Monday, June 24, 2013

Magical Music Tour - Classical Music in Prague and Vienna

Prague's State Opera House

Looking back, it seems inevitable that our visits to Prague and Vienna would heavily involve classical performances.  Yet, prior to our departure,  we had only purchased tickets to the Don Quixote  ballet at the State Opera House in Prague for the evening of our arrival.  We soon took advantage of the many musical offerings in these two old Austrian-Hungarian Empire cities.

At the ballet, I  tried to dress up my very basic travel clothes with a scarf and small necklace of pearls but the black walking shoes and rain jacket gave me away.  Suits and high heels surrounded us.  Fortunately, in the dark we could enjoy the performance of Don Quixote in a gilded gold and red concert hall.  After the performance, we were introduced to clapping the European way.  Crowds don’t just politely tap a hand. Lengthy plaudits  continued for three curtain calls and flowers for the principals.  And, no one left - no rushing to the exists to beat the crowd.

Prague  has a long history of promoting the musical talent of its youth. Thanks to a musical education system within villages surrounding Prague in the 18th century, the best musicians from rural areas were hired by the nobility or taken into the Church to further pursue their education.  That emphasis continues today in even their poorest schools thanks to local foundations.

The city  has also long had a love relationship with Mozart who rejoiced in  his celebrity status here.  The first performance  of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” ended with one-half hour of applause and his “Don Giovanni” was written for and debuted in Prague. On the streets today are young men dressed as Mozart, handing out pamphlets promoting organ, trumpet and string quartet concerts throughout the day at different venues which are many.

Here’s just one day’s offerings.  In Prague, on June 5th, there were eight classical music concerts, including works of Dvorak, Mozart, Stauss and Vivaldi, two operas performing Verdi’s Rigoletto and Dvorak’s Rusalta, and one jazz concert.  Performances were in churches, opera houses, museums, Lobkowicz Palace, and the Municipal House, the city’s foremost Art Nouveau building. Granted, some of the concerts were for the benefit of tourists only but on that same day in Dallas, a city of equivalent size, only the Dallas Symphony was performing at a park. Most American cities struggle to support one opera house but Prague has two beautiful, well-used opera venues.

We happened onto an organ concert at Prague’s St. Vitus Cathedral, celebrating the first World Organ Day, originating out of Notre Dame’s 850th anniversary in Paris and being duplicated in 850 cathedrals and concert halls worldwide.  This chilly church was begun in 1344 and only finished in 1929.  It is so cold inside that the archbishop is considering installing heated bench cushions.  We shivered through a performance by four of Prague’s top young organists, enjoying the venue for which the organ was created - high stone ceilings and walls, the better to reverberate finales from the large reed pipes.

Vienna's State Opera  House

The music tour continued with an unexpected but welcomed attendance at the Vienna State Opera for a modern day production of La Traviata. Our travel clothes still couldn’t keep pace with the glitter of the locals who make up 60% of attendees.    The crowd knew their opera singers and some were favored, including the American, Thomas Hampson.  Once again, they gave a hearty applause at the end and about half  rose for the ovation.  Many remained seated, an indication the performance was very good but not at the standing ovation level.

Our last classical music exposure surprised us all.  At the 11 a.m. Sunday Mass in the mini-cathedral of St. Augustine, the church’s own orchestra, choir, solists and organ performed Franz Schubert’s Mass in G Major.   In small towns, culture is often carried by church choirs, and we experienced from whence this tradition came.  Despite the service being in German, all were lifted up by the sung Agnus Dei, Sanctus, and powerful Alleluias.  Many remained for the organ postlude which resulted in ......... (no surprise) ....... strong clapping at the end.

It is easy to observe what music is valued in a community by the offerings. Paris often has country western concerts, bluegrass performances, and even acoustical guitar singers at That Guy’s Coffee.  The Dallas Symphony only gets as close as Greenville.  For Prague and Vienna,  centuries of classical music training and education continue to result in bountiful performances of high quality, benefitting tourists and locals alike.  The truth is “surround sound” still can’t compete with live music, particularly if it’s before an audience who knows how to show their appreciation.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Berlin Wall - 44 Years Later

Last Remaining Tower of the Berlin Wall

 I last crossed the Berlin Wall at Checkpoint Charlie in 1969 on a family vacation to Europe.  We flew from Hamburg to Berlin on a short 35 minutes Trans World Airlines (TWA) flight. Twenty four years after the end of WWII, West Berlin had been cleared of rubble.  The streets were clean but many blocks empty.  Cranes dominated that half of the city as new construction began to carry out instructions from international architects brought in to fill a world lost to bombing.

