Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A Little Remarkable Film

Perhaps carrying in the mood of yesterday's post this short film says so much in such a short time.

I received it with the following commentary from my friend Vicki:

British film director Sir Ridley Scott launched a global film making contest for aspiring directors. It's titled "Tell It Your Way".

The film could be no longer than three minutes, contain only 6 lines of narrative and be a compelling story.

The winner was "Porcelain Unicorn" from American director Keegan Wilcox. It's a story of the lifetimes of two people who are totally opposite, yet, very much the same – all told in less than 3minutes.

There were 600 entries - I can see why this one won!

31 January - 1919 – The Battle of George Square takes place in Glasgow, Scotland.

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Monday, January 30, 2012

Put Away Childish Things

My friend Jenn - she of the human equivalents of the Hounds from Hell if her stories are to be believed - put this lovely poster on Facebook yesterday.

And it brought to mind the final pages of A. A. Milne's The House at Pooh Corner.
Suddenly Christopher Robin began to tell Pooh about some of the things: People called Kings and Queens and something called Factors, and a place called Europe, and an island in the middle of the sea where no ships came, and how you make a Suction Pump (if you want to), and when Knights were Knighted, and what comes from Brazil. And Pooh, his back against one of the sixty-something trees and his paws folded in front of him, said "Oh!" and "I didn't know," and thought how wonderful it would be to have a Real Brain which could tell you things. And by-and-by Christopher Robin came to an end of the things, and was silent, and he sat there looking out over the world, and wishing it wouldn't stop.
But Pooh was thinking too, and he said suddenly to Christopher Robin:

"Is it a very Grand thing to be an Afternoon, what you said?"

"A what?" said Christopher Robin lazily, as he listened to something else.

"On a horse," explained Pooh.

"A Knight?"

"Oh, was that it?" said Pooh. "I thought it was a-- Is it as Grand as a King and Factors and all the other things you said?"

"Well, it's not as grand as a King," said Christopher Robin, and then, as Pooh seemed disappointed, he added quickly, "but it's grander than Factors."

"Could a Bear be one?"

"Of course he could!" said Christopher Robin. "I'll make you one." And he took a stick and touched Pooh on the shoulder, and said, "Rise, Sir Pooh de Bear, most faithful of all my Knights."

So Pooh rose and sat down and said "Thank you," which is a proper thing to say when you have been made a Knight, and he went into a dream again, in which he and Sir Pump and Sir Brazil and Factors lived together with a horse, and were faithful Knights (all except Factors, who looked after the horse) to Good King Christopher Robin . . . and every now and then he shook his head, and said to himself, "I'm not getting it right." Then he began to think of all the things Christopher Robin would want to tell him when he came back from wherever he was going to, and how muddling it would be for a Bear of Very Little Brain to try and get them right in his mind. "So,perhaps," he said sadly to himself, "Christopher Robin won't tell me any more," and he wondered if being a Faithful Knight meant that you just went on being faithful without being told things.

Then, suddenly again, Christopher Robin, who was still looking at the world with his chin in his hands, called out "Pooh!"

"Yes?" said Pooh.

"When I'm--when-- Pooh!"

"Yes, Christopher Robin?"

"I'm not going to do Nothing any more."

"Never again?"

"Well, not so much. They don't let you."

Pooh waited for him to go on, but he was silent again.

"Yes, Christopher Robin?" said Pooh helpfully.

"Pooh, when I'm--you know--when I'm not doing Nothing, will you come up here sometimes?"

"Just Me?"

"Yes, Pooh."

"Will you be here too?"

"Yes, Pooh, I will be really. I promise I will be, Pooh."

"That's good," said Pooh.

"Pooh, promise you won't forget about me, ever. Not even when I'm a hundred."

Pooh thought for a little.

"How old shall I be then?"


Pooh nodded. "I promise," he said.

Still with his eyes on the world Christopher Robin put out a hand and felt for Pooh's paw.

"Pooh," said Christopher Robin earnestly, "if I--if I'm not quite" he stopped and tried again --". Pooh, whatever happens, you will understand, won't you?"

"Understand what?"

"Oh, nothing." He laughed and jumped to his feet. "Come on!"

"Where?" said Pooh.

