Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Classical Music and Mink Coats

It was a cold winter evening in Montevideo and many of the ladies attending the concert at Auditorio Nacional del Sodre sashayed down the aisle wearing full-length mink coats.  The fur and diamond sector of the audience contrasted the casually dressed President Pepe Mujica and his wife Lucia Topolansky  who took their places in the balcony a full 20 minutes late.  The musicians of the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela filed onto the stage, tuned their instruments and waited for the entrance of Gustavo Dudamel, the celebrated young conductor listed by Time Magazine in 2009 as one of the most influential talents in the arts.

Gustavo Dudamel
Two things about the Venezuelan orchestra stood out, even before they played the first notes of Ravel's Daphne and Chloe: the size of the orchestra, and the fact that the players are all young.  This group is composed of a sea of violins and violas, a regiment of cellos, a battalion of brass, a league of woodwinds, a team of percussionists, a pair of harpists, and a mass of double bassists.

 Their sound is exceptionally rich, sensitive and dynamic.  The orchestra plays with gusto and obvious joy.

Dudamel's style of conducting is surprisingly understated, maintaining full control of the orchestra without flailing, bouncing, or dramatic head-shaking, and without looking at a score.  One has the feeling that a slight inclination of  his baby finger is enough to command the tempo and volume of an entire section.  He is also reluctant to hog the limelight when applause thunders through the auditorium.   Instead of bowing from the podium, Dudamel stands in the midst of the orchestra, shoulder-to-shoulder with the hard-working musicians, a gesture which says " I am but a cog in this creative machine."

Dudamel is only 30 years old and in addition to conducting the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra,  is  Musical Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Gothenburg Symphony and Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France.   He started his career in Barquisimeto, under the direction of Jose Antonio Abreu, founder of the Orquesta Juvenil Simon Bolivar in Venezuela.  Abreu established "El Sistema"  an educational program which uses classical music training as an engine for intellectual and social improvement.   Many of the current professional orchestra members are graduates of the system, which has effectively lifted them from situations of poverty.   "El Sistema" is being used as a model for developing music programs in many countries around the world, including Canada.

The enthusiastic response of the audience prompted two encore pieces.  The grand finale was a lively samba composition and the orchestra members couldn't resist moving to the rhythm.  The cellists twirled their instruments, the horns stood up and swayed, the drummers danced and yelled  "Bravo!" in unison.   It was the perfect whimsical end to a resounding, memorable musical performance.

Footnote:  President Mujica and his wife left the auditorium at the interval.  They missed the best part of the performance.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Arapey Thermal

The five-star hotel appears on the horizon in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by vast stretches of open land inhabited by sheep, cattle and the occasional ostrich.  This isolated place north of Salto, Uruguay, is Arapey Thermal, a destination where total immersion in hot mineral springs, white terrycloth bathrobes, lounge chairs and enormous helpings of barbecued meat engender a relaxed sense of well-being. 

Buqebus aircraft

 We are booked for two days, all-inclusive, courtesy of Buquebus, a company that offers boat, bus and air travel throughout Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina.  Their fleet of aircraft are ATR 72-500 high wing propeller planes made in France - a practical and eco-friendly option for short-distance flights.  The Buquebus advertising states that these airplanes are more fuel-efficient and less noise polluting than regular jets.  

Resort bracelet, just like a hospital band

The restaurant has an indoor asado, which is always full of beef. There's a long line-up for carne.
The extensive salad bar is virtually untouched.
Spa fashion

Steaming pools and tropical foliage

The water temperature is 38 degrees Celsius
Outdoor pools of varying depths
The thermal pools are fed by natural hot springs, and the water contains healing minerals.  We are surprised (and more than a little pleased) to find that the outdoor pools are empty, although the afternoon weather is sunny and warm enough for swimming and lounging.  That's warm by our Canadian standards - the Argentine and Uruguayan guests find 23 degrees Celsius far too cold!  They've congregated at the indoor pool, which is crowded with bathers who float in the warm water, bodies buoyed by styrofoam tubes, while a recording of Deva Premal's hypnotic yoga music is played on the stereo system.  When it's time for afternoon snack (la merienda) everyone gets out, dons terrycloth robes and flip-flops and heads en masse to the bar.   

 The Arapey Thermal is a fine place to simply retreat from the world sans the distraction of computers, cellphones and newspapers.  We sit outside on the terrace in the evening, enjoy a glass of wine and instead of television, watch the total eclipse of the moon. 

