Our recent tour in May/June 2017 was the longest we have ever led – three weeks and one day, and included no less then 19 performances. Most tours are from 14 to 16 days as even small groups get tired by all the concentrated excitement. But this time there were so many wonderful performances on offer in five cities, we decided to go for broke; everyone seemed to have a wonderful time and never faltered. Our last day, a gorgeous sunny day in Amsterdam, saw us on an elegant old boat cruising the canals and enjoying a sumptuous farewell lunch. And to cap it all a few hours later, there we were at the world famous Concertgebouw listening to Mahler’s 9th Symphony, cheering at the end. What a massive contrast! Here is the link to the tour brochure. May June 2017 Brochure 3
Malin Bystrom as Salome (Photo: Dutch National Opera above)
At the Dutch National Opera last night we saw a Salome of Richard Strauss that was nothing short of sensational. This was the sort of operatic performance, opera buffs dream of! The Salome was Malin Bystrom, a Swedish soprano with the sort of high effortless sound that cuts through the huge orchestra and never falters. In a truly terrifying performance, looking like a spoilt young demi-mondaine in a slinky white dress, and having been delivered with the blood soaked body of John the Baptist, she staggers through the pool of blood and lies on top of him singing her final phrases with thrilling and abandoned assurance. At the final curtain, the shocked silence finally broke into endless cheers and roars. It was the premiere of a brilliantly simple but dramatic new production by Ivo van Hove, featuring the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in a rare appearance in the pit conducted by their new music director Daniele Gatti.
Ivo Janssen playing Bach in his boat (above)
On a perfect sunny evening on our second day in Amsterdam, we all walked down the street next to a broad canal heading for Ivo Janssen’s houseboat. To my great surprise, we were suddenly joined by Servaas van Beekum, my good Dutch friend from Sydney, visiting his family in his home town of Amsterdam. He was with his and his daughter Silke and we all crowded on to a large house-boat crowned with a fully fledged garden across its entire roof. Ivo, one of Holland’s leading pianists, had become sick of dealing with agents and travelling the world playing concerts, so decided to convert an old concrete barge to both a home and an intimate concert hall. Over several years, he rebuilt it himself with help from friends and it is now a beautiful double level recital hall seating 140 people, and includes his own apartment at one end of the boat.
We were treated to a mesmerising performance of one of the greatest works of the keyboard repertoire, JS Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Having met Ivo some years before through out mutual friend Don Ross, I rang him from Sydney to ask if he would play for our group and he agreed provided we didn’t mind if he sold the remaining tickets to the public. Asking me what I’d like him to play, I had no hesitation in asking for the Goldbergs. It was an evening none of will forget and afterwards I bought his recording of all Bach’s keyboard works – on a set of 20 CDs!
We have just arrived in Amsterdam from Regensburg, after four days of their fabulous annual festival Tages Alte Musik. Regensburg is an ancient mediaeval town in Bavaria that is one of the very few in Germany to escape the destruction of World War II and its streets of old baroque houses, leaning buildings, and magnificent churches give you an uncanny sense of being in another ancient world.
Over four days, 16 concerts are given in these extraordinary old churches and mediaeval halls, mostly large, and even cavernous, and some with the most extravagant rococo decoration. Hearing wonderful, mostly unfamiliar music from the 15th to 18th centuries, mostly featuring period instrument and vocal ensembles from all over Europe, was really inspiring and gave us many touches of the sublime in music. Particularly memorable for me were Musica Fiata & La Capella Ducale in a re-creation of a Mass for the Reformation festival in Dresden in 1617 at the Dreieinigkeitskirche, Ensemble Alia Mens singing Bach cantatas at the amazing Church of out Lady, and the English vocal ensemble the Gesualdi Six singing Tudor music of England late at night in the huge Scottish Church. As a contrast to all the early music in these solemn and beautiful churches, we had a whole day in the magnificent countryside including a spectacular boat trip down the Danube gorge.
Vienna State Opera (Photo Johan Verfring, Wikimedia Commons, above)
Two successive nights at the incomparable Vienna State Opera! Arguably Europe’s greatest opera company in their splendid Empire style opera house, where nearly half the audience stand in semi-luxury, leaning on red velvet covered balustrades, and following the words (in one of several languages of your choice) on little screens under the balustrade. What a perfect way to discover and love opera where you can buy one of nearly 1000 standing places on the day – for three euros each!
