Europe Tour - Tom Clark

Why Not? BCCO on Tour

by Tom L. Clark

BCCO performing at the Rudolfinum hall, Prague, June 2013
(hover with mouse for closeup view)
Photo credit: Bill Hocker

    At a Berkeley Community Chorus & Orchestra board meeting in May 2012, Music Director Ming Luke suggested the possibility of a chorus tour to Europe in the summer of 2013. In response to exclamations of surprise, astonishment and perhaps a measure of incredulity, Ming said, “Why not?”

    The answer to this rhetorical question was a long arc of planning, hard work, commitment and a huge charge of excitement that carried the chorus through three performances of the Mozart Mass in C minor in Budapest and Bratislava, and that culminated in Prague on June 24 with a stunning performance of the Dvořák Requiem Mass at the Rudolfinum, otherwise known as Dvořák Hall.

    The tour presented the chorus with many opportunities which, to my eye and ear, were fully realized:

    The opportunity to perform in unique and fabulous venues; the opportunity to meld with two new orchestras and two groups of Hungarian and Czech singers; the opportunity to explore four beautiful cities of Central Europe, with the region’s thousand-year history at once glorious and tortured; the opportunity to expand beyond the audience of friends and family and devoted BCCOers at St. Joseph the Worker Church; and to perform for music-loving audiences in three countries, whose appreciation and enthusiasm were true measures of the ever-growing competence and exuberant musicality of the chorus.

    And surely one of the most important points of good fortune on the tour – not planned for or written into the elaborate itinerary of the World Projects – was the chance for choristers to get to know each other better, beyond the limitations of Monday night rehearsals, and to create in the process a much more extended web of social connectedness. What a plus for the BCCO!

    World Projects was immensely competent in guiding a group of nearly 150 singers and “groupies” through international flights, hotels, bus travels, restaurant reservations and mini-tours, in finding concert venues, orchestras and local singers, and in doing the publicity that ensured good attendance at all performances. The World Projects staff was able to shift plans as needed and, always possessed of charm and good humor, stayed personally connected with the group.

    The final performance of the tour – the Dvořák Requiem Mass at Dvořák Hall – was, in the best sense of the term, a grand finale.

 The Rudolfinum opened in 1885, and a year later Antonin Dvořák himself conducted his own works in the first performance of the Czech Philharmonic. Many of Dvořák’s own works were later played and sometimes premiered in this hall. The concert hall itself is glorious and gilded, much in keeping with the architectural opulence and décor of the 19th century: marble columns on three sides of the interior, exquisite chandeliers and, behind the two-tiered stage, the backdrop of a beautiful pipe organ.

    Musical history – and Dvořák’s in particular – pervades this great hall. And so when the choristers filed on stage, about to sing the long and demanding Requiem Mass of Dvořák in front of a hometown audience, all the magic of this history was apparent when the first hushed notes of the Requiem Aeternam filled the hall.

    Ming Luke’s conducting was masterful and brilliant from the first downbeat to the final notes – 90 minutes later – of the Agnus Dei. Ming conducted a very large orchestra that he had worked with for the first time only the day before the performance, and he was able to blend beautifully into the chorus the voices of 40 Czech singers. Ming met all these challenges with his usual aplomb, and produced a musically compelling and thrilling performance.

    With his precise beat and his perfect cueing to a large orchestra, four soloists and nearly 140 choristers, Ming was a conductor completely in control, and able to communicate his vision of the Dvořák Requiem Mass that produced dramatic and gratifying results in singers, orchestra and audience members alike.

    Dvořák places a formidable demand on the soloists throughout the Requiem Mass. And those who went on tour (Carrie Hennessey, soprano; Megan Berti, mezzo-soprano; J. Raymond Meyers, tenor; and Igor Vieira, baritone) had already sung together in Berkeley and in the three concerts of the Mozart Mass in C minor that preceded the Requiem Mass.

    Among the four soloists there was a beautiful musical camaraderie, and a keen ability to deliver their parts – whether solo, duet, trio or quartet – in a lovely and often breathtaking manner. As needed, the four soloists blended superbly with the chorus and orchestra.

    Before, during and after the performance of the Dvořák Requiem Mass, the chorus seemed virtually electrified. I am not sure what other word could better describe the palpable sense of excitement of the choristers. Even as an audience member, I felt thrilled to be a part of this musical experience.

    From the hushed, whisperingly soft opening of the Requiem Aeternum, followed moments later by the first fervent blaze of choral sound, the chorus never faltered, and the intensity never waned during this long and demanding work.

    The Requiem Mass is a deeply spiritual piece, a work of great, all-encompassing humanity. The full range of emotions that we can express and feel, from the deepest sadness of our souls to a kind of reach-for-the-heavens exuberance, all are present in this Requiem Mass, and all were present in the stunning performance in Prague.

    After the performance I told a group of choristers that their performance had been miraculous, and I used this word advisedly. The performance was one of those rare times in life when everything came together, when everything was right . Nothing that might have gone wrong did go wrong. Everything that needed to be right was right. Simply amazing.

    Last but very much not least, Linda Berti deserves immense gratitude for being the person most responsible for making the Tour of 2013 the success that it was. She was so central to the year-long process of planning that it is almost impossible to imagine the tour without her. Her great organizational skills, her leadership, her commitment to the success of the tour, all were accomplished with unfailing good humor and equanimity. Profound thanks to you, Linda, for all that you gave and all that you accomplished.

    Some might think these words of praise are merely preaching to the choir, but I think it’s more than that. I have been attending classical musical performances for 60 years, and I know an exceptional performance when I hear one. By any musical standards that I know of, the performance of the Dvořák Requiem mass in Prague on June 24 was a great one. In a word, glorious!