Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Fatima, Nazare And Obidos

This morning my parents’ tour group traveled to Fatima in order to visit The Basilica And Shrine Of Our Lady Of Fatima.

The Basilica And Shrine Of Our Lady Of Fatima was erected on the site upon which The Virgin Mary appeared to three shepherd children on six occasions between May and October 1917. It is one of the world’s most sacred spots, and one of the most-visited places of pilgrimage anywhere. My family is not Roman Catholic, and yet my parents found visiting The Basilica And Shrine to be among the most deeply-moving experiences of their lives.

The 1917 events at Fatima are inexplicable, and not amenable to scientific explanation.

For me, the most chilling aspect of the events is that The Virgin Mary, on her second visit, foretold the deaths of two of the children, including even the hour and cause of death. Because the shepherd children immediately told their parents what they had learned from The Virgin Mary—as well as schoolteachers, priests, government officials and even journalists—this information was all documented long in advance of their actual deaths.

For The Virgin Mary’s sixth and final appearance to the three shepherd children, at least 70,000 persons witnessed The Solar Miracle Of Fatima that attended The Apparition Of The Virgin. It was perhaps the most miraculous event of the 20th Century, witnessed by persons forty miles from Fatima.

The square in front of The Basilica And Shrine Of Our Lady Of Fatima is larger than the square in front of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. On significant Holy Days, the entire square at Fatima is filled with pilgrims.

The interior of the structure is very restrained. It lends itself to contemplation and solace. Fatima is a place in which visitors find peace.

The nave is known as The Basilica Of The Rosary.

My parents toured The Basilica And Shrine for two hours. It was a wondrous experience. They said that Fatima has been the highlight of their trip thus far.

Fatima attracts large numbers of visitors from all over the world, especially in the summer months, but this morning’s crowd was not large. It will be another month or so before the daily number of visitors swells to peak-season levels.

From Fatima, the tour group proceeded to Nazare, an ancient fishing village on the Atlantic Ocean.

Hoards of persons visit Nazare each year—it is by far Portugal’s most famous and most popular fishing village—but my parents were unable to ascertain the source of Nazare’s attraction. To them, Nazare simply looked like any other Portuguese coastal town.

Fishermen in Nazare still dry their catch in the sun, and they use special drying nets for this purpose. Drying nets lined the beach at Nazare, monitored by old women.

My parents walked the beach, and explored the core of the old town, filled with small shops and seafood restaurants.

My parents had lunch at a seafood restaurant. After lunch, they walked through a residential area adjacent to the town center. They said it looked exactly like any other residential area to be seen in small towns throughout Spain and Italy.

My parents did not take the funicular up to Sitio and observe Nazare from above—they preferred instead to spend the allotted time in Nazare walking the beach and enjoying a fresh seafood lunch.

From Nazare, the tour group proceeded to Obidos, one of Portugal’s most enchanting towns.

Obidos is a medieval town still surrounded by high stone ramparts to protect the town from invaders. There is a large and impressive castle—now a hotel—and many interesting historic churches. The town has always been preserved in its medieval state because, for centuries, the town was the property of The Queen Of Portugal and, as such, was protected from development. My father said that the town reminded him of a miniature version of Spain’s Toledo.

It takes a full day to see everything in Obidos, but my parents had only two hours at their disposal—one of the tiresome disadvantages of a guided tour—and they used the time to walk through as many of the ancient streets as possible. Given the time constraints, they did not attempt even to visit any of the historic churches—they simply wanted to cover as much ground as possible.

Spring flowers were blooming in Obidos, and my mother said that she had never seen so many geraniums in her life. Geraniums were everywhere—in flowerboxes, on lawns, in gardens, in pots—and the geraniums added to the beauty of the ancient buildings and streets.

My parents said that they wished the time spent in Nazare had been devoted to Obidos instead.

On a particularly lovely street, my parents came upon a delightful café with a delightful view. My parents went inside and ordered coffee and pastry.

While my parents were in the café, the café proprietor gave my father a small sample of Ginginha, a sweet brandy liqueur made from local cherries. The proprietor told my father that, if my father liked the liqueur, the proprietor could recommend a shop that sold the finest Ginginha in Portugal and that the shop would gladly ship product to the States. He said that his brother owned the shop in question, and he told my father that his brother’s shop was a very reputable establishment and that the shop took Diner’s Club and that liqueur prices were fixed and government-imposed, and posted in the shop, and that the lowest per-liter price was by the case.

The café proprietor gave my father his brother’s business card, and he drew a simple map to the liqueur shop, which was only three blocks from the café.

My father thanked him and, when they were done with their coffee and pastry, my parents walked over to the liqueur shop. As soon as they stepped inside the shop door, my parents identified the proprietor, whom they instantly observed to be a twin of the café proprietor (but not an identical twin).

And, while in the shop, my father indeed ordered a case of Ginginha to be shipped home.

I suspect my father will use the case of Ginginha as a source of gifts.

Obidos was the final excursion of the day for the guided tour.

For the final night in Estoril, most members of the tour group visited the Estoril casino, the largest casino in Europe (and featured in a James Bond film).

My parents had no interest in the casino, so they had dinner in the hotel and turned in early for the night.

Tomorrow my parents will travel to Evora, and from Evora on to The Algarve, where they will spend the next three nights.

Monday, March 30, 2009


Today my parents spent most of the day in Azeitao, a very small agricultural village about an hour from Estoril.

Azeitao is known, to the extent it is known at all, as the home of Azeitao Cheese, a very rich, very sweet and very expensive dessert cheese made from goat’s milk, and Moscatel, a sweet, fortified dessert wine.

The day began, for tour participants, with an hour-long Portuguese language lesson. The ostensible purpose of this exercise was to assist tour participants in dealing with merchants in Azeitao. Myself, I think that the language lesson was intended to let tour participants know that they were expected to buy things.

In Azeitao, the first stop was a visit to a Portuguese tile factory. Visitors were escorted through the factory and shown how Portuguese tile is made. At the conclusion of the tour, visitors were escorted to a showroom, where many different types of Portuguese tile were on display, all available for sale.

My mother said that most of the stuff was wretched. However, my mother said that one tile stood out for its beauty and quality: a large single-panel tile with a hand-painted bouquet of flowers in blue and white, resembling a blue etching against a white background. My mother bought it for my sister-in-law—my mother says it will be perfect for my sister-in-law’s new kitchen.

I know the tile must be beautiful, because my mother has exquisite taste. I also know she would never fall for someone’s salesmanship.

After the tile factory, tour participants had a couple of hours to wander the streets of Azeitao and have lunch. Azeitao only has a population of 2000 persons, so there were not many streets to wander. My father said that the town looked like a discarded movie set from an old Western.

My parents found a place to have lunch—there truly were not many choices—and after lunch the tour proceeded to an old winery, one of the oldest and most distinguished in Portugal. Tour members were escorted through the entire winemaking operation, which was sort of impressive, or so my parents said. At the conclusion of the tour, visitors were escorted to a showroom, where different wines were on display, all available for sale. Many members of the tour purchased wines; my parents did not.

The tour arrived back in Estoril in the middle of the afternoon, with the rest of the day free.

My parents marveled anew at the views from their balcony, and took a long nap. In the evening, they went to dinner with six other members of the tour group, including the couple from Rochester.

