provoke us, to move us. It compels us to stop and to reflect, as you share your perspectives on issues of global concern. It never leaves us feeling indifferent.

This is why we often say that a work of art speaks to us. The truth is, it invites us, in its own way, to engage in an unspoken dialogue of the eyes and the mind. It is this questioning, this search for meaning and understanding, that allow us to make sense of the world around us and of the fears and desires that each of us holds within.

Without you, without your works, our imaginations would be weakened; our world would be without a soul. Bravo and thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

My apologies for this being so long, though it would take many pages to cover all the concerns. It’s taken me a while to write. I am upset and angry and passionately feel that this is far too critical an issue for our country to not speak up right now as we have a federal election on October 14th. If you are a Canadian reading this and you love the arts and culture of our country, including our own CBC, please vote for ANYONE BUT CONSERVATIVE. (There are numerous other reasons why but I will not get into them here.) More information on the culture cuts is available on CARFAC (Canadian Artists Representation) and Alliance for Arts.

UPDATE Oct.3rd: An excellent article about how important culture is in Quebec and that all Canadian industries receive support.

UPDATE Oct.7th: Margaret Atwood answers questions on the election at Globe & Mail. Gotta love her!

June beginnings

passionflower.jpgThe Opera Gala with Anna Netrebko, Elina Garanca, Ramón Vargas, and Ludovic Tézier performing opera favourites in a live concert from Baden-Baden, Germany. My husband joined me for a most pleasurable two plus hours of wonderful music by these superb young artists, all new to us except for Netrebko. I think we’re going to purchase this DVD or CD!

A late bedtime, then I was awake at 5 this morning, restless in body, still sore from the weekend’s labours, and a wee bit anxious with the work ahead of me today and tomorrow. An afternoon nap is on the schedule!

Anne Adams’ art


Over the past three days, I’ve read two fascinating stories about Vancouver artist Anne Adams who died in 2007. First I read Boléro: Beautiful symptom of a terrible disease in the NewScientist.

Today, I’m looking at the Vancouver Sun’s page and a half feature on this remarkable woman. (The web version is a short one.)

It’s a tragic yet inspiring story of a former University of British Columbia scientist who came down with a rare brain disease later in life, a form of aphasia and dementia that produced spurts of artistic activity. She abandoned science for art, producing a large body of work, most notably Unravelling Boléro, a bar-by-bar representation Ravel’s Boléro (shown above).

Scientists who monitored the progressions of the disease found fascinating new details of how the brain rebuilds other areas to make up for damaged ones.

And here’s the jaw-dropper: Ravel is thought to have suffered from the same condition, which may have drawn him towards repetitive patterns such as the themes that cycle through Boléro. Adams was unaware of this, and of her own condition, while working on her painting.

We can find out more about Anne Adams and her work at her website, including the Book of Invertebrates which was honoured with a full page in the Sun. In addition the Patient Art Gallery website of the Memory and Aging Center of the University of Califormia at San Francisco has some lovely examples including the above image.

With some family history of dementia and Parkinson’s, I sometimes worry what might happen to me in my old age. If I were struck by this disease, will I turn from being an artist into a scientist? Seriously.

Sunday afternoon in Burnaby

Yesterday we headed out to Burnaby (a city next to Vancouver) and the Scandinavian Centre where we enjoyed a recital of songs sung in Finnish, Swedish and Italian by a beautiful, rising talent, Finnish-American singer Maria Männistö. Here’s the announcement we received (hyperlinks mine):


Canadian Friends of Finland, Vancouver presents Finnish-American soprano Maria Mannisto in a recital of songs by Finnish composers Jean Sibelius, Toivo Kuula, Oskar Merikanto and Erkki Melartin.  The program also includes two arias by Giacomo Puccini.

For the second half of the program, Maria will be joined by double bassist Scott Teske performing a selection of beloved Finnish folksongs and tangos.

