Saturday, April 6, 2019

Old People Out On The Town

Last night was the last show in the Performing Arts Series that I volunteer usher for, it was a great concert of the Nova Scotia Symphony Orchestra. They come here every year. This year they have a new and younger conductor, he was very good (and not hard on the eyes!). I learned some things about classical music from his introductory remarks for each piece.

The first was an Octet composed by Stravinsky, then a Tchaikovsky piece written just for stringed instruments ("Serenade for Strings"). The conductor said that Tchaikovsky was the culmination of a classical trend toward bigger and more emotionally grand symphonies, Stravinsky was a return to smaller and more basic forms. After the intermission they performed an early symphony by Dvorak, before he became famous for his Slavonic Dances. My favourite Dvorak piece is the New World Symphony. It was quite delightful listening to this much earlier symphony and hearing premonitions of both the Slavonic Dances and the New World Symphony in it. The final performance was by a composer I'd never heard of with a name (I mislaid my program and don't remember what it was) that sounded Russian or East European but who was actually Irish-French living in England. He pre-dated the other three composers. I think his piece was called Appalachian Spring and it was quite spritely. The last two pieces included stellar performances on a grand piano, by a woman who I found out later is transgender. Which kind of explained her height and dramatic manner of playing.

I had previously arranged with a couple of the other ushers that we would go out for a drink after this show. We went to the new pub in town, a converted church. This town has a proliferation of alcoholic establishments, more coming every year it seems. When I lived here back in the '70s and '80s there was one tavern and another student place on the university campus. Both venues are still here but the tavern in town has become quite seedy. Most "townies" and students avoid it. But in addition there are now a cidery, a wine bar, four pubs and four licensed restaurants. There's another pub due to open this summer. All this in a town of maybe 2500-3000 people.

The converted church is an older stone building with a wood panelled vaulted ceiling. It feels more like a city kind of pub than a small town pub. One of the other ushers invited a fourth along and we got a high table for four. Later our two "bosses" came in with some young women, they waved to us and sat at the other end of the church. Just as well, they would have dominated the conversation.

As it turned out the fourth usher had a really interesting story to tell about herself. She was the youngest at our table, maybe a couple of years younger than myself. She came to Canada when she was six, her family escaping Hungary in the aftermath of the failed Hungarian Revolution. Her description of the harrowing escape from the perspective of a six-year-old was riveting. At one point she said her mother gave her and her younger brother slugs of brandy to knock them out and keep them quiet. She said her mother always denied that she did that but she firmly believes her mother lied.

The day of the escape her mother woke her up and told her that she didn't have to go to school that day because they were all going to the zoo together. Her six-year-old self was very disappointed that they never did get to the zoo. She remembers two train rides that day. At one point the conductors on one of the trains hustled the family and some other people off the train and into a baggage storage room at a train station, and locked them in. She couldn't understand what that was all about, standing in this small windowless room surrounded by luggage in the dark. But Russian soldiers had boarded the train and the Hungarian conductors were hiding all the people trying to escape. The brandy-drugging episode was at night just before they had to cross a field to get to the border with Austria. They waited at the edge of the field for it to be dark before they could cross.

They arrived at Pier 21 in Halifax after their long journey across Europe, but their father did not want to stay in Nova Scotia. There was a large community of Hungarian refugees in Toronto that he wanted to join, but he couldn't find a job in Toronto. They ended up moving to St Catherines, where our friend the storyteller grew up. I remember that the high school I went to in Toronto was smack in the middle of the part of the city where most East European refugees ended up, I met many Hungarian kids in my classes. If her father had found a job in Toronto, maybe I would have met her then. She found school very hard because she couldn't understand or speak English. But the turning point came for her when she actually understood a book they were reading. It was "The Little Engine That Could". The first song on the radio that she understood the words for was "Lipstick on Your Collar", but she didn't understand what the significance of lipstick on a collar could be.

Another memory she had was of going to the baths with her mother before they left Hungary. Budapest sits on top of extinct volcanoes and is full of hot springs. Over the centuries many public baths were built there. The one our friend went to with her mother was a Turkish bath, built by Turks when they occupied Hungary hundreds of years ago. She remembers the amazing blue tiles of the place, but especially she remembers that it was the first time she saw her mother naked. Hungary has a long history of occupation by various peoples, and a certain resulting resentment. Our friend noted this on her last visit there. She is disappointed with Victor Orban and doesn't know what will become of her country of origin.

It was a most interesting evening!


Rain Trueax said...

That is quite a story. I remember doing a report on Hungary when I was in grade school. People today need to not forget occupations happen. We tend to think how it is how it always will be.

Annie said...

Yes it is true Rain that we easily forget these things!

Wisewebwoman said...

Was it Aaron Copeland's Appalachian Spring? I love that piece too.

I remember the whole disaster in Hungary. We had to collect all our grown out clothes and we had big tea chests at the church to collect them. I never knew the story of what had happened that they needed clothes but met many Hungarians in Toronto who shared their escape stories, often with just the clothes on their backs, taking a "day trip".

Occupations are terrible.


Annie said...

WWW, it wasn't Aaron Copeland. A name I'd never heard before and can't for the life of me remember now. Our friend told us that the only thing they took with them was their father's briefcase with a loaf of bread, a sausage and a bottle of brandy in it. The brandy was for bribes (and apparently for silencing little children). If they had carried anything more it would have been suspicious. So they left my friend's favourite doll behind because a little girl with a doll would have been a dead giveaway on the train. She said that her father had reconnoitred the route beforehand on his own, to Vienna and back.

Joared said...

The concert sounds like one I would have thoroughly enjoyed as like those composers and pieces. Am curious about the composer of the piece you mentioned. Am surprised it would have same title as Copeland’s.

Tragedy what happened in Hungary and stories of others I’ve been told including a woman who was only one of three children to survive her city in Poland — getting out at 3 yrs of age but a very circuitous route and experiences to get to U.S. I, too, am concerned about what’s happening in Hungary today. Interesting that you met her and how your paths could have crossed earlier had circumstances been different.