Concord Orchestra Tour 98

by Bobby Wayland

 (An edited version of this story appeared in the September 3, 1998 edition of the Concord Journal. Reprinted with permission.)

Stumbling around in a jet lag induced stupor, I fell into a chair at a nearby cafe to pause and appreciate where I was. I sat down, fatigued from a day of travel, and liked what I saw: the beautiful Old Town Square of Prague, in the Czech Republic. My gaze drifted from one building to the next, each distinct and historic. Many people stood at the base of the Old Town Hall , watching the ornate clock tower, waiting for the hour to change and the intricate mechanical display to begin. Groups congregated at a large landmark in the center, a monument to religious reformer Jan Hus, but I couldn't help noticing two striking churches, St. Nicholas and the Tyn Church, a menacing twin spired gothic structure. I couldn't believe I was actually here.

On July 19, the Concord Orchestra began its two week concert tour of central and eastern Europe in the parking lot of Mediplex, the nursing home facility across from Emerson Hospital. The group consisted of 55 musicians, and about 30 friends and family members like me who had decided to come along for the ride and see the Czech Republic, Slovak Republic, Hungary and Austria. My connection to the group was simple: My mother has played violin in the orchestra for the past eighteen years.

The trip was organized by a company called Perform America, a US firm that arranges European tours for American musical ensembles. Of course, this tour would not pay for itself; members had to pay their own expenses. Perform America worked with a European company named Teris 2002 that provided guides and booked performance halls and hotels.

The man who really ran the show from day to day, however, was Charlie McCauley, the orchestra's first chair string bass player, who donated untold hours of his time over the last year planning and co-ordinating the trip. Once the tour began, his responsibilities included taking roll call, moving luggage and instruments, helping arrange transportation, sitting in border crossing lines, working with the guides, and answering hundreds of questions. Of course, on top of all of this, he performed in all of the orchestra's concerts. By the end of the trip it was unclear to me whether or not Charlie would have called this tour a vacation.

And Charlie had things to worry about right from the start. The buses that were supposed to pick us up at Mediplex and take us to Newark International Airport were late, by more than an hour. Everyone milled around the parking lot, unsure of what to do. "Well, this is an auspicious start," Charlie said. I sat on a curb and pulled out my Discman. As I listened to Steve Miller's Take the Money and Run, I couldn't help but wonder if that's what Perform America had done.

Eventually, though, the buses showed up, and after almost eighteen hours of travel, we were met at the Prague airport by our Czech guides, Andrew and Sylvia. They were already preoccupied with the logistics of moving such an unwieldy group around, for the schedule had gone awry again. We had planned to drive immediately to Brno, where we would stay for the first three nights at the Hotel Continental. However, the conductor, Richard Pittman, who had taken a different flight, was delayed and would not be able to meet us for another three hours. Rather than sit at the airport, Andrew suggested that we go into Prague. Sylvia chimed that the buses could park only five minutes away from the Old Town Square. We agreed, eager to see anything other than the inside of a plane.

We were all stunned by the beauty of Prague, and happy that we would have two more days at the end of the trip to further explore the city. After giving our cameras their first real workout, we walked back to the buses (it took a solid fifteen, not five, minutes, we discovered) reloaded the buses and headed for Brno. It was at this point when we noticed that one of the buses didn't have air conditioning - a must in the ninety five degree heat. Passionate debate ensued as people discussed the merits of window position - open, closed and plaintive cries of "it won't make a difference!"

By the time we arrived in Brno, we were quite a ragged bunch. Andrew, our guide, later said to me, "I wondered how well you guys would play when I saw you get off that bus. You all looked awful." Andrew, who spoke fluent English with a moderate accent, had a charming way of getting to the point and always bordered on sarcasm.

Actually, the orchestra, composed of seventy musicians from Concord and surrounding towns, is a very talented group. Among the members are teachers, homemakers, doctors, engineers, and computer scientists. They have been led by Mr. Pittman, a very accomplished conductor, for twenty-nine years. He has conducted many other orchestras in the United States and Europe as well. He founded and continues to conduct the Boston Musica Viva, a Boston based ensemble that specializes in modern music.

The orchestra itself has drawn praise from critics who openly acknowledge that they did not believe the orchestra had the ability to play as well as they do. A Boston Globe reviewer once remarked that a particular program was "insanely too hard for such an orchestra," but that the piece in question was "astonishingly clear in its detail." Those of us who regularly attend the orchestra's concerts could have told this reviewer what he freshly discovered: the Concord Orchestra is a very good group, amateur or not.

Brno

The Hotel Continental looked very welcoming at this point, even if it was an unsightly concrete block. Without even unloading our luggage, we were immediately herded into the dining room where neatly set tables were waiting for us. The first course was good - it appeared to be potato salad rolled up in a slice of ham. That was followed by a soup, and then a slice of pork that had been flattened and well cooked.

