In June and July of 2015, the H+H Vocal Arts Program (VAP) Young Men’s and Young Women’s Choruses embarked on a multi-concert tour of Austria and the Czech Republic. During their travels, YWC singers Elizabeth George and Linden Yee chronicled their travels through Central Europe for H+H in the following tour diary.
Elizabeth George: Before this summer, I was already grateful for the Handel and Haydn Society. As a member of H+H’s VAP program for eight years, I had been exposed to music, people, and performance opportunities I would have never had otherwise. This summer, however, H+H offered me another exciting experience: the opportunity to tour Vienna, Austria and Prague, Czech Republic. As someone who had never before traveled outside of the country, I knew that I had to take advantage of this trip. Looking back at it now a month later, I can easily say it was one of the best weeks of my life, and an experience that has changed me not only as a singer, but as a person.
Linden Yee: This is my first year as a VAP Chorus member, and so the entire H+H experience, from the rehearsals to the tour itself, was new to me. Having only started singing two years prior to joining VAP, I was very grateful and excited for the opportunity to grow vocally by performing in concerts with VAP, and still more on this amazing tour to Europe.
Elizabeth: Despite having just traveled about four thousand miles from home, I immediately felt a sense of belonging when our group arrived in Vienna. Even during the bus ride on our way to the hotel, I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the city. Amongst a landscape of beautiful Baroque and Art Nouveau buildings, I noticed a plethora of street art and graffiti. Interestingly enough, there seemed to be a sort of respect for the older buildings, which remained more or less untouched by the graffiti, and the combination of old and new blended in a way that just made sense. After dropping our luggage off at our hotel, the Austria Trend Hotel Ananas, we took a bus tour through the city, stopping at St. Stephen’s Cathedral for our first rehearsal. We were all exhausted from the trip, so the two and a half hour rehearsal felt a bit strenuous, but the experience of practicing in such a beautiful building made it worthwhile. After walking around a bit, we returned to our hotel for a hearty Austrian meal. In an attempt to avoid jet lag, we all went to bed quite early. I was impressed by how comfortable the mattresses in our hotel were and slept like a baby.
Elizabeth: Waking up was surprisingly easy, perhaps due to my excitement for the day’s events. We boarded the bus for our tour, led by our wonderful guide, Klara. We drove by historical sites including Hofburg Palace, the Capuchin Church, St. Charles Church, and the Vienna State Opera House, and many others, learning information about the city and its legacy along the way. Finally, we arrived at Schönbrunn Palace, former home of Maria Theresa and the rest of the Habsburg family. The building is absolutely gorgeous, and gigantic. Each room is uniquely ornate; it was clear just how wealthy and powerful the royal family once was, and understandable why the palace is one of the most visited sites in the country.
After taking a tour through the building and walking through its perfectly curated garden, our chorus prepared to sing in the palace’s chapel. Our program was divided into three sections: Our Musical Heritage, Americana and American Composers, and the Spiritual, Songs of the Underground Railroad, with repertoire ranging from pieces by Handel to American Traditional songs to Gospel. Within those sections, there were pieces that were exclusively sung by the Young Women’s Choir, songs sung only by the Young Men’s Choir, and others sung by the whole group. I think this variety was a great way to showcase our talents. One song I was particularly nervous to sing was Robert Schumann’s Wenn Ich Ein Vöglein Wär, Op. 43 No.1, considering we were performing in a German speaking country. Overall, though, the performance went better than expected, and we were met with warm applause. There seems to be much more of a culture of casually going to see music performances in Vienna than in Boston, and we were so well received that some of the audience members wanted to photograph us!
After the performance, we were given free time to explore the city, so my friends and I left in search for the famous Viennese coffee house experience. Austria is historically Catholic, and as it was Sunday, there weren’t many shops or restaurants open. It was sort of surreal to see the city so quiet and seemingly empty, when it had been so lively just the day before. Luckily, we were successful in finding an open cafe, and I was not disappointed. My cappuccino was everything I had hoped for and more! Later in the evening, our entire group dined at a local restaurant and I was blessed with the opportunity to have authentic wiener schnitzel, which was absolutely delicious. Equally delicious was the restaurant’s coffee, which I had about three cups of. The coffee was so delicious that I drank it without really considering the caffeine it contained, and I was unable to fall asleep until around 4am the next morning.
Elizabeth: This day was probably my favorite day in Vienna. Despite my sleep deprivation, I eagerly boarded the bus for yet another informative tour. We toured the opulent Vienna State Opera House, which somehow manages to perform a different production each day of the week. I am now determined to someday perform there! We also visited the interactive Haus der Musik museum, and then were given time to explore the amazing art museums that the city holds. Gustav Klimt being one of my favorite artists, I was committed to visit both the Leopold Museum (which also houses the world’s largest collection of Egon Schiele works), along with the Belvedere Museum, which of course is home to some of the most iconic Klimt paintings, including The Kiss. The three hours we had to visit the museums and eat wasn’t nearly long enough to appreciate the entirety of the art that Vienna offers, but it was a truly magical experience nonetheless. Also magical was visiting the Hundertwasser Village, a neighborhood transformed from a tire factory by Austrian architects Friedensreich Hundertwasser and Joseph Krawina. It was fascinating to see contemporary Austrian architecture. To complete our final full day in Vienna, a group of us went to a production of Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte, while the rest went to the famous amusement park, the Prater. Although the entirety of the production was sung in German and there were no English subtitles for us to follow, the music was beautiful and having the the opportunity to see an opera in Vienna was remarkable.