The Berlin Wall was eight years old and West Berlin a political hotspot, where the Cold War played out daily.  President Nixon had visited West Berlin in March of that year to huge crowds.  Miles Davis would play in November with equal numbers of fans.  Americans were loved for keeping supply lines open to the western half of the city.

I remember clearly the excitement of crossing into East Berlin.  We sat on the top level of a double decker tour bus, providing a nice view of the guards.  East German guards closely checked our passports pictures and ran mirrors under the bus.   Despite instructions not to photograph anything,  my oldest brother slipped out our movie camera, put it on his lap and filmed the gate and wall as we crossed the border.

Compared to West Berlin, its eastern counterpart was shut-down.  Rows of apartment buildings had been built but many old bombed out apartments stood silent, awaiting their turn to be torn down.  As the tallest building in Germany, the TV tower of  Berliner Fernsehturm had just been finished in 1969 but we weren’t allowed to ascend. Few people or cars were out.  Our guide followed a script as we rode through the quiet streets.  It just felt sad.

Tourists at Checkpoint Charlie
Forty four years later in 2013, one must search to find remnants of the Wall that fell in 1989.  A brick pattern inserted into streets and sidewalks marks its past presence. Checkpoint Charlie is now a tourist trap with fake American and Russian soldiers posing for pictures with young women.  Einstein’s Kaffee Checkpoint Charlie Shop sits on one corner with Ben and Jerry ice cream for sale on another.  Looking north across the “border” is an active business street filled with cars and pedestrians and the cranes are now in East Berlin.

Outer and Inner Wall
of Chapel of Reconciliation
Only three parts of the original 100 mile Wall still stand and we visited them all.  The Berlin Wall was actually two walls with a cleared space between for easier shooting of escapees.    Design of the Wall changed each time an escape was  successful,  ending with a curved top to prevent anyone from holding on.   At Bernard Strasse, the  original layout made clear the difficulty in getting out.  Even if one scaled the first barrier, a second awaited.  On a walk through the interior space between walls, we slowly viewed  names and photos of the 138 persons who died trying to flee. The only remaining guard tower that would have been feared in 1969 now seemed lonely and harmless.   Most moving was the new Chapel of Reconciliation, built of earth in the round, with an outer and inner wall symbolizing the actual Berlin Wall.

 East Side Gallery
East German Trabant Crashing though Wall
East Side Gallery
At the East Side Gallery, graffiti artists were commissioned to paint murals at a second Wall location.  This portion follows the Spree River which can be seen through chiseled out holes in the wall.  The crowd was younger and very international.   Paintings tugged at our hearts.  One showed  the leg and shoe of a young man trying to escape over the wall.  In another, an East German Trabant car crashes through the barrier.  Several had peace and love themes and many artists signed their names and websites.  Just before we arrived, protesters tried to stop a developer from tearing down a portion of this wall but heavy equipment was brought in at night to do the deed.
Berlin Wall near Topography of Terror
At the final location, a small section of the Wall borders the Topography of Terror display and museum where the story of the Nazi’s use of intimidation and ruthlessness to come and stay in power is detailed.  Anyone who spoke up was interned or killed and all were humiliated. Painful photos of the descent into hell are abundant.  By placing this museum next to the Berlin Wall, the two tragedies intertwine, revealing years of repression for East Berlin and Germany.

Walls never work or at least they don’t work for long.  From the Great Wall to the Security Wall in Israel to the talk of a border wall with Mexico, the idea always seems simple.  But it is really a break down in imagination.  A government can’t find a better solution than a concrete wall, which only gives resolve to those being penned in or kept out.  They do eventually fall.  Berlin had the foresight to preserve portions of this inconvenient and unintentional monument, reminding us all the human spirit will eventually prevail. 

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