Our Excellent Adventure

By staff November 1, 2001

"This is your nanny speaking!" As my voice came over the loudspeaker while our busses bowled along through the postcard-perfect farmland and villages of central Europe last June, I was sure I could see many of the nearly 100 members of our Key Chorale tour shudder. How had this become my identity on this trip? Yes, I am naturally officious, but we had professional tour managers with us and the plans had been made nearly a year in advance. Still, somehow, my role as president of the group had morphed into Nanny, shepherding everyone on the right bus at the right time, making sure they were carrying the correct music and wearing the right clothes.

I think it began at our rehearsals before we left Sarasota, when I would get up at the end to answer questions about the trip. Most questions were reasonable-about medications, appropriate dress and hairdryers-but a few seemed designed to draw snappy retorts. Maybe it was when I replied to the hapless woman who asked, "What have you done about foot-and-mouth disease?" with "I've taken care of it!" that my authoritarian reputation began to grow.

And after all, our tour was complex and demanding. Moreover, it was the first European experience for many of the pilgrims. And it had come about in an odd way: Two years ago, Key Chorale had been invited to perform in Prague at a concert that never materialized. When that fell through, we found that our appetite for a concert tour had been awakened, and we began to make inquiries through a professional choral tour management company. Bolstered by our two CDs, a series of invitations to festivals and other events began to shape up; and the final itinerary-Prague, Vienna and Budapest-fell into place.

And quite a tour it was, as these impressions may indicate.

Day One: Sarasota/Zurich. Up at 3 a.m. The first bus left South Gate at 4:30, headed for Tampa International Airport and the first of two American Airlines flights to Chicago's O'Hare International, where we were to board a Swissair flight to Zurich, connecting to Prague, Czech Republic. Why couldn't American accommodate all of us on one flight, closer to the Swissair departure? Only the American Airlines "load-management" computer knows for sure, but it was a terrible idea. And both flights were half-empty. Go figure.

Early cheerfulness dissipated as the hours ticked away in the Chicago departure lounge, but-after a nasty tussle with ground personnel about hand baggage that conformed perfectly to the regulations we had been given-we took our seats and, of course, sat for another hour waiting for takeoff clearance. Never mind, the wine was free and the movie was Chocolat. My seatmate was an articulate Albanian from Kosovo, so horizons were widening already.

Day Two: Zurich/Prague. Zurich airport isn't much fun, but we spent little time there before our Swissair flight to Prague. This was much better-everyone on the same plane, generous catering and a charming cabin crew. We marched through the modern airport, through efficient passport control and customs lines. Now the test: Will our luggage meet us here? And sure enough it did, except the handbags that the storm troopers in Chicago had wrestled away from some of us. (They turned up later.)

Outside in the noontime sun stood our sturdy busses, Big and Small, our land yachts for the next 10 days, and sturdy Nikolaus, who, with his colleague Constanze, would manage our lives throughout.

Prague's suburbs are-well, suburbs. And, since the center of the city is a pedestrian zone, we saw little of its wonders en route to our hotel. Our tour was "four-star first class," not to be confused with the five-star stuff. So the Hotel Olympik wasn't the Hilton. But very nice it was, and we were delighted to see it. While we sipped the schnapps-like welcome drink, I tried to convince everyone to stay awake until their normal bedtimes, citing the advice of frequent flyers, but Nanny was already being ignored.

We reassembled for a bus tour before dinner in the hills overlooking Prague. Once we reached the courtyard of the "Klasterni Pivovar" restaurant, built within an old monastery with a heart-stopping view of the city, golden in the late-afternoon sunlight as it spread over the banks of the Moldau River, we knew that we had begun an excellent adventure. Dinner started with another shot of chilled something strong, followed by superb local beer, wine, abundant food and a jolly folklore show. Discovery of another choir in the room, from a Lutheran church in Germany, led to some joint singing under conductor Daniel Moe's direction and some startling dancing by some distinguished church musicians who shall remain nameless.

Day Three: Prague. After an immense buffet breakfast, typical of the tour, offering choices unfamiliar to most Americans (sardines, cold cuts, cheeses and radishes in addition to the granola, eggs and bacon) we were joined by our local guides. They were mature women who have lived through all the shifts of fortune that had swept through the country since the Second World War. As one of them, Olga, said, "You can't understand starvation until you have starved."

As we walked through the dense green parks and along the Charles Bridge, they told us that citizens of the new Czech Republic, suddenly stripped of free health care, subsidized housing and utilities and guaranteed employment, were scrambling to make ends meet. Yet no one we met truly regretted the change, although our guides told us there are those who do. One of our members voiced an insight we all would come to share. "Guess what?" she said. "The United States is not the center of the universe and capitalism is not always the easy answer to everything."