"Anywhere," said Christopher Robin.

So they went off together. But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.
The House at Pooh Corner (1928)
Written by A. A. Milne
Illustrated by E. H. Shepard
This has always seemed to me the truest and most touching account of leaving childhood behind that I have ever read.

30 January - 1911: The Canadian Naval Service becomes the Royal Canadian Navy.
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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Post 1,500

When I first posted on this blog back on November 12, 2006 I said:
I wrote my first blog back in 2000 while working at the Warsaw Business Journal.
(snip) Back then I promised readers a daily update of ex-pat life in Poland. That promise was well-intentioned but more often than not it was a broken one. Blogging on a regular basis can be time consuming and lets admit it most of us don't have that much excitement in our lives that warrant a daily post. Basically I've started this blog to keep a record of our trip to Vietnam in December. We'll see how that works out.
1500 posts and more than five years have passed since I wrote that "mission statement" if you like - funny how we slip back into "bureaucrat-speak" isn't it?  And what I wrote still holds true today - blogging is time consuming and hard work, and often topics or events that thrill you would bore your readers to distraction or at least to click quickly away to something more fascinating.  My blog log (look Ma I rhymed) shows that there are 61 posts sitting in "draft" status - things started, abandoned and on occasion restarted and once again abandoned.  Perhaps this is a good time to clean up that file - finish off the gold that cries to be posted and delete the rest as the dross it is  A project for a snowy, cold day - which could be any day this month or next!

Looking at one set of tracking statistics I see that since that day in November there have been:
  • 111, 879 visits (that does not include the times when the code suddenly disappeared from the template)
  • 64,365 unique visitors (I have always thought that all of my visitors are unique)
  • 153, 060 page views (thought this conflicts with the stat on another counter that says 103,160 since June 2009)
  • 168 countries are represented on that survey and though the bulk of my visitors come from the U.S., Canada, Italy and the United Kingdom at least on one occasion someone in Vanuatu (Cameron or Dan during their stint there?), Saint Helena and Bhutan (Bev on one of her many exotic trips?) have clicked their way here.
  • The most visited post has been A Word of Warning which suggests there is a great deal of interest out there in the corseting of Austro-Hungarian royalty and obscure 19th century German texts on healthy living!!!!
  • The most popular search strings have been "crollalanza", "pavol breslik gay" - apparently he is but you couldn't prove it by me - and "the past tense of fly" which since it addressed the flu I caught on a flight from Beijing to Toronto must have disappointed all the grammarians out there.
But what a statistics gathering programme can't measure is the pleasure I've experienced in recording the things that have interested, pleased, saddened and, on occasion angered, me.  Nor could it in any way record the friendships I have established with so many of my visitors and fellow bloggers.  The experiences of reading, corresponding, telephoning and in some cases meeting with people has enriched the past five years in so many ways.  And that, for me at least, has been the greatest reward of all the words, links and photos of the past 1499 posts.

And now to get to work on the next 1500!

26 January - 1500: Vicente Yáñez Pinzón is the first European to set foot on what is now Brazil.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Lunedi Lunacy

This may be a bit of a specialized lunacy suitable for my friends and readers with a liturgical bent but lunacy it is. But then so much of it is, isn't it?

Many thanks to my dear Rob in Rome for this one. Miss you caro.

23 January - 1556: An earthquake devestated Shaanxi Province in China with a loss of nearly 830,000 lives.
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Sunday, January 22, 2012

龙年吉祥!Gung Ha Fat Choy - Gong Xi Fa Cai

The Dragon is a magnificent beast. In the East, the Dragon is the imperial symbol, the sign of the emperor and the male element of Yang. The Dragon is also synonymous with power and wealth.
It is said that people born in the year of the Dragon carry a natural charisma and are gifted with power and luck. They can also be egoistical and ambitious, almost to the point of megalomania, and will often stop at nothing to get what they want. They can be successful as actors, singers, bankers, financiers, politicians, pharmacists and quite comfortable in many other professions.

The Dragon falls on the following years: 1916, 1928, 1940, 1952, 1964, 1976, 1988, 2000, and 2012.

 Once upon a time, the Jade Emperor decided to select twelve animals to be recognized as the zodiac (生肖shēngxiāo) signs. In accordance with a decree, the first twelve animals to present themselves to him on the day appointed by the Emperor would be selected as the animals of the Chinese Zodiac.

