Category Archives: history

102 years in the making: the debut of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at the BBC Proms, photo:Chris Christodoulou


Prom 60, Royal Albert Hall, 27 August 2018

Does Leonard Bernstein 28 years after his death really need an advocate? In this country  we are particularly keen on celebrating or commemorating the births and deaths of composers. In March it was 100 years ago Debussy died and his music has been heard all over this scepter’d isle, this blessed plot, this England. Leonard ‘Lenny’ Bernstein was born the same year Debussy died. Lenny was not as prolific a composer as Claude, but he more than made up for it by being a very active conductor and enthusiastic pedagogue. The focus has lately been totally on Bernstein because his centenary was on the 25th of August. BBC radio 3 and the magnificent BBC Proms festival are very good at marking these kind of celebrations with concerts, documentaries and podcasts.

Bernstein is a gratifying subject because he lived so many different lives and careers simultaneously. He was a most remarkable conductor, pianist, composer, educator, humanist and political activist. There are still a great many people around that can talk about the different aspects of his character and his many talents. On YouTube you can find a seemingly endless amount of concerts conducted by the maestro. Many of his best educational programmes that he recorded for American TV are also available online. No, Bernstein is far from forgotten, but some of his compositions deserve to be played more often. And who better than Marin Alsop to look after his compositional legacy? Alsop was a protégé of Bernstein, but of course she is also a marvelous conductor in her own right. She has been the Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO) since 2007 and this was their debut concert at the Proms. Alsop is much loved by Proms audiences (having conducted The Last Night of the Proms twice) and the welcome she received while walking to the conductor’s rostrum was thunderous.

Bernstein's most convincing interpreters photo:Chris Christodoulou
Marin Alsop is one of Bernstein’s most convincing interpreters photo:Chris Christodoulou

The concert started out with a piece never heard before at a Prom. For Slava! A Political Overture (1977) Bernstein decided to incorporate two numbers from his musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, which had tanked the previous year on Broadway. Slava was dedicated to the cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich who had just become Music Director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington. Slava means glory or praise in Russian and it was also Rostropovich’s nickname. I am  sure this occasional piece is very political to the initiated, but the snippets of pre-recorded election speeches that are shouted over the music make no sense to me.  Apparently President Carter was in the audience at the premiere in 1977 and perhaps that is the most political aspect. This overture is perfectly loud, brash and entertaining but really quite inconsequential. I think it would have worked better as an encore.

After this fluffy appetizer I was ready for some music of consequence and with meaty content: Bernstein’s second symphony. Quite honestly I was unfamiliar with the work before this year’s centenary celebrations, but now I consider it one of Bernstein’s best compositions.

Bernstein told an interviewer that after having read W.H Auden’s 80-page (!) poem ‘The Age of Anxiety’ the music almost immediately started to sing. The poem is mostly set in a New York bar and consists of conversations between four strangers: three men and a woman. They end up in the woman’s apartment, but two of the men leave and the third one passes out drunk. Perhaps the woman should be relieved. In many ways the main themes are loneliness and a search for meaning in a recently war-torn world. The poem was published after the war(1947) but it reflected the emptiness that many people felt after all the misery that they had experienced.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet can play Bernstein's symphony blindly photo: Chris Christodoulou
Jean-Yves Thibaudet can play Bernstein’s symphony blindly photo: Chris Christodoulou

Alsop and the BSO treated the Prologue with its clarinet duet with a good deal of gentleness and a sense of trepidation. The descending scale played by the flute forms the bridge to the Seven Ages: Variations 1-7 . Then we are introduced to the piano setting out a slightly dissonant melody. The piano transports us from one variation to the next, with each variation elaborating on an idea or theme from the previous one. After three or four variations it becomes clear that this really is a piano concerto in all but name. The French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet recorded this concert five years ago with the same orchestra and conductor. On this occasion Thibaudet’s interpretation displayed even more flair, neurosis and a sense of life’s struggle than on the recording (available on Naxos). It was a nice touch to hear the jazzy Masque scherzo (for piano, bass, timpani and percussion) played without too much stomp and bravura. This seems to signal that the carousing at the woman’s apartment is not a bacchanalian feast after all. It is certainly one of the most memorable movements in American orchestral music. One could argue that the piano represents Bernstein’s own voice and at times I thought that Thibaudet perhaps was trying to portray the composer’s multi-faceted personality in this piece, one could hear so many different shades. The Epilogue is a different beast. In the revised edition from 1965 (played here) the piano is given a cadenza that seems to suggest a sad and lonely life, but then the orchestra takes over and signals a sense of hope and it all ends with the big orchestra treatment that you will find in so many American films from the 40s and 50s. The plaintive element and “loss of faith” may dominate the symphony and therefore the optimistic spin added on at the end can seem an afterthought, but the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra make it all sound perfectly obvious and matter of course the way only Americans can. All in all, splendid!

