The first Mastersingers USA tour since 2003 took us to the Central European countries of Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. As was the case with our participation in the men’s choral festival in Barcelona in 2005, we each arranged our own travel, meeting for the first time in Budapest at the Radisson SAS Béke hotel on Thursday evening, June 28. We had received the music for our tour in February, with the understanding that we would have it learned by the time we assembled in Budapest. Of the 36 pieces, most were works that we had sung before, if only at last year’s reunion in Southern California. Some were completely new repertoire. Beyond this, a half-dozen men were joining our group for the first time, and they really had the challenge to get up to speed.
To help us learn the music, MP3 files of performances or computer-generated versions of every piece were posted in the “members-only” section of our website. Perhaps the greatest challenges were the Slovakian folksongs that had been sent to our director, Bruce McInnes, by the American embassy in Bratislava only a few weeks before our first rehearsal in Budapest. Bruce sent copies of each of four songs to us and directed us to a website where one of our newest members, Kevin Moss, a professor in the Russian department at Middlebury College, had posted MP3 files of pronunciations, along with transliterations.
Although not everyone arrived by our first rehearsal and the rash of lost luggage was of epidemic proportions, 67 of us were eventually present to start the tour, accompanied by 30 wives and other family members (a half-dozen others joined us en route). Significantly, this was the first tour in which there were not a “men only” week before family members were included. Amazingly, our chorus, which was drawn from a loose membership of over 100, was almost perfectly balanced among the four voice parts.
After rehearsal Thursday evening, three rehearsal periods on Friday, and two on Saturday, we were ready for our first concert on Saturday evening. But for this group, it’s never all work and no play. Our rehearsal schedule was rearranged slightly to make most of Friday evening free, and our group scattered to sample the pleasures of Budapest by night.
One large group booked a guided bus tour, which showed us the highlights of the “Pest” side of the Danube, and then, crossing the Chain Bridge to the “Buda” side of the city, dropped us off to explore the environs of Castle Hill. We ended by going to the “Citadel” — a park at the highest point overlooking the city. From there we got a panoramic view of Budapest that we will never forget: the Danube flowing north and south as far as the eye could see, the lights of the city as dusk set in, and a full moon.
The first concert of our Central European tour was on the evening of Saturday, June 30, and it was to be a joint concert with The Stella Chamber Choir, a mixed choir of some 30 singers. The original venue was to have been the Jáki Templom or Church of Jak in Városliget, a vast park in the center of Budapest. But we realized just days before that a giant outdoor rock concert (possibly drawing 200,000 people) was to be held in the park at the same time as our concert. Our hosts (and we) felt it would be prudent to change venues, so they arranged for us to sing at St. Michael’s (Szent Mihály) church, which, according to our hosts, had “the best acoustics in Budapest.”
The Stella Chamber Choir is a well-respected ensemble, with an extensive sacred and secular repertoire, and widely traveled (including tours to the U.S). Their director, Joseph Baráz, greeted us warmly and with humor, expressing himself through translations by our own Kevin Moss. Although he spoke virtually no English and we (except Kevin) no Hungarian, we were drawn to this talented, warm, playful, but fragile elderly man.
Mastersinger Kevin Moss translates for Prof. Baráz
They sang beautifully a diverse selection of music. Certainly, one that we will never forget is their performance of “Old Man River.” Their English pronunciation was excellent, and the arrangement (by Prof. Baráz?) was surely the most memorable we have ever heard, except perhaps the classic solo version by Paul Robeson.
There was a touching moment that is worth noting. Just before “Old Man River,” they sang a piece in Hungarian by Zoltán Kodály. It was a setting of a folk song called “Esti Dal” or “Evening Song.” Those of us sitting toward the front of the church were surprised to see a young woman in the front row of their formation crying as she tried to sing and wiping the tears on her dress. Was it some personal tragedy that had just entered her life? Could it be the music itself? We were all touched and concerned, and Bruce even brought a kleenex up to her during the applause after they had finished singing (which she gratefully accepted).
Afterward, we found that it indeed was the music that had moved her so deeply. It was the sad prayer of a boy who had run away and was hiding. In fact, Kevin, the only member of our group who could understand the words, said that they made him cry, too. Here is the lyric that was so moving:
Evening darkness overtook me near the woods;
I have put my coat under my head (i.e. as a pillow),
I have put my hands together
To pray to the Lord, like this:
Oh, my Lord, give me a place to sleep,
I am weary with wandering,
With walking around and hiding,
With living on foreign land.
May Lord give me a good night,
May he send me a holy angel,
May he encourage our hearts’ dreams,
May he give us a good night.
