EUROPE SERIES/SILK ROAD EXTENSION: Dresden

As we enter into an uncertain future over the next few months and the advent of the holiday season, it seems inappropriate to revel in travel experiences. Yet they bring fond memories of a time past. I wonder whether we will ever be able to have such joyful experiences again. The COVID pandemic has indeed affected every country to a large extent because of travel. Globalization has taught us that there are drawbacks to a shrinking planet, and costs to mixing human interaction, culture, economies, and democratic principles.

Nevertheless, here is my defiant celebration of the past. Secretly, I hope that the world will rebound in the coming year. In doing so, perhaps we will be older and wiser at our choices, and ensure greater appreciation of our relationships, our environment, and protecting both.

Dresden 2019

In previous posts, I confessed about my love for Dresden. Granted, Berlin topped my favorite city in Germany, until Munich came along. Like children, it’s hard to give way to one over another. Nevertheless, I maintain great fondness and admiration for Dresden, the first city where I studied German and formed deep impressions about Germany.

Music and art surround you in Dresden. The U.K.’s Daily Telegraph regarded Dresden as having one of the best music festivals in Europe, with popular performers like Rufus Wainwright and Eric Clapton showcased along with world-famous classical conductors and symphonies. When I first studied art history in college, I became curious about where Dresden was (pronounced DRAYS-den by Germans). Many famous Romantic paintings were located in Dresden.

I returned to Dresden several times–for the music, the beautiful Baroque architecture, historical museums and art collections, the intimate surroundings, and the familiarity.

The new state of Altstadt vs. the old state of Neustadt

The location of Dresden’s landmarks are confusing, because the old part of the city was rebuilt after WWII and should be called Neustadt. But the neighborhood to the north of Dresden on the other side of the Elbe River is already called Neustadt. It was named that after a big fire in Dresden in 1685.

The beloved original Baroque buildings have been imitated every 200 years or so and throughout generations in between. So it is barely detectable whether they are from today (21st century), yesterday (19th century), or from its original reconstruction (1685). Dresden is fixated on the urban massing and proportions of five-story blocks with mansard, gabled roofs. It has committed itself to an elegant and functional building form worth repeating.

Altstadt

The plazas and central area of Dresden surrounding the major museums, the Frauenkirche, the Residenz, and the Semper Oper continue to impress old and new visitors to this historic imperial city. The large pit that was left open for a few years in the middle of the city due to archaeological excavations have been filled. In its place are replicas of the old Baroque buildings that were bombed during WWII. (See header above).

In the center of town, numerous free musical events took place throughout Altstadt (the old new part of the Old City). Fellow German classmate Vladimir and I reconnected and caught a couple of young and old rock bands, two choir groups, and a brass chamber music ensemble. The often shuttered Japanese Palace was open on the weekend to host some of these events.

Neustadt

The Neustadt neighborhood, created after a major fire in the heart of Dresden’s Altstadt, or “Old City”, is still relatively historic and elegant, with Baroque buildings from the 18th Century. So it’s a bit of a misnomer and confusing to first-timers here. The streets are still relatively narrow in scale, with streetcars rumbling along the cobbled streets in a predictable ambient noise level. They are punctuated by the occasional bells ringing from the many local Protestant churches nearby.

The Neustadt area where I live is jammed with young residents and visitors. It’s a lively scene every night. Party-goers on bicycles invade the corner and perch on the curbs for hours on end. While the noise is evident, the scene is manageable. The bauhof or courtyard in my apartment building provides just enough sound separation to make any noise barely detectable.

The true test will be the annual local festival in the area next weekend, when the neighborhood comes unwound for three days. Clubs and restaurants will offer free music in nearly 20 different locations.

Inner Neustadt

Courtyard buildings, designed to allow light and air into the deep superblocks, create intriguing walkways and chasms of sunfilled delight and discoveries from the busy thoroughfares now laden with shops and restaurants.

Inside the Kunsthof Passage, or “Arts Passage”, is a delightful array of new buildings designed in the same proportion and massing as the surrounding Baroque buildings. Exteriors are decorated with tile artwork in a fanciful display of creativity and fun. “Lila Sossa”, a resturant now becoming an institution in the area, serves organic dishes and desserts from Mason jars.

Food, Naturally

I’ve been buying my groceries at the corner Bio-Markt. It’s a minature supermarket complete with organic produce, fresh meat, dairy, and bread. I avoided the bread and wine to promote healthy living, but I did buy some landjaeger, one of my favorite dried sausages. It is packed with flavor, great for a snack or outing, and demonstrates one of Germany’s culinary skills: sausage-making. A joke on twitter said the Germans, facing COVID lockdown, have now resorted to their würst-käse scenario.