Axel Gallén's Lake Keitele (1905) may seem like a straightforward lake view, but there is much more to it. National Gallery, London


Review of exhibition Lake Keitele, a vision of Finland at National Gallery, London. Until 4 February 2018.

Have you ever heard of the Finnish artist Axel Gallén? Or does Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865-1930) ring a bell? I am impressed if you recognise one of the names, because Axel and Akseli are one and the same person. I’ll explain later.

Outside of Finland and Sweden Akseli Gallen-Kallela is today virtually unknown, but a century ago the respectable Uffizi Gallery in Florence commissioned his self-portrait. He was considered to be Finland’s leading artist and internationally reasonably well-known. Together with the composer Jean Sibelius, his exact contemporary and friend, Gallén was also seen as one of the major contributors to the narrative of the awakening Finnish nationhood. But after the Finnish Civil War (1918) Gallen-Kallela’s work became uneven in quality and he found it hard to adapt or even appreciate all the new and modern styles of painting that conquered the major capitals of Europe.

The National Gallery, (NG), in London has two excellent reasons to draw attention to Gallen-Kallela. The museum acquired in 1999, a very fine landscape,  or more correctly lakescape, by Axel Gallén. It remains the only Finnish work in their collection. The second, and most important, reason for staging this exhibition at this point in time is the fact that it coincides with the centenary of Finland’s independence (6 December, 1917).
The National Gallery’s exhibition ‘Lake Keitele, a vision of Finland’ is staged in room no.1 and can be visited for free until 4 February 2018. There are thirteen works on display and in all of them a lake features in one way or another. There are four paintings with the title Lake Keitele and they all depict the same subject, except for some minor variations. The picture owned by the NG is, despite it not being the first version, the finest of the four.  Painted in 1905, it shows a panorama view of a lake with an island in the middle ground and the opposite shore in the distance. The sky is barely visible but it is mirrored in the water. Intriguing and slightly mysterious are the diagonal and geometric patterns caused by the wind on the vast expanse of water.
You could admire this image like a perfect picture postcard of a Finnish lake at the height of summer. And yes, it is first and foremost an ode to nature. But the sun is shining but the blue and green colours are not particularly warm, so perhaps something else is going on as well? The cool and silvery colours and the sense of isolation hint at a Symbolist message.
Axel Gallén (officially – he changed his name in 1907 to Akseli Gallen-Kallela,  had previously painted a number of works that suggested an allegorical voyage. The island Haapasaari in the Lake Keitele picture would have reminded many contemporary people of the famous painting Isle of the Dead by the Swiss Symbolist Arnold Böcklin. Prints of the painting were mass-produced and it was a common sight in many middle-class homes.

Another factor that needs to be taken into account when looking at Lake Keitele is Axel Gallén’s interest in the Finnish national epic, Kalevala. He painted many scenes from that collection of poems in the 1890s which established him at home as a firm favourite. His international recognition came in 1900 when some of his furniture and fabrics were exhibited in the Finnish Pavilion at the Paris World Fair. His four Kalevala-themed frescoes made a big impression as well and he received two silver and one gold medal for his works.

The Oceanides (1909) are the daughters of Oceanus. This painting shows influences from the Fauve or Die Brücke movement Photo:Finnish National Gallery/Janne Mäkinen
The Oceanides (1909) are the daughters of Oceanus. This painting shows influences from the Fauve or Die Brücke movement
Photo:Finnish National Gallery/Janne Mäkinen

The Kalevala was put together in the 1830’s by the physician and linguist, Elias Lönnrot, who made many field trips to Finland’s most eastern province, Karelia. He gathered many ancient songs and poems that previously had only been passed on orally. We can’t be sure how much of The Kalevala consists of traditional material and what Lönnrot made up himself to construct  an overarching story resembling a creation myth on a legendary scale. (Lönnrot had gathered stories and poems on his many field trips that weren’t all necessarily part of the same narrative. ) After the publication of The Kalevala in 1835, it was very quickly recognised as the most important work written in the Finnish language. It also gave the Finnish independence and language movement a strong sense of identity.
Akseli Gallen-Kallela, as he is constantly referred to in the exhibition, kept returning to The Kalevala myths throughout his career (with the exception of the years he spent in Africa).
There are no figures in the Lake Keitele paintings but Gallén (the only name with which he signed these works) hinted that something else was going on, apart from a  view of a beautiful lake in the middle of Finland. Gallén stated that the steel-grey geometrical patterns across the lake, caused by wind and underwater currents, also suggest something else; the traces that Väinämöinen’s copper boat has left. Väinämöinen is a wise hero with an enchanting singing voice and magical powers . He is also forever on the look-out for a wife. So, we are to assume that Väinämöinen has rowed past several times in the picture, leaving silvery wakes up and down the lake. If that interpretation was what Gallén intended, then so be it.