The variety of their music was a tribute to Stella’s versatility. Imagine our surprise when, for their last piece, Prof. Baráz came out with “a-one-and-a-two-and-a” as they launched into a jazzy version of “My Blue Heaven” that got them all moving to the beat of the music.
Our part of the concert was shortened a bit, and began with parts of our sacred repertoire: the first two movements of the de Kerle “Missa Regina Coelis,” “O Vos Omnes,” and the Franz Biebl double-chorus setting of “Pater Noster.” The audience received these pieces enthusiastically, occasionally with the rhythmic clapping with which European audiences express special enthusiasm.
This applause seemed to be led by our tour guide Uschi Riha and her son, Marco, who may be our biggest fans in all of Europe. Uschi’s association with our director, Bruce McInnes, goes back as far as tours of the Amherst College Glee Club when some of us saw Marco as a child. She was with the Mastersingers USA tours of 1996 and 2000, and it was such a pleasure to be with her again.
The enthusiasm of the audience grew with our spirituals, especially “Roberta Lee” and “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel.” In all, we counted this first of 8 concerts in 9 days a success.
Both choirs sing Bruckner’s “Locus Iste”
We were delighted to discover that there was a piece common to the repertoires of both choirs: Anton Bruckner’s “Locus Iste,” so we ended the concert singing that piece together.
After the joint concert, we bussed to a nearby facility, apparently used for the Stella Choir’s rehearsals, that included a large gymnasium. This was to be the site of a reception by our gracious hosts. Outside the gym, food was spread on a long table — a variety of distinctly Hungarian dishes which we all enjoyed.
The buffet table
Both choirs singing informally together; (Note these are people who know virtually nothing of each other’s language.)
Sadly, throughout our meal, our hosts stayed outside while we ate: perhaps it was the language barrier that kept them from joining us. But there is no language barrier where music is concerned, and after we had finished eating, they came into the gym and serenaded us with “Deep River” and another Hungarian tune. Then we joined them in singing the only Hungarian song in our repertoire, “Dana Dana.” Then we sang “Ride the Chariot,” Mastersingers USA’s signature piece. Amazingly, they knew the same arrangement and sang along with us. After this, one song after another was exchanged until it was time for us to leave. In a final, touching gesture, the members of the Stella Choir came outside to wave “good-bye” as our busses departed.
It was one of those people-to-people experiences that transcend language and cultural barriers, and make tours like this so rewarding.
Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, is about a 3-hour drive from Budapest. After checking in to the Crowne Plaza (the best hotel on our tour), we had a bit of free time before assembling for the 5 o’clock mass at Konkatedrála Dóm Sv. Martina (St. Martin’s Concathedral). (Note that a “concathedral” is a cathedral that shares the status of being the seat of a bishop with another cathedral.) Construction of this ancient church began in the 13th century, and it was essentially completed in the mid-14th century. For nearly 300 years, this church was the site of the coronations of the kings of Hungary. And as musicians, we were interested to learn that it was the site of the first performance of Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis.”
Significantly, we were told that this would be the first time (in centuries?) that any singing group would be allowed to sing from behind the altar, and this seemed like an expression of confidence that we wanted to live up to. The coordination with the priest and his assistant went well throughout the mass as we sang the full “Missa Regina Coeli,” “O Vos Omnes,” and “Locus Iste.” After the mass, we repositioned ourselves on the steps in front of the altar and gave a “mini-concert” of some of the rest of our repertoire. Most of the congregation stayed for this special presentation. Afterward, it was dinner on our own in some of the excellent restaurants in the picturesque old town (Staré Mesto) of Bratislava.
The balance of our visit to Bratislava was taken up with rehearsals at the hotel, a guided tour of the palace, and a walking tour of the old city. I think our overall impression was that Bratislava is a city on the move, one of the smallest and most compact of the European capitals, and a place well worth visiting again.
On Tuesday morning, July 3, we left our hotel in Bratislava for the 2-hour bus ride across the border to Brno. (Someone suggested that there should be an American aid program to send vowels to these countries.) Within the Czech Republic, the two principal regions are Bohemia, of which Prague is the principal city, and Moravia, of which Brno is the principal city. With a volatile history that dates back to the 13th century, Brno is probably best known today for its annual trade fair.
After lunch and a restful afternoon, we left for our concert venue in the center of the city: Besední Dům, a beautiful, neo-Renaissance structure built in 1873 and the current home of the Brno Philharmonic Orchestra. We were greeted here by our old friend Jan Míšek, artistic director of the Bonifantes choir, whom we had met in Barcelona in 2005 and by the two directors of Kantiléna, Jakub Klecker and Zuzana Pirnerová.
