ON THE ROAD – Rick Phillips reports from the river: musical meanderings along the Danube

Sachertorte & Paprikash – Musical Meanderings Along the Blue Danube
Sept. 27 – Oct. 7, 2011    
by Rick Phillips, Host

Vienna is often called “The City of My Dreams,” and, in my case, it still is, but now with stiff competition from the beautiful city of Budapest. Travel Pursuits’ recent musical tour to both, with stops in between, was an unforgettable experience.  Brilliant concerts, many lovely restaurants and cafes, gorgeous weather, and a group of people who enjoyed each other immensely – our ten days together were the experience of a lifetime.

Here are some of the highlights…

Schonbrunn Palace gardens

Vienna: Our local guide, Siggy, was a musician (she played her Celtic harp for us) who took us everywhere.  From the Museum of Musical Instruments at the Hofburg Palace to the Haus der Musik where, thanks to the mysteries of modern technology you can conduct the Vienna Philharmonic yourself, complete with electronic baton!

The Schonbrunn Palace was a standout, with its famous gardens shining in the sun as was the visit to Mozart’s home behind St. Stephen’s Cathedral.

Just a little more wein in Wien

An excursion to Grinzing, the wine region just outside the city proved more than memorable, with the wandering gypsy band adding to the rustic fun.  This was our final evening in Vienna, and we celebrated by enjoying yet another jug of crisp new wine on the terrace, under the moonlight before returning to the city.

Budapest:  When I last visited Budapest, in the 90’s, the city was sorely in need of repair and a good paint job.  Since then, much has been done and it is now a stunningly beautiful, vibrant metropolis. The subway (the oldest in Europe, built in 1896) has been beautifully restored, and the two-car trains are charming and efficient.

Horse farm on Hungarian plains

Arthur, our excellent guide took us to Kecskemet, the birthplace of Zoltan Kodaly and then to a horse farm where we had lunch – accompanied by an authentic gypsy band. Lizst’s Budapest apartment was also a highlight, with its stacks of scores, his pianos, books and portraits.

Inside Budapest opera house

Unlike Vienna’s opera house, the one in Budapest was not bombed during the war and is all original – a magnificent, opulent edifice complete with sweeping Italian marble staircases, varnished oak, mirrored halls and gold leaf.

Market Hall, a 19th century indoor market with hundreds of food stalls and kiosks was great fun – much Hungarian paprika was purchased by the foodies among us. We ended our sojourn in Budapest with a twilight cruise along the Danube.

The concerts:  The Musikverein in Vienna is the home of  the Vienna Philharmonic and one of the great concert halls of the world. Here we heard an all Russian concert by the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow.  The highlight was a gripping performance of Symphony No. 15 by Shostakovich.  Having spent his entire career working under the strictures of the Soviet cultural authorities, his final symphony captures his frustrations and despair.  The haunting cello solo was played by an elderly cellist who obviously clearly understood the composer’s state of mind and there were tears in his eyes as he took his bow.

The true standout for me was the Orchestra Mozart from Bologna conducted by Claudio Abbado.  The average age of the orchestra was about 25, but their youth aside, I can’t remember hearing a better performance of the Mendelssohn “Italian” Symphony, live or on record!  The players clearly adored their mentor and played like gods for him. Abbado appeared gaunt, barely over 100 pounds, with more restrained movements than I remember and the audience, sensing that this was the last time they might see this great conductor in this hallowed hall, called him back for curtain call after curtain all – they simply could not let him go.

In Budapest, we attended a good production of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra at the opera house and a superb concert performance of Strauss’s Daphne with Andrea Rost singing the title role exquisitely.  We were also treated to an intimate musical evening in the home of Adam Fellegi. At the keyboard, he played Bach, Beethoven and Bartok in between wonderful conversation on subjects ranging from the meaning of art and music to the Hungarian experience during WWII.

With the current financial crisis in Europe, I couldn’t help but wonder what the future holds for the continent, the euro region and the shared currency. Will it come to an end? Our recent Travel Pursuits tour seemed completely unaffected by the situation. Were we indeed living a dream in the two cities of my dreams?? What would Freud say? I’ll happily continue to dream.

Rick Phillips

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