A Joint European Concert Tour
June 2–12, 2016
Submitted to the Lafayette Master Chorale by: Karl Brandt
On Thursday, June 2, 2015, sixteen Lafayette Master Chorale singers (most accompanied by spouses) joined by 34 singers and instrumentalists from the Second Presbyterian Sanctuary Choir (most accompanied by spouses) and Second Presbyterian Artistic Director Michelle Louer, flew from Chicago to Berlin and the start of a 10-day concert and “Bach-analia” tour. BCS singers were: Sopranos – Kathy Beach, Janie Fischbach, Lynn Griffin, Kerry Kiphart, & Marcy Miller; Altos – Vicki Bower, Sue Green, Marilyn Leigh, & Gail Polles; Tenors – Roger Bennett & John Polles; and Basses – Keith Beach, Karl Brandt, Bill Collins, John Grutzner, & Mark Hermodson). The repertoire for each concert was selected from the following works.
Friday, June 3
Arriving in Berlin, we boarded our busses and headed for Leipzig. Along the way, we were introduced to the € 0.70 WC’s at a short travel break stop. When you paid your € 0.70, you did get a coupon worth € 0.50 toward a food purchase, so it wasn’t prohibitive! As we entered Leipzig, we passed many “Iron Curtain-era” buildings, but the city center was quite attractive. We took a short guided walking tour, starting at the Thomaskirche (which dates from 1496, but was substantially rebuilt after WW II). This Gothic church is famous in large part because J. S. Bach was Kapellmeister. Twelve of Bach’s children were baptized here, and his remains are buried in the church. It is a beautiful church, both inside and outside, with a high arched ceiling and large clerestory windows admitting light. A choir that was rehearsing demonstrated for us the building’s excellent acoustics. A large statue of Bach stands on a pedestal in a plaza at the side entrance to the church. Luther preached here on Whitsunday 1539. Mozart and Mendelssohn both performed here; statues of each adorn the exterior grounds.
Saturday, June 4
Today, we traveled to Wittenberg, Germany, the site of our first concert in the Schlosskirche (Castle Church). Wittenberg was Martin Luther’s hometown. It was to the door of the Castle Church that in 1517 he nailed his 95 Theses, initiating the Reformation. But first, we made a short stop at the “Hundertwasser School” in Wittenberg. Architecturally intriguing, this public school building is the work of Friedensreich Hundertwasser; he has been described as an “eccentric Viennese artist, architect, and eco-visionary.” He “transformed a boxy GDR-era concrete monstrosity into a colorful and curvy dreamscape …where trees come out of windows and gilded onion domes balance above a rooftop garden.” Worth seeing! We then had free time to explore the Castle Church and the center of Wittenberg, where the Luther House Museum was also a drawing point. These two are located at opposite ends of a central thoroughfare formed by Schlosstraße and Collegienstraße. The exterior of the Castle Church is undergoing restoration, but the interior is magnificent! The one iconic tower currently standing is capped by a massive dome, below which is inscribed the first line of Luther’s famous hymn: “Ein feste Berg ist unser Gott.” The stunning interior is again high-vaulted with, as we were to experience, superb acoustics. The organ is at the rear of the church, located high above the floor. Our concert, performed before a near-capacity audience, went very well, and we were accorded a standing ovation. You could read the pleasure on the faces of the audience as we sang, and as we stood outside after the concert many came up to us to say “Danke”. It was an exhilarating experience! After a break of an hour or so, we returned to the Schlosskirche where we performed at the Lutheran English Worship Service. Their organist is from Minnesota (small world).
Sunday, June 5
Today we headed to Eisenach, Germany. Before reaching Eisenach, however, we took a side trip the Wartburg Castle. Originally built in the Middle Ages, the castle’s foundation was laid in 1067. It is located atop a high (1,350-foot) promontory overlooking Eisenach and the surrounding, forested countryside. Our legs experienced the height personally, as we had to climb a long set of stairs from the bus drop-off to reach the castle. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Martin Luther, living under the name Junker Jörg (the Knight George), hid in Wartburg after his excommunication by Pope Leo X. Luther used this time that he was secreted away to translate the New Testament into German. The castle is a massive structure, and some restoration of the interior has been done. Its location dominates the surrounding countryside.
Once in Eisenach, we readied ourselves for our concert in the St. George Church (Georgenkirche). Eisenach is where Bach was born in 1685. The Georgenkirche, built in the Late Gothic, Baroque style, is where Bach was baptized. Upon entering the church, you are immediately struck by the three tiers of balconies along the two sides and the rear of the church. It has a magnificent organ, located again high above the nave at the rear of the church. Though a Protestant church, the altar is adorned with a large crucifix! The entrance hall contains a statue of Bach. Our concert again went very well. The church was packed, and the audience was very appreciative - lots of smiling faces.
