City of Spires

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Singing in the Shadow of Musical Greats

The last leg of a concert tour can be very emotional.

So much had been fitted into the first two and a half weeks of the Sunshine Coast Oriana Choir’s Central Europe tour in September 2016 – eight performances in three countries so far.

So when it comes to the final concert there is a feeling of apprehension.

Thoughts turn to home.

Are we there yet?

How can we better those performances at those grand cathedrals?

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That was the feeling as we came to Prague, the historic city at the heart of the Czech Republic.

The first rain of the tour, a cold wind from the North Sea.

Yet of all the cities and towns the choir has visited on its tour through Hungary, Slovakia and Austria this would be the one where the overcast weather added to the atmosphere.

The cobblestone streets, the reflected lights, the arches of bridges, the spectacle of more than 100 spires.

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As it turned out all of the fears were soon forgotten.

The Prague Hlahol Concert Hall, the scene for the final performance, is in the heart of this city of culture.

Designed and constructed by the Hlahol Choir for acapella singing and limited musical accompaniment, it is opposite the river.

The building is considered to be one of the finest Art Nouveau monuments of its kind.

The birth of Hlahol dates back to 1860 and the foundation of societies dedicated to the enrichment of the national revival.

Greats such as Smetana and Dvořák are deeply ingrained in its history.

This was the choir that gave such a performance of Dvořák’s hymn “The Heirs of the White Mountain” in 1873 that it contributed to the then nearly unknown composer’s first great success.

Although Dvořák was not aware of it, Johannes Brahms was the leading member of the jury that awarded him the Austrian State Prize for Composition in 1874 and was highly impressed.

Hlahol serenaded Tchaikovsky during his visit to Prague in February 1888. In return, the Russian composer promised to compose a choral work for the choir.

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The present-day Prague Hlahol was built in 1905 for choir rehearsals. It was financed solely from donations made by members and supporters of the choir.

The front façade, overlooking the embankment, is embellished by two large mosaics and a magnificent carved door; the renovated rear façade bears a large inscription in gold – HLAHOL. It is an old Czech word meaning stage or song, the human voice.

The beautiful Art Nouveau building features a glass ceiling and busts of conductors of the Hlahol Choir, and highlighted by a painting by Alphonse Mucha called “Česká píseň” (Czech Song).

Due to its historical and cultural value and original decorations, the building was declared a national cultural monument.

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On this Wednesday night in September 2016, the hall was filled with rows of bentwood chairs. Mirrors showing the distress of years hung on the walls.

Into this setting the Oriana Choir filed onto stage.

And right from the opening number, Laetatus Sum, they had the near-capacity audience in their hand.

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Soloists included Gabrielle Deschamps, Ian Rix and Sarah Laws with piano accompaniment by Fay Baker.

Gabrielle said that being the final concert the choir was able to relax more … enjoy the moment, enjoy the people around us.

“There was a greater awareness of what was going on around us,” she said, “of Sandra directing, of the expressions of the crowd.

“We had to concentrate then noticed the impact it was having on the audience. There were people crying. We just had to hold it together.”

Gabrielle chose two songs from a set of 10 Biblical Songs by Czech composer Dvorak.

She sang numbers 1 and 4, settings of verses from the Psalms. Song 1 is called Clouds and Darkness, a very dramatic song describing a vision of the Lord. No. 4 is Psalm 23, The Lord is My Shepherd.

“They are songs of faith written at a very dark time in his life,” Gabrielle explained.

“It was especially important to focus in the second song as I became aware that some people in the room had their eyes closed and seemed to be praying.

“I did my best to return to my experience of singing in church and became more aware of the words and to connect with that.”

Ian gave a beautiful rendition of None But the Lonely Heart, a musical setting of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s poem “Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt.”

Sarah was magnificent with Song to the Moon from Russulka, also by Dvorak.

This provided the perfect lead-in to the full choir performing Nepovim by Dvorak and sung in Czech.

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The choice of the program by choir music director Sandra Milliken worked beautifully, with a stirring version of Waltzing Matilda as the balance to the touching Irish ballad The Blessing.

The venue allowed the full choir to form a semi circle around the audience and virtually wrap them in their arms with the song.

The applause was genuine, heartfelt. The audience certainly enjoyed the experience.

All of the performances on this Central Europe tour have been magnificent but this was the icing on the cake.

So personal, so touching, so heart-felt.

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A Song to Remember

Soloist Sarah Laws had a sudden thought before singing before a near-capacity audience at Prague’s historic Hlahol Concert Hall.

It was part of Sunshine Coast Oriana Choir’s final performance in its Central Europe tour of Hungary, Slovakia, Austria and the Czech Republic.

Sarah had chosen Song to the Moon from Russulka, by Czech composer Dvorak.

“Just before going on, I thought I have never sung this to a Czech audience.”

Sarah prepared the song about three years ago and performed it for her diploma of singing at the Australian Music Examination Board.

“It was part of the syllabus but my mother had suggested it to me.

“I thought, why not. It’s a nice song and has that dramatic ending.

“That finale puts it in people’s mind.”

The operatic piece is about a water spirit, Sarah tells me.

“Every day the prince comes to the lake.

She falls in love with him and wants to be turned into human form by a sorceress.

“It happens early in opera.

“The moon sees into peoples lives.

“Oh moon, stand still for a moment. Tell me where is my lover.

“Oh moon, stay still for a moment, don’t let him disappear.

“I love the story.”

At the Prague concert Sarah was initially concerned about getting it right.

Yet the audience response was totally unexpected. A standing ovation.

“I was really elated, swept up in the emotion,” she said.

“I was told later that the Czech language in that aria is quite difficult.

“The fact they appreciated it was very rewarding.”

The Hlahol Concert Hall was constructed and designed by the city’s choir, with acoustics for acapella and for piano.

Dvorak was a conductor for the choir which was formed in the 1800s.

“Just to think we have sung his songs here,” Sarah said. “It is very, very nice.”

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