Friday, December 31, 2010

Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Winter Warning

Back in 2006 Italy had the dubious distinction of leading Europe in the number of deaths caused by people driving under the influence. This led to the introduction of zero tolerance and a change in the statistics and a decrease in DUI related accidents. Recently a friend sent me a very powerful Australian public service announcement that was brutal in its honesty about the results of drunk driving; our friends at the Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre do it in a more light-hearted manner but the message is the same.

I don't think anything more need be said.

30 decembre - San Ruggero di Canne

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Procession of Presepe

This interesting logo was on the information plaques and behind the presepe at Piazza Vittorio Emanuele. I think its a lovely piece of graphic art in itself.

I have often posted comments and photos of the presepe that appear in churches, homes and public spaces here at Christmastide. They range from the antique bejewelled panoramas of the various Italian courts to a simple, made in China, plastic representation of the Madonna, Joseph and Child on a mound of celluloid hay. Most churches have one - though on a walk through Santa Maria Maggoire yesterday none was to be found but the little Basilica of Santa Prudenziana nearby made up for it by having seven. Most countries with Christian traditions have a "national" church in Roma and in the case of Santa Prudenziana it is the national church of the Philippines. As well as their parish presepe they had a display of crèches made by various groups that operate out of the parish.
Frankly it was a little difficult to make out the Holy Family amongst all the glitz and glitter on the Parish presepe at the front of the church but they are there.

This little gem of a church can be easily overlooked as its courtyard and entrance are about 30 feet below the current street level. In fact if it had not been for our friend Marie-Paule drawing our attention to the 14th century bell tower we would have passed it by. It is considered the oldest place of Christian worship in Roma and was the residence of the Pope until Constantine offered the Palazzo Laterano as the official Papal residence. I plan to make another visit and post a bit more - including some photos of the wonderful 4th century mosaics that are amongst the oldest examples in the city of that art form using Christian symbols.

I'm not sure if these home-made presepe were part of a contest or just an attempt by various groups in the parish to interrupted the season in their own fashion. I rather like the bubble headed nativity at the bottom of this trio.

The probability is high that these crèches are closer to what San Fransisco had in mind when he instituted the practice with a living nativity in 1223. Myself I must admit I have a weakness for the elaborate displays seen in many of the other churches though there is a devotional tone to these that is touching.

Further down the road at Piazza Vittorio, in an area known for its ethnic markets and diversity, a recent tradition has been to invite a local artist to create a presepe in the spirit of the quartiere.

In "Scacco Natale" (The Nativity of Chessmen) sculpture Leandro Lottici has created five chess pieces in polished teak to represent the central figures of the Nativity: Mary (Queen), Joseph (King), Ox and Ass (Knights) and the Christ Child (Pawn). Its a simple and original concept and I find it rather intriguing that the Pawn, the lowest piece on the board, has been chosen to represent Jesus. And as a side bar this presepe is located in an highly travelled and very public place but remains unmolested or unscared by graffiti - an interesting comment of the people of this city.

In early January I'll be doing a walk with historian Olivia Ercoli and hope to be able to have a few photos of the more traditional presepe on display over Christmastide.

29 decembre - San Tommaso Becket

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Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Music of the Holidays

I must admit after almost a week and a half of the various Christmas albums (we have 48 at last count - everything from Medieval to Ella) on random play I am starting to feel the way I did the year we spent Christmas in Vietnam. Okay that calls for a bit of an explanation: from Saigon to Sapa, in every bloody hotel lobby we had Celine Dion (Canada's gift to music?????) destroying "Oh Holy Night" in the David Foster over arrangement. I offered one Hotel Manager money to take it off - he accepted and we got Celine Dion singing "Silent Night" in a David Foster over arrangement.

Here is one of my favourite theatre troupes - the Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre doing Gruber's immortal carol and bringing our attention to a slight problem in the traditional English translation.

Once again this year they have nailed it - to the wall!

26 decembre - San Stefano protomartire

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Natività del Signore - 2010

Buon Natale e auguri

A left click on this terra cotta bas relief of the Madonna and Child will take you to a special musical greeting for all my dear friends as we celebrate Christmas.

Merry Christmas

Joyeux Noël

25 dicembre - Natale di Gesù

Friday, December 24, 2010

Visions of Sugar Plums

A few weekends ago when I was up in Milano and a stroll along Via Monte Napoleone was, as always, a treat for the eyes. All the upscale shops were sporting their Christmas decorations - some traditional, some trendy but all with that flair that is so Italian. Most were selling luxury items of the wearable sort but one was selling wonderfully over the top eatables.