Winner of 2007 Finlandia Foundation Performer Award of the Year, this talented young singer has performed to great acclaim in numerous cities across the USA, including Washington DC, Chicago and San Francisco.  Maria is director of the Finnish Choral Society in Seattle and organist and music director of the Finnish Lutheran Church.  She is studying operatic performance at the University of Washington under Thomas Harper and recently auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

We loved all of it, the Puccini arias the most of course, as well as hearing the Finnish language in song. My husband commented that my late father (a keen amateur singer) would have loved this, I agreed saying my parents were very much in my thoughts. The first half of the program, accompanied at the piano by Terhi Miikki-Boersma, consisted of the more serious music and showcased Ms Männistö’s beautiful voice and range of musical styles. The second half consisted of lighthearted popular Finnish and Swedish songs, with the singer accompanying herself at the piano and with Scott Teske playing a double bass, a curious guitar-like instrument we’d not seen before. It will be interesting to watch her career in opera take off.

Afterwards, because we were in the neighbourhood, we went to the Burnaby Art Gallery to see an exhibition of prints, drawing and paintings by Ron Eckert, recently retired from a long teaching career at Vancouver’s art school, Emily Carr Institute. We liked his looser drawings the most.

As always when we come here, we went for a walk around the lovely gardens and down along Deer Lake. As we returned it began to rain. We drove up to Burnaby Mountain Park. I wanted to revisit the Ainu sculptures, the Kamui Mintara (Playground of the Gods). I have written about them before, how remarkably similar they are to the Northwest Coast First Nations’ totem poles.


To cap the afternoon, we had a wonderful dinner in the restaurant overlooking the park and sculptures and with a fantastic view west over Vancouver (except we could not see it because the rain turned to snow!). We shared a dessert of a most divine chocolate mousse with pecan crust, mmmm.

Looking back: Jule favourites


Deep in the archives of three years ago is this favourite Christmas season post of mine and reposted here almost fully:

My favourite things about Christmas are the things that appeal to the romantic and the child in me. I love the visual delights of little white lights, red candles, evergreens, snow, red berries, pine cones and red folk embroidery on linens. I love exquisitely illustrated childrens’ books like Jan Brett’s The Wild Christmas Reindeer, something I bought just for myself to enjoy every Christmas.

I love Christmas music, especially when sung by young voices like Heintje (O Tannenbaum), romantic voices from the 40’s and 50’s like Doris Day, Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby (I Dream of a White Christmas), or powerful operatic voices.

Virtual Finland’s Christmas* appeals to the romantic and the child. Visit Santa or “Joulupukki” in his gorgeous clothes, with his elves and reindeer in Lapland (that’s where Santa lives, didn’t you know?). Look at the lovely cards from Christmases past and recipes for traditional Finnish Christmas foods. I also love these little Finnish folk poems* about the little animals in the wintry woods (click on ‘lorupiha’ then each creature, in Finnish only but sounds interesting).

We are busy preparing the house, the decorations, the gifts, and all the favourite foods for our family Christmas of blended traditions. Christmas Eve is our big night, a tradition with both the Finns and the Germans, with a lovely meal, carols around the piano, and then Santa’s visit, so carefully planned to happen out of sight of little children. Oh, such excitement! Happy childhood memories evoked by all the sights, sounds and tastes and watching the shining happy eyes of another generation (a grandchild) make Christmas special for me.


What can I add this year? Two things come to mind. One is another grandchild now 2, who with her 7-year old sister makes up a lively happy pair through whose eyes we can experience the awe and the joy of this season. Otherwise we might be a bit jaded by it all now, hmm?

Secondly, I must mention a beautiful music CD, already quite old, from our modest collection: Vienna Noel with Placido Domingo, Sissel Kyrkjebo and Charles Aznavour. The Norwegian Sissel is absolutely divine and angelic, fitting beautifully with the equally great male singers. My heart soars at every listening!