The venue for our first concert, St. Nicolai Church, lies in the heart of the old Market Square, a wonderfully irregular space lined with churches, palaces, historic business centers and former government offices. The church is a textbook example of Prague baroque, relatively restrained but bountifully endowed with graceful curves, and full of light. It is a wonderful room for music, reverberant and flattering. We loved the sound we made, so different from in most American concert halls and churches.

Our program, American music by Randall Thompson and spirituals arranged by William Dawson, Alice Parker and Robert Shaw, was well received by a smallish audience. No surprise, that, since every corner of the Market Square and the neighboring streets was teeming with people selling tickets to different concerts that day in a city awash in music. Our biggest adventure, excepting the music, of course: changing into concert dress in a unisex dressing room. Giggles, gasps and another victory for the European outlook. Nanny, in underwear, said nothing.

Dinner, in a huge Art Nouveau pub, "Plzenska," was distinguished by puzzling dumplings that accompanied the Probably Pork. These curious white ovals seemed to be made of Styrofoam (familiar to us as the preferred building material of Sarasota's "Mediterranean Revival" buildings but not as food) and were not only inedible but also completely resistant to knife, fork and tooth.

Day Four: Prague. A beautiful Sunday and an early trip to the Maria Victoria Church in the Old City, where we were to sing Mass and a brief concert of religious music. This is the first Baroque church to be built in Prague and dates from 1611. It is famous as the "home" of the Holy Infant of Prague, a wax effigy of the infant Jesus, endowed with miraculous powers and a terrific wardrobe of gem-encrusted vestments, changed each day by nuns.

After the music, a surprising number of the congregation came forward to thank us in English. Father Peter, who delivered the sermon, made a point (also in English) to include "our Jewish brothers, who may be unfamiliar with our liturgy but share our love for music."

A quick change of clothes before an uproarious lunch at "U Kammenneho Mostu" restaurant at the end of the Charles Bridge. More of that potent aperitif and a lot of superb local beer (the original Budweiser, by the way) before moving up to the fortress complex that guards the city, enclosing Hradzany Castle and St. Vitus (don't ask) Cathedral, centers of Czech patriotism, piety and art. Miles of cobblestones proved no impediment at all. Perhaps it was the schnapps?

Day Five: Prague to Vienna. Everyone up at 7, breakfasted and nanny-herded onto the busses for a drive through the rich agricultural countryside, providing an insight into the current debate about urban sprawl around Sarasota. Dense villages, largely self-sufficient, were surrounded by open farm land and forest reserves. It seemed awfully logical to us, and has worked for over a thousand years or so.

Quick check-in at the Hotel Ananas (literally the Pineapple Hotel, the pineapple being an old symbol for hospitality), and off to visit the "essential" Schonbrunn Palace. This was the only tourist horror we encountered: over-booked, over-programmed, overrun. Hordes of tourists pushing and bellowing, competing tours and guides. Ghastly, and so slow that we never managed to visit the beautiful gardens we glimpsed through the windows as we were herded through the boring imperial rooms. "A little Martha Stewart would go a long way here," pronounced one of the ladies.

Day Six: Vienna. A relaxed morning for individual sightseeing or sloth, then up into the verdant countryside to Horn, site of the Rosenburg Castle, venue of an ambitious concert and recording of Haydn's "Lord Nelson" mass with the Capella Istropolitana chamber orchestra from Bratislava, Slovakia. The castle, fairy-tale perfect, was intimidating at first. And cold, very cold. When Daniel Moe and I went into the Marble Hall to supervise set-up of the concert stage, we found a willing staff, a lot of risers and chairs, and a very nice youngish man in jeans who helped us carry everything into place. Stagehand labor accomplished, he introduced himself as Count Hoyos, our host and the owner of the castle. (But, as he pointed out later, "only since the 1600s.")

A rehearsal with the orchestra blew us away, as we had heard it might. They are one of the finest chamber orchestras in the world. After rehearsal, a falcon show out on the chilly courtyard, a wonderfully successful concert (soon to be our new CD) and an elegant dinner with the count, before heading back to Vienna. Ninety-seven Cinderellas after the ball... What could match this? Well, how about the next day?

Day Seven: Vienna. Off to the legendary Musikverein, the concert hall seen every year on public television's broadcast of the Vienna

Philharmonic's New Year's Day concert, for a rehearsal with the conductor of the Mozart Orchestra. They had never played Mozart's "Solemn Vespers" before, but we soon found common ground and the concert-a near sell-out of 1,400 seats-went very well. The conductor told Daniel Moe that he wished he had a chorus as good as Key Chorale to work with regularly. Shameless and most welcome flattery. We wished we could have sung for hours in that magical space.