Prokofiev Times Three

Last week, Joshua and I—taking advantage of the fact that Josh was on break—heard three concerts in four days.

On Wednesday night, we heard the London Symphony play Beethoven and Prokofiev at Symphony Hall. Valery Gergiev was the conductor and Alexei Volodin was the soloist.

The London Symphony is a capable ensemble, but it hardly numbers among the world’s elite musical institutions. It is quintessentially British, with all the strengths and all the weaknesses associated with British musical ensembles. It plays precisely at the level of such fine but midline American orchestras as the Atlanta Symphony.

British orchestras strive for clean and neat playing, and the London Symphony certainly supplied clean and neat playing on Wednesday night. British orchestras, however, lack the character, personality and deep musicianship that are the hallmarks of great orchestras from Central Europe and the United States. As Herbert Von Karajan noted, great continental orchestras give the conductor much more than he asks for—but British orchestras give the conductor ONLY what he asks for, and nothing more. Above all, the London Symphony is known for its flexibility and peerless sight-reading facility. It is, however, an entirely faceless ensemble, lacking both a distinctive sound and an individual style of music-making.

The difference between British orchestras and their American and Central European counterparts is most noticeable in the colorless, featureless string playing that afflicts British orchestras. The rich tradition of string playing from Russia, Central Europe and Italy, still to be heard in the finest continental ensembles, took root in America in the late 19th Century (probably the result of widespread immigration from Russia, Germany, Eastern Europe and Italy) and has blossomed in the U.S. ever since. That same tradition never seeped into Britain’s musical life—in fact, it bypassed the British Isles altogether. The result is that British orchestras feature string sections that sound anemic, undernourished, unsophisticated and unmusical compared to the finest of American and continental ensembles.

This difference may be heard, on an individual basis, in the quality of string sound offered by the current generation of leading violin soloists. Russian Maxim Vengerov, German Anne-Sophie Mutter and Israeli-American Gil Shaham, to offer merely three examples, all have unique and bewitching individual timbres, timbres that no other violinist could possibly replicate. Tasmin Little from Britain, on the other hand, has a sound of no special quality and distinction whatsoever.

Even in the near-perfect acoustic of Symphony Hall, there was no depth to the string sound of the London Symphony, very little richness, and no color whatsoever. The string ensemble was faultlessly accurate—clearly, it had been rehearsed to a “T”—but the sound never bloomed and the playing never took flight. This was generic string playing and generic music-making, pure “Brand X”, strictly limited to the production of the notes on the printed page, and nothing more.

If undistinguished string playing is the bane of British orchestras, excellent wind playing is generally the redemption. The London Symphony is known for its excellent winds, but those winds were not in good form on Wednesday night.

I wonder whether the orchestra’s principal winds remained in London and sent deputies on the current American tour, because the work of the wind ensemble Wednesday night was very unimpressive. The wind ensemble did not sound like a group of master musicians that had worked together for years. Instead, the winds sounded more like a pickup ensemble than the crop of top-flight instrumentalists widely considered to be the finest group of wind players currently working in London. The principal flautist and the principal clarinetist were conspicuously weak. The flautist suffered from intonation problems and offered bland, even nonexistent, phrasing. The clarinetist had a croaky, unappealing timbre, and made absolutely nothing of solo passages. The oboist was quite fine.

The London Symphony brass section, however, was a marvel on Wednesday night. Internal balance was perfection. Balance with other sections of the orchestra was perfection. Attacks were perfection. Releases were perfection. The quality of the brass sound was amazingly fine—clear, full, brilliant—and the sound quality was remarkably even throughout a wide dynamic range. I cannot remember when I last heard a brass section in such splendid shape. The brass section is definitely the glory of this orchestra.

There were only two works on Wednesday night’s program: Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5; and Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5.

The Beethoven did not come off.

To the best of my recollection, I had never heard Volodin before Wednesday night. However, I may have heard him half-a-dozen times, because his playing is entirely forgettable. He commands considerable virtuosity, but the drama in Beethoven’s most dramatic concerto completely eluded him. He rushed rapid passages in the first and third movements—his passagework was shockingly uneven—and every entrance brought a new tempo. Volodin is either an undisciplined pianist or he was severely off form on Wednesday night. In any case, I suspect his talents are best displayed in Romantic repertory.

The orchestra contributed nothing to the Beethoven, and neither did Gergiev. Gergiev appeared to have no genuine interest in Beethoven’s last and finest piano concerto—and Gergiev appeared to have no interest in the soloist, either, based upon how many times conductor and soloist parted company during the performance. It was a frustrating, even wasted, thirty-five minutes.

The Prokofiev was much more effective, with orchestra and conductor both operating in much more congenial territory.

Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 is one of those works that almost always comes off in performance. It can survive a wide variety of treatments and it can surmount the obstacles of a bad orchestra or a bad conductor or both.

In everything he performs, Gergiev conducts minute-by-minute, always looking for the next interesting motif or next interesting theme to emphasize and heighten. There are a thousand climaxes in the typical Gergiev performance, which is why his performances are so exhausting and, ultimately, so unsatisfying. Nonetheless, there is a streak of wildness in Gergiev when he conducts Russian music, and this streak of wildness probably accounts for his success with the concert public.

I have heard far more sophisticated performances of Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 than Gergiev’s on Wednesday night, but I enjoyed his reading of the work immensely. He conducted with great confidence, and the orchestra played with great confidence. This was not a subtle performance of the work by any means, but surely no one in the hall was expecting a subtle performance of the work from Gergiev. Gergiev was looking for raw nerve endings in the score, and finding them in practically every bar. One would not want to hear this kind of performance often, but as a one-off it offered undeniable pleasure. The audience loved the performance; the response was overwhelming.

On Thursday night, Josh and I heard the Boston Symphony play Ravel, Prokofiev and Stravinsky at Symphony Hall. Charles Dutoit was the conductor and Lisa Batiashvili was the soloist.

It was interesting to compare the sound of the Boston Symphony with the sound of the London Symphony, what with both orchestras playing in the same hall on successive evenings.

Although the Boston Symphony is no longer in the first tier of American orchestras, the Boston Symphony has tonal allure to spare compared to the tonal allure of the London Symphony. The Boston Symphony’s sound is much richer, with much more body, color and presence, than the London Symphony’s sound.

Nonetheless, the Boston Symphony needs lots of work. The string sound is not sophisticated or pleasing—it lacks transparency and bloom, and the quality of the string sound varies widely through the dynamic range—and the wind principals, apart from the stunning flautist, are not distinguished. The brass section needs to be replaced, wholesale. It is the Achilles Heel of the orchestra.

Under Dutoit, the orchestra sounded better and played more accurately than it did in October under James Levine or in November under a last-minute replacement conductor. Dutoit obtained a lightness in the orchestra’s sound and a sprightliness in the orchestra’s music-making that Levine simply could not muster.

Since Dutoit conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra the previous week, I would very much like to know Dutoit’s personal thoughts on a vital issue: the course of action the Boston Symphony might take to return to the level of its former peer, the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Dutoit’s program was a good one: Ravel’s “Mother Goose” Suite, Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2 and Stravinsky’s “Petrouchka” in the original 1911 scoring.