A right click on the Zodiac will take you to predictions for the coming New Year of the Dragon.  Once you get there just click on your sign and all will be revealed.

The Cat asked the Mouse to help her compete, but the Mouse forgot and the Cat was overlooked. Ever since, there has been bad feelings between the two animals.  The other animals choose the Ox to go first but the sly Mouse rode upon his back so that when the Ox lumbered into the Great Hall the Emperor first espied the Mouse.  So the Mouse was awarded the first place.  However the Tiger and Dragon were angry about the mouse's deception and to placate them the wise Emperor granted them the Kingdoms of the Mountain and the Sea.   The Rabbit also voiced his displeasure and challenged the Dragon to a  race for the fourth position of the celestial signs.  Though the Dragon was swift, Rabbit proved the victor.   That’s how the Dragon became the Fifth Animal in the Zodiac.

The story is told that once in the old times there was a monster called Nián. The monster was enormous and had spiky antenna coming out of its head.  During most of the year it lived in the deepest part of the ocean but on the Eve of the New Year it would rise to the surface and devour people and livestock living on land.  However after many years a wise monk discovered that Nián was afraid of the color red, bright lights and loud-bang noises. So on the New Year's Eve Chinese people put couplets written on red paper up on their gate, hung red lanterns across gate beams, set off fireworks and stayed up all night, which was called "守岁 (shǒusuì)".  It is still the tradition today as people throughout the East approach the New Year with deep lingering feelings for the passing year and a hopeful longing for good things in the coming New Year.

Another tradition that people follow on the New Year is to hang small messages or wishes called Hui Chun in and around their homes and offices, hoping for good fortune during the year. There are many different Hui Chun depending upon the occasion and circumstance. There are Hui Chun asking for sufficient food, domestic harmony, special wishes for the elderly and some wishing students good luck in their studies.

And as I've done in the past I have a Hui Chun that I want to share with all my dear friends:

And may those treasures not be just monetary ones but also the treasures of love, health and happiness.

If you would like to send friends and family a Hui Chun to begin the New Year the people at Discover Hong Kong (one of my favourite cities in Asia) have an interactive site where Hui Chun can be created and sent to family and friends.

22 January - 1506:  The first contingent of Swiss Guards (150 soldiers) arrives in the Papal States.

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Thursday, January 12, 2012

Patterns of Winters

I've made no secret of the fact that winter is not one of my favourite times of year, particularly when its a day like today - freezing rain, snow, cold wind, -9c feeling like -13c.  Or days when it is bright and sunny but -27c with the wind chill.  The other day when I trudged through the Rideau Centre in a t-shirt, shirt, sweater, fleece, scarf, winter coat, toque and big clunkly lined boots I asked myself why I wasn't sitting in Miami in a shorts and t-shirt with many of my friends?  However that is a question to be answer another day.

But then every so often there is those moments when the sight of pristine snow falling in soft flakes on virgin white drifts - before the dog walkers set out and the sand trucks appear - takes on a mystical fairy tale aspect.  Or times like this morning when I went into the living room and saw a literal forest of frost on the window - looking for all the world like a Lalique sculpture.  I know it means that the seals have broke on the window and more cold is coming in than should be but it really was beautiful.  I only wish I had a better camera that wouldn't catch the reflection but even that added a touch of the mystical to the designs etched in ice by the cold.

Remember that a left click will enlarge the photos for a closer look.

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At this point I'll simply bask in the beautiful of nature and not even bother looking out the window.  That would only bring back those old feelings about winter!

12 January - 1908 A long distance radio message was transmitted from the Eiffel Tower for the first time.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Mercoledi Musicale

This time last year I was preparing to head up to Salzburg for the annual Mozartwoche for a few days of concerts, bazaartost, Salzburger Knockerl and the warm hospitality of the Hotel Bristol. Amongst the musical highlights was a concert by the German bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff in a concert of Hayden arias and songs. It was an opportunity to hear one of the greats in a little known repertoire in the intimate setting of the lovely Mozarteum. An added thrill was having him come into a restaurant we were lunching at and ask if he could sit at a communal table.