Cova Pasticceria Confetteria has been around since 1817 when it was founded by a pastry chef who had been a soldier in Napoleon's invading army. Until 1950 the Cafe was located next to La Scala but after sustaining damaged during WWII they moved premises to Via Monte Napoleone. Their coffee is still amongst the best in town and their pastries and sweets fancy and fanciful but at no time are they more fanciful than at Christmas.
Though nowadays the Castagna (chestnut) seller is most likely to be a recently arrived immigrant the pastry chefs at Cova have harkened back to earlier days with this jolly be-moustached Italian marzipan street seller.
I'm not sure what they were implying with the Babbo Natale with the pacifier in his mouth and very Italian looking Mrs Santa but this is certainly a fun piece of spun sugar art.

The expression on this "tiny reindeer" suggests that he may be a little less than pleased with the idea of having to fly around the world tethered to a sleigh carrying a slightly over-weight man in a red suit. Particularly since the Jolly Old Man seems more interested in playing golf!

And this sugar and icing Alto-Adige ski village seemed almost prophetic for this year's ski conditions in the North. Santa is finding the skiing just perfect thank you! And for apés-ski he can have some of Cavo's wonderful hot chocolate.

The problem with all of these wonderful creations is that if I bought one I would hard pressed to break it up and eat it. Though I do know quite a few people who would have no such qualms.

24 decembre - Sant'Adela di Pfalzel

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Gift of Giving

Last week the children at the AmBrit International School here in Roma, where my friend Larry teaches, had their yearly visit from Babbo Natale. Babbo did bear a striking resemblance to Larry in many ways but particularly in the way he helps teach the children about giving as one of the best gifts at Christmas.

Most of the children at the school want for very little and enjoy healthy and happy lives but they have learned that there are children in their own city who are not as fortunate. These are children in the AIDS ward at the Bambino Gesù Pediatric Hospital - many of whom are undergoing treatment far away from home. So for several years now, on that special day when Babbo Natale finds time to stop by, the children at AmBrit have been bringing gifts for a gift exchange. But it is a not a gift exchange as we normally think of it. The children give the gifts to Babbo Natale to take to the children in the Hospital when he does his Christmas Eve rounds. Their gift in return is knowing that they have give a few moments of happiness to another little boy or girl.

They have learned a lesson that is often forgotten - that giving can be one of the best gifts of the season.

22 decembre - Sant'Onorio di Canterbury

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Santa Claus Comes to Town - VI

And finally the big moment was here!

Preceded by a band playing "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" non-stop the entire length of the parade route the Man himself arrived. Though by the '50s he was in the traditional sleigh with reindeer in other years he had arrived by train, wagon and for some reason one year on a gigantic silver fish!!!

Santa's identity was a well-guarded secret but there was always a second one just in case. The "fill-in" Santa would be in a car with blacked out windows that followed the parade at a discreet distance - just in case!

Many in the crowds would follow him up to Toyland where secret (and not so secret) wishes would be whispered in his ear. But in our house we went off to Diana Sweets for lunch and since we were downtown a movie at either the majestic Loews or Imperial theatres. The visit to Toyland was always reserved for a later day when little spirits were a bit less excitable.

21 decembre - San Pietro Canisio

Monday, December 20, 2010

A Tree of Memories

For the first few Christmases Laurent and I were together I liked to do "theme" decorations for Christmastide - toy soldiers, story book, music, colonial, birds. Neiman-Marcus, Horchow and Bloomingdale catalogues and The Bay would be scanned for appropriate items; one year it was brass trumpets, carol books, music sheets, toy drums and mandolins; the next bright red cardinals and birds nestling amongst apples and cranberry strands. Garlands festooned the rooms and various paraphernalia of the season adorned mantel pieces, tables and almost every available space. When she came into our apartment in Mexico City one Christmas our Ambassador's wife said she thought she had stepped into Eaton's window. I would like to think she meant that in a nice way but I have a feeling it really meant she thought it was a bit OTT.

Our first Christmas in Mexico in 1986 our friends Sandra and John gave us the little kitten - or rather their cat did - it has been on every tree since. As has this gingerbread man that my mother gave me a year or two before. And that first Christmas in the apartment from hell in Chicago was brightened by Rick and John and a colonial motive with this wooden angel bringing us tidings that were indeed joyful.