Monday, June 6
Today we headed to Prague. Before leaving Eisenach, however, we stopped at the Bachhaus (the house/museum in Eisenach where Bach was born) for a visit. There we were first given a demonstration of various keyboard instruments that Bach had played or used in composing. A docent played a short piece on each instrument so we could hear its sound. We then had time at leisure to wander through the displays of Bach’s music, period instruments, the rooms of the house, and all manner of Bach memorabilia. Then…to Prague. Well, not quite. Before leaving Germany, we stopped in Dresden. We de-bussed in the immense “Theaterplatz,” adjacent to the Elbe River and surrounded by the Opera House, the Zwinger Palace, and the Hofkirche. Most of us, ultimately, located the beautiful Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady). This massive (at least when viewed from the outside) Lutheran church, is incredibly beautiful on the inside. Circular in shape, balconies run the entire circumference of the huge nave. It is exquisitely decorated. Dresden was fire-bombed by the British and U.S. during WW II on February 13-15, 1945, despite the city’s cultural heritage. Several internet sites report that a total of 650,000 incendiary bombs were dropped. The Frauenkirche was severely damaged. Mark Hermodson recounted to many of us the story of Chemistry Nobel Laureate Gunter Blobel donating his entire Nobel Prize award money to seed a fund drive to reconstruct the church after the reunification of Germany. The result is a magnificent edifice. Another piece of Dresdenology is that it was here that Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., after being captured in the Battle of the Bulge, survived the fire-bombing holed up in an underground meat locker (see: Slaughterhouse-5). While enjoying brats and beer at a sidewalk café, we learned that Michelle wanted us in the Frauenkirche to sing a short, impromptu concert. Erin Benedict sang a solo number, “Give Me Jesus,” and those of us from the choir who were there sang the Doxology. Again, beautiful acoustics. Then…to Prague. Some of us with spouses had dinner that night at the Hergtova Cihelna Restaurant. We sat outdoors, adjacent to the Vlatava River (aka “The Moldau”), just downstream from the famous Charles Bridge, which was lit up beautifully as night fell. Ah!!!
Tuesday, June 7
This morning, right after the wonderful buffet breakfast at the hotel (all the hotels had wonderful buffet breakfasts…with croissants!), John Brewer started a flash mob in the huge hotel atrium, singing “Ain’t Got Time to Die.” Everyone joined in on the chorus. People came from all around the lobby to listen – the breakfast area, the reception desk, the atrium, some recording or videotaping. Fun! We then donned our tuxes for the trip to St. Nicholas Church, which is right in Old Town Square. Old Town Square is dominated by a huge monument with a statue of Jan Hus. Hus was a priest and martyr, born in Bohemia in 1371, who served as Rector of Charles University, managed to have some differences of opinion with the Pope, was found guilty of heresy, and was burned at the stake in 1415. Once you get past Hus, the St. Nicholas Church is…wow!
More intimate than the Castle Church or the St. George Church, it is exquisitely decorated, and its high domed roof is visible through a lacy, octagonal, chandelier. Wonderful resonance. The organ, again, is high above the floor at the opposite end of the church from the altar, and beautifully decorated in a black, silver, and gold motif. As we warmed up, tourists who wandered in to see the church decided to sit down to hear the concert. This created a problem because tickets had been sold. With a now packed house, including many standing, we processed to our positions on the steps leading to the altar. Our concert went very well, garnering a standing ovation, and Michelle led us through two encores, including “Ain’t Got Time to Die” which the audience loved. They tapped their feet, clapped, and smiled broadly. Exhilarating! As we and the audience filed out, we received many very happy compliments. We met a family from Indiana, and another who had gone to Purdue. Again, small world! Lots of happy faces. Then our entire entourage walked across the square to the Oliva Verde Ristorante, where our group leader, Bob Zehr, treated us to lunch – a rich soup, a delicious goulash, crusty bread, a beer, and dessert. Back outside, we watched the clock tower in Old Town Square chime the hour, and we transformed ourselves into tourists for the rest of the afternoon. We wandered through Old Town; walked across the Charles Bridge (a pedestrian bridge); listened to the buskers plying their trade, hoping for a contribution; enjoyed the nice upstream view along the Vlatava River, where we saw several spillways; studied the statues perched along the bridge; and, in the hazy distance, noted Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral, high above the far side of the river. As it was warm, some of us stopped for appropriate liquid refreshment in a sidewalk cafe. A glorious day!