Day Eight: Vienna and the Danube Valley. First stop, Melk Abbey, an imposing pile overlooking the river, heavy with nearly 1,000 years of religious and cultural weight-especially the church, where just about all the gilt of the Western world seems to reside. From there, a cruise on the Danube, eating lunch as we passed castles and villages that were so perfect as to seem Disneyed. (Or is that the other way around?) The evening was riotous, a superb dinner up in Grinzing, a village in the vineyards. Gypsy music, wine, swaying to silly songs: all the pleasant cliches were fully explored. (One of our number even introduced that Sarasota classic, the Chicken Dance, to the stunned waitstaff.)

Day Nine: Vienna, Eisenstadt, Budapest. It all started so well, with a lovely drive to Eisenstadt, site of the Esterhazy Palace where Franz Joseph Haydn was once in charge of the music. The palace is unpretentious, if that can be said of so large a complex, and we were invited to sing in the superb Haydn Hall, an unexpected privilege.

But, when we arrived at the Hungarian frontier, we saw long lines of tour busses waiting ahead of us. It seems a pooh-bah from Budapest had come out to ensure that the local officials were doing everything "by the book." We sat in our busses for more than two hours, while the poor officers who usually accepted a cold beer and glanced at passports were forced to scan each one into the computer for analysis. When we were finally waved onto the highway to Budapest, we were already hours late for the welcome dinner.

More snafus when we arrived at our hotel, the Taverna, and found that somehow 30 of our group did not have rooms there. The hotel management, however, turned those lemons into delicious lemonade by booking those folks into the snazzy five-star Marrriott Hotel down the street. More joy when each of us, at both hotels, was provided with a bottle of Hungarian wine and a special invitation to sing at the Hungarian Parliament the next morning. The welcome dinner was white-glove lavish even though we were grubby and cranky when we sat down to it. Once again, good food, exceptional wine and charming music soothed our savage breasts-although there was enough confusion and residual querulousness that Nanny was tested to the limit. Final-straw question: "How do I find the second floor?" Nanny suggested that pushing the "2" button on the elevator might take care of it.}

Day 10: Budapest. When we arrived at the Parliament building early in the morning, we were greeted by unsmiling guards, but soon found cheerful waiters carrying trays of champagne and tables covered with sumptuous hors-d'oeuvres. After a tour of the building, over-the-top in nouveau-Gothic style, we sang in a lovely room reserved for visiting dignitaries while a professional crew made a video recording of the event. After lunch in a curiously severe, evidently Socialist-era restaurant we had time for personal exploration of the charming streets and plazas of both Buda and Pest, the two cities that make up the metropolis. For an exhausted nanny, there is nothing quite like a relaxing drink in a sidewalk cafe on the banks of the Danube, I can tell you.

Day 11: Budapest. Participation in Mass at the historic Mathias Church, near the Royal Palace in Buda, followed by a brief concert. Recent events once again punctured our reverie, as we noted bullet holes in several buildings and even inside the church. As the Prague Spring had resonated earlier, the Hungarian revolution was vividly close in time here. After the service, and despite growing fatigue and a slowly spreading flu, we sang well, giving full value to the sound of Morten Lauritsen's "O Nata Lux" in the glorious acoustics of the church.

The afternoon was free for walking through a city that has embraced capitalism and the West in a big way. We felt at home, and not just because of the cyber-cafes, McDonald's and Armani everywhere. Something both higher and harder to express was in the air.

The farewell dinner, in a delightfully unrepentant tourist trap overlooking the lights of Buda and Pest, was emotional and silly. Folklore singers and dancers beamed their relentless smiles, waiters poured wine from shoulder height and cameras flashed as a Key Chorale conga-line (perhaps a polka-line?) snaked around the vast dining room, to bemused stares from the Japanese tourists who seemed to occupy most of the tables. Nanny spoke to a yawning audience about the demands of the morrow as we returned to the hotel.}

Day 12: First bus to the airport at 4 A.M.! Just time to pack and nap. Somehow, though, everyone was on time, happily munching on the picnic breakfast provided by the hotel as the final gesture of Budapestian hospitality. We even all got onto our correct flights finally, some to Brussels, Chicago, Miami and home, others to Zurich, Chicago and Tampa.

What will we remember? Much of the above, for sure, especially the incredible energy of the Czech and Hungarian people as they strive to join the West. We were also won over by the stately charm the Viennese demonstrated, even when we were trying to master the public transport system. But the real memory to treasure is of the music we made-some of the best singing in the history of Key Chorale-and enthusiastic reception of our audiences. Know what? Music is the universal language-so there. Nanny says so.

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