Quasthoff's story is a fairly well-known on in musical circles - how he overcame great physical challenges to become one of the most respected and loved artists of the past few decades.  Known for his sensitive and nuanced singing in recital, he branched out into opera and jazz and proved that the subtlety he brought to the concert stage translated into so many forms.

Today at the age of 52 he announced his retirement due to health reasons.  As my friend Opera Chic says his ".... statement to the press demonstrates why he's treasured for his elegance and professionalism."
 “After almost 40 years, I have decided to retire from concert life. My health no longer allows me to live up to the high standard that I have always set for my art and myself. I owe a lot to this wonderful profession and leave without a trace of bitterness. On the contrary, I am looking forward to the new challenges that will now enter my life. I would like to thank all my fellow musicians and colleagues, with whom I stood together on stage, all the organizers, and my audience for their loyalty.”
One of my favorite Quasthoff recordings is this aria by Mozart written in 1791 for the bass Franz Gerl and double bass player Friedrich Pichelberger.  It has been rumoured that Pichelberger had made advances toward his wife Constanza and Mozart composed the extremely difficult bass obbligato of Per questa bella mana as revenge.   Whatever the reason he may have had for composing it, here Quasthoff sings it will his trademark elegance and the young bass player Christoph Anacker dispatches his part with elan.

And here is Quasthoff displaying his abilities as a jazz artist with Have A Little Faith in Me from one of his crossover albums.

Though he may be retiring from performing life he will continue teaching at the Hanns Eisler Academy in Berlin and continue to hold his international master classes.  In 2009 he launched "Das Lied" an international song competition and has a new talk show series at the Berlin Konzerthaus.

One can only say thank you to him for so much wonderful music and wish him happiness and health.  We may not hear the music of his voice but his voice will still be heard in the world of music.

11 January - 1566 The First Official Government Lottery has held in England.

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Monday, January 09, 2012

Lunedi Lunacy

One of the reasons I never make New Year's Resolutions is that I have never been able to keep them past the first week of January.

So how you doing with yours?

09 January - 1768 Philip Astley opened the first modern circus, in London.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Hristos se Rodi!*

Voistinu se Rodi!*

To all my Orthodox friends in Serbia and Canada who are celebrating the Birth of Christ today I wish you all the all the blessings of Nativity.

This lovely traditional chant "Today the Virgin" is by the Boston Byzantine Choir and is a track on their album "First Fruits".

* The traditional  Serbian greetings for Christmas:
Christ is born! He is born indeed!

07 January - 1598 - Boris Godunov  ascended to the throne of Russia

Thursday, January 05, 2012

The Flight of La Befana

Tonight, as she has done for the past thousand years - or perhaps two thousand if legend is to be believed, an old lady will wander through the streets, alleyways and roads of Italy looking for a special child.  Some say she is seeking the Christ Child, others that it is her own lost child she seeks and still others say it is all children because for one night a year they have been left in her care.  Her head swathed in an old scarf to protect her from the cold, dressed in a tattered house dress, wearing a pair of scuffed boots - though sometimes she wears sandals or even goes barefoot - and using a broom as support but more often as transportation she will go from house to house.

At each house where she stops she leaves small presents in the stockings that have been left out by the children of the family.  If she finds that the child has been bad there may be a lump of coal or an onion but more often she rewards children for the times they were good with sweets, oranges, toys and games.  And because she comes down the chimney and is a good housekeeper she sweeps away the soot so no trace of her entry can be found.  Then, if thoughtful children have left one behind, she may partake of a glass of local wine or even a biscotti  to warm her old bones and give her strength to continue her journey on to the next house.  It is also known that if she is spied upon she will take her broom stick to the offenders and never visit them again. 

Over the past few years I have written about the various versions of the story of La Befana and it seems each year I find another one including this rather lovely variation on her tale at My Merry Christmas.  It is a tradition I have grown to love and cherish as part of my Christmas  and once again this year she graced the tree and has been keeping an eye on things from the hutch until the 12th day of Christmastide comes to an end and things are put away until next year.