Elizabeth: Our last day in Vienna! I was sad to leave my newfound favorite city, but excited to visit Prague. Luckily, the transition was made less painful by our stop in Melk Abbey, a Benedictine monastery whose foundings date back to the 12th century, and that is remarkably still active today. Full of relics, art, and ancient texts, it was a stunning site to tour. At the end of our visit, we held an impromptu a capella performance of our sacred pieces in its breathtaking church. Although we performed without any warm up or practice, the acoustics were incredible, and it was an honor to perform in such a gorgeous space. We then waved farewell to Austria and headed for Prague!
Linden: After a long trip from Austria into the Czech Republic, we finally caught our first glimpses of Prague through the oversized windows of our tour bus. We disembarked for a brief tour of Prague’s Old Town, and admired the wide variety of ornate architectural styles, ranging from Gothic to contemporary. After this, we headed to our hotel to rehearse for the next day’s concert in St. Havel Church. Our hotel (Dorint Hotel Don Giovanni) had a rotunda-style library with a glass roof, and it was here where we had a very sleepy rehearsal, brushing up on our material for our final concert in Europe.
Linden: After a breakfast consisting mainly of cake and hot chocolate, we began our second day in Prague by visiting the Church of St. Havel (which was established by Wenceslas I in 1232), where we were to perform in the afternoon. It is a small and beautifully decorated space, in the Baroque and Gothic styles, complete with numerous works of art, including the Calvary by Ferdinand Brokoff. Just a few paces from St. Havel’s was Old Town Square, home to the Gothic Church of Our Lady of Tyn, the oldest working astronomical clock (installed in 1410), an imposing bronze monument to Jan Hus, and Segways and food carts galore. In the Old Town Square, we also were able to enjoy a traditional Czech musical performance by the historic medieval Czech group the Bohemian Bards. We spent the rest of our afternoon taking dozens of photos of the beautiful buildings and sampling traditional foods. One of my favorites was trdelnik, a sugar and almond-covered barrel-shaped pastry cooked over an open fire.
We had a brief rehearsal at St. Havel, during which we were able to figure out the church’s acoustics, before locals and tourists began to trickle in. Given the small size, we had to adjust our consonants quite a bit for them to come across. A high point of the concert was “Johnny Has Gone For a Soldier” from our Americana section. We all enjoy the piece very much, and that definitely came across in our performance. We were able to put even more emotion and thought into it than usual, and the soprano and alto soloists did a wonderful job. Another was the triumphant “Hallelujah Amen” from Handel’s Judas Maccabeus. Most of it is forte and fortissimo, and it has a simple but jubilant melody, so it was very fun to sing. The concert certainly ended on a high note with the Young Women’s Chorus’s rendition of the Spiritual “Take Me to the Water”, a very high-energy piece matched with appropriate gospel choir-style clapping and stomping. It’s a favorite of all of us in Young Women’s Chorus—including me! It was a great ending to a wonderful concert performed in a beautiful space, and those who came to see it were happily surprised that it was free. After the concert, we enjoyed a traditional Czech meal and returned to our hotel.
Linden: We began the next morning in Prague with an extensive tour of Prague Castle, a sprawling jungle of royal housing, cathedrals, chapels, and cottages, which first came into being with the construction of the Church of the Virgin Mary in 870. Renovations in the 14th century by King Charles IV, and later still more by the Hapsburgs of Austria, caused Prague Castle to become a fascinating jumble of different architectural styles, which I found particularly striking to observe. These styles range from the original Gothic and Romanesque, to the Renaissance and Baroque, and even Neoclassical. We toured the Palace Wing, the impressive and ornate St. Vitus Cathedral, the Basilica of St. George, and finally the quaint Golden Lane, lined with colorful wooden houses, where goldsmiths lived in the seventeenth century.
After Prague Castle, we were treated to an unscheduled boat tour along the Vlata River by our lovely tour guide, Klara. This gave us a chance to appreciate the beautiful and varied buildings along both banks, and to pass under the iconic bronze statue-lined Charles Bridge. It was a really nice, relaxing way to experience the gorgeous architecture that had been surrounding us from a different vantage point.
We finally ended back up in the Old Town Square, where we were allowed the whole afternoon to explore. While there, we could visit local shops and the bustling flea market in front of the Church of St. Havel (which sold traditional crafts and needlework, original folk paintings, and farm-grown produce, alongside the more generic souvenirs), have coffee in the numerous little shops, or have lunch in the authentic restaurants. In the evening, we met back up for our final dinner in Europe. At the restaurant, we enjoyed another traditional Czech meal, and an impromptu performance of folk songs and dancing. The music was performed by a delightful band consisting of strings and a keyboardist, and a charmingly enthusiastic group of dancers and musicians who played traditional percussion and woodwind instruments. I very much enjoyed experiencing Czech culture in such interactive and lively way.
Linden: We departed Prague almost immediately to board our flight back to the US, and though I was looking forward to going home, I felt I would miss Europe, especially Prague. Even as a tourist, I felt that I was walking through a very ancient place with a very rich and complex history. Though Prague was filled with tourists like us, unlike Vienna, the squares and streets were also filled with an just as many locals, which added to my perception of culture and local color. Prague’s musical significance also interested me. Besides having been the home of numerous famous Czech composers, it has been graced with the likes of Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Liszt, and Beethoven, all of whom performed in Prague multiple times. Wagner began his career as a composer in Prague, and Mozart even declared “my Praguers understand me” upon being incredibly well-received in the city. I loved being in Vienna and Prague, and I am very grateful to be part of H+H’s VAP program. Still more, I am grateful to have been a part of this wonderfully informative and enjoyable tour.