There is a third, ‘nationalistic’ interpretation of the Lake Keitele painting. Listen to the curator of the exhibition, Anne Robbins’ explanation:

The artist's wife Mary Gallén on the lakeshore at Lintula with Keitele in the background, Gallen-Kallela Museum, photo: Tuukka UUsitalo
The artist’s wife Mary Gallén on the lakeshore at Lintula with Keitele in the background, Gallen-Kallela Museum, photo: Tuukka UUsitalo

Finland was still part of the Russian empire (until 1917), but as an autonomous Grand Duchy (the Tsar was in principle Grand Duke and not Tsar in Finland); Finland retained a reasonable amount of independence and its own Diet (legislative assembly). Tsar Alexander III started to change all that by trying to force Slavic values on the Finns. This Russification process intensified under Nicholas II and began to seriously undermine Finland’s autonomy. Nationalist movements grew rapidly and various political parties, that previously had had little in common, now found common ground in their resistance against the Russification campaigns. I could write a number of blogs on this subject (see also my previous blog), but in this context I just want to reiterate that Gallen-Kallela was seen as the foremost artistic representative of the nationalist movement.

Rouse Thyself Finland! (1896) The original version of Sibelius's tone poem Finlandia had the same title. Stained glass. Gallen Kallela Museum, photo: Hannu Aaltonen
Rouse Thyself Finland! (1896) The original version of Sibelius’s tone poem Finlandia had the same title. Stained glass. Gallen Kallela Museum, photo: Hannu Aaltonen

The exhibition includes an early stained glass design which contains a fairly obvious political message. It shows a massive white rose (Finland’s heraldic symbol) rising over a lake landscape. The title alone, Rouse Thyself Finland!, would have given the authorities a fair idea of what the subject is realy about. T

The rest of the paintings are mainly decorative, but there is a lovely portrait of Axel’s wife, Mary Slöör (see picture above) with Lake Keitele in the background, which provides evidence of the fine portraitist that Gallén was.

This small, but informative exhibition begs the question; isn’t it about time for the National Gallery to devote a major show to  art from the Northern countries?

Lampedusa cross (right) by Francesco Tuccio and installation made of two drowned migrant children's shirts and recycled mudguards and burnt matches representing refugees coming across the Mediterranean in boats. Photo: Albert Ehrnrooth


Living with gods: peoples, places and worlds beyond
Exhibition at British Museum until 8 April 2018

If there was ever an exhibition worth the price of the entrance fee just for one object, then this is it. The opportunity to see the oldest known figurative sculpture, depicting a half man/half lion creature, should be reason enough to visit  Living with Gods at the British Museum.
It is very likely that this so called Lion Man is a religious object. The smooth surface of the upper (lion) body indicates handling by humans passing the object around (for centuries?) in some kind of ritual. Radiocarbon dating  indicates that the sculpture carved out of the ivory tusk of a mammoth is at least 40,000 years old.
The very alert looking beast was discovered in a cave in south-west Germany just days before the second world war broke out.  Not until 30 years later did an archeologist start to piece together the many fragments that originally had been gathered. This century more splinters were found in the Hohlenstein-Stadel cave and five years ago this powerful figure was revealed. Now only about 20% of the body is still missing.
To appreciate the evocative narrative of this figure you do not have to read academic treatises or even a catalogue entry. I get an immediate picture of how our archaic German Hominini ancestors would have communicated with their God(s) or the forces of nature through this bipedal animal.

Lion Man head. This figure found in a cave in south-west Germany is evidence that people 40,000 years ago practiced a form of religion. Photo: Oleg Kuehner

Because the Lion Man is such an exceptional object, there is a danger that everything else can seem rather mundane.
Yes, there are rather ordinary articles on display: wooden phalluses to boost fertility, an Albanian baby blanket, communist propaganda rubbish and a few other rather unremarkable items.
And despite the fact that there are relatively few artefacts on display,  they have been very carefully chosen and they all come with a story.
This is very much an exhibition that wants to spark and engage your own thoughts and make connections between different faiths. The point is, maybe, we are all quite similar and have been throughout the ages. Well, that should be no great discovery, but strangely enough IT IS.

And there are some great works of art on show as well.

The painted memorial posts from Arnhem Land (Australia) that  normally hold the cremated remains of people, are stunningly decorated with tiny swirling fish. These hollowed out tree trunks are normally left to rot along the coast, thereby returning the dead person’s spirit back to nature. These particular posts have been created for art’s sake, but they still relay a message.

