Friday, July 6, 2012

Praha: Chorale Tour, Days 7-8

I'm writing from home, and yesterday was a grueling 24 hours of airports and airplanes. I won't bore you with that, so let me give you a recap of the last two days of our tour.

We transferred from Vienna to Prague on Tuesday morning, and it was immediately clear when we crossed the Czech border. The language was totally foreign to me, and the roads were rougher. In larger towns like Brno and Praha, you could see the remnants of the former Communist regime: featureless residential towers that have, since the fall of Communism, been painted many colors. The climate was also markedly different. Unlike sunny Austria, the weather in the Czech Republic was cooler and wetter. I won't go so far as to say that this is typical, but the rain of Praha made me miss the sun of Salzburg and Vienna. We were all grateful for the cooler temps.

Tuesday afternoon, we toured Prague Castle (Vysehrad) and St. Vidus cathedral, with its incredibly intricate stained glass windows. The castle afforded stunning vistas of the River Moldau and Old Town Prague. My friends were right; Prague is stunning. We crossed the Charles Bridge - you haven't been to Praha until you cross the bridge - and walked through the Old Town Square. I should mention at this time that our tour guide was named Vladimir, a man in his retirement, and whose voice surely bore testament to his smoking history. Then we checked into the hotel to enjoy our dinner. A few of us on that first night wanted to be adventurous, so we took the metro back to downtown to wander a bit, maybe find a bar. Well, we got lost. The streets are tiny and twisty, and signs are not in English (or German!). And it was cold. And rainy. And dark. After an hour, we find a group of Americans to direct us to a Metro station, and we were all wet and tired. To be honest, I was bit discouraged, but Wednesday was a new day.

On Wednesday morning, we toured Terezin, the concentration camp and Jewish ghetto situated about an hour north of Praha. I don't know how to write about this place; one does not "enjoy" or "admire" a concentration camp. Our tour took us through the entrance of the prison, a tour of the tiny cells, the interrogation and torture chambers, the showers (which were showers; this was not an extermination camp), the underground garrisons, and ultimately the execution field. A place like Terezin is a visceral reminder of dark history and man's own sinfulness. How the hell could one nation - Nazi Germany - justify the systematic destruction of an entire ethnicity? What reminders and lessons does a place like Terezin and her counterparts at Dachau and Auschwitz offer us in the 21st century? Terezin is unsettling; I don't know if it can offer many answers but only a reminder: Don't let this happen again.

Our afternoon was simple. Three free hours to do what we wanted, so I museum the Kafka Museum. His messed up life explains twisted nature of what he wrote (EG Metamorphosis  and The Penal Colony). We gave our final concert at St. Francis Church to a full and appreciative audience. We enjoyed our final meal together. And finally, I and some of our twenty-something basses and tenors (four of us in total!) went back to downtown Praha to find a bar and celebrate Fourth of July late late late in the night.

So now I'm home. Did all that really just happen? Did I really tour Austria and the Czech Republic? Yes. I miss it already, but I'm glad to be home where it is quieter.

The Moldau, looking towards Vsyehrad.

St. Vidus Cathedral. This nave was built in the 14th century.

One of many beautiful windows at St. Vidus

Beautiful Praha as seen from Vysehrad

The entrance to Terezin. "Arbeit Macht Frei" means "Work makes you free."

Praha. What the hell is this?

St. Francis Church, scene of our final concert.

Astronomical Clock and Tyn Church in Old Town Square

Chales Bridge by night, as seen from our Fourth of July bar.
Until next time,

Monday, July 2, 2012

Vienna: Chorale Tour, Day 6

It's late, so I'll give you the cliff notes version of today.

We started with a tour of Scholß Schönbrunn (Beautiful Fountain Palace), the summer palace of the Hapsburg Family. It's modeled after Versailles, but only about 1/4 of the size, meaning that Schönbrunn is a paltry 1,000+ rooms compared to Versailles 4,000 rooms. I cannot impress upon you how beautiful and stately this place was. 