I started collecting a few of the annual ornaments - our famous or infamous (pick your adjective) Silver Christmas Balls, Silver Christmas Flower Medallions from Towle and Wedgewood Jasper Ornaments. One year I picked up 250 hand twisted tin icicles at a Christmas Market in Ottawa - as with all that silver as I polish it I utter a curse as each icicle is hung on an individual branch. As we travelled - Christmas has been spent in Ottawa, Mexico City, Cairo, Chicago, Hong Kong, Warsaw, Montreal, Rome and Niagara-on-the-Lake - I began to pick up ornaments here and there. In Poland a wealth of blown glass ornaments began to adorn the tree - though I never did get that dill pickle that so many people thought was a must. And friends and family gave us ornaments as the years past - for some reason particular favourites seems to be dachshund related. And because Laurent is allergic to pine we have had any number of artificial trees - some big, some small - the current one is 9' high and thank god pre-lit.

One summer weekend in the 1990s my dear Ryan and I were in Cooperstown for the opera and a visit to the baseball museum. Like most small upstate towns it had a Christmas shop and I admired this Santa in the Moon. Later that evening I found it wrapped beside my dinner plate - it has since lost the heart that Santa was fishing for. Poland was the place to buy glass ornaments and this jolly snowman clown was a gift from Betty Jean and Steve our second Christmas there. I bought two of the London telephone booths and gave one to my darling Deb months before Christmas. She hung it in her kitchen window in Pointe Claire to remind her of home. Now it reminds me of her.

This weekend as my favourite Polish carols played in the background we began unpacking the boxes of ornaments and decorations and with the unpacking came a flood of memories. Themes have come and themes have gone but certain ornaments reappear whatever the theme. Now when I look at our tree I realize that over the past decade the theme has become "memories".
Many years ago when Neiman-Marcus was a place of wonders rather than just another store peddling designer items, they featured a series of felt mice in their Christmas Book. I bought one each year - the first was a Victorian Nanny with her charge; the next year Clara with her Nutcracker; the third was a Candy Cane Princess. Our first daschie Bundnie loved the little Nanny and would retrieve it from the tree and carry it around in her mouth. She never damaged it just trotted from room to room and occasionally hide it in the middle of the floor. Her look of surprise when we found it always gave us a laugh.

With almost each unwrapping a place or more importantly a person who has touched our lives came to mind. There are so many - thank god for the 9' tree: the cloth gingerbread man my mother gave us over 30 years ago; a kitten filled stocking from Sandra and John in Mexico in 1986; a wooden colonial angel from Rick and John from one of our many Christmases together, that one in Chicago; a Lyric Opera decoration from Cathy from the second year there; porcelain Chinese dolls from Dianne and Jean-Paul our first Christmas with them in Hong Kong; the old London Telephone Box - I bought one for our tree and another for my darling Deb; a besweatered daschie from Sophie and Andrew; the Santa in the Moon that my much missed Ryan gave me in Cooperstown now sadly minus the heart he had caught while fishing; the skaters frolicking on a silver pond from Laurent's mom and dad; from our Naomi the strange little man who each year climbs the tree in an attempt to reach the star. And that star! Its nothing grand just one of those old tinsel affairs I recall we had on our tree as a child. We picked it up in a dollar store 30 years ago and each year Laurent places it on top of the tree.

As I put the final icicles on the tree today I listened to Dylan Thomas reading his "A Child's Christmas in Wales". It is one of my Christmas favourites and several years ago Laurent found a miniature copy of one of the first editions - complete down to the wonderful Fritz Eichenberg woodblock illustrations. It has a special place in my heart and on the tree. And that little squat man has been climbing up the tree since our friend Naomi found him in a shop in London and decided he would be a fine addition to our Christmas decorations. In over twenty years he has never quite reached that old tinsel star.

After Laurent put the star up last night we stood back and just quietly looked at our 33rd Christmas tree - a tree that reminds us of people loved, places visited and moments shared. It seems to me that "memories" is not a bad theme for a Christmas tree.

20 decembre - San Domenico di Silos

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Saturday, December 18, 2010

Santa Claus Comes to Town - V

Eaton's mounted their first parade for their Montreal customers in 1925 and the tradition continued every year until the FLQ bomb threats in 1969. It was canceled that year and never ran again under Eaton's sponsorship.
The Monday after the parade in Toronto - no one at Eaton's worked on a Sunday, in fact the curtains were closed on their store windows on the "Lord's Day" - many of the floats and all of the costumes would be loaded on freight trains and shipped the 550 kms distance between Toronto and Montreal.

Children who appeared in the parade were often on a waiting list for three years before they were chosen. They were paid a small amount and rewarded with cookies and hot chocolate at the beginning and end of the parade.

The parades were taken over by civic groups after Eatons' discontinued sponsorship and the Toronto and Winnipeg parades continued uninterrupted. There was a decade or more lapse before it was to recommence in Montreal.

