2006 Central European Tour
The following letter was written by Professors William Johnson and Thoams Davies after their return from the tour.
120 Cal Poly student musicians, six members of the Music Department faculty and staff, four professional singers and ten friends of Cal Poly departed California on July 4 for an eighteen-day concert tour of Hungary, Austria, Germany and the Czech Republic.
We arrived safely in Budapest and settled into our two hotels. The next day our touring company, Kingsway International, took us on a sightseeing tour of Budapest where we visited the impressive Matthias Church (Mátyás Templom) overlooking the city. We also visited the Franz Liszt Museum where Music Department Chair Terry Spiller was invited to play one of the Liszt pianos, an opportunity of a lifetime for a concert pianist. Afterward we all had lunch together in a famous Budapest restaurant.
That evening PolyPhonics and the Cal Poly Wind Quintet (comprised of Wind Ensemble members) performed a concert to a large crowd in the Matthias Church. The impressive sound of our students performing in this extraordinarily beautiful and impressive thirteenth-century cathedral was a powerful indication of what was to come.
The cornerstone of our repertoire for this tour was the "Requiem" (a musical setting of the mass for the dead) written ten years ago by the Budapest composer Frigyes Hidas to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian uprising against the Soviet Union. The Hidas "Requiem" had its premiere on November 3, 1996, by the Budapest Symphonic Band and Chorus, with László Marosi conducting. On October 23, 1956, tens of thousands of people took to the streets in Hungary to demand an end to Soviet rule. By November 4, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev sent in the tanks in a ruthless crackdown in which thousands died and another 200,000 fled the country.
Cal Poly's performance of the "Requiem" was only the second time this major work for large choir, wind ensemble, and solo soprano, alto, tenor and bass had been performed in Budapest. Our performance was organized by the Aladár Rácz School of Music in Budapest. We were surprised to learn that the school had chosen a concert hall inside a compound that was used by the Soviet Union to house its troops during the occupation of Hungary. A delegation from the U.S. Embassy was in attendance.
Our concert began with the Aladár Rácz School of Music Wind Orchestra performing one selection. Our Wind Ensemble and the Aladár Rácz Wind Orchestra then performed a short work written by American composer Stephen Melillo as a gift to the seventy-eight-year-old composer of the "Requiem," Mr. Hidas, who was in attendance. A copy of the Melillo score was presented to him. PolyPhonics sang several selections and the first half ended with Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," with Terry Spiller, piano soloist, and the Wind Ensemble. The audience went wild.
After the intermission and just before the performance of the "Requiem," an elderly man stood before the audience to explain the significance of the "Requiem" performance. His words were very moving. After that it was very difficult to maintain our composure as we performed the hour-long work. After the concert we attended a wonderful outdoor evening of good food and social interaction with our audience. Mr. Hidas signed programs and music scores for over an hour. This evening set the tone for the entire tour.
The next day, July 8, we departed Budapest and made our way to Vienna. We arrived by noon where our buses let us out in the middle of the old city near the State Opera House to have lunch and explore. We then went on a bus tour of the city, visiting the famous Belvedere Palace and learning about the Habsburg Empire and the history of Austria and Hungary. Later we checked into our hotel and 120 students took to the public transportation system of Vienna like ducks to water.
In the morning we drove to a small village outside of Vienna on the Danube River called Dürnstein. From December, 1192, to March, 1193, the English King Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned at the Dürnstein fortress on top of one of the jagged hills next to the village. PolyPhonics performed in the community church at a Sunday mass with one of the Music Department's staff accompanists, Paul Woodring, performing flawlessly on a thirteenth-century organ that he had never seen before. PolyPhonics sang in the upper balcony in the back of the church. It was a beautiful sound that lingered in the naves of the old church and was deeply appreciated by the people in attendance. After a group lunch, the Wind Ensemble performed a traditional outdoor concert near the church. Several of our faculty and students hiked to the top of the steep hill to visit the fortress. We returned to our Vienna hotel and back to the public transportation system.
On Monday morning we boarded our buses and headed into the city where PolyPhonics performed a short concert in St. Stephan, Vienna's largest cathedral. This performance will be in the memory of everyone on this tour for many years. The afternoon was spent sightseeing and we returned to our hotel to get ready for the big performance in another famous Vienna cathedral, Karlskirche (Church of St. Charles). The Black Plague swept Vienna in 1713, and Emperor Charles VI vowed to build this church if the disease abated. Construction on Karlskirche, dedicated to St. Charles Borromeo, began in 1716. The green copper dome is 236 feet high, a dramatic landmark on the Viennese skyline. Two very tall columns flank the front of the church.