This is all classic Dutoit repertory, which was the reason Josh and I elected to attend the program. No other conductor currently working in America is superior to Dutoit in these scores.

The concert was a great success. Dutoit is a conductor who can conduct the same works, over and over and over, and still offer performances full of freshness and insight. Dutoit’s “Mother Goose” is perhaps the finest since Pierre Monteux. “Petrouchka” has been Dutoit’s personal calling card for almost forty years—he is THE master of this score—and he obviously loves the work without limit and continues to find fascinating details on every single page of the score.

There was nothing much wrong with the Prokofiev, either. Dutoit’s Prokofiev was, quite naturally, much more objective than Gergiev’s Prokofiev. Dutoit kept the long line in view and never succumbed to immersion in passing detail. Dutoit’s was not necessarily a “Russian” performance, but I thought his accompaniment was quite fine, even admirable.

I did not know what to make of Batiashvili. She certainly played the notes capably, but I have no idea whether she is an individual musician. I would like to hear her in recital.

Thursday night’s Boston Symphony concert was the last of the season for Josh and me.

We had intended to attend a Boston Symphony concert next month, too, but the scheduled conductor, Yuri Temirkanov, has cancelled his Boston concerts. Josh and I had been looking forward to Beethoven’s Violin Concerto and Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 under Temirkanov, but the replacement conductor, Mark Wigglesworth, holds no interest for us. I have heard Wigglesworth many times in Minneapolis and Washington, and Wigglesworth has never fulfilled his early promise. Happily, we had not purchased tickets for the Temirkanov Boston concert at the time his cancellation was announced.

Alas, we HAD purchased tickets for a Baltimore Symphony concert under Temirkanov after his Baltimore cancellation was announced—but before the Baltimore Symphony made note of this cancellation on the orchestra’s website. Josh and I had planned a trip to Baltimore—a trip specifically built around hearing Temirkanov conduct his former orchestra—and we had made all necessary arrangements before we learned of the cancellation. Because of the expense, we went forward with the trip, although we were slightly ticked and almost called the whole thing off up until the very last minute.

Consequently, on Saturday night Josh and I heard the Baltimore Symphony play Brahms and Prokofiev at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. Yan Pascal Tortelier was the conductor and Vadim Repin was the soloist.

Because of the guest artists, it was a very successful concert.

Ten years ago, Tortelier was not a particularly good conductor, but he has improved considerably in the last decade. He was indeed impressive during half of Saturday night’s concert.

I last heard Tortelier over Thanksgiving weekend, when he conducted the Minnesota Orchestra. The day after Thanksgiving, my parents and Josh and I, on a lark, went downtown to hear Tortelier lead the Minnesota Orchestra in Berlioz’s Harold In Italy and Elgar’s Enigma Variations. I feared those might be “throwaway” performances, but the performances turned out to be very fine, especially the Elgar.

From a conducting standpoint, one of two works on the Baltimore program was very fine, too.

The second half of the program featured Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5, which Josh and I had heard three nights earlier.

The Baltimore Symphony performance was actually better than the London Symphony performance, but only because Tortelier was a more apt conductor for the work than Gergiev.

Tortelier played the work “straight”—no pushing and pulling of the music, no hyper-emotive outbursts, no flagrant distortion of the music’s natural line and progression—and he maintained the long line, not conducting every individual measure as if it were the absolute climax of the work. He offered a very French, very objective reading of the score, and to my ears it worked beautifully.

I would be willing to bet that Tortelier, as a child, became familiar with Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 via Eugene Ormandy’s famed 1957 Philadelphia Orchestra recording of the work, first issued on the Columbia label and now available on Sony, and that Tortelier’s childhood exposure to Ormandy’s reading has colored Tortelier’s view of this particular Prokofiev symphony ever since.

Tortelier’s Baltimore performance was very lucid and very naturally-paced, as was Ormandy’s. Further, his performance was free from the excess weightiness and false profundity that some conductors attempt to impose upon this score.

Like Ormandy, Tortelier allowed the music to speak for itself. Unlike Gergiev, Tortelier did not play the work as if it carried, Shostakovich-like, all sorts of gloomy, hidden political messages.

The first movement was very expository—tension, power and thrust were built very gradually and very steadily, almost imperceptibly, until the movement reached its intended climax in the coda. In lesser hands such as Gergiev’s, the climax may be seen coming long, long before it actually—and finally—arrives.

The scherzo was very subtle, understated and pointed but not unduly sarcastic. Tortelier’s scherzo was much more playful than Gergiev’s, and not a heavy-handed, brutal “statement” to endure.

The Adagio, also understated, did not lack feeling. It flowed very naturally and gracefully, and was suitably solemn, but Tortelier made no effort to turn it into grand tragedy. Gergiev’s Adagio had been overwrought—it attempted to turn Prokofiev’s slow movement into Gustav Mahler in heaven-storming mode.

The finale was suitably witty in Tortelier’s hands—lots of forward propulsion, lots of woodwind detail, a successful mixture of playfulness and seriousness—and provided a satisfactory culmination for the work. Under Gergiev, the finale had been played like AN IMPORTANT PROCLAMATION from Comintern.

Brahms’s Violin Concerto was played in the first half of the program, and it would have been a genuinely great performance had the orchestra and conductor operated at the same exalted level as Repin.

I thought Repin was magnificent, offering as fine a performance of the concerto as one may expect to hear. His reading was a very Russian one—it was not Classically-poised in the way one may generally expect from a German violinist, it offered the widest possible array of tone color, and Repin played around with tempo a little too freely in the sonata-form first movement—but it was never perverse and never too Romantic. Repin’s was a successful and fresh reading, full of genuine thought and feeling. He held my full attention for every second of this very familiar work.

Repin did not receive ideal support from orchestra and conductor.

Tortelier was not, I believe, an ideal partner for Repin. Tortelier’s conducting was neutral and uncommitted, suggesting no particular fondness for the work. My instinct tells me that Tortelier would have been happier with quicker tempos, and that Tortelier went along with Repin’s conception of the piece merely out of a sense of obligation, and without any conviction on Tortelier’s part.

The orchestra’s support was shoddy. Entrances were ragged. First-desk work was rudimentary. The level of ensemble was indifferent. The quality of sound varied from wispy and lean one minute to blowsy and overbearing the next. This was not the same fine-tuned, polished and urbane ensemble I was accustomed to hearing with some frequency during Temirkanov’s tenure, when I would drive up from Washington to hear Temirkanov’s concerts with the orchestra while I was in law school.

“What has happened to this orchestra?” is the first question I directed at the intermission to the fellow sitting next to Josh.

“Marin Alsop” was his answer, and he offered a pained, resigned expression. “She’s killing this orchestra. Look around at all the empty seats—and this is a Saturday night.”

There were large numbers of empty seats Saturday night, especially for a program featuring two popular masterpieces and an international-level soloist. Moreover, all seats in the hall had been available at the bargain price of $20.00. Given these factors, the small size of the audience was depressing.

I question whether the Baltimore Symphony can survive much longer.

The Baltimore Business Journal covers the affairs of the Baltimore Symphony much more honestly and much more accurately and much more seriously than the Baltimore Sun—which in any case will probably (and thankfully) not be around much longer, as its parent company is in the midst of bankruptcy proceedings—and the future of the orchestra appears to be grim.