Shoals of tiny fish. Three larrakitj memorial posts, Arnhem Lan, by Wukun Wanambi 2014
Shoals of tiny fish. Three larrakitj memorial posts, Arnhem Lan, by Wukun Wanambi 2014

All the major, and some minor, religions are represented in this exhibition, but this is not an attempt to relate the history of our relationship with our God(s). The aim is to search and identify some patterns and shared stories that bring communities together (within a religion).
For the visitor there is enough physical space between the display cases to allow some room to reflect. I was discovering all kinds of parallels, dichotomies and quirky facts about religions and their rituals in the process of studying the objects.

I asked Jill Cook, the curator of Living with Gods ,what she was hoping that visitors  would take away from this  exhibtion?

I also loved the bronze Shiva Nataraja Chennai sculpture. Its form is so energetic. The supreme being dancing creatively, while trampling a child… hold on what is going on here?  Correct me if I am wrong, but the child symbolizes ignorance.  A large Shiva sculpture was also placed outside the CERN nuclear research centre. Listen to Jill Cook explain why the physicists and engineers decided that this Hindu deity is relevant and a metaphor for the world that they are exploring.

Shiva Nataraja Chennai, India, 1800-1900 As Nataraja, Hindu deity Shiva performs a perpetual dance of creation and destruction.
Shiva Nataraja Chennai, India, 1800-1900 As Nataraja, Hindu deity Shiva performs a perpetual dance of creation and destruction.

All communist societies try to do away with religion. The Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was the first man to journey into outer space — there was apparently no sign of God in space and this was used as a kind of satirical propaganda coup by the (at the time) rather simple  leaders in the Kremlin. Still the Soviets failed completely to eradicate the Russian Orthodox Church .  The Moscow Patriarchate is nowadays closely linked with the state.

The most moving two works are shown in the last display case. They are both contemporary and can be seen at the top of this page. The Lampedusa Cross is also shown below. Jill Cook describes that work in the audio, but the other work by a Syrian artist is equally powerful. The two children’s t-shirts that are hanging like rags, have each an identification scribbled on them: Unknown Boy no. 741 — 15-11-15 and Unknown Girl no. 872 — 19-12-15. These unidentified children were found on the island of Lesbos. They have no grave, no memorial. What happaned to their parents, family? Who knows? Soon they will be forgotten. Are these people at least Known unto God? Just like the unknown war dead buried in huge cemeteries.


The Lampedusa Cross
The Lampedusa Cross. A very simple but effective memorial to  refugees and asylum seekers who came to Europe for a safer life, but found themselves being resented by people who felt threatened by their presence.

The conceptual art work It is wholly indeterminate (1970) by Robert Barry is the final piece in the exhibition.  It consists of a text on a white wall, reading:


This text poetically (and satirically)  sums up the idea of the Beyond which many of us try to comprehend through a system of belief, which we call religion. But the American artist originally didn’t have religion in mind. His target was the slightly smug 60s art scene, but most people would agree that the words — or is it a message? — are a perfect fit here.
We are living in an era that is full of some imagined, and some real uncertainties. Many of the current conflicts are based on religious beliefs and there is even a nuclear threat on the Korean peninsula. In a not so distant past many people would in similar situations have found some solace through their faith.  And yet in today’s world the decline in church attendance seems unstoppable.  Instead people turn to concepts like ‘mindfulness’ that are in a way even more ineffable than ‘pure’ religion. Mindfulness is of course a therapeutic method that finds its point of departure in Buddhist teachings.

Holding a minute silence, laying down a bunch of flowers (still in its cellophane)  wherever a person has died, are fairly new rituals that have replaced religious traditions like saying prayers.  Maybe little rituals like these will eventually be incorporated in a new religion.  We are due one. The last major Christian religious revolution was the Reformation. That was exactly 500 years ago.

It is unlikely that this exhibition will leave you cold, disengaged or bored. But reserve some time for an opportunity to reflect and maybe discuss the positive sides of religion. Sorry to proselytize.


You can also listen to Neil MacGregor’s fascinating radio series  connected to this exhibition:




The Lutheran Black Church seen from Piața Sfatului in Braşov. Photo: Albert Ehrnrooth


Does the city of Braşov need the white Hollywood type of sign up on Mount Tampa? Not really, it can boast a far more interesting history than the sleazy capital of film. Transylvania’s second city is perhaps slightly lacking in confidence in its own tourism product. It shouldn’t, the place is worth a detour.

The Romans called the site Corona and when the Saxons settled in medieval times they named the town similarly in German, Kronstadt. This translates into Brassó in Hungarian. Transylvania was part of Hungaria before the war. In 1950 Braşov was rechristened Orașul Stalin (Stalin City) by some communist committee. Vlad the Impaler had 40 noblemen skewered and displayed on the local mountain, but he was a pussy compared to the Soviet dictator who was honoured here. In 1960 the local Romanians came to their senses and renamed the city Braşov. This is also the city where some of the first fierce protests against the Ceaușescu dictatorship were aired.