That evening, Andrew gave a brief walking tour that about forty people chose to take. "This is where I live," he said. "I would like to give you a tour. We have two choices. We can go on a short tour, maybe thirty minutes. Or we can go on a three hour walk." Rather unanimously the group opted for the half hour trip, and it was a good thing too, because we soon discovered that Andrew was as good at estimating elapsed time as Sylvia was.

Andrew was quite proud of his town's history and pointed out the quirks and local traditions of the town. He talked about how difficult it was to restore the old buildings in the town center.

"The town council doesn't have enough money to fix them," he said, gesturing at a building that still had bullet holes from World War II. "So they let rich American and foreign companies buy and restore them." Here Andrew waved halfheartedly at a gleaming McDonald's that occupied the first floor of a beautifully renovated office building. "It is too bad, but they are the only ones who can afford to fix them up."

On the last night in Brno, the orchestra gave the premiere of its concert tour in a wonderful little hall called the Besedni dum which seated several hundred people. The audience for the concert was not large, maybe two hundred or two fifty. They did distinguish themselves, however, by being very appreciative of the quality of the music they heard. When the orchestra performs in the US, I have observed on more than one occasion audience members nodding off, but never in Europe.

The program had been carefully selected to appeal to these particular European audiences. The Czechs specifically requested some Dvorak (a Czech composer), so the orchestra played his Eighth Symphony. The orchestra also played Morton Gould's American Symphonette No. 2, The Gypsy Baron Overture by Johann Strauss, and Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, to showcase the piano soloist, Randall Hodgkinson.

Hodgkinson is not a regular member of the orchestra, but occasionally plays concertos with them. He teaches at the New England Conservatory of Music, and the Longy School in Cambridge. In addition, he performs with many Boston ensembles, including the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Pops, and many more out of state and out of the country.

Vienna

The next day we packed up and drove to Vienna. By now the bus with the defunct air conditioning system had been replaced by a newer bus, driven by an intriguing Norwegian character named Josef Pesek. He owns a company that boasts five buses, and his wife is the dispatcher for the firm. It was fascinating to watch his meticulous cleaning ritual, as he used a soft paintbrush to dust off the dashboard and control switches.

Josef did not speak English, and therefore did not communicate with us very often. However, he had learned two English phrases: "Ladies and gentlemen, passports please," always issued in a polite but urgently high voice, and, in the case of the rare miscreant tour member who tried to climb on board with food, "Not on my bus."

In Vienna, we stayed in the most Western and, in my opinion, nicest hotel. I say this not because of service, room size, or location (all of which were fine) but because of the air conditioning that it offered. This was the first and last hotel that we stayed in to offer this amenity; unfortunately, the temperature remained in the 90's most of the trip. The orchestra did not travel to Vienna to perform; rather, everyone played tourist for a day and a half. When we arrived, we learned that the hotel had botched the orders for lunch, so we were on our own to find a meal (and all a little secretly pleased to skip the mandatory pork). My mother found a delightful restaurant a few blocks from our hotel, and from what I heard, had some delectable Viennese cuisine. I, however, feeling very hungry and not caring one bit about cultural exploration, booked it to town and found a quaint McDonald's, where I snorked down two Big Macs, much to the disgust of the other tour members.

The next day, we were given a walking tour of downtown Vienna. We saw the famous Opera house, had a Sacher torte at the original Sacher Hotel, viewed Mozart's apartment and peered into St. Stephen's Cathedral. Impressed as I was by such historical stuff, I found the atmosphere of the whole downtown to be cheapened and deafened by the tourism machine. Hawkers dressed in the garb of Mozart's era pitched concerts and tours, while street performers made the already congested alleys more crowded.

Fortunately, I stumbled across an avenue on the outside of the Ring that had a dozen car dealerships, from German BMW's and Mercedes to Korean Daewoos. For the next two hours, I had a great time sitting in European cars that would most likely never be seen inside the US.

After our tour of the city, we drove out of Vienna to a large cemetery where lots of famous composers were buried: Beethoven, Strauss, Schubert, Brahms, and Schonberg, along with many others. There was also a monument to Mozart, who is not actually buried there, but elsewhere in a mass grave.

Bratislava

Throughout the tour, the hotel check-in procedure became routine. Charlie or one of the guides would give us a card with our room number which we would exchange at the desk for our key. The key was always accompanied by a large, blunt keychain. I suppose that the size was designed to prevent you from walking off with the key, but it seemed better suited to fending off aggressive street vendors.

