Prague, Summer '98

by Bill Ossmann

The first day was the longest: a bus ride from Concord to Newark (4 hrs.), plane from Newark to Prague (8 hrs., fly right over Boston), a couple of hours to wander around Prague while people with other arrangements show up, and then another bus ride from Prague to Brno (4hrs.) Add to that a few hours waiting for buses and planes and getting through customs and you'll see why it didn't matter whether we were jet lagged or not.

In Brno we strengthened our numbers with a few Czech musicians and played our first concert in a beautiful concert hall with great acoustics. Although it was crowded on stage, this was the first of several really fine halls we played in. It will be hard to go back to our comparatively drab and acoustically less lively digs in Concord.

It was hot while we were there, well into the 90's for the first 8 or 9 days. Now imagine playing an energetic concert in a tuxedo. Nevertheless, we survived and played well. While we were in Brno, we took a side trip to some nice caves in the Moravian karst region, only 45 F underground, a welcome relief.

After 2 or 3 days in Brno it was on to Vienna, a Mecca for musicians everywhere. No concert here, but great sightseeing. We had only about 24 hours, but most of us tried to take in as much as we could. There is something for everyone here: palaces, art, cathedrals, music, and of course, food. Among other delights, I treated myself to Sacher Torte at the Hotel Sacher.

Poor planning on the part of the tour organize meant we had to spend the next night in Bratislava, Slovakia before returning to Austria to play a concert at the Esterhazy Palace in Eisenstadt. Playing in the place where Haydn worked for so many years was clearly a musical high point. Again we had a beautiful hall, both visually and acoustically.

After the concert we departed for Budapest. Still hot. Budapest is another wonderful city. (When did I get so enthusiastic about cities?) Like many large European cities, it is set up for walking. For most of history it was two cities. Buda, the older section, is on the west side of the Danube, and Pest, the newer area, on the east. We toured the old castle area on the Buda side, and played our concert in the main concert hall on the Pest side. This was our largest and most enthusiastic audience, and they rewarded us with the European tradition of rhythmic applause.

On our final morning in Budapest, I had planned to visit the Roman ruins, but was called upon to leave early to accompany the instrument truck to the Slovak border. Getting trucks across international borders in Europe is a real pain. The way it works we had to carry a form called a carnet that listed everyone's instrument, bow, case, etc., 174 items in all. At every border, a customs agent from the country we were leaving had to sign the (re-)export forms, and another agent from the country we were entering had to sign the import forms. If they want, they can inspect the truck for every single item. Fortunately none of them elected to do this. We had no actual bureaucratic difficulties with the customs agents anywhere, but the line can be very long. This border crossing was the worst. When we arrived, it looked like at least a four hour wait, but it turned out to be even longer. Fortunately, we were able to sign our forms ahead of time and move on, leaving the truck crew (no longer including me) to obtain the necessary signatures from customs.

We didn't actually play anywhere in Slovakia, but we did see some pretty countryside on the west end of the Carpathian Mountains. The following day, it was back to the Czech Republic, headed for the small town of Kromeriz (inverted ^ over the last four letters). We played there in the local palace where they filmed parts of Amadeus. Another beautiful hall, and a full house on a summer weekday, but the acoustics were so resonant as to become sort of muddy.

Finally back to Prague for our final concert and a better chance at sightseeing. We played at the Church of Saints Simon and Jude where the Czech Philharmonic does some playing and recording. Probably for smaller scale works, we were really crowded on stage, and the acoustics were overly resonant again, but another beautiful hall. Our final day was free for sightseeing without even the guilt of not practicing. Between the walking tour of the palace area in the morning, and my own agenda in the aftenoon, I found on the map that I must have walked 8 or 10 kilometers. It's really a wonderfull city to see with all the old architecture, the cathedral in the castle, other churches, a large animated clock, the Jewish cemetery where people are buried 10 or 12 deep, the list goes on and on. And people all over the place passing out handbills for concerts; you can easily accumulate a dozen in half an hour. After a dinner cruise on the Moldau, it was back to the hotel for our final night.

Everyone agreed that it was a fantastic experience. The members of the orchestra got to know one another much better, and we've never played better, nor in nicer halls.