Food is still inexpensive and inspired by international standards of quality and diversity. I had a vegan rice wrap with glass noodle and spring rolls with tea for under $8 for dinner last night, but had trouble deciding among the extensive selection of Japanese, Afghan, Indian, Turkish, and even German specialties within a one-block radius of where I lived.

Germans are learning how to eat better and their culinary adventures are catching up with the rest of the world. Germany has the second highest number of Michelin star restaurants after France. Like the English, German latter day culinary awareness is under-appreciated. The fruit basket on display at a fair is a reminder of how ugly fruit and vegetables are wasted for visually-appealing choices.

Pictures at an Exhibition

Although I am primarily in Dresden for a German course, I feel like I am leading a double life. I have been researching Music Festival concerts being held for another week here. I have managed to squeeze three performances in three days while attending classes. If you were ever contemplating how to learn about music by going to performances, this is the place to do it.

Prices are reasonable and with student “rush” tickets from the Goethe Institute, you are in business. I paid 20 Euros for “Pictures at an Exhibition”, a piano recital at the Albertinum Museum. It turned out to be a double bargain, since access to the museum was free immediately before the performance. 

In a fascinating program combining music and art, Tokarev first  played Tsaichovsky’s  “Character Pieces for a Year” for piano. Each month’s themes portrayed different moods and feelings, from romantic songs to grand celebrations. The second half was followed by Mussorgski’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”. The tunes were skillfully enhanced by a video installation.

The program certainly increased my appreciation of the two composers, and it communicated the beauty in their work. Kandinsky’s “Large Gate from Kiev” painting from 1924 was featured in deconstructed movement and timing. Everything was seamlessly coordinated into an exquisite visual and musical experience.

Nikolai Tokarev, the soloist, has won numerous European piano competitions, performed alongside many European orchestras, and produced CDs interpreting beloved Russian composers. 

The Albertinum Museum exhibition, “100 Years of Bauhaus” was the second windfall. Created in Germany in 1920s, the Bauhaus included members shown in the exhibition such as Maholy-Nagy, Feininger, Klee and Kandinsky. It was a good warm-up to the performance.

The teachings of the Bauhaus formed the foundation for my undergraduate training in design at UC Berkeley. The Bauhaus developed design concepts and tools for mass production. Art, technology, architecture, painting, sculpture and construction are integrated with each other and this approach was developed from this movement.

Two-dimensional geometric lines and color like those by Piet Mondrian evolved into three-dimensional shapes. It is easy to see how industrial design and furniture like those by Marcel Breuer were an extension of isometric details and design.

The attendees at the Exhibition were exhibitions themselves. One woman wore a tastefully chosen black and white polka-dotted dress with red heels and accessories. Another more casually dressed gentleman clad in classic German black pondered in front of a textured wall. It served as a backdrop for artwork designed in the 20’s as part of the Bauhaus movement.

Last but not least, a quick rip through the classical section of the Albertinum revealed many forgotten items in storage and on display–a sad reminder of the dilemma of wealthy collectors.

After the end of the performance and three encores, the warm evening air outside reminded me of what a special place Dresden is in place and time. The view below is photographed from the Albertinum in Altstadt. Frederick Augustus, Elector of Saxony and the King of Poland, built most of Dresden’s original Baroque buildings here in the late 17th and early 18th Centuries.

An irresistible ticket price of 10 Euros drove me to the Semperoper to see Angela Georgeiou, the Romanian diva, in Tosca. Despite being in my favorite opera house, sitting in the fifth row slightly off center, a “clean” stage without a distracting cast of thousands, and the bargain, the performance was disappointing.

Here are two other concerts I attended:

Grigory Sokolov Piano Recital

Born in 1950, Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov can still apply all faculties and fingers to a long and rare public performance. The audience was extraordinarily attentive, reflecting the pianist’s skillful yet delicate playing.

The Germans, as I have mentioned before, are stingy with kudos but you know you have seen something worthwhile when the audience gives multiple standing ovations (after stamping their feet). Sokolov showed his gratitude by performing several encores. It didn’t hurt that the newly renovated Concert Palace in the heart of Dresden is acoustically perfect. Musicians travel to the venue by bike and tourists arrive by public transportation at the front door, so pre-concert traffic is non-existent.

Dresden High School for Music

Music permeates daily life in and around Dresden. The Dresden High School for Music demonstrated its mettle with a high quality string orchestra consisting of 11 to 19 year olds. Serious students and attentive audiences symbiotically promote a strong future for classical music in Germany. The school was beautifully and acoustically designed for music and performing arts.

Rather than for me to carry on about why I love Dresden, I will defer to earlier posts written in August 2014. You will find them in the search or in the summary of posts for that month.

We will be pausing the Europe Series/Silk Road Extension next time, in order to feature real-time postings from New Zealand. Be sure to join us for new insights of traveling in a country that has managed the COVID pandemic better than most other countries.

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