Before the most recent market nosedive, the endowment of the Baltimore Symphony had already dwindled to $47 million, hardly substantial enough to keep a large and important musical organization afloat. A couple of years ago, the orchestra had raided its endowment, withdrawing a giant chunk to retire an enormous ongoing deficit. Many observers viewed that maneuver as an act of desperation if not outright vandalism.

Even with $20.00 seats, ticket sales are down 17% from year-ago levels—and ticket sales have not been robust in Baltimore for years.

The orchestra is stuck with an inexplicable Music Director who should never have been appointed. Morale among the players must be falling through the floor.

Management of the orchestra is widely viewed as the most incompetent of any large American orchestra—among other things, management allows Alsop to bring her girlfriend across country to play as a substitute in the horn section of the orchestra (as if the Mid-Atlantic region is not already swarming with first-class musicians), an appalling and trashy practice as well as a dismaying ethical lapse on behalf of all parties involved —and I doubt that management has a clue how to reverse the orchestra’s fortunes.

The Board is held in no higher regard. Without even undertaking a genuine conductor search to identify a suitable replacement for Temirkanov, the Board stuffed Alsop’s appointment down the throats of the musicians, in the face of very public opposition from the players.

Although all persons on the Board and in management who had been instrumental in engineering Alsop’s appointment were soon asked to step down, the orchestra remains saddled with a Music Director no one wants—and yet no one is willing to take necessary measures to remedy an untenable situation.

The orchestra’s short-term solution, to judge from the announced programs for the 2009-2010 concert season, is to turn more and more of the season over to Baltimore Symphony Pops Conductor Jack Everly. An entire month next season will be devoted to Everly conducting circus music and nothing but circus music (and I am not making this up). No doubt Everly is a better conductor than Alsop, but is this truly the direction in which the Baltimore Symphony wants and needs to go?

If the Baltimore Symphony were as committed to excellence as The University Of Kentucky Athletic Department, Alsop, like former Kentucky basketball coach Billy Gillispie, would already have been shown the door.

However, the Baltimore Board and management appear to be emulating The University Of Iowa Athletic Department’s stance in administering its basketball program—not willing to admit a boneheaded coaching mistake, The University Of Iowa prefers to allow its basketball program quietly to wither away into irrelevance, hoping no one will notice.

The Baltimore Opera has already folded. Short of decisive action, the Baltimore Symphony may not be far behind.

Isn’t there a song in the musical, “Hairspray”, along the lines of “Wake Up, Baltimore”?

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Mafra, Sintra And Cascais

This morning my parents toured The Mafra National Palace in Mafra, Portugal.

The Mafra National Palace is more than a palace—the complex also houses a monastery and a Basilica. The Mafra National Palace is Portugal’s answer to Spain’s Escorial (although The Mafra National Palace is supposed to be larger than The Escorial).

The Mafra National Palace is an 18th-Century Baroque monstrosity. Its construction required only thirteen years, but the short construction period was due solely to the fact that the bulk of Portugal’s national wealth was devoted to the project for over a decade (another parallel with The Escorial) and because up to 45,000 laborers were hard at work each day on the building (while 7,000 soldiers kept watch over them).

The Palace has 1200 rooms; 1383 workers died creating them.

Once completed, The Mafra National Palace was little-used by Portugal’s Kings and Queens, most of whom disliked the place. During The Peninsular Wars, the Palace served as headquarters first for Marshall Junot and later for Wellington. (The Portuguese Royal Family had escaped to Brazil shortly after France invaded Iberia.)

Most of the Palace’s original furnishings and artworks have been lost over the years. Only the Basilica and the library are intact, remaining more or less as they were in the 18th Century.

My parents said that the Basilica was magnificent.

However, they said that the great library was the most glorious part of the Palace.

My parents were informed that bats are kept in the library in order to devour insects that otherwise would constitute a threat to the library’s 40,000 rare books.

From Mafra, the tour group proceeded to Sintra, one of Portugal’s most charming towns.

Sintra lies on steep granite hills. The town is filled with palaces, castle ruins, churches, monasteries, convents and other historic structures. It would take visitors a week to explore fully the town’s many attractions, but the guided tour’s visit to Sintra was limited to two hours and thirty minutes. There was a short orientation tour of the old quarter, after which tour participants were allotted two hours to explore Sintra as they wished.

There was not enough time for my parents to explore one of Sintra’s many palaces—and The Mafra National Palace had already provided them with more than enough palace exposure for one day—so my parents took the tour guide’s advice and hired a horse-drawn carriage to transport them up and down Sintra’s steep, ancient streets and to show them the key sights of the town. My parents shared the carriage with a retired couple from Rochester, New York, whom my parents had befriended over breakfast and during the morning visit to The Mafra National Palace.

The carriage took them around Sintra for an hour, and proceeded past two of the key royal palaces.

One royal palace, Palacio De Vila, also known as The Sintra National Palace, is in the center of town. Palacio De Vila was formerly the summer home of The Portuguese Royal Family.

The other royal palace, Palacio De Pena, sits atop one of the hills. Palacio De Pena is largely an artificial 19th-Century fantasy and conceit, much like Neuschwanstein in Bavaria.

After the carriage ride, my parents and the couple from Rochester had lunch at a café in the center of the old quarter of Sintra.

From Sintra, the guided tour drove along the Portuguese Coast for half an hour, ending in Cascais, another resort town on the Atlantic Ocean. Cascais adjoins Estoril. Cascais and Estoril are basically indistinguishable; one cannot tell where one town ends and where the other town begins.

Members of the tour group were allotted two hours in Cascais to do whatever they wished. My parents and the couple from Rochester first walked around the center of Cascais for an hour.

There is not much to see or do in Cascais—the beach is the primary attraction—but the town has a modest Latin charm.

The center of Cascais has an unusual asphalt pattern.

After an hour exploring the town, my parents and the couple from Rochester went to a café overlooking the ocean, and enjoyed coffees and cappuccinos—and exchanged stories about children and grandchildren!

After the visit to Cascais concluded, the tour group was transported back to the hotel in Estoril—but only for an hour, as there was an evening activity on the schedule.

The evening activity was a trip into Lisbon for dinner and Fado music at one of Lisbon’s most renowned Fado venues, Adega Machado.

My parents almost skipped the Fado evening—they feared it might go on too late into the evening—but they decided to participate once the tour guide PROMISED that the Fado evening would end no later than 11:00 p.m. and that everyone would be back at the hotel in Estoril no later than midnight.

According to my parents, Adega Machado appeared to be an establishment that caters mostly to tourists. There was no walk-in traffic at all. Instead, patrons arrived in groups between 7:30 p.m. and 8:00 pm., were served dinner, and at 9:15 p.m. the lights went down and the Fado musicians began their presentation. According to my father, it was “the sort of thing that appeals to people who like that sort of thing”.

However, my parents survived the evening—and tomorrow they will be taken to a small village out in the middle of nowhere to visit Portuguese tile-makers and wine-makers and cheese-makers and such.

It sounds awful.

I hope they don’t buy anything.

Saturday, March 28, 2009


When Joshua and I returned to our hotel tonight, we retrieved an email message from my parents, who had arrived in Portugal very early this morning.