If I were in Europe, I’d love to go to the traditional Christmas Markets. On one of his business trips many year ago, my husband was in Austria before Christmas. He brought back many lovely handmade tree ornaments that we treasure. I learned that Helsinki has a Christmas Market too. This could be another favourite!

What are your favourite things this time of year, dear readers? I hope you take great pleasure in them as you prepare for the holidays!

UPDATE Dec.23, 2007: Just read this in our weekend newspaper, A land of Christmas: “For hundreds of years, the towns of Germany have celebrated the yuletide season with markets filled with the produce of local artisans…” Exactly what I dream of visiting!

UPDATE Dec.3, 2013: Almost six years later, oh nine for that earlier linked post, I am saddened by the many dead links, some marked * and removed.

Saariaho and Sibelius


This seems to be the week for music themes on my blog. First, I learned that Kaija Saariaho has been named Composer of the Year by Musical America:

Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho swore she would never write an opera and then went on to win the 2003 Grawemeyer for her first one, “L’Amour de loin,” premiered at the 2000 Salzburg Festival. Her second, “Adriana Mater,” receives its U.S. premiere at the Santa Fe Opera next summer. The beneficiary of Finland’s remarkable musical education system, Saariaho is among the few contemporary composers to achieve public acclaim as well as universal critical respect. In the last decade alone she has had commissions from the major orchestras of Cleveland, Boston, New York, Los Angeles, Berlin, and Paris.

Finnish musicians have done very well. In 2005 the Musical America Award was given to the Finnish soprano Karita Mattila, while the Conductor of the Year 2006 was the Finnish conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen.

After I wrote about Saariaho and the opening of her second opera in Paris last year, I succumbed to temptation and bought the L’Amour de Loin DVD. I meant to write about it after viewing it but never got around to it – it’s fantastic – I must view it again.

The second musical item is also about a Finnish composer. Thanks to Jörg Colberg who wrote:

I am currently reading Alex Ross’ The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, which I couldn’t recommend more – provided you have an interest in either the (cultural) history of the 20th Century and/or “classical” music. If you want to get an idea of the style and contents of the book, check out Alex Ross’ article about Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, which also appears in the book.

I’ve read some of Alex Ross’ excellent critiques on music, so this one really piqued my interest. It’s very long and very interesting for the biographical material as well as an analysis of Sibelius’ music in the context of its time. I learned some new things about Finland’s most revered composer and the eternal struggle that many artists suffer. In fact, some years ago we saw a very moving play about Sibelius in his late years when he could no longer compose music.

Some further links for interested readers (some expired links have been removed since this posting):

Ainola, the home of Aino and Jean Sibelius is not just a rustic cottage (below, as it is today)
The Jean Sibelius website
Wikipedia on Sibelius

at the symphony


When our granddaughter Lael recently celebrated her 7th birthday, we gave her tickets to go with us to the symphony. Because Lael is taking violin lessons, we chose a Russian Classics concert by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and the very talented 19 year old Vancouver born violinist Caitlin Tully.

It was the first time for us to take her out like this and we were all pretty excited as we headed over to the beautiful old Orpheum Theatre on Saturday evening. We were a little concerned about the late night, way past Lael’s bedtime! But she was attentive and interested, fortified with a few illicit snacks and cuddles on grandfather’s lap. When Caitlin Tully began to perform, Lael sat tall, watched and listened enthralled.

At intermission, we asked if she was tired and wanting to go home. But when she heard that the Cinderella Suite (by Prokofiev) would be played, though at the very end, she was eager to stay. Lael listened and watched intently right up to about five minutes before the end, fell asleep, woke to clap and fell sleep again. When time to leave, she woke up happily, skipping as we headed back to our car, to drive her home.

Such a lovely evening of wonderful music for all of us, a delight for us to see it all through her young eyes! I think this is the start of a few more dates with our granddaughter.