Kantiléna is an award-winning choir, composed of children and young people between the ages of 11 and 19. They have traveled extensively, and are affiliated with the Brno Philharmonic Orchestra. We were to perform a joint concert with them, starting at 6 p.m. (What’s that they say about never appearing on stage with children or animals?)
Our concert was to take place in this building’s “Philharmonic Hall,” an impressive room that was decorated in Baroque style. The children sang first. There were about 50 of them (all girls except for 4 boys), and they sang beautifully, with precision and artistry. For all our success, on this tour and in years past, many of us felt a little intimidated. And, not surprisingly, the first part of our half of this concert might have been the low point in our tour. We sang our piano-accompanied pieces for the first time: Beethoven’s “Hallelujah Chorus” from “Christ on the Mount of Olives” and Berlioz’ “Chorus of Students and Soldiers” scene from “La damnation de Faust.” These didn’t go particularly well, nor did the pieces from our sacred repertoire. But then we sang “Aj, Lúčka, Lúčka,” and the entire atmosphere changed, with smiles and cheers from the audience that hadn’t been there before. Then we sang two more folk songs: “Verbuňk” and “Tancuj, Tancuj, Tancuj,” and they were well received, too. With our confidence restored, we finished our part of the concert on a strong note with several pieces from our repertoire of spirituals.
The concert was followed by a reception on the ground floor of the Besední Dům, and it included some excellent hors d’oeuvres. (Singers always work up quite an appetite.) The Kantiléna girls sang a much more polished version of “Tancuj, Tancuj, Tancuj,” and there was quite a bit of good fellowship for the next hour.
There is a serious postscript to this episode of the trip. As we were entering the Besední Dům earlier in the afternoon, one member of our group paused to take a picture of our poster outside the building. She opened her bag to get out her camera but failed to close it, and while she was distracted, someone came by and stole her passport, credit cards, and cash. This was a lesson that stayed with the rest of us for the duration of the trip. Our friend quickly canceled her cards and was philosophical about the cash, but the passport was another matter, made more difficult by the fact that the following two days were national holidays in the Czech Republic. Fortunately, she had a photocopy of the passport, and after a train trip to Prague (and loss of a day of the tour), she secured a temporary passport.
Now for the rest of the story. Our guide, Uschi, happens to be a native of Brno, though she has spent most of her adult life in Austria. She actually escaped communist Czechoslovakia in a dramatic fashion as a young woman (that’s another story), but her childhood was spent in Brno. It turns out that in reporting the theft at the city’s main police station, she found herself in the very facility where her mother had been confined for questioning by the communist authorities for 14 days. And where her father had been kept for 4 years. Seeing this place unexpectedly conjured up memories of that painful time in her life — and a welling up of emotion that was sobering to the rest of us.
Wednesday, July 4 began with a rehearsal (capped with singing “The Star Spangled Banner”) and then a walking tour of downtown Brno. This tour included visiting a couple of churches, and as usual, we sang in them to mark the occasion. This time it was one of our favorites when visiting a new church: “Locus Iste,” whose Latin text begins “This place was created by God.” We don’t typically ask permission for this kind of thing: really nothing could be more appropriate in such a space, and it’s a good bet that the gesture is appreciated by anyone who happens to hear our singing.
The main event of the day was another joint concert: this time in the small town of Mikulov (pop. 7,600), about an hour’s drive from Brno. It was another joint concert, this time with a mixed adult choir of about 30 people from Mikulov and the surrounding area. Appropriately, the choir’s name is “Virtuosi di Mikulov,” and to our delight, their director was our new friend, Zuzana Pirnerová, co-director of Kantiléna. The concert was to be held in the Church of St. John the Baptist, an old (aren’t they all?) small stone structure with loads of charm and no doubt a long history. After both our groups had brief rehearsals, the concert started at 7 with Virtuosi di Mikulov going first. They performed sacred and folk songs with the same accuracy and artistry that we had seen in Kantiléna the day before, expertly directed by Zuzana.
Because the church had so little space (only about 200 seats) and because it was packed with a local audience, the Mastersingers stood at the back while Virtuosi di Mikulov sang. Once again, we were impressed with the host chorus and wondered how we would fare.