My parents will send an email message every night while they are away, letting everyone know they made it through the day safely.

Since Portugal is six hours ahead of Eastern Daylight Time and seven hours ahead of Central Daylight Time, we will all receive the daily email message no later than late afternoon our time.

My parents’ plane landed in Lisbon just after 7:00 a.m. local time this morning. They proceeded through customs in no time at all, retrieved their luggage, were picked up and transported to Estoril, and were checked into their hotel and settled into their room, all by 9:15 a.m.

My parents are very pleased with the hotel. It is a modern high-rise hotel situated on a hill overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.

Their room has a balcony, and the views are marvelous.

This view is to the left.

And this view is to the right.

There are no views like those in Minneapolis!

My parents loved the views so much that they stayed in their room until Noon, enjoying the sublime panorama, ordering breakfast, freshening up and taking a catnap.

They walked around Estoril all afternoon, as today was a free day for all participants in the guided tour.

Estoril is primarily a resort town. Its beaches and golf courses and tennis courts are the primary attractions for tourists. Estoril’s chief claim to fame is that the town was once home to numerous members of royalty—titled nobles from all over Europe came to Estoril to sit out World War II in neutral Portugal.

There is very little to see and very little to do in Estoril, but we all had researched the town in advance, selecting a few interesting features of the town and mapping out a route for my parents to take as they wandered through the various parts of the town.

They walked a good portion of the beach.

They walked around the town, seeing what appeared to be an old castle but which in fact is a 19th-Century recreation.

They saw some interesting villas.

And they encountered other interesting buildings, too.

One of the interesting buildings was the Estoril Post Office, erected in 1942. It is the earliest significant example of modernist architecture in Portugal.

They visited two small churches, neither remarkable, which are supposed to be the only notable churches in Estoril and the adjacent town of Oeiras.

One was The Church Of Saint Anthony Of Estoril (“Igreja Santo Antonio Do Estoril”).

The other was The Parish Church Of Oeiras (“Igreja Matriz”).

They visited the gardens of The Palace Of The Marquis Of Pombal, but they did not take the guided tour of the palace’s interior.

After exploring Estoril all afternoon, they returned to the hotel in time for a group dinner for all persons participating in the guided tour. After dinner, they turned in early.

Tomorrow the guided tour will begin in earnest. Tour participants will visit Sintra and Cascais, and undertake an escorted visit to The Mafra National Palace.

Thursday, March 26, 2009


Last weekend Joshua and I went to Minnesota for three days.

This week Josh is on break, and taking advantage of the free time to read more Dickens.

Last night we heard the London Symphony (under Gergiev).

Tonight we shall hear the Boston Symphony (under Dutoit).

Tomorrow afternoon, Josh and I will fly down to Baltimore for the weekend, and on Saturday night we shall hear the Baltimore Symphony (under Tortelier). Alas, we had purchased our tickets for the Baltimore concert after the scheduled conductor, Yuri Temirkanov, had already cancelled his Baltimore appearances—but before the Baltimore Symphony bothered to note this very important fact on its website. Had we known Temirkanov had already cancelled his Baltimore concerts, we would not even have bothered to plan a weekend in Baltimore. Josh and I should have cancelled the Baltimore weekend, but we already had purchased flight tickets, concert tickets and theater tickets, and we hated to throw the money away. It was all very, very aggravating.

My parents leave for Portugal tomorrow.

And I am busy at work.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Tournament Time

Joshua and I will see some basketball this coming weekend. We will attend Sunday afternoon’s second-round games of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament at the Metrodome in Minneapolis.

Minnesota, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State all made the field of 64 for this year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, but we will not see the Golden Gophers, the Sooners or the Cowboys play. None of those teams was assigned to the Minneapolis site.

Josh and I had planned to watch this coming weekend’s games on television, but we had not anticipated actually attending any of the Minneapolis games in person.

Things changed on Monday, when Josh and I heard from my Dad.

The University Of Minnesota serves as official host for the first- and second-round games at the Metrodome this coming weekend, and on Monday the University issued a notice to supporters of Minnesota Athletics, informing them that seats for the Minneapolis NCAA games were available for sale solely from the University Of Minnesota Athletic Department.

The eight schools whose teams will play in Minneapolis—Kansas, North Dakota State, West Virginia, Dayton, Boston College, Southern Cal, Michigan State and Robert Morris—did not sell their full ticket allotments and had to turn tickets back to the host school via the “fill or kill” rule. The “fill or kill” rule requires participating teams to sell their full ticket allotments within a few hours of Sunday night’s announcement of tournament pairings and venues, or lose them back to the host school. Apparently only Kansas, Michigan State and North Dakota State filled their ticket allotments, with Boston College and Southern Cal grievously under-filling theirs, allowing the University Of Minnesota to sell those tickets instead.

My father called late Monday morning, wanting to know whether we wanted him to get tickets for us. Josh starts Spring Break on Friday, and Josh and I will be in Minnesota this coming weekend.

We told my Dad not to buy tickets for us, because tickets are only issued as a package for all three sessions—Friday afternoon, Friday evening and Sunday afternoon—and we thought it would be a waste of money to buy a pass for three sessions since Josh and I would be able to attend only the Sunday afternoon session. Each three-session pass costs $193.00.

Josh and I will not arrive in Minneapolis until 8:30 p.m. Friday night. Theoretically, if our flight is on time, we might take a cab straight to the Metrodome and catch the second half of Friday night’s second game, but we do not want to do that. Those are not ideal basketball conditions.

My Dad bought five passes anyway.

He and my brothers plan to attend the 11:30 a.m. Friday afternoon session (game times are scheduled so as to suit a nationwide television audience, not the teams or the fans) but only my brothers plan to attend the 6:20 p.m. Friday evening session. All five of us will attend the 12:00 p.m. Sunday afternoon session.

If seeding holds, Josh and I will see two excellent games on Sunday: Kansas vs. West Virginia; and Boston College vs. Michigan State. Second-round games are typically the best of the entire tournament. I hope that rule holds true to form this year.

My Dad is going to skip Friday evening’s session because he and my mother will retrieve Josh and me at the airport Friday night and take us home.

Everyone is going to stay at my parents’ house all weekend, so Josh and I will get to see a lot of everybody for three days.

One of the reasons we will all stay at my parents’ house this weekend is because on Saturday we will be creating a giant mess at my older brother’s house. We plan to start work very, very early Saturday morning, and we do not want the baby in the house while we work, what with the smells of paint fumes and wallpaper paste circulating, and the sounds of hammering and sawing disturbing her. She and my nephew will be happier over at my parents’ house.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A Face From The Past

Retired tennis players age fast.

This fellow, a Grand Slam champ and former number one in the world, was one of the idols of my youth. I modeled my baseline game after his, religiously, for three or four years. I met him on a couple of occasions and actually hit a few balls with him one afternoon.

I took a few lessons from his main coach, who made a few appearances at a tennis camp I attended in the Austrian Alps. When I was in high school, I attended the camp every summer in order to learn how to play on clay.

This fellow is retired now, and I suspect that even the most dedicated tennis fan will be hard-pressed to identify him.

He has been away from the game only for ten years. He is only 41 years old. And yet he is barely recognizable.