Though her tale is now steeped in Christian mythology it is likely that her origins - as with much in Christianity - are pagan.   She may be related to Strenua the Sabine goddess of strength and endurance whose feast came at the beginning of the New Year and included the exchange of gifts.  This festivity was considered riotous and licentious by early Christians but as Thomas Macaulay remarked  "Christianity conquered paganism, but paganism infected Christianity."  In some northern Italian cultures she represents the Old Year and a puppet of an old lady is burned on a larger bonfire in a public square (Fellini captured that rite in his Amacord) - a pagan tradition that can be found in many Celtic cultures.

Though she is celebrated throughout Italy - and in many Italian communities worldwide - the town of Urbania in Pesaro is closely associated with La Befana.  From January 2 until the 6th the town celebrates La Festa Nationale della Befana with food, fairs, rides, games, parades and more Befane that you can shake a broom at.

These are a few sketches of the street decorations designed by Loris Grisi for this year's festa - stockings, sacks of goodies, brooms, the only thing missing is the old lady herself.  But as this little sideshow proves there is no lack of guests-of-honour at this celebration.

Viene, viene la Befana
Vien dai monti a notte fonda
Come è stanca! la circonda
Neve e gelo e tramontana!
Viene, viene la Befana

Here comes, here comes the Befana
She comes from the mountains in the deep of the night
Look how tired she is! All wrapped up
In snow and frost and the north wind!
Here comes, here comes the Befana!

Giovanni  Pascoli
And hopefully on her journey tonight she has brought happiness and good things to all my dear friends in Italy.  Viva la Befana Viva!

05 January - 1759 - George Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Out With The Old In With the New

Sadly as most of us have figured out by now House Elves were figments of J. J. Rowling's fevered imagination - though of course our belief in them probably gave her enough disposable income to actually hire an army of house elves.  Myself,  I waited and waited for one to appear and even suggested that the Hounds from Hell start earning their keep.  Nicky's reaction was to snap at the vacuum in an attempt to scare it back into the laundry room.  Finally I had to call a cleaning lady to sandblast the apartment and make it spic and span.

And I decided at the same time that maybe a little house cleaning on the blog is in order - but that I can do myself.   With a change of abode comes a few changes in how things are done here.  The celebrations for the 150th anniversary of a United Italy have come to an end - though hopefully not the national pride and enthusiasm it engendered - so that banner has disappeared from the sidebar.  Its been replaced by another event being celebrated this year - the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812.  It is being celebrated on both sides of the border as a defining event in the histories of Canada and the United States of America.

I have also made a change to the way I date posts.  After the move to Italy in July of 2007 I went bilingual - Italian/English - and in deference to the rich influence of the church calendar on life there included Saints' Days from the Italian calendario.  Lord knows there was a saint - sometimes two or three - for every day of the year but I would dare say that each Saint  had his day - and a few even were mentioned each year.  However I felt to continue in this vein now that I am back in Canada would be a mite pretentious and anyone who knows me knows I am not pret...  okay I am but....   All to say that the date will now be in English and the events recorded will be momentous (?) occasions in the history of that particular day.

And I really must get around to cleaning up the sidebars - I really wonder if anyone does actually read sidebars or not?  Perhaps that would be a good survey to post in.... a sidebar????

So now things are a bit neater and a touch tidier on the blog - now all I have to do is find someone to iron the 22 shirts that are hanging in the laundry room.  Any offers?

04 Janaury - 1847 Samuel Colt sold his first revolvers to the government of the United States.

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Tuesday, January 03, 2012

For Whom the Belles Toll

As the year drew to a close another great talent of the late 20th century was lost - cartoonist and illustrator Ronald Searle died on December 30 at his home in France.  He first created his infamous Belles of St Trinian's while a prisoner of war working on the Burma Railway in Changi

In an interview with the Guardian's Steve Bell he described his time there:
"I desperately wanted to put down what was happening, because I thought if by any chance there was a record, even if I died, someone might find it and know what went on.  At times I was so ill that I couldn't draw at all. You're doing 16 hours a day rock breaking and you're exhausted. You come back and have a bowl of rice. You have no light, but you have fire, a big fire keeping the mountain lions away, and snakes perhaps, and by the light of the fire, I made the drawings. I didn't have a watch or anything, so you just lie down in the tent until you were dragged out the next morning to go back to the rock breaking. And so all these drawings, some of them very bad, were all I could do in a state of exhaustion."