It was a long wait before the Parade began and we were always bundled up warm for the parade parkas, scarfs, gloves and toques. But just to remind us that it was even colder where Santa Claus came from he was always preceded by a display of ice and snow.

18 decembre - San Malachia O'Morgair

Friday, December 17, 2010


Here's a few things musical or music related that caught my eye or pocket book in the past few days. And though I've often said Baroque architecture is not my thing I've included a few photos of the very baroque decorations that adorn several of the organ lofts here in churches in Roma.

The Church of Santa Maria Maddalena has always been closed when we've passed it and I honestly thought it was one of the abandoned churches that dot Rome. However a few weeks ago it was open and obviously undergoing restoration. The scaffolding in the side aisles and apse made it difficult to get a decent photo of the lovely organ loft.

I am on the mailing list for Vivaticket which is one of the larger agency ticket brokers here in Italy. They handle venues such as La Scala, La Fenice and San Carlo in the classical world and major rock concerts in the more popular vein. As often happens with literal word for word - and in all likelihood computer generated - translations the results can be to unintended comic effect. Take this ad for an upcoming Riccardo Muti concert in Napoli

Notice how Sonia Ganassi is listed. Now I can order a mezzo-litro (= half litre) of wine; I can say that I will meet someone at tre dieci et mezzo (= half past one). And though I can give a performance with a "mezzo-soprano" I would be hard pressed to achieve anything with a "half soprano". In the case of most singers you need both halves. Now I have heard Ganassi on many occasions including just last week here in the Muti led Moïse et Pharon at the Opera - and she isn't half of anything but a full blown "mezzo"-soprano and a great one at that. Google Translation has a bit to answer for on this one.
The organ at San Giovanni in Laterna stands in a side aisle to the right of the main altar and though the casing is quite lovely the Basilica is known for its marble statues. The two marble base reliefs on either side have a lovely balance - King David on the left is easily recognizable but I'm a bit lost as to the identify of the gentleman with the crown and the portive organ. Any suggestions?

My trip up to La Scala for the second performance of Die Walküre, the
seaon's opener, will be covered in Opera Britannia (and of course I'll be linking to it in the hope that friends will visit it in the millions so Faye and Antony keep using my stuff) shortly. But I have to comment on the programme La Scala published for the production. It is a 300 page (+30 pages of adverts) hard-covered volume weighing in at .5 kilos (over 1 lb). Lavishly illustrated with historical and production photos and the complete libretto in German and Italian, it includes 7 essays on everything from Wagner's life to currently available CDs and DVDs plus entire productions lists for past performances at La Scala. As most of the essays are in Italian and I have yet to struggle through them I can't vouch for their value as musicology but I can tell you they certainly added weight to my luggage if not my review.

The church of Santa Maria di Loreto is another church that I have never found open until one wet Tuesdays when the entire Centro was under vehicular lock-down and in walking by it on my hike to Trastevere found it open. Its central location at Piazza Venezia along with its larger sister church Santo Nome di Maria make it a landmark in the city centre. I did a quick pop-in - mostly to get out of the pounding rain and discovered two sets of organ pipes symmetrically arranged in the octagon. They were setting up the presepe while I was there.

Despite of the fact that she has been dead for over 33 years and last sang in 1974 no name can get opera fanatics pulses racing like that of Maria Callas. Her recordings - particularly the early Norma and Tosca - are still best sellers and singers' voice and performances are still being compared - unfairly - to hers. Her relationship with La Scala was a tempestuous one and many of her most noted performances were given there. In an effort to preserve some of those performances - and cash in on the still lucrative Callas money machine - La Scala has issued La Scala Memories a series of mini-books/CDs of "legendary" performances including three with Callas: the 1954 La Vestale, the 1956 La Traviata and to come the 1957 Anna Bolena - landmark performances all of them.

I have always wanted to hear the Vestale so I snapped it up the minute I entered the Bookshop. I should have saved my €24.90! The booklet is badly translated (the same person that did Vivaticket?) and the recordings are old radio transfers to vinyl disc to CD which they have not even bothered to clean up. In this day and age of digital programmes there is no excuse for transfers of this quality. Anything above forte is completely unlistenable and Spontini's little tale of unfaithful Vestal Virgins has lots of fortissimo in it. The good people at La Scala should be ashamed to market this with either their name or that of their legendary artist on it. I was going to ask Santa for the Traviata for Christmas - I think I'd be better off settling for a few old wax cylinders.

17 decembre - San Giovanni de Matha
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