It was interesting to see the awe in the faces of the students as they prepared to play in such an impressive venue. The first half of the concert consisted of works performed by both the Wind Ensemble and PolyPhonics and, after a brief intermission, the Hidas "Requiem" was performed. There was a very large crowd in attendance and the students performed magnificently. Also attending was the well-known conductor Dennis Davies, the brother of Cal Poly's Thomas Davies. Maestro Davies lives in Austria and conducts all over the world. He will conduct the San Francisco Opera next year.
On Tuesday we journeyed to a small ski town nestled in the Alps of western Austria, Schladming. Our governor grew up near Schladming and visits often. The locals are very proud that he is a famous movie star as well as the governor of California. Schladming is also the home of the Mid-Europe Conference for wind band conductors, composers, publishers and instrument-makers. The World Association for Symphonic Bands and Ensembles (WASBE) met there in 1997, and since then, the community has organized an annual conference that is now a major event in the world of wind bands.
Our group resided in four rather luxurious ski lodges overlooking the huge mountains. It was a big contrast to some of the stark large city hotels where we had been. Months before, PolyPhonics and the Wind Ensemble were invited to present a workshop at the Mid-Europe Conference and to perform the Hidas "Requiem" at the local Catholic Church, one of the concert venues for the conference.
William Johnson, the Wind Ensemble and members of PolyPhonics presented a workshop titled "The Changing Colors of the Modern Wind Band." In the workshop we demonstrated how modern composers have introduced new instrumentation including the piano, organ, string bass, harp, synthesizer, recorder, alto flute, bass flute, solo voices, solo violin, solo cello, large choral ensemble, unusual percussion instruments, plus more to create a more interesting and creative symphonic sound. The workshop was a big success.
That evening PolyPhonics and the Wind Ensemble performed the "Requiem" to a full house. This was the third performance of the "Requiem" in its entirety and the students and professional soloists seemed relaxed and confident as they filled the sanctuary with heart-warming sounds for an audience of mostly musicians from throughout Europe and North America. The performance was stunning and ended with soft chords as the sound of the church's bells began ringing on the hour. The concert was professionally recorded by Amos Records of Germany and will be included in the soon-to-be released Mid-Europe recordings.
After the concert, former Schladming Mayor Hermann Kröll, who is now in Parliament and is the head of Austria's Special Olympics, expressed his enjoyment of the concert. Mr. Kröll was mayor for over thirty years. He later came to our hotel with gifts and informed us that he would be writing a letter to Gov. Schwarzenegger about our spectacular performance.
We left Schladming and traveled to the birthplace of Mozart: Salzburg, Austria. The city was full of tourists as this year marks Mozart's 250th birthday. We immediately became a part of the rather congested scene and enjoyed being tourists. Many arranged for special tickets to enter the many museums, including the two Mozart homes as well as endless other types of museums. Some made arrangements to go on the "Sound of Music" tour and others went to the salt mines. The botanical garden was very special.
The next day PolyPhonics performed a concert in the Salzburg Cathedral, (Salzburger Dom). This extraordinary cathedral was built in the 700s and was later destroyed by fire. It was rebuilt in 1200 and rebuilt again in 1614. It was hit hard in WWII and rebuilt in 1959. The cathedral is only a five-minute walk from Mozart's first home. If he were alive today, he would have enjoyed PolyPhonics' concert, one of the most beautiful musical moments of our tour. That evening the faculty had a special dinner to celebrate the tour so far.
On Saturday morning, July 15, we departed to Munich. Our first stop was the Marienplatz to observe the famous mechanical clock. We then drove to Olympic Park, site of the 1972 Olympics where the Israeli athletes were killed by terrorists. After visiting a Royal Palace, most of the students went on a visit to Dachau. Established in March, 1933, the Dachau concentration camp was the first regular concentration camp established by the Nazis. Heinrich Himmler, in his capacity as police president of Munich, officially described the camp as "the first concentration camp for political prisoners." In WWII, it was used for medical experiments and forced labor. By 1945, it exceeded 188,000 prisoners. On April 29, 1945, American forces liberated Dachau. One student, looking at the sign "Never Again," said "If you think this cannot happen again, you are wrong." Visiting this camp was a powerful lesson in history and put somewhat of a pall over the momentum of the tour. Spirits were revived that evening when many of our students had dinner at the famous Munich Hofbräuhaus.
On Sunday morning we traveled to one of Bavaria's most visited villages, Oberammergau, home of the Passion Play that takes place every ten years. As we checked into our hotels in the afternoon, we were keenly aware that the entire village was waiting in anticipation for our performances that evening. The minister at the local Presbyterian Church had made special arrangements for PolyPhonics to join their choir in an early evening church service focusing on gospel music, and a concert to be performed after the service by our Wind Ensemble, a local brass ensemble and a folk singer. A large crowd assembled for both events, which took place in a large tent next to the Passion Play Theater. At the end of the concert the local brass ensemble accompanied the audience in the Bavarian national anthem and PolyPhonics and the Wind Ensemble performed the "Star Spangled Banner." After the concert, the audience and the students blended together for an evening of fun and laughter, an international experience they will never forget.