For the first time on the tour, we processed into the church singing the canon “Sing dem Herrn,” first in two parts, then in five parts after we had reached our final positions. The audience really responded to this presentation, and their enthusiasm seemed to grow with each piece we performed. And when we sang “Aj, Lucka, Lucka,” there was just an explosion of goodwill, joy, and appreciation from the audience. We could see people singing along and clapping in time to the music. Perhaps the magic of the moment came from their surprise and appreciation that an American group would make the effort to sing one of their songs in their own language — and take such pleasure in it. We sang the other two folk songs in our repertoire with similar effect, and then Bruce decided to do an encore: “Switzer Boy.” Predictably, this yodeling song brought smiles and cheers, especially when Bruce turned to identify himself as the third yodeler
We left the church, but Bruce was slow in following. It turned out that he was shaking hands with each member of the audience. He could have run for mayor of Mikulov and won handily.
Later, we learned from our tour guide, Marco, that he had been sitting next to an elderly man who was crying while we sang these folk songs. When asked what was the matter, he said that it was just too much: an American chorus singing Slavic folk songs in this church. Not that many years ago, it would have been unimaginable.
We then walked a short distance to a building with numerous rooms, the central one of which felt like a brick Quonset hut. There were benches around the sides of the room and tables in the center spread with food. In attendance, there was not only our party of nearly 100 but also the members of Virtuosi di Mikulov, who served as our hosts. We learned earlier that Mikulov is the center of a wine-growing region, and not surprisingly, there was local wine in abundance. Music was provided by a combo that consisted of a violin (played by the lead singer), a double bass, a clarinet, and a hammered dulcimer. The sound was something between kletzmer and mariachi music, but it fit the occasion, as they performed what appeared to be one folk song after another. Eventually, two female folk dancers appeared, and in time many of our group took a turn dancing, though all were eclipsed by folk dance teacher, John Bendix.
Eventually, conversation and folk music performance gave way to our own singing: first college songs, then several pieces from Virtuosi di Mikulov, then “Ride the Chariot.” (Amazingly, here was another group that knew our arrangement.) Then more spirituals from our repertoire.
Geoff Piper had formed an idea to top off the evening. After getting everyone’s attention, he explained through an interpreter that today was a special day for us — the anniversary of our nation’s independence. And in recognition of the day, we would like to sing our national anthem. And then we would like to hear them sing their national anthem. Who could question such an idea? So we sang our arrangement of “The Star Spangled Banner” with our usual gusto, and then listened as our new Czech friends proudly and soberly sang their own anthem. The most touching part of this was that many of our guys tried to harmonize as they sang. The good feeling created by this exchange of national anthems was palpable, and we parted shortly thereafter with both groups in high spirits.
After a 4-hour drive from Brno, we arrived at the town of Český Krumlov, near the Austrian border. This old, quaint, mountain village, with its winding cobblestone streets, dominating castle, and beautiful gardens are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The product of concerted renovation since the Velvet Revolution of 1989, some consider this the most beautiful town in the Czech Republic. After a noon arrival and lunch and a very little bit of free time, we prepared for concert #6 (our only all-secular concert), which was to be given in the open courtyard of the Hotel Ruze at 4:30 p.m. Not only was there very limited space for the audience in this courtyard, but the good weather that had followed us throughout our tour began to fail us.
Some of us tried to woo an audience by handing out fliers on the street. Whether it was this tactic or the limited advance publicity we received, the result was that the tight space in the courtyard was packed with listeners, many standing, as we started to sing. We stood in the open part of the courtyard and for the 45 minutes of our “concert,” we experienced many cycles of bright sun, clouds, and light mist in 65-degree weather. As usual, we were well received, though many of us wished we might have sung in a larger venue, even the main square. This town was packed with thousands upon thousands of tourists, and even with minimal advance notice, we felt we could win many of them over with our music.
After the concert and animated conversations with members of our audience surprised at their good luck at having caught our performance, we all scattered for different dinner adventures (and subsequent libations), made easy by the fact that this tourist-oriented town featured 80 different restaurants.
We had only the following morning to explore Český Krumlov in the daylight, and there was an earnestness to our explorations, as we tried to see in a few hours the highlights of a tourist destination that deserved at least several days.
After our free morning in Český Krumlov and a 3-hour bus ride to Prague, we arrived at the Olympik Hotel on the outskirts of the city early in the afternoon. Some of us spent the afternoon resting; others took the short metro ride into Prague to begin to explore the city.
Everyone returned to our hotel by 7 p.m. for the bus ride to our group dinner at the Restaurant U Marčanů in a suburb of Prague. This was an adventure in Bohemian food, music, and orchestrated fun. We were served “family style” in long tables that accommodated both our group of 100, plus two or three other groups (mostly Italians) who numbered about 60. You can see pictures of our precise meal at the restaurant’s website above.