The door would invariably contain a lock and doorknob mechanism that required patience and wrist action that would daunt a fly fisherman. Inside, a modest bathroom and closet would be to the left, opening into a small room with two beds, usually right next to each other. The bathrooms always had unusual plumbing configurations that required a few minutes to puzzle out; in Kromeritz, the same faucet was used for the shower, bathtub and sink.

The windows in the rooms all opened differently; in Banska Bistrika our window didn't open at all. The beds were made not with sheets and covers, but with a single, undersized down comforter. In the oppressive heat, this was not what we wanted, but we quickly adapted.

I give this description of what the standard hotel looked like because in Bratislava, Slovakia, the Hotel Kyjev made the standard set-up look like the presidential suite at the Four Seasons.

The Kyjev was a monument to the limitless architectural possibilities afforded by large, square concrete structures. The Slovak Republic may have been liberated from Communist rule in 1989, but to look at this particular hotel, it could have been last Tuesday. Only two of the front doors were operational, and the lobby was an inelegant mixture of dark wood, bare concrete and white stone floors.

We arrived in Bratislava, which is capital of the Slovak Republic, fairly late, around nine at night, and after checking into the grim Hotel Kyjev were ushered up to an incongruously pleasant dining hall. Again, the meal was pork battered into submission, (actually, it may have been turkey--it was hard to tell) but this time there was a twist: inside the thin meat was a layer of thoroughly pressed ham. The service, however, was prompt and paying was no problem.

"We take Czech, Hungarian, Slovakian, German, Austrian and American dollars," the head waiter announced. As a matter of fact, they were much more pleased to see American money than their own, weaker currency. While we found it humorous at the time, it was really sad to see how cash-starved the nation really was.

The rooms were, in a word, depressing. When I first opened the door to our room on the twelfth floor, I was pretty sure I had interrupted a vandal. The whole of the room was done in naked concrete, with a large chunk carved out for the bathroom. There was a small table and a two chairs, but the beds were molded concrete and built into the floor, prison style. It was equipped with a radio and TV, but both were lying on the floor and there was no place to view the TV from. On the table was a small, fluorescent green note apologizing for the beetles in the room. I shuddered and tried to get to sleep, but the heat and the comings and goings at a busy pub across the street made this impossible.

Esterhazy Palace

From Bratislava we drove to the Esterhazy Palace, which is in Eisenstadt, Austria. Haydn actually composed and performed for the Esterhazy family in that palace, and the orchestra gave a beautiful concert in the very same hall. People taking a tour of the Palace wandered in and most stayed to hear the program. I opted to listen to the music from the central courtyard; the live music flowing from the huge windows gave the whole baroque castle something of a magical feel. The acoustics of this hall were probably the second best of all they played at. Mr. Pittman urged me to experience the differences in sound that all of the halls offered.

Budapest

In Budapest, the next city on our itinerary, the orchestra gave the best-received concert of the tour. To my amazement, the nine hundred plus auditorium was filled almost beyond capacity. I spied an American in the crowd and asked him how much his ticket had cost.

"It was five dollars," he said. "I saw it advertised in the paper this morning." I was impressed--not that the orchestra isn't an excellent performing ensemble, but that nine hundred Hungarians, people with a real appreciation for music, would take a chance on a group they had never heard of.

The concert hall, named Pesti-Vigado, was the nicest of all the halls we visited. Large and colorfully elegant with an evident Turkish influence, it had the best stage and acoustics. Grant Anderson, the first clarinetist, sounded perfect in the opening bars of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. Later, when I asked him how he always managed to hit the famously tricky intro, he chuckled.

"I've been doing it for a very long time," he said. "Actually, after you get started it's not so hard to stop at that top note."

Piano soloist Randall Hodgkinson was incredible to watch as well. I sat with the rest of the Concord groupies on the side, with a clear view of his hands. He played with a depth of emotion that did not escape the attention of the audience; when he finished, they began to clap in unison, apparently a Hungarian tradition. His performances were so consistently excellent that it would take someone far more qualified than me to judge his style. The best I could do was sit back and watch while he blew away the audience.

On the last night in Budapest, we took a dinner cruise down the Danube River and viewed the spectacular riverfront architecture. The Varhegy castle was stunning at night, illuminated and commanding on a large hill over the river. The Hungarian Parliament building easily outdoes the U.S. Capitol building; it is a large and menacing neo-Gothic structure. Each of the buildings along the river was different and powerfully designed; for this I liked the architecture in Budapest better than anywhere else. It offered the culture and the beauty without the tacky air of tourism.

On the boat, we were once again offered smashed pork and potatoes. We were beginning to tire of this menu, but nobody wanted to complain. Actually, that's not true; almost everybody wanted to complain, but nobody did.

The breakfast buffets were getting a little tired as well. From Brno through Prague, we were given the same breakfast choices: fruit, yogurt and cold cuts. The meats and cheese looked delicious, but nobody had the stomach for them early in the morning.