Steve Bell
The Guardian March 9, 2010
Ronald Searle's Big Fat Cat Book
After is return from the war his anarchical gang of schoolgirls brought him recognition and success including, in 1954,  the first - and best - of a series of films based on their riotous behavior.  Featuring the magnificent Alistair Sim as the addled head-mistress Miss Fritton and her gangster twin brother Clarence it also starred Joyce Grenfell, George Cole, Hermione Baddeley, Sid James and in her first film Barbara Windsor.  It was followed by four other movies though none ever quite lived up to the fun and frolic of the first.

In these two clips we see the staff and young "ladies" of St. T's at their finest, or at least as good as they will ever get:

But Searle's fame wasn't to rest of his naughty schoolgirls - he output was to include cartoons, travel books, the adventures of Molesworth, his particular take on his beloved cats, advertisements and commemorative medals were all to bear the distinctive spiky style of Searle's pen.  I was particularly miffed when I discovered that somehow in all the moves I've lost - sold? given away? - a hysterical look at the history of The Hudson's Bay Company  that he and Kildare Dobbs created to celebrate the 300 anniversary of that august institution.  Amongst the illustrations was a less than happy Queen Victoria, in her lap a pile of beaver pelts and on her face a look of regal distaste - all captured with a few strokes from the pen of a master.

Victoria and Albert show an atypical ebullience in "Always With It" a cartoon Searle did in 2007 to celebrate the 150th Anniversary of London's V and A. 

Today's Guardian has a slideshow highlighting some of Ronald Searle's work and his life here.

03 January - 1987 - Aretha Franklin is the first women inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

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Monday, January 02, 2012

Lunedi Lunacy

I know that Advent is over and we are now into the 7th day of Christmas which probably should mean something about swans-a-swimming but I hadn't realized that those two wild Scottish Socks over at the Scottish Sock Puppet Theatre  had posted an Advent calendar. But like many of us they got a bit preoccupied with the run up to the big feast day so they decided to do one big catch-up video with I might say typical results. 

And not matter what the season I find these two wooly soacks can always raise a laugh.  A left click on the link will take you to a very touching poem about soacks in proper Ayrshire.

02 January - St Gregory the Great

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Music for the New Year

Back in 2003 travel writer Patricia Schultz gave us a list of 1,000 Places to See Before You Die - an interesting if somewhat fatalistic title for an intriguing little travel book.  Though I've never totaled up my list to hers - there's an iPad app for it!!!!! - I have seen a fair bit of the world in the past 65 years.  I was 19 when I took my first trip out of North America and I've been travelling ever since - first with the airlines and then as a dip spouse.  According to my list on TripAdvisor - compiled I have to admit with a fading memory - I've visited 252 cities in 29 countries with a few of them on Ms Schultz's list.  I know for sure that one of them is Vienna - a city which I didn't like on my first visit but came to enjoy and love as I discovered it over the past few years.

The Großer Musikvereinssaal bedecked for the annual
New Year's Concert. The flowers that decorate the hall
are the gift of the city of Sanremo in Italy.
And though I've done most of the things she lists as "must do's" for any visitor to the city that Jan Morris likens to "a grandiloquent watchman of history,"  there is one glaring omission.  I've never attended the Wiener Philharmoniker's New Year's Day Concert - strangely Ms Schultz pegs the less well-known New Year's Eve concert as the thing to do but I think either one would fit on the list.

Well hopefully there is still time in the next few years to correct that gap in my list - perhaps coupled with another trip to my beloved Salzburg for Christmas?  In the meantime here's an excerpt from this year's concert where maestro Mariss Jansons - conducting his second New Year's concert - showed his prowess with the hammers?????

According to the Wiener Phil website if I want to get into next year's concert I'd better make up my mind in the next two days.  The lottery registration for January 1, 2013 starts on Wednesday and ends on the 23rd. And the tickets range from €30 to €940 - so I'd have to win two lotteries if I wanted a good seat!

The official website has a history of the concert - now in its 72nd year and broadcast to an estimated audience of 50 million in over 72 countries.  And there's an interesting posting on how the broadcast is done - famous British producer Brian Large has been most often in charge in the past few years.

01 January - New Year's Day

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