We then took a driving tour around downtown Vienna, passing by the Nachstmarket, Musikverein, Staats Operhaus, Hofburg, Carlsplatz, Parliament, and Teater Wien. We had no time to stop in these places...sadly. We also ventured out to Central Cemetery to pay our respects at the graves of Brahms, Beethoven, J. Strauss, and Schubert. I need you to think about this for a second: I stood before the graves of some of history's most important composers. It was another transcendent moment.

We had a brief, and I do mean brief, rehearsal at the St. Stephensdom for our 8:30 PM concert, and then we were given the entire afternoon to go play. I made my way to The Belvedere, a large estate owned by the Hapsburgs for the sole purpose of storing their art. This museum is notable for its large college of fin-de-siècle paintings, including an extensive gallery of original works by Klimt and Schiele. High point: standing before Klimt's "The Kiss." It's one thing to see it on paper; it's quite another to see this enormous piece in person. 

We had a great dinner and then a FABULOUS concert at St. Stephensdom with 400 people in attendance. 

And now we're home in our hotels preparing to leave for Praha (Prague) in the morning!

I will surely miss Austria...

Schünbrunn Palace

Maestro Bill and Organist Jane in front of our poster.

The interior of St. Stephansdom

Life goal: throw a frisbee on every continent. I have completed this task on N. America, S. America, Asia, and with the help of Brian, Europe. Africa, Australia, and Antarctica are left!

The Vienna Staatsoper Haus. SIGH.

You just can't get away from home...

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Lobet den Herrn: Chorale Tour, Day 5

Every once in a while, you get to have a profound moment that will forever change your perspective on a certain thing, and this morning was one of those moments. The choir was given the opportunity to sing Mass at the Salzburg Dom this morning under the direction of their music director, Janos Czifras. We sang Mozart's Missa Solemnis, K. 337 not as a concert piece but as liturgical worship. I want to put something in perspective for you. Mozart wrote this piece of music specifically for the space in which we sung. We sung the piece in the precise place where Mozart's choir and orchestra would have sung it. The organ upon which the organist played was the very organ that Mozart would have played. Prof. Czifras has the exact same job that Mozart's father, Leopold, had nearly 300 years ago.

In other words, we were truly living and partaking the communion of the saints; we were living, breathing, and singing in a small part of human history.

Furthermore, to sing the Mass as a liturgical aid in worship, not as a concert piece, brought a whole new level of understanding and depth to the work. The fermatas before changes in tempi are not just for aesthetic or dramatic effect. Mozart was accommodating for the reverberation of the space. The lengthy "Agnus Dei" was not only a theological statement; Mozart chose a slower tempo for the final movement because everyone in the cathedral would have taken communion during the singing of "Agnus." Indeed, in the time it took to perform the final movement this morning, everybody had taken of Christ's blood and body.

And even though the liturgy was in German, I still had a general idea of pace. The rhythms of our sacred liturgies are almost universal; every Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, and Offertory has its fixed place. When the congregation prayed a Vater Unser, I knew to pray an Our Father with them. One holy, catholic, apostolic Church, indeed.

I think I realized more than ever today that music, even the sacred music of the great masters, can be more than a relic for the museum-like concert hall. It can breathe life and carry significant meaning and weight. Music is not merely a vague aid to some kind of spiritual insight; music can be and should be a tool to proclaim the Gospel itself.

In the choir loft at the Dom - the same one the Mozarts used - to sing at Mass.
The Dom from the Choir Loft, before service.

Schift Melk monastery.

The chapel at Melk.

We're in Vienna now, and we have a huge day that will culminate with a concert at St. Stephensdom, the flagship Cathedral of Austria. I have been told that we are doing the impossible: an American guest choir singing a formal evening concert. For me to be part of the choir that will give a concert - let alone being a member of the Mozart solo quartet and to sing a Gospel solo - is a bit overwhelming.

But until then...