They call themselves a “wine restaurant” and with good reason because the wine flowed all evening. So did the entertainment, provided by a 4-piece combo (2 violins, double bass, and hammered dulcimer) with a talented lady who sang and acted as mistress of ceremonies. They played folk songs, a young couple demonstrated dances, there were demonstrations of traditional musical instruments — and then there was audience involvement: singing along, clapping, dancing, etc. And if people weren’t inclined to participate, the “mistress” of ceremonies would run up and down the aisles, whacking (gently) any recalcitrant patrons with a wooden spoon. It all led to laughter and high spirits until they practically forced us to leave at 10:30.
Saturday, July 7 began with a rehearsal, followed by a trip to the Prague Castle and a guided tour of its grounds. After that, the afternoon was free for those who wished to explore this much-vaunted city.
We reassembled in the heart of Prague for what was to be our last full concert, presented in the tiny, Romanesque church called Martinska or St. Martin-in-the-Wall. The odd name of this church came from the fact that it was once part of the walled fortifications of the city. Once again, we passed out flyers in the streets to draw more of an audience for our 7 p.m. concert.
With the good acoustics we have become accustomed to, we presented our final, full concert — arguably one of our best. Afterward, we all pursued the kind of dinner adventures that have been so characteristic of this trip.
The Cathedral of St. Vitus, dating from the 14th century, sits on the grounds of the Prague Castle. It is the largest and most important church in the Czech Republic, and it is a place where saints, kings, princes, and emperors of Bohemia have been buried. The cathedral stands elevated above the city in a way that makes it the most dominant feature of the Prague skyline. Its attraction for the visitor is magnetic, and crowds of tourists line up by the thousands to have a look inside. And the inside is truly spectacular, with its vast space and the royal mausoleum in the unusual position at the front of the church just a few feet short of the steps leading to the altar.
Singing high mass on Sunday, July 8 in this cathedral was to be the final performance of our tour. Mastersingers USA has sung in many of the great cathedrals of Europe, but it is always a thrill, and this was certainly one of those great cathedrals. We arrived nearly an hour early and sat through most of the previous mass, though it was impossible to hear from the back of the structure where we sat and waited.
Shortly after 9 a.m., the previous mass was finished, and we positioned ourselves off to the right of the altar, and had just a brief time to rehearse to get the feeling of the “space.” During the course of the mass, we sang all of the De Kerle “Missa Regina Coeli,” as well as “Locus Iste” and “O Bone Jesu.” We did some of our best singing of the tour here, and from the comments of those listening farther back in the church, the effect was extraordinary. We had a few minutes for a group picture afterward, and with that, our 8th and final “concert” in 9 days was complete. We went our different ways for a late morning and afternoon of sightseeing.
Each of the tours of Mastersingers USA ends with a banquet. This one took place on Sunday evening on a boat on the Vltava River (also known as the Moldau). As we entered the boat, we were greeted by the music of an accordion and clarinet. A buffet was already spread out down the center of the main cabin of the ship, and tables of 6 were set and waiting for us. Most of us took our drinks topside to the open deck that ran almost the full length of the ship. From here, we had incredible views of Prague as the boat slowly made its way toward the Charles Bridge and early evening light began to fade. Eventually, everyone helped themselves to the buffet, and the leisurely dining stretched out until the announcement came that “festivities are about to begin.”
We all crowded into the open top deck of the boat and directed our attention to the center. With David Baron as MC, there was one “act” after another: a musical blessing from Geoff Piper, Jim Mixter’s “Top 10” list of Bruce’s rehearsal comments, Bruce Towner’s epic verse summarizing the tour, a poem from Jon Linn, a song from the Zumbye alumni, a song from his drinking buddies about Troy Rustad’s interest in Zuzana. Perhaps the highlight was the ladies of the tour singing about their experience to the tune of “Tancuj, Tancuj, Tancuj,” with emphasis on their shopping adventures. With the light fading, Assistant Conductor Kerry Brennan made a presentation of gifts to Bruce on behalf of all of us. Finally, we were addressed by our leader, commenting as he has done in the past, on the miracle that is Mastersingers USA: 65+ men from all over the US (and Germany!), who have enough of a love of music, of each other, and of their director to spend weeks and months learning music on their own, to sacrifice their precious free time, and to pay the considerable cost — all to make music together for the delight of foreign audiences. And not just music, but something profound enough to occasionally bring tears to the eyes of grown men, as they sing to the glory of God and to the wonders of this unique fellowship. Where to next?