Braşov's Saxon wall just below the White Tower. Photo: Albert Ehrnrooth
Braşov’s Saxon wall just below the White Tower.
Photo: Albert Ehrnrooth

Braşov lies at the foot of Mt. Tampa (940). Its top can be reached by cable car or opt for an easy ascent. The Germanic people started in the 15th century the construction of the impressive wall around Braşov. A large part of it is still intact. Walk the path along the outside of the western section of the fortification, next to the stream. Climb up the stairs to the White Tower which offers a splendid view of the old town. From up here the Council House (1420) with the Trumpeter’s Tower in the centre of the square is the most eye-catching building. More interesting and dominating the skyline is the Black Church (Biserica Neagră). It is a German Lutheran church and exceptionally large for this ( mainly Romanian Orthodox) region. It was damaged and charred in a fire in 1689, hence the ‘black’ in the name. You do not have to be interested in religion to be able to appreciate the very unusual collection of Anatolian and Transylvanian rugs that were donated by wealthy merchants over the centuries and now decorate the interior. The organ (built 1839 by Carl August Buchholz) is also special and there are regular concerts.

Braşov's St. Nicholas Cathedral combines Byzantine and Baroque elements. Photo: Albert Ehrnrooth
Braşov’s St. Nicholas Cathedral combines Byzantine and Baroque elements. Photo: Albert Ehrnrooth

The centre of town with its shops, restaurants, narrow passageways and colourful façades is pleasant enough for a slow afternoon stroll. But the most genuine Romanian part of Braşov is the Schei district. Head past the 15th century Weavers’ Bastion, take note of the Kronstadt cemetery with German war graves from the First and Second World War and continue in southwesterly direction. During many centuries of Saxon rule Romanians were not allowed to live within the walled city. That is why the orthodox St. Nicholas Cathedral is in the Schei district outside the fortifications. The church was closed when I visited but there are a number of (faded) murals painted in Byzantine style on the outside and the carved wooden door is also a minor masterpiece. Next to the church is a 16th century school where the pupils for the first time anywhere were educated in Romanian. The charming church area, the grave-yard, the school and the small square with typical stylish Romanian architecture offers some tranquility, away from the very touristic old town. This is perhaps the most genuine corner of Braşov. For a hearty, traditional and very affordable meal in a rustic setting I recommend Casa Romaneasca in Piata Unirii (Union Square) which also gives you a view of the St. Nicholas Cathedral.

Tehhis is not what it used to be in Romania since the heady days of former world no.1 Ilie Năstase. Photo: Albert Ehrnrooth
Tennis is not what it used to be in Romania since the heady days of former world no.1 Ilie Năstase. Photo: Albert Ehrnrooth

Next day I decide to skip the trip I had planned to Bran and the ‘Dracula Castle’. Yesterday’s taxi driver (see previous blog) has put me off and I really need to visit Sinaia. This resort is on the train line back to Bucharest. I summon a taxi to take me (back) to the station.

This time I have a silent driver. I reckon he is in his sixties. Judging by his driving style he used to be a police officer. He seems to think he has a right to move past a minor traffic jam on the wrong side of the road, ignoring the solid white line and the oncoming cars that have to make way. I am sure this move felt a bit safer in the days when he could flash his blue police light. I also notice that he crosses himself every time we pass a church on the way to the train station. That happens three times and a fourth time he crosses himself from right to left (as is the orthodox way) after he has nearly taken out a car on a roundabout.

Braşov and Hollywood have nothing in common except for a white sign on a hill.

When he drops me at the station, he allows himself a smile and utters “Goodbye”. It is probably  the single English word he masters and the only smile he gives out professionally.


Ateneul Roman or the Romanian Athenaeum, a gem of a concert hall. photo: Albert Ehrnrooth


Bucharest is not a place you fall in love with straight away. It might take a few days. Or, as in my case, a return visit.

Seventy years ago the monarchy was abolished and instead a Romanian People’s Republic was proclaimed. 43 years later the first democratic elections were held in Romania. The communist era had a devastating effect on Bucharest and many other cities and villages.  Nicolae Ceaușescu’s dictatorship  (1965-’89) initially could count on tacit support from the West. But as the leader’s policies  became more and more outlandish  and the secret police secured an iron grip on every aspect of society,  it seemed only a matter of time before something had to give. Ceaușescu ordered the destruction of thousands of villages and flattened whole neighbourhoods in Bucharest, replacing them with soulless blocks of flats and offices. It will take at least another generation before the ugliest edifices have been pulled down. Meanwhile they have a function in housing people and gathering pollution.