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Landscape as Muse (or open pit mine)

When Brazilian film director Charly Braun conceived the premise for the movie "Por El Camino" he cast the Uruguayan landscape in a starring role.  The rolling hills, forests, pristine beaches and blue lagoons of the beautiful area surrounding Rocha provide a sumptuous setting for a romantic love story and on-the-road adventure which involves Santiago (an Argentinean played by Esteban Feune de Colombi) and Juliette (a Belgian played by Jill Mulleady).  

The film presents semi-documentary sections highlighting the eccentric characters encountered by the couple as they travel around Uruguay.  The people they meet include hippies in a mountain commune, fashion models in Punta del Este, gauchos at the rodeo, and a wealthy godfather who owns a luxury property near Rocha.  These individuals offer advice and commentary that lends depth to the film's exploration of the national psyche.  A definite sense of place evolves in this movie, and the viewer comes away enchanted by the uniqueness of both the location and its inhabitants.

I came home from the movie theatre still picturing the sweeping panoramic shots of horses galloping across green fields, images of the sand dunes at sunset, rocky hills and natural hot springs. 

The newspaper article published the next day shook me abruptly out of the dreamy state induced by "Por el Camino".  The headlines revealed that a Swiss company, Zamin Ferrous, is planning a large scale open pit mine to be located in the center of Uruguay.  Minera Aratiri will be the largest of its kind in South America, covering 120,000 hectares of rural land around Cerro Chato and producing 18 million tons of iron ore per year for 30 years.  A pipeline extending  200 kilometres to the coast will move the ore to a processing plant and deep sea port near the town of Castillos, where it will be loaded onto freighters for shipment to China.  

The Uruguayan government is in favour of the mining development, though local residents are not so enthusiastic about a project which requires the relocation of 2,500 people and will have lasting negative impact on the landscape, watershed and soil.  The land in the Cerro Chato area is currently used for raising livestock and growing high quality rice.   The explosives used to create the open pits will destroy some of the most fertile land in the country, a fact which cannot be compensated by the estimated income of $40 million U.S. per annum in the coffers of the Uruguayan government, or the promise of employment opportunities for local people.  

There is also growing opposition in Rocha's seaside towns where tourism is the main industry.  The proposed processing plant and deep sea port will be located right next to major resorts, attractive beaches and ecologically sensitive sand dunes.   It will require a lot of electricity, and Zamin Ferrous has planned a coal-fired power plant to meet its industrial needs.  No one wants to spend their vacation sitting on a polluted beach next to a factory zone!

I advise anyone who is interested in seeing Uruguay to book a ticket as soon as possible.  The landscape is stunning, but it is not protected.   The untouched, natural Uruguay seen in the movies is teetering on the brink of destruction.  Kudos to director Charly Braun for his artistry and excellent timing.  No doubt "Por el Camino" will soon be billed as a nostalgic classic film that captures the essence of pre-industrial Uruguay.

Here's a news update on the Zamin Ferrous project.

Thursday, June 2, 2011


The graffiti came first, claiming the presence of a ghost.  It's an urban legend that the vacant house on Boulevard Espana is haunted, but the sight of a spectral figure glowing in an upstairs window could hardly be more disturbing than the sign that appeared one morning on the fence.  

Demolition company sign

A developer has purchased the property and will soon start demolition to make way for yet another high-rise apartment building.

I am appalled to see the full-scale transformation of Montevideo taking place rapidly, without protest, as irreplaceable built heritage is reduced to rubble overnight.  The newspaper El Pais reports that the construction boom is happening so fast and furiously, that developers are going ahead with projects without waiting for the proper municipal permits to be issued.  The fines for non-compliance are less than fees for permits, and can be paid after the fact, when the building is already in place.  If a newly-constructed apartment building happens to be five storeys higher than the limit - no problem - a cash payment to the authorities will suffice.

As for a heritage registry, I am informed that there is an inventory of valued buildings in the city, but that it has absolutely no effect in preventing demolition.  If the proposed construction project is backed by a sufficient amount of money, then anything is possible.


This house around the corner on 21 de Setiembre is another ghost.  It was recently sold by the owner to a developer for a very large sum, and is destined to be replaced with an apartment tower.

Changing streetscape in Parque Rodo 

What to expect - an uninspired, ugly new tower  right next door

Gaps like this are common in Montevideo's older neighbourhoods

Remains of a once elegant interior

Is this one next?  

Or this one?
Then this one?

Or this one?

The ghosts will disappear, but Montevideans will be forever haunted by what they have lost; the fabric of a beautiful city full of history, character and charm.  Progress?  I think not.

“Historic buildings are a proud and significant part of our, and every, nation’s heritage. They are an irreplaceable element of the collective memory of local communities…They contribute both to our sense of identity and to that regional distinctiveness which is so valuable and so vulnerable.” 
                                                                                        - Stevens, J, Sir. (past) Chairman English Heritage.