Touring with an orchestra, even a world-class outfit like Orpheus, is often a “heaven or hell” proposition. It’s not about the glamour, though the destinations can be exotic; or even the art, though the concerts can be sublime. It’s usually about survival. After more than 25 years of musical vagabondism, we wear our experiences like so many military decorations. Getting to concerts sometimes takes on the air of a “recon” mission, but even the unremarkable days have their moments.
We began “Europe 2000” with a 15-hour trip from New York (one taxi, two planes, and a bus). At 3:15 p.m. we arrive at our hotel and are greeted by Sonia, one of our European agent’s tour reps. “Welcome to Prague. I’m so sorry, but the truck with all your luggage had to drop some music stands at the concert hall first and will arrive shortly.” Groan. In the lobby, Sonia then hits me with the “Would you be willing to speak with a few local reporters?” request. It’s part of my job as an artistic director, so I say yes, but even through my jet-lagged stupor I can smell a full-blown press conference at hand. My suitcase finally arrives at 4:15 (I execute the “short-shower” drill), and within the hour, two napless colleagues (violinist Martha Caplin and bassoonist Dennis Godburn) and I walk into a room filled with 30 reporters from radio, TV, and assorted print media.
We take our seats at the dais next to a fellow interviewee, conductor, né tenor, Peter Schreier. Prague has a thriving cultural life, and the annual Spring Festival serves as a centerpiece of each season. This year’s theme is J. S. Bach, coinciding with the 250th anniversary of his untimely death. Our musical contribution will be the six Brandenburg Concertos, scheduled for tomorrow evening.
In my current state of unconsciousness, the Q & A session that follows seems like a most elaborate and slightly surreal game of Telephone. There are two translators handling the English/Czech (for us) and German/Czech (for Mr. Schreier), with lots of simultaneous whispering going on as well. The first reporter wants to know, “What was our opinion of ‘authentic’ Bach?” I answer that while Orpheus is mindful of Baroque tradition, we prefer to approach our performances as a dialogue across time rather than as an imitation. We play on modern-style instruments, and this is, after all, the 21st century, which must also be factored into the artistic equation. I can only guess what the reporters really hear.
As Mr. Schreier begins to respond, I flash back to a small church in Austria some 15 years ago when he had joined Orpheus to perform several Bach cantatas. His fluid speaking voice reminded me of what a glorious tenor he was. And truly a Bach master. As I “come to,” Mr. Schreier is talking about expression and articulation and then, growing quite impassioned, says something like, “Authentic? Authentic? Who the hell today really knows what was authentic then?”
The inquiries go on like this until 6:30, when finally one of the festival people takes pity on us and calls for a last question. Before we hit the streets, I thank Peter Schreier for his enlightening comments and reminisce about our earlier performance. He is quite gracious in his praise of Orpheus and asks me to convey his best wishes to the orchestra.
Now free at last, we’re faced with the age-old tour question. Sleep or eat? Sleep now would be a mistake. Besides, it’s our only evening off for almost a week, and Prague is a stunningly beautiful city, even in the rain. We venture out into the street armed only with our map and a couple of restaurant recommendations. On the road, preparation is the key to spontaneity.
We’re looking for this highly touted “wild game” restaurant (boar, venison, etc.). I speak fluent restaurant French, Italian, German, and Spanish. But in Czech I can’t say hello or thank you and we’re choking on the street signs. But we persevere and somehow run right into it. Once inside, I start to have mixed feelings. The food looks good, but the smoke and noise levels closely resemble some college hang in Blacksburg, Va. It doesn’t matter. The waiter tells us the whole place is reserved for dinner and they have no room for us. Disappointed but not crushed, we venture back outside and put our antennae up. Hunger is now becoming a major issue, and we quickly spot a small Bohemian restaurant and settle into the back room. The simple food and local beer hit the spot. For $7 a person. A short but probably dishonest cab ride home (cost more than dinner for three) and we’re ready to rest up for tomorrow’s challenges.