Thursday, December 6, 2012

The McConnell Singers Czech Republic Concert Tour


The McConnell Singers Czech Republic Concert Tour
AE Reiff

I walk a cobblestone river in Bohemia, stranger, not a pilgrim, not a prisoner like the Czech, fifty years before. We are the first cultural group to arrive in Loket, formerly Elbogen, northern Bohème. Cobblestone waves break on Goethe's shore, a monument in the square. The granite brick river rises to a castle that dominates the town. Goethe quizzes the facade. Carmine, burgundy, cardinal, maroon. There are more shades of red here than in my pastels. I choose vermillion.
   Kristin has brought us back to the bridges she hid under as a girl when the Allies strafed her town. Invited by the Bund der Deutschen-Landschaft Egerland, this anniversary is of the end of the War where her old house stands, inch-thick plaster on walls attached by Communists, attached by Czechs. Her childhood friends repatriated, she introduces me. It is the start of our trip.
   The Kay Poore Phoenix College McConnell Singers (1995) are an all female group of acappella singers, a group of forty, supported by an entourage of 30. We tour nine concerts, most in the Czech Republic. I don't attend them all. I wander the streets. Help the bus driver stack luggage. I am transfixed.
   It is an arena of historical illusion, allied with the German, ousted majority of Bohemia and border regions. Chamberlain and the French gave Sudeten to Germany at Munich in '38. Germany chopped off the west, Russia chopped off the east. The property of the Germans was confiscated when the Czech took it back.
   I don't yet know my traveling companions. The choir and entourage travel by bus. We drive with Kristin's mate, Charley, a truck driver. He has rented a car but his knees are bad. I drive to Loket from Munich, from Bohemia to Prague, to Oberammergau, Ettal, Vienna and back to Munich. Our navigator plumbed the London underground and Paris metro before this trip. Charley was here in '45. He had a short cut to the border at Cheb, wanted to see the ex-communist guards do their tricks. They sequestered a Chinese chorale member. Kay and Kristin negotiate her release. The bus is seriously held up. No matter. That's before cell phones and my wife has the map reversed.
   An endearing quality in a way as we speed north, it sounds like Donne, "Riding Westward," Mercator projections, "zenith to us and our Antipodes." We can cross the pole and circle down, or just turn around. I still have that map. The lines make me dizzy. Sunset provokes reverse with the petering out road:
"Restore thine Image, so much, by thy grace,
That thou may'st know me, and I'll turn my face."

We turn, and as the bus is departing, pull up in Cheb. I don't know how we'd have found the way.
   We left Phoenix for the blooming Czech hills, the springs and silent woods. We stay in Karlovy Vary, Karlsbad, for the Elbogen concert, drink mineral water, sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium, manganese piped from the ground. The people are a little mineralized. Tradition has preserved Andrea, castle gatekeeper. She wants to guide tourists and speaks good English. She is 22, only child, pride and joy of her parents, but can't apply for the job fulltime. Doesn't want to be home late. They have no phone. Minerals account for the porcelain factories too. Everybody walks endlessly up and down.
   The first concert is held in the castle, but I am out looking at roofs. Sudden round rails, gazebo walks, you look down on a seventeenth century cannonball garden and cross. Mossy cannonballs look like cabbages but bigger. A catapult garden. Round stones, bigger than heads, flung down upon the Germans and Slovaks in their beds.
   The castle blooms on its hill with spires. We see the crown jewels of the town. I don't mean the green Gothic bulbs, the circling tin slopes. I mean the roofs of Elbogen. Was it digitalis or Van Gogh just out of blue when he made that green sky? This human sky is red. Roofs crisscrossed with colors of blood, red Hopi sandstone, Welsh sheep branded with paint, Papagoes, pastel shades, painted deserts. Dark earth looks up into your eyes as you look down to the brown and green eyes of sultans and seas. The slate dives, re-ascends, pitches to dormers. Scalloped shingles glide to soffits. Vents, chimneys swim windows. It is