While in Hungary, we also visited the small village of Szentendre on the Danube north of Budapest. I wandered out of the commercial zone into the residential area. I happened on two teenagers hanging out at a brand new basketball court. It was not of regulation size; as a matter of fact, it wasn't even rectangular. The hoops had thick, tubular steel rims with short metal nets, and underneath the nets were soccer goals, so the court could double as a small soccer field.

I walk over and asked the kids if they wanted to play basketball. They were a little younger than me, maybe fifteen or sixteen, and dressed in American basketball attire. I played with them for about an hour, the whole time not saying much. At the end, we communicated as much as possible, just our names and hometowns. On a scrap of paper, I wrote a small paragraph in English about myself and the orchestra I was traveling with, with the hopes that someone could later read it to them.

Talking with these Hungarian kids was one of the best things I did on the trip, and other members related similar tales of connecting with foreigners. In my mind, it beat the post card castles and crowded cathedrals. After a relatively long three day stay in Budapest, we were all a little sad to go.

Kromeritz Palace

After a brief visit to Banska Bistrika in Slovakia, we re-entered the Czech Republic and headed for Kromeritz. In this small town, there was no hotel large enough to accommodate the entire group, so we were split up between two hotels. We arrived in early afternoon and were told to get lunch on our own, which everyone eagerly did, knowing pork would not find its way to our plates.

A large group of us found our way through the small village center to a neat little outdoor cafe that served pizza. That night, the orchestra gave its fourth performance in the Kromeritz Palace. The buildings were surrounded by vast gardens that were obsessively well tended. A large aviary dominated the center, and hundreds of birds could be seen, representing many species.

Amadeus, a movie about Mozart, was filmed in part at the hall where the orchestra played. It was white and gold, in the baroque style, with fancy chandeliers hanging from high ceilings. While the orchestra was warming up, the hall had a never-ending reverberation, but when the capacity crowd was seated, the sound was fine. All the performance halls on the tour were beautiful--in fact, Mr. Pittman said the musicians must have been inspired by them, because he had never heard the orchestra play so well.

Although not every non-performing tour member attended every concert, most did. The program, and especially the Gershwin, did not grow old quickly. I found that the Morton Gould piece, American Symphonette, grew on me as the trip progressed. It was jazzy and upbeat throughout, but never too light.

The only problem that the orchestra had with its program a lack of encores. They had prepared two, Leroy Anderson's Belle of the Ball and Johann Strauss's An der Moldau, American and German waltzes. In Budapest, after Pittman had used up both of these, he resorted to playing the catchy second movement of the Gould once more, and once again, it was well received.

The next day, as we packed for Prague, we all realized that the trip was coming to a close. The group had gone through a lot together, but had remained friendly and become even more comfortable with each other. Everyone had settled into a pleasant routine: wake up, amble down to the predictable breakfast buffet and make the usual comments about the latest performance and what was on the agenda for the day. I, too, had a routine; I sought out anyone who might know if McGwire had homered in the past day, which was difficult in many of the cities.

In Bratislava, I went to the desk to find a copy of the USA Today. (Oddly enough, The Concord Journal was nowhere to be found at the many newsstands on the city streets.) They did, in fact, have a copy of USA Today. Just as I was about to purchase it, I glanced at the date. July 14, five days before we'd left. It was, as fellow tourist Paul DerAnanian put it, a "USA Yesterday."

This isolation from American news was a little unnerving at times, but it helped us remember where we were. Although CNN was available at some hotels, for the most part, news and papers were spotty. It was also a little startling to realize that even though Europeans love American goods, their world does not revolve around what happens in the US.

Prague

We spent the last two days of the tour in Prague. The performance was held in the Church of Simon and Juda, where the musicians crammed around the available space in the altar. Once again, the hall was overflowing with an enthusiastic audience. The orchestra gave what might have been its most musical performance, but because of the poor acoustics in the old church, it sounded as if they were playing underwater.

Exploring Prague was great -- every turn revealed a different, winding street with some unique building or monument. Cafes guarded nearly every corner, and native Czechs kept the streets busy. On our last full day, we were given a tour by a licensed guide named Frank.

"I have passed many tests to do this," he said more than once. Unfortunately, crowd control must not have been covered in his curriculum because the group was frequently splintered and he was so soft-spoken we didn't catch much of what he said. The splendid Prague Castle and St. Vitas Cathedral were interesting, but so crowded with tourists that it felt very mass marketed.

The next morning, we checked out of the Hotel Krystal and flew to Newark, then had one last bus ride back to Mediplex. As we left, exhausted and ready to go home, I almost forgot to say good-bye to the people with whom I had spent the last two weeks, because I was sure they would be there the next morning to complain about the salamis for breakfast and catch up on the Maris chase.