From the photograph, I could pass him on the street today and not even know him.

He has aged that much.

Friday, March 13, 2009


The impressive HAPAG-Lloyd headquarters building (“HAPAG-Lloyd-Verwaltungsgebaude”) is located on the Southeastern edge of The Inner Alster Lake. It is the headquarters building of what formerly was the largest shipping company in the world, HAPAG-Lloyd, owner of the old Hamburg-America Line.

Built in 1902 and 1903 to designs by Martin Haller, and remodeled by Fritz Hoger in the 1920’s, the HAPAG-Lloyd headquarters building was the finest corporate structure—in Germany or elsewhere—of its day. With its Classical front façade directly overlooking the lake, the building was originally named after shipping company owner Albert Ballin.

When the National Socialists came to power, the company voluntarily changed the name of its headquarters building, as its former chairman had been of the Jewish faith. The name of the building never reverted to its original form, but after the war the street in front of the building—now Ballindamm—was named after Ballin.

The front façade on Ballindamm and the equally-impressive rear façade are both symbolic of the HAPAG-Lloyd Shipping Company’s enormous wealth. In the early 20th century, the Hamburg-America route made the company one of the very largest and wealthiest businesses in the world.

Albert Ballin’s personal motto, “Mein Feld Ist Die Welt” (“The World Is My Oyster”), is engraved in the main entrance hall.


Perpendicular to The Alster Arcades, and lying directly at the Southern end of The Alster Lakes, is the Jungfernstieg.

The Jungfernstieg is actually part of a dam—it sits on ground used, in 1665, to dam The River Alster, thereby creating The Alster Lakes.

The postcard photograph below is from 1900.

The name “Jungfernstieg” derives from the fact that, in past centuries, families took walks here on Sundays and brought along their unmarried daughters (”Jungfern”) to show them off to prospective suitors.

The postcard photograph below is from 1905.

Today the Jungfernstieg is primarily a shopping promenade, perhaps the most elegant in Hamburg—a mixture of high-class boutiques, large and small, and fashionable cafes at which diners may sit and gaze out upon The Alster Lakes.

The photograph below shows the Jungfernstieg from a tourist steamer out on The Alster Lakes.


Very near Hamburg’s Rathaus, along the banks of The Inner Alster Lake (“Binnenalster”), are The Alster Arcades (“Alsterarkaden”).

After The Great Fire Of 1842 destroyed the greater part of the city, architect Alexis De Chateauneuf was engaged to redesign the city center. The Alster Arcades were a major feature of his grand design. The Alster Arcades stand elegantly at the water’s edge, with their gold-plated fish and tridents between the round arches and their intricate wrought-iron street lamps and balustrades. The Alster Arcades are now considered to be leading examples of what has come to be known as post-fire architecture. The Alster Arcades were inspired by the architecture of Venice.

Large numbers of swans live, year-round, on The Inner Alster Lake.

The Alster Arcades house numerous exclusive shops and cafes and offer visitors a great view of the Rathaus across the water.

In the center of The Alster Arcades is Mellin-Passage, which leads to Neuer Wall, a street behind and parallel to The Alster Arcades. In Mellin-Passage are ceiling frescoes and glass paintings dating back to the turn of the century. Mellin-Passage was the first of Hamburg’s many “passages”—indoor shopping venues, inspired by the passages of Paris—and is lined with antiquarian bookshops and art stores.

Monday, March 09, 2009


In Communist Hungary, it was impossible even so much as to dream of having [my compositions] performed. People living in the West cannot begin to imagine what it was like in the Soviet Empire, where art and culture were strictly regulated as a matter of course—they had to conform to abstract concepts that were almost identical to the regulations of the National Socialists. Art had to be “healthy” and “edifying” and to come “from the people”; in short, it had to reflect Party directives.

Later, in the West, journalists often asked me the question: “For whom to you write your music?” My experiences in the “East” prevented me from making any real sense of this question. A banned artist does not ask questions of this kind because the products of his art never reach an audience. And so I did not write “for” anyone, but simply for the sake of the music itself, from an inner need. A real performance—this struck me as an unattainable luxury in Hungary.

On 23 October 1956 revolution broke out in Budapest—a spontaneous and extremely bloody revolution. And it was crushed by the Red Army in a no less bloody manner. On 10 December, together with my wife, I took the train in the direction of the Austrian border, which we then crossed illegally on foot at night.

Gyorgy Ligeti (2001)

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Sub-Par Performances

Yesterday afternoon and evening, Joshua and I went out and saw a couple of things. Our outing provided Josh with a respite from study, and gave both of us an opportunity to take advantage of a break in the weather, particularly welcome after this week’s winter storm.

Boston theater companies schedule Saturday matinees for 4:00 p.m., a time we find to be convenient. It allows us to catch a late-afternoon performance and an evening performance with a single trip downtown. We took advantage of this peculiarity of scheduling when my brother visited us in January, and we did the same yesterday.

One advantage of a 4:00 p.m. matinee is that we do not have much time to kill between a 4:00 p.m. matinee and an 8:00 p.m. evening performance. One disadvantage is that there is not enough time to have a decent meal between performances.

We first caught the 4:00 p.m. performance of “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof” at The Lyric Stage Company Of Boston.

“Cat On A Hot Tin Roof” is the first play Josh and I have seen together a second time. In November 2006, we attended a performance of this 1955 Tennessee Williams play in German translation (“Die Katze Auf Dem Heissen Blechdach”) at The Thalia Theater in Hamburg. One of Germany’s most acclaimed stage actresses, Doreen Nixdorf, had played Maggie that night, and more than creditably.

The current Boston production is very poor. The stage presentation, the stage direction, the acting: all were amateur, precisely at the level of civic theater. I doubt we shall ever return to The Lyric Stage Company.

In January, we had attended a performance of “The Year Of Magical Thinking” at Lyric Stage Company. That performance had been very poor, too, but “The Year Of Magical Thinking” was a very weak play, with a very weak actress appearing in the only role. Josh and I, against our better judgment, had decided to give The Lyric Stage Company another chance.

We should not have bothered. Given that The Lyric Stage Company purports to be a professional troupe, the production of “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof” was acutely embarrassing. The production was so bad that the play—a very good one—positively rotted on the stage. Yesterday’s visit to The Lyric Stage Company Of Boston was our last.

Last night, we attended a performance of Boston Ballet’s presentation of George Balanchine’s full-length “Jewels”.

This was our second visit to Boston Ballet. In October, Josh and I had taken my parents to the company’s presentation of James Kudelka’s version of “Cinderella”, danced to the Prokofiev score, and we had enjoyed the performance immensely.

“Jewels” was a different matter. The dancers were simply not good enough to do justice to one of Balanchine’s most complex and most difficult creations. Nothing quite worked. The dancers attempted the steps, but not one of the dancers was a natural Balanchine dancer.

We had deliberately waited to catch a performance of “Jewels” at the end of its two-week run (we attended the next-to-last performance). Nonetheless, the dancers were still not settled into their roles. Principal dancers looked uncomfortable, even strained, and the corps had difficulty simply getting the steps down.

Balanchine’s choreography exposes dancers mercilessly. Bad backs, bad footwork, bad placement, bad upper-body carriage: all will be revealed in a Balanchine ballet—and all were revealed last night.