Wednesday, June 8
Today we saw more of Prague. First was Prague Castle and St. Vitus Church, high above the Vlatava River. Our guide regaled us with history, dates, and architectural details; the names of the states of the Czech Republic (e.g., Bohemia); the population of its largest cities in order of size (including Brno, where Mendel performed his famous pea breeding experiments); and the names of many kings. Despite the heavy dose of facts and dates, he was quite entertaining. The Prague Castle grounds are immense, and in the area outside the walls afford a grand view over Prague, despite being a hazy day. The Czechs have their replica of the Eiffel Tower high on a hill not far from the Castle. The governmental buildings surrounding the Castle are architecturally pleasing. We entered the grounds of the St. Vitus Church (one of the “Fourteen Holy Helpers,” Vitus is patron saint of epileptics, dancers, and actors). The church is also massive and also Gothic, with many buttresses, flying and otherwise, and adorned with quaint gargoyles angling out from the roof, ready to carry away rain water. The interior is accordingly immense, with light spilling into the narrow central aisle from its clerestory windows. The stained glass windows, including the large circular one above the front façade, are beautiful. And, the Cathedral also contains a chapel honoring St. Wenceslas (of “Good King Wenceslas” fame). In all, a beautiful and inspiring structure. We then came back down the hill to the river, crossed the Vlatava, and were led through the Jewish Quarter of Old Town. Our guide pointed out buildings and synagogues, and a clock with the hours in Hebrew. We also passed a memorial to Franz Kafka. Though he wrote in German, Kafka was a Czech citizen, born to German-speaking Jewish parents. After his death in Vienna, his body was returned to Prague, where he is buried in the Jewish cemetery. Finally, some of us broke away from the group and did our own meandering, including a visit to the Church of Our Lady. Now tired and hungry, four of us settled at an outdoor table at the Caffe Italia on the Square, and had a bite to eat, a shared Antipasto, a glass of Pilsner beer, and a large serving of gelato. We barely had enough Kroner left for the taxi ride back to the hotel. After a short rest, we gathered again for a trip back to the Vlatava River.
We dropped down from street level to the quay where we were to meet our boat, the Cecilie, for a dinner cruise. In due course it arrived, its passengers disembarked, and we boarded. Most of us went to the open, top deck. The Cecilie cast off and headed upstream, past the Hergtova Cihelna Ristorante, under the Charles Bridge, and into a lock I had not seen previously, though I had noticed the spillway. We, plus other small craft in the lock, were lifted several feet to the upstream water level, and departed the lock to cruise further. While cruising, dinner was served buffet style. It was a pleasant excursion, as we saw more of the river than we had earlier. Plus, it was a very nice evening, cool with a light breeze, and lots of conversation and laughter. Our cruise complete, we returned to our hotel for our last night in Prague. It had been a wonderful visit, capped by an exhilarating concert performance in St. Nicholas Church.
Thursday, June 9
A travel day: Prague to Munich. Before crossing the border back into Germany, we had a last Czech stop in Pilsen. The Pilsner Brewery! We had been drinking Pilsner Urquell lager beer. Now we toured of the brewery, which dates back to 1842. We learned the unique brewing process that produces pilsner lager, and saw the modern bottling hall (it can bottle 120,000 bottles per hour – a LOT of beer!) Finally, we entered the underground cellars, where the beer is aged in oak barrels. We were each given a glass of beer tapped fresh from one of these barrels. An enjoyable break in the trip! In Munich we took a walk from the hotel to a pedestrian thoroughfare, past Karlsplatz to Marienplatz. The New Town Hall (Neues Rathaus) dominates the square with its tall carillon tower. As we wandered back, small groups found restaurants for an evening meal. That was enough for the day. Bed beckoned!
Friday, June 10
This morning, some of us took a trip to Dachau, one of the first concentration camps built by the Nazis. It is a short bus ride outside of Munich. It was not a camp where Jews were incarcerated and murdered; those came later. But some of the most brutal, vicious commandants employed by the camps where so many Jews were murdered and cremated (e.g., Auschwitz) were trained at Dachau. Dachau was used initially for German political prisoners, to which were later added homosexuals and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Near the entrance is a stone marker “in honor of the 20th Armored Division (Liberators), U.S. Army, who participated in the liberation of Dachau Concentration Camp, April 29, 1945, and in everlasting memory of the victims of Nazi Barbarism.” Germany has done a seemingly honest job, documenting the horrors of life in the camp both in pictures and in the words of survivors. It is a stark, hushed, and sobering experience walking through the exhibits, examining the photographs, reading the words, imagining life here as a prisoner. There appears to have been no effort to whitewash what went on in this concentration camp. As you exit the east end of the Administration Building/Museum, you find on the outside wall a simple sign constructed of bronze letters affixed to the wall, stating, in five languages (Hebrew, French, English, German, and Russian), the simple words: “Never Again.” In front of this wall is a stone cubical with a bronze top, in which are ashes, the remains of some of those killed and cremated at Dachau. Centered between the east and west walls of the Administration Building, placed on a stone wall, is a wrenching, grizzly sculpture designed by Nandor Glid. It is a sculpture of skeletons – emaciated “stick prisoners” – reaching out (trying to escape?), their fingers forming the barbs of the barbed wire that enclosed them, their skulls hanging awkwardly. Glid’s design was chosen in an international competition. He was a Jew born in Yugoslavia, in what is now Serbia, whose family was deported to Auschwitz. Across the immense, graveled roll-call plaza, two of the 32 barracks stand, with only the outlines of the other 30 stretching off into the distance. A lonely and frightening place.