There is one fantastic exception from the communist era that deserves to be preserved: the Palace of Parliament, Ceaușescu’s crazy project that was started in 1984 and never finished. There may be no administrative buildings (technically it should not be classified as a palace, as it has no bedrooms) on you bucket list, but this has to be seen to be believed. There are more than 3000 rooms, taking up 330.000 sq. metres. Only the Pentagon is bigger. But only a megalomaniac with an inferiority complex could have ordered a building like  Palatul Parlamentului. Yes, Nicolae and his horror of a wife both were very involved in the design and many of the details. Book the full tour and take some time to contemplate the  views from the balcony. This could be the HQ of Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World.

There are a number of other places in Bucharest that are well worth a visit. No, I am not very keen on the Historic Centre and the Old Princely Court area with all its restaurants and bars. The streets are narrow and during the summer months the terraces take up half the space. During the weekend the throng of tourists and locals pushing through this area I find unbearable.

to survive on éclairs alone, is possible in Bucharest.Photo;Albert Ehrnrooth
to survive on éclairs alone, is possible in Bucharest. Photo; Albert Ehrnrooth

For a more relaxed atmosphere I recommend the area between the Romanian Athenaeum and Bulevardul General Gheorghe Magheru. Here you will find several good restaurants serving ‘honest’ Romanian food (La Mama is a good example).

I do have a soft spot for the National Art Museum which used to be a ‘real’ Royal Palace. It houses the country’s largest art collection in two separate galleries. I particularly recommend the medieval collection. The 19th century palace, with a 1930s façade stuck on to it, looks out over the Revolution Square. Cross the busy Calea Victoriei, walk past the Rebirth Memorial without reflecting too much on the quality of the work and pause a moment in front of the former Central Committee of the Communist Party building. This is where more than 100, 000 Romanians in December 1989 were forced to listen to, what turned out to be, Ceaușescu’s very last speech. The masses quickly became unruly and the leader was completely taken by surprise by the people’s loud protestations. It all happened on live television. Nicolae and his wife Elena had to withdraw while the police and the military that night mowed down more than 1000 demonstrators. The next day the dictator again tried to address the crowd but was jeered and fled in a helicopter with his wife. Four days later they were executed after an unanimous and anonymous court decision.

The Rebirth memorial (olive on a stick) and the Central Committee Communist Party building where Ceausescu held his final speech. Photo: Albert Ehrnrooth
The Rebirth Memorial (olive on a stick) and the Central Committee Communist Party building where Ceausescu held his final speech. Photo: Albert Ehrnrooth

To the west of the Interior Ministry (the former Central Committee building) you will find the very impressive Romanian Athenaeum (1888), which probably is Bucharest’s finest building. Reading about it, I get the impression that it was designed by a whole host of architects and advisers. But the Frenchman Albert Galleron gets the final credit. A number of different styles have been incorporated for good measure. Amazingly it is a very good mix. The façade with its lean ionic columns supporting the pediment suggests Greek temple, the dome says baroque and the circular auditorium seems to indicate that we are in a circus. This is Romania’s premier concert hall. The impressive marble entrance hall is spacious and palatial. Four spiral staircases made of Carrara marble lead up to the concert hall on the first floor. There is seating for nearly 900 people and the acoustics are surprisingly good for this slightly odd concert space. The richly decorated vaulted ceiling and the monumental fresco on the circular wall certainly will keep you occupied should the performance not capture your imagination. The fresco (1933), relating the history of Romanian peoples in 25 painted scenes, is hardly a masterpiece, but certainly worth a few glances during a concert. The fresco starts with the Romans and the Dacians reminding us of the roots and rich heritage of the Romanians. The 75 metres long and 3 metres high painting ens with the unification of the Romanians.

During the biennial Enescu festival this is definitely my favourite concert venue. There is much to be said for a visually attractive venue . It enhances the musical experience.

In Bucharest stunning buildings are few and far between, but the Ateneul Roman is a gem and a gift to all the people who are looking for a holistic concert experience.


Spiegelsaal, Herrenchiemsee Photo: Albert Ehrnrooth


Herrenchiemsee Festspiele  18-30 July 2017

‘Mad’ king Ludwig II of Bavaria may have been genuinely mad towards the  end of his life, but he also deserves to be remembered as the ‘opera’ king. Richard Wagner could not have afforded to spend so much time composing the Ring Cycle, if it weren’t for Ludwig’s  financial support. And the Festspielhaus that Wagner built in Bayreuth would never have materialised without King Ludwig’s sponsorship.