Much of the choreography comes across in a bad performance of “Jewels”, but much of the choreography is lost in a sub-par performance.

“Emeralds” is always difficult to bring off—yet “Emeralds”, oddly, was the one segment that worked last night, perhaps because the level of virtuosity demanded in “Emeralds” is not quite as high as in “Rubies” and “Diamonds”. Boston Ballet offered a very soft-focus “Emeralds”, but the singular uniqueness of this ballet in Balanchine’s work list somehow registered.

“Rubies” was not as fine. The dancing was not sharp or incisive, making “Rubies” look no different than any other Balanchine “Allegro” ballet. Six weeks ago, Josh and I had attended a performance of “Rubies” by Miami City Ballet, and the Miami “Rubies” had been dazzling. The Boston “Rubies” was flat. The male dancers were particularly unconvincing.

“Diamonds” was the biggest disappointment of the evening. One of Balanchine’s very greatest works, “Diamonds” made no effect at all last night. The ballet looked miscast and severely under-rehearsed. There was no specificity of phrasing and no grandeur. What should have been wave-after-wave of excitement in the final movement was nothing more than wave-after-wave of steps. Seeing the Boston performance, one would never guess that Mary Clarke and Clement Crisp could write of “Diamonds”:

If the entire imperial Russian inheritance of ballet were lost, "Diamonds" would still tell us of its essence.

That sentiment did not apply to the Boston Ballet performance of “Diamonds”. Last night’s “Diamonds” was more school pageant than grand evocation of the Czarist court.

The Balanchine Trust needs to loosen its requirements regarding the staging of Balanchine ballets. For one thing, the strict costume requirement—that original costumes be faithfully reproduced—is too rigid and should be abandoned. Madame Karinska was unquestionably a brilliant designer for ballet, but some of her costumes are dated. It is long past time, for instance, for her “Rubies” costumes to be retired. The men’s jackets look ridiculous and should be replaced at once. In fact, I think “Emeralds”, too, would benefit from a fresh approach to costuming. I have never believed that the “Emeralds” costuming suited the music or the choreography, and that impression was reaffirmed last night.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

The Crumbling Capital Of A Crumbling Nation

In tandem with the mindless Mildred Harnack panegryic, I read Marie Vassiltchikov’s “Berlin Diaries 1940-1945”, first published in the United Kingdom in 1985 and published in the United States two years later.

I had never previously read the Vassiltchikov diaries, although they are among the most widely-read and –respected of all eyewitness accounts of World War II in Germany. The book remains in print more than twenty years after its original publication, and has enjoyed remarkable sales, worldwide, in many languages, for over two decades.

The Vassiltchikov diaries were widely-reviewed when they first appeared, hailed everywhere—in Britain, in the U.S., in Germany, in France, in Italy, in Russia—as a masterpiece of journal writing. Indeed, “Berlin Diaries 1940-1945” enjoyed a reception that was the very opposite of Shareen Blair Brysac’s book about Harnack. The Harnack book, quite justifiably, went unreviewed. This was in keeping with the general practice that bad non-fiction books do not get reviewed, since book editors do not want to waste valuable column space on books unworthy of time or attention.

Vassiltchikov was only in her twenties when her diaries were composed, but her writing evidences two remarkable qualities not to be expected in one so young: dispassionate, meticulous powers of observation; and the clear-eyed insights of an outsider (which Vassiltchikov was in wartime Germany). Caught in the maelstrom of a city first at war and then fighting for its survival, Vassiltchikov records, simply and without emotion, what she observed and experienced, day after day, in the crumbling capital of a crumbling nation.

Vassiltchikov’s political sophistication was astonishing for one of her years. She was particularly good at recognizing the fractures that lay beneath German society during the war years, a phenomenon rarely understood by Anglo writers addressing the German home front.

Vassiltchikov recognized the permanent and deep gulf between Hitler’s National Socialist Party and Germany’s aristocratic and intellectual elite. She recognized the conflicting wartime motives of the Nazi Party and Germany’s armed forces. She recognized German citizens’ instinctive loyalty to German armed forces but she also recognized that acceptance of Nazi party directives was the result of fear and an innate instinct for self-preservation.

Amazingly, Vassiltchikov also understood—even though the participants themselves did not—that the Allies’ insistence upon “unconditional surrender” doomed to failure the 20 July 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler. Whether Hitler was killed or not, the Allies would never negotiate an end to the war, even if a new and friendlier German leadership were in place. Vassiltchikov understood this, and wrote about it—months before the elimination of Hitler was even attempted—but the plot perpetrators themselves were unable to see things as clearly and as plainly as Vassiltchikov. The plot participants wrongly viewed the prospect of Hitler’s death as providing an immediate end to the war, at least in the West.

Vassiltchikov knew better. Indeed, Vassiltchikov feared that the plot to kill Hitler, the general principle of which she fully endorsed, actually might prolong, not shorten, the war.

Vassiltchikov was an extraordinary young woman. A member of the White Russian aristocracy and a distant relative of The Czar, she was born in 1917, The Year Of Revolution. At the age of two, she and her family managed to escape Russia via The Crimea, needing the assistance of Russia’s Dowager Empress and the ships of George V’s Royal Navy to do so.

The Vassiltchikov family owned property in Lithuania, and the following twenty years saw the Vassiltchikovs shuttling back and forth between France, Germany and Lithuania. Vassiltchikov was educated by British nannies and at prestigious schools in Paris. Her education gave her fluency in English, French and German, a fluency that was to prove invaluable during the war years.

When Lithuania was invaded by the Soviet Union in 1939, White Russians had to evacuate or risk concentration camps (if they were lucky) and execution (if they were not). Vassiltchikov’s family fled Lithuania, and Marie and her older sister, Tatiana, set out for Berlin, where they hoped to find work. For the rest of the war, Marie and Tatiana were cut off from most family members, living on their own in the German Reich, first in Berlin and, for the last five months of the war, in Vienna.

Using connections with German aristocratic families, Marie and Tatiana obtained employment permits as foreign nationals and, on account of their language skills, soon found jobs in The Propaganda Ministry of Joseph Goebbels and in The Foreign Ministry of Joachim Von Ribbentrop. Marie was to remain in her government job until the end of 1944; Tatiana was to marry a German noble and leave government service after two years.

The sisters settled into Berlin life, and quickly became part of Berlin’s most exclusive social set, enjoying embassy functions, concerts, theater, and weekend visits to castles and stately homes of the aristocracy all over Germany.

Berlin did not resemble a wartime city during the first two years of the war, a period which the Germans, like the British, referred to as “The Phoney War”. Shops remained fully stocked with consumer and luxury goods. Theaters, concert halls and museums were bustling with patrons. Fine restaurants did an excellent business. It was not until the autumn of 1941, when British bombings of Berlin began in earnest, that Berlin began to feel the effects of war.

Vassiltchikov captures and records, as no one else, a Berlin under transformation from Imperial Capital to City Of Ruins. A society wedding of the utmost lavishness and refinement is followed, a few months later, by the sisters’ grim efforts to locate potatoes, their primary food staple. A Berlin Philharmonic concert under Wilhelm Furtwangler is followed, hours later, by the sight of lorries transporting wounded and maimed soldiers through the city. A glittering evening of merriment at The Chilean Embassy, attended by a multi-national and ultra-distinguished roster of guests, is followed a few days later by the first substantial air raid on Berlin, which leveled entire portions of the city and killed hundreds.