But strangely the performances were disappointing. Never less than well sung and beautifully played – after all it’s the Vienna Philharmonic in the pit – the productions of Fidelio and Der Rosenkavalier, both great operas, were old and very conventional. Especially disappointing was the fact that the singer for the key role of the Marschallin in Rosenkavalier had been taken ill, and was replaced by a famous (old) exponent of Brunnhilde in Wagner’s Ring, Linda Watson looking and sounding every inch the stout Wagnerian grandmother in a part requiring the slender elegance and sophistication of a 30 year old princess. In my view it’s a disgrace that a great opera house can present such an embarrassingly inappropriate singer in a leading role.
We are staying in Vienna at the Intercontinental Hotel, a grand old affair with vast and comfortable public rooms and charming staff who make even a cup of coffee seem a special privilege. It is next door to the superb Konzerthaus with its three gorgeous 19th century concert halls, The Schubert Saal for intimate recitals, the Mozart Saal for larger ensembles and the Grosse Saal for orchestra concerts, all with splendid acoustics.
But last night’s concert was a few hundred metres further way at the even more splendid 19th century concert hall, the Musikverein, one of the most revered concert halls in the world. It was Mahler’s mighty 2nd symphony (The Resurrection) and our seats were in the 2nd row. Too close we thought, but no, the sound was fantastic and the proximity to the players gave a visceral quality to the experience. When we applauded at the end, I turned to Sally and remarked on the young violinist’s amazing gold tipped high heels in the chair about two metres in front of me. Despite the noise of the enthusiastic applause, she must have heard me as she turned and smiled as if to say ‘thanks, I like them too.’
Yesterday we visited Heiligenstadt, now an upmarket suburb of Vienna, where Beethoven at the age of 28 wrote his famous Testament to his brothers agonising over his oncoming deafness. A remarkable quiet place and in the courtyard, I read the group the full letter from Beethoven (in English of course) but nevertheless a moving experience.
‘Haymaking’ by Brueghel the elder at Lobkowicz (above)
In Prague we stay in the Century Hotel in the centre of town. It’s a refurbishment of a big old insurance office and one of the rooms where Don and Fe Ross stayed on our previous tour here, is the actual office where Franz Kafka, the famous writer worked as an insurance clerk. it has Kafka memorabilia on the walls and Don said it was really spooky staying there!
The Century has a very friendly bar and barman who makes anyone superb cocktails and after performances we hang out there far too late. By contrast in the morning, I give my talks in the bar on the next evening’s performance. At 9 am, it’s deserted and ideal for everyone to bring their cup of coffee and to listen in desultory fashion to my words of wisdom and selections of the music to be played on my Bluetooth speaker set.
Today is our last day in Prague on our visit for the annual Prague Spring Festival, one of the oldest and finest music festivals in Europe. and this morning we had a fantastic tour of the Lobkowicz Palace and art collection in Prague Castle. Prague Castle on the hill over the Vltava river is an extraordinary treasure of art and artifacts and magnificent buildings, more like a royal enclave or small town than a castle. In its middle is St Vitus Cathedral. The great Lobkowicz collection is one of the great private collections in the world, exploited and dispersed for personal gain by the Nazis, but recently fully restored and generously given to the state of the Czech Republic by the Lobkowicz family. We had a private tour of the collection and it was followed by a wonderful performance in a great room of the Palace by the Lobkowicz Trio of Brahms Piano Trio op 87 and Shostakovich Piano Trio No 2.
Teatro La Fenice (Photo Andreas Praefcke, Wikimedia Commons, above)
Yesterday everybody gathered for the tour in incomparable Venice! What a city it is and what a lovely group we have. So far there are 15 of us and our two English friends Vicky and Andrew Neill join us in Vienna. We are staying in the suitably named Hotel Fenice et des Artistes, literally around the corner from the famous old Fenice Opera House where we see the Barber of Seville tomorrow night and then a concert from Italy’s top orchestra of the RAI, based in Turin. The hotel is not super smart, but is perfect for a group like ours next to the theatre and where all the artists singing or performing at the Fenice stay. The staff are steeped in operatic lore and the walls are covered in theatrical art and signed posters.
Tonight we had the Welcome Dinner in a waterside restaurant near San Marco and were served various Venetian delicacies for the perfect start for the tour.