Ludwig’s hobby was overspending on extraordinary building projects, challenging himself to the extreme with every new ‘Schloss’ that he planned. Herrenchiemsee was the costliest and most opulent of all of Ludwig II’s royal edifices. The building of this monument to himself and absolutist rule hastened his downfall and was never finished. The magnificent palace was constructed on the Herreninsel, an island in the Chiemsee. The lake, Bavaria’s largest, acts on calm days  as a giant mirror for the expanse of the German Alps.
Everyone recognises the fairy-tale castle Neuschwanstein sitting theatrically on top of a cliff ridge.  This was Ludwig’s obsessive attempt to build ‘the castle of the Grail’ and many of the walls echo the legends that Wagner had put to music.  The King was obsessed by Wagner and his operas Tannhäuser and Lohengrin in particular.

Klaus Maria Brandauer in Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo: Albert Ehrnrooth

Herrenschiemsee  was modelled on Versailles and intended as a homage to the new Sun King (i.e. Ludvig). In reality only a few rooms were recreated in the manner of Versailles. But Ludwig’s megalomania probably made up for his lack of sexual prowess and instead of the full interior grandeur of Versailles he built a wider facade and grander staircases than the French palace. The spectacular mirror gallery (see picture above), where quite a few of the concerts are held during the festival, is also longer than the one in Versailles. The excessive number of magnificent chandeliers and candelabras at Herrenchiemsee had the function of keeping the night permanently out (the eccentric king preferred to sleep during the day and be up all night).

The slightly odd ritual of parading and playing four alp horns takes place during the interval of concerts at the Hall of Mirrors. Photo: Albert Ehrnrooth

The Herrenchiemsee Festspiele (July 18-30 July 2017) makes great use of some of the palace’s architectural features. Most concerts take place in the spectacular Hall of Mirrors and the Unfinished Staircase.

The opening concert of the festival is always held in the serene Benedictine convent on the Fraueninsel (the women’s island) which is Herreninsel’s neighbour. You reach the islands with a lake steamer from Prien and the alpine backdrop makes sure that the journey to the stunning concert venues forms a magical visual overture to the musical event.

This year’s festival offers 13 concerts and the theme is “Of Gods and Gods – Pathways to Baroque”,  an intriguing and perhaps slightly confusing title.  J.S.Bach and his contemporaries feature quite heavily and a whole evening is devoted to Monteverdi, celebrating his 450th birthday.

This is not a star-studded festival and if it is big names you’re after; Salzburg is only 70 km from Prien and Munich (in the other direction) is not much further.

Festival and musical director Enoch zu Guttenberg

Enoch zu Guttenberg has led the festival since 2000 and he also founded the ‘house band’,  Orchestra Klangverwaltung. The ensemble  is composed of musicians from many different German top orchestras and this year they are involved in six of the concerts. Bach’s Johannes Passion (on the Frauenchiemsee island) and Magnificat (in the Spiegelsaal) could be very memorable events , not only because of the music but also because of the environment in which the performances take place.

The Baroque Twitter evening also looks very promising with the early music ensemble Kammerorchester Basel performing a great selection of songs, arias and musical interludes.

Click below to see his year’s festival programme:

Enoch zu Guttenberg and the Chorgemeinschaft Neubeuern (which was also founded by zu Guttenberg) will be awarded the prestigious Rheingau Musik Preis in August.


Re-enactment Battle of Waterloo July 20, 2015

Order of Battle Allied Forces
Order of Battle Allied Forces

I am watching thousands of men armed with muskets and baker rifles, hundreds manning canons, all firing blanks at each other. With my binoculars I can also spot quite a few young ladies (Amazons?) dressed up as Grande Armée and allied soldiers. The French cavalry charges and the ground shakes as hundreds of horses and their riders add a bit of speed, sword and sabre to the spectacle. After a short while the smoke from the blanks envelops most of the battlefield. When the temporary mist caused by the black powder lifts, the spectacle can truly commence. And what a spectacle it turns out to be! This surely is the most ambitious re-enactment battle ever staged.

The show takes place on the actual battlefield where 200 years ago Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington confronted each other for the first and very last time. I find it incredible that the ‘Iron Duke’ and the Emperor never actually met in person. If you are interested in all things Napoleonic (Wellington never appealed to the general public in the same way) you wouldn’t have wanted to miss the re-enactment of the battle of Waterloo. For two evenings only (the 19th and 20th of June, 2015) one of Europe’s most famous battles was portrayed by 6,000 re-enactors in front of a crowd of 120,000 spectators.

Charging Cavalry
Charging Cavalry

I probably don’t need to point out that these re-enactment battles can never come close to the real thing. During the Napoleonic era battlefields quickly became gruesome fields of slaughter with limbs getting ripped off by bouncing canon balls and grapeshot causing equally nasty injuries, if not death. At Waterloo, which was a relatively small battlefield, bodies would have quickly piled up and dead or wounded horses would have formed obstacles for both the advancing French and the defending Allies.