That first major air raid resulted in the destruction of Vassiltchikov’s own residential neighborhood. She writes, eloquently, of making her way to work the following morning through streets of smoldering ruins and charred corpses.

The years 1942, 1943 and 1944 were marked by air raids, the constant expectation of air raids, and ceaseless climbing into and climbing out of air raid shelters. The sheer boredom of waiting for the nightly warning sirens, picking up the pre-packed suitcases and walking to the shelters, and the silent exchanges of looks with other shelter inhabitants, were the most predictable features of life during the 1942-1944 period.

People did not talk in the shelters during raids. They sat, passive and immobile and seemingly indifferent to their fates, waiting quietly for the all-clear signals, when they could emerge into city streets and try to ascertain where the bombs had dropped. Of course, if persons in the shelters heard bombs explode and felt walls of the shelters rumble, they knew that bombs had fallen in their immediate vicinities and that their homes were likely to have disappeared during the bombings.

In Berlin, as in other cities, most bomb shelters could not survive direct hits. In areas targeted by Allied bombs, persons emerging from shelters would, first thing, try to find out whether any nearby shelters had suffered direct hits. This practice was the result of three basic human instincts: morbid curiosity; a need to ascertain the safety of friends and family members; and a desire to be of help in locating and assisting survivors in damaged or destroyed shelters. On her way home from one such air raid, Vassiltchikov witnessed a shelter that had suffered a direct hit—and watched, in horror, as air-raid wardens emerged from a search of the carnage, only to pronounce that none of the 300 persons in the shelter had survived.

At the end of 1944, Marie could no longer tolerate conditions in Berlin. With the help of influential German friends, she obtained a position as a nurse in a hospital in Vienna. Marie believed, incorrectly, that Vienna was not to offer the depth of privation of Berlin.

Marie’s timing could not have been worse. She arrived in Vienna just as the Allies began their most concentrated bombing campaign against the city, saved for the final months of the war. The Allies virtually flattened Vienna between January and the end of April 1945, at which point the Soviets marched into the city and began an occupation that was to last ten years.

Staying in a hotel in the center of Vienna during her first days in the city, Marie had to make repeated trips to the hotel shelter each night once the sirens signaled the approach of enemy bombers. It was in the hotel’s basement shelter that she observed a person with extremely disheveled pajamas and ruffled hair, and recognized a face from her days in Berlin. The face was that of Herbert Von Karajan.

Conditions at the hospital were trying. Patients were transported to a nearby railroad tunnel that served as a shelter during air raids. The job of moving the patients back and forth between the hospital and the railroad tunnel was a near-impossible task, both for the medical staff and for the patients. In the final days of the war, a bomb exploded right at the entrance of the tunnel, killing large numbers of hospital workers and patients, including many inside the tunnel and many who had not yet made it into the tunnel.

Less than twenty-four hours before the Soviets marched into the city, Marie left Vienna, escaping (illegally) on a milk train. Her hospital supervisor had refused her request to leave the city, even though Marie had explained to him that the Soviets would execute, on sight, any White Russian such as herself. Her leave request having been denied, Marie took matters into her own hands and managed to make it to an American zone in Western Austria, even though she risked being shot by the Reich for abandoning her hospital work and leaving Vienna without necessary papers.

Vassiltchikov’s diaries end as the war ends. There is no attempt to offer closure, or draw unnecessary conclusions, once hostilities are over.

Vassiltchikov was a very lucky young woman—and not simply because she made it through the war alive.

Vassiltchikov knew the details of the 20 July 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler, as well as many members of the plot (one of whom was her boss). On July 20 and 21, she looked on as many members of the Ministry were arrested and marched out of the Ministry building (including her boss, and her boss’s boss, and her boss’s boss’s boss). She was never to see any of these men again. All were executed.

Amazingly, the Gestapo never attempted to interview Marie to ascertain what she knew about the plot. Apparently the Gestapo was of the opinion that Ministry secretaries would not be privy to information about the plot, and Marie—and other secretaries who knew about the plot—were considered to be as harmless as pieces of furniture and were not even subjected to preliminary questioning.

Marie wrote and typed her wartime diaries at the Ministry, a very dangerous endeavor made even more dangerous by the fact that she stored her diaries in hiding places at the Ministry (the diaries would be more likely to survive the war at the Ministry rather than at her various places of residence, or so Marie judged—correctly, as things turned out).

After the war, Marie forgot about her diaries. She never even reread them until the last year of her life when, suffering from cancer, she showed the diaries to her brother. He immediately recognized the importance of the diaries and, with Marie’s assistance, annotated the diaries while Marie still had her health. Marie was to die before the year was out, passing away in 1978 in London at age 61. Her American husband had pre-deceased her seven years earlier, also a very young victim of cancer.

Marie’s brother arranged for publication of the diaries after her death. Portions of the diaries had been destroyed during the war, and he filled in necessary blanks based upon his interviews with Marie shortly before her death.

The diaries were a near-sensation when published. Many chroniclers of the war have asserted that Marie’s diaries are the most important diaries, from any country, to have survived the war.

I’m not sure I would offer praise quite so high. The diaries are a reflection of the experiences of a very unique individual—a person of high privilege and high connections, enjoying something akin to the quasi-easements of foreign diplomats in a country at war—and are far more interesting for what they reveal about Marie herself than for what they reveal about Berlin during wartime. Marie was a young woman of the highest intelligence and cultivation, with a great appreciation for beauty and grace. She was strong-willed, of strong character and even stronger opinions, able to look beneath the surface of a totalitarian state and see remnants of beauty, remnants of normalcy, remnants of insanity and remnants of depravity. The portrait of a charming young woman undergoing trying times is the most treasurable thing to emerge from the diaries; the portrait of a Berlin under siege is a secondary element of the story.

Marie was an engaging and acute diarist, but she was more interested in writing about the differences between Furtwangler and Karajan (she much preferred Furtwangler) than examining the effects of the Goebbels propaganda machine on Berlin’s populace. Politically sophisticated though she was, she was more interested in writing about restaurant fare than describing how Berliners reacted to mounting losses and growing despair on The Eastern Front.

I had one regret about the diaries: Marie wrote very little about her sister, Tatiana, a young woman of equal if not greater gifts than Marie. A great beauty, Tatiana went on to become one of the most famous women in post-war Europe, marrying into one of Germany’s oldest and noblest titled families, the Von Metternichs. Tatiana headed Europe’s most influential charitable organizations and remained a formidable society figure on the continent for almost six decades. Marie’s diaries, however, offer little inkling of the legendary charm and social assurance of her bewitching sister.

Tatiana outlived Marie by almost thirty years. Tatiana died in 2006 at Schloss Johannisburg in Germany, having lived through the collapse of one German empire and two Russian empires. Close friend of everyone from Felix Yusupov (assassin of Rasputin) to HRH Queen Elizabeth II, Tatiana was ninety-one years old at the time of her death. Her passing was front-page news throughout Europe.