With those images fresh in our minds, we traveled to our last concert in St. Agnes Roman Catholic Church, a small parish church, located in a residential area some distance from the center of Munich. Attractive and welcoming in its own way, it was much less imposing than the Castle Church. As we waited in the rear of the church after warming up, we were not sure what to expect. But the audience/congregation soon began to arrive, and it became apparent that we’d again have standing room only. Among the crowd was a former member of our Lafayette Children's Choir, Chelsea Schmidt; she had seen the concert advertised. The concert started with the St. Agnes group – “Changing Voices/München Harthof” – who performed all of their music in English! They did a nice job, and it was pleasant to share the program with this local group. Our concert went very well, and we did three encores, to standing ovation applause, including an encore of “Ain’t Got Time to Die” which all of our audiences really got into! After the concert, we joined their choir for a light supper in the parish hall, with a chance for conversation across languages. Our efforts to converse were really quite enjoyable.
Saturday, June 11
Today we went to Salzburg. It was an uneventful trip, with some nice views of the Alps as we neared the city. Even for those who had been there previously, it was nice wandering through the Mirabelle Gardens. The flowers were beautiful – the rose garden, the intricate designs of flower beds defined by white stone patterns, the statuary – and there was wedding in progress. At the far end, the Schloss could be seen looking out from high above. As we left the gardens and approached the Salzach River, we encountered a whimsical bronze statue (by Salzburg sculptor Lotte Ranft) of a nude bicyclist leaning back on his bicycle, looking spent. Quite humorous! We also passed a gate to a small garden before a mansion; a sign announced that Herbert von Karajan lived in the mansion. In the garden there was a statue of von Karajan conducting an invisible orchestra. About this time it started to rain, so we hurried along to the bridge to cross the river. We then wandered down the Getreidegasse with our group, in a light rain, as far as Mozart’s Geburtshaus. All along this narrow street, the shops identify themselves with quaint “marquees” jutting out from the building, advertising the nature of the shop within (including a McDonald’s), At Mozart’s Geburthaus, some who had been to Salzburg previously cut away from the group to follow their own particular interests. After an hour or so, we joined back together in the Mirabelle Gardens, where Michelle had planned an outdoor concert by her seven section leaders/soloists. Though still raining, the concert went on with the singers protected by a semicircle of non-singers holding umbrellas. Quite a few passers-by stopped to listen, and – in its own way – it was a success. We returned to Munich by a different route, a smaller highway through the foothills of the Alps, curving and turning as it followed a mountain stream full of fast moving water, splashing over rocks in its bed, as it carved its way through a lush, green forest, past small mountain villages and single chalets perched on the hillside above the road, always with window boxes and stone planters brilliant with flowers in full bloom.
An hour later, back in Munich, we were on our way for our Farewell Dinner at the Munich Hofbräuhaus.
Though within walking distance in Karlsplatz, it was nice to have a ride. The food was nothing special: a slab of meat with a huge dumpling and gravy, a salad, bowls of sauerkraut, and a dessert. The memorable features were: 1) the huge liter steins of beer (there was no smaller size!), almost too heavy to lift with one hand when full, and almost too much to drink, and 2) the ambience (if such a cultured word can apply to a huge hall/auditorium, with a high arching roof, featuring a stage at one end occupied by an Oompah Band. The players were clad in Lederhosen, and they alternated with Bavarian dancers (men in Lederhosen, ladies in blue skirts with white aprons). Most of us opted to walk back, which guaranteed we were ready for bed when we arrived at the hotel.
Sunday, June 12
Up early this morning, a final breakfast buffet and we loaded our luggage and ourselves onto the buses for our trip to the Munich Airport. Aer Lingus flew us to Dublin, then on to Chicago. From there it was one last bus trip back to Lafayette. Truly, it had been a wonderful trip!