Napoleon’s strategic brilliance modernized warfare but the technology (weaponry) remained ‘old school’. Incredibly, some weapons (I am thinking of lances) had not changed much since the Middle Ages, but despite this the French lancers proved to be surprisingly effective at Waterloo. Their three meter long pikes often turned out to be more deadly than the pistols, sabres and swords that the cuirassiers and dragoons wielded to no avail when faced with Wellington’s infantry squares.

Battle formation and camp followers
Battle formation and camp followers

Particularly the re-enactors on horseback look like they are having quite a bit of fun charging through the rye field. They get to hack the poor fusiliers with their swords. OK, it is just pretend, but viewed from ground level it must give you an idea of how vulnerable you are. The horses are very well behaved and don’t appear to trample anybody. However it is rather difficult to practise mock combat with sharp lances and accordingly the lancers have no role to play in this re-enactment. Nobody wants to see real blood flowing and we all know this is a big show, despite the fact that it is presented under the guise of a commemoration. And accidents do happen. The guy playing Marshall Ney fell off his horse the first night and broke his arm (see my photographs) and only reappeared to witness the victory parade of the Allied forces on Sunday.

Allied fire power on a smoky battlefield
Allied fire power on a smoky battlefield

What does come across fairly realistically at this portrayal of the battle is the effect on the fighting that the smoke from the guns must have had. During the re-enactment the 100 canons and the 2000-3000 muskets created quite a bit of mist that occasionally hampered the visibility for the spectators. It is quite easy to imagine that 200 years ago the smoke produced by 400 guns and 100,000 muskets firing continuously for 10 hours must have enveloped the battlefield in a thick fog that would have hampered both armies at various stages.

Oh well, 200 years have passed and nobody who is alive now, will have met anyone who fought at Waterloo. Many people were, until recently, not even aware that their family fought in Belgium for the Allied cause. Throughout the year the French have been reminded of their defeat at the Battle of Mont-Saint-Jean (Napoleon never adopted Wellington’s name for the battle). The Belgians minted a commemorative coin which the French rejected. French politicians have turned out to be sour losers. But so was Napoleon who fled from the battlefield and then blamed everybody else for the crushing defeat.

Napoleon and his generals
Napoleon and his generals

There was a point during the show that I came to realize that all the people that I could see around me – 60,000 in the grandstands in addition to the 6000 re-enactors out there on the battlefield – more or less equaled the number of soldiers that were wounded or died during the battle of Waterloo. The crying, the wailing, the groaning from the mortally wounded would have been soul destroying. It seems rather pointless to try and mimic that drama, but the soundtrack (with dramatic music) seemed to give it a try.

Wellington certainly didn’t celebrate his victory with a glass of champagne. Apparently he collapsed in a heap on his bed after the battle and cried over the loss of so many friends and colleagues. Only after that did he pull himself together to write his now famous dispatch from Waterloo. So, next time leave out the music, the commentator and sound effects! Just leave it to our imagination.

The re-enactment event has been a huge success in so many different ways. It was worth seeing all this just for the costumes. The time and money the re-enactors put into getting the uniforms and the paraphernalia just right is admirable. Many of them have been saving up for this occasion for the past five years. It is also worth bearing in mind that all these good people gave up their time for free to participate in this event. The organizers did provide the food, the tents and the black powder. But this spectacle could only take place because re-enactors came from all over the world to take part in it.

Allied bivouacs
Allied bivouacs

I loved walking around the bivouacs and at the French camp I spoke to re-enactors from the Czech and Slovak republics, Germany, Belgium and France. The Allied bivouac hosted an even greater multinational force. I met re-enactors from Portugal, Canada, USA, Austria, Germany, Holland, Belgium and even some from Sweden and Finland.

In 1815 the Swedes didn’t participate in the battle, but the troupe representing the Älvsborg regiment were undeterred by this inconvenient historic detail. They were determined not to miss such a major event so obligingly the organizers incorporated them into the scenario. One of the Swedes confided to me that back home re-enactment events rarely attract more than 200 participants.

This business of portraying different battles is not just a nerdish obsession of a happy few. It has become quite a movement and tens of thousands of people get involved in Europe and North America in various events during the spring and summer. I believe these enthusiasts – who can spend a fortune on jackets, shakos and plates alone – truly help to keep some of our war history alive. By spending time more or less living the life of a bygone soldier they can enrich our understanding of what it was really like to be in battle and help us to appreciate the incredible resourcefulness of soldiers 200 years ago.

I have in the past made a number of radio programmes about Napoleon and Waterloo for Finnish and Swedish media and believed I was fairly knowledgeable on the topic. But I have learned more about the Napoleonic wars from talking to re-enactors and visiting their bivouacs over one weekend than I have from watching Andrew Roberts pompous, and at times poorly argued and self-serving TV series on Napoleon, currently airing on BBC 2.