As we departed Oberammergau, we realized we were beginning the last stage of our journey. Our long bus ride to the Czech Republic included a visit to the spectacular Neuschwanstein Castle. This castle, built by King Ludwig II in the 1880s, ranks with the Statue of Liberty, the Kremlin, the Acropolis, the Colosseum and the Great Wall of China as among the finalists for the New Seven Wonders of the World. As we continued on our path we arrived at the small Church of Wies (built 1745-54) located in a beautiful setting of one of the Alpine valleys through which we were driving. We marveled at the work of architect Dominikus Zimmermann as we experienced his masterpiece of Bavarian Rococo–exuberant, colorful and joyful: a photographer’s paradise.
We finally arrived in the Czech Republic where, once again we had to learn a new currency system. As we arrived at our hotel in Karlovy Vary (Karlsbad), a famous Bohemian spa city, we were stunned by the sheer beauty of this community. We spent two nights at the 300-year-old Hotel Park Pupp which had tremendous accommodations. Karlovy Vary was, and still is, a retreat for Europeans. J.S. Bach often visited the small community.
The next day, we all enjoyed exploring Karlovy Vary and mentally prepared for our performance that evening at the Postal Court Hall Garden. This venue was built in 1791 by Karlovy Vary Postmaster Josef Korb to be used as a station for exchanging tired postal horses for fresh ones. Later, it became an important cultural center. On July 20, 1894, it was the site of the European premiere of Antonín Dvorák's "New World Symphony." Dvorák (1841-1904) was born near Prague. We had a very upbeat performance to a small but enthusiastic crowd.
We departed Karlovy Vary and drove to Prague, where we spent the remainder of the morning visiting the castle area and the enormous St. Vitus Cathedral overlooking the city. We then drove to the Old Town Square, one of the most beautiful historical sights in Europe. Dating back to the late twelfth century, the Old Town Square started life as the central marketplace for Prague. The most notable sights in Prague's Old Town Square are the Church of Our Lady before Tyn, the Old Town Hall Tower, the Astronomical Clock, and the stunning St. Nicholas Church. Our day ended with a farewell dinner cruise up and down the Moldau River and its locks.
On Thursday, our last full day, and the day we were to perform in Smetana Hall, one of Prague's most important concert venues. This 1,200-seat hall is located in one of Prague's most prominent art nouveau buildings, the Municipal House just next to the formal gate to the old city. We were all led into the hall to become accustomed to its size and beauty. As we gathered together, we were informed that the city was full of people hustling tickets to another concert in a smaller hall in the Municipal House and who were telling tourists not to attend ours because "it would be performed by children." Upon hearing this, we made our performance a free event and each student was given four tickets. After we discussed how to offer the free tickets to the many tourists in the nearby Old Town Square, the students were dismissed for over two hours. We returned to the hall for an afternoon rehearsal.
After dinner, we returned to the hall to prepare for our final performance. To our surprise a crowd of 600-700 people had arrived and more were coming in. Our plan had worked and we were ready to give our last performance.
As the Wind Ensemble and PolyPhonics performed separate works, it was obvious our musicians had reached a higher, more professional level, and each selection had a new and more expressive appeal. The crowd cheered as Terry Spiller and the Wind Ensemble performed Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" and the emotional impact of the Hidas "Requiem" will long live in the memory of both the musicians and their enthusiastic audience as we received a huge standing ovation at the end.
We were happy to learn that representatives of the U.S. Embassy were in attendance. One family from Denmark said they had never been invited to a concert by performers and were thrilled that they had come. With all of the picture taking and packing of percussion instruments, it took a long time to get out of the hall and return to our hotel.
We returned to California in two flights and were bussed to San Luis Obispo from LAX. We arrived in the middle of the night tired, but happy realizing that we had just experienced something that will have a positive influence on how we live the remainder of our lives, and a sense of accomplishment that will long be remembered.
As the conductors of the Cal Poly Choirs and Bands, we want to express our appreciation to you, Dean Linda Halisky, and to many other members of the Cal Poly administration, the Music Department Faculty and Staff, to our many wonderful students, and our devoted friends and alumni for helping us to make this extraordinary project a reality. We have encountered nothing but full and genuine support for this important endeavor.
We especially want to thank Dr. W. Terrence Spiller, Dr. Alyson McLamore, Dr.Meredith Brammeier, members of the Music Faculty, for traveling with us and helping us take care of the many challenges and details that occur during a tour of this magnitude. We also want to thank Katherine Arthur for serving as one of our professional vocal soloists, and pianist and organist Paul Woodring for his outstanding contribution.
It is our hope that this short report will give you a feel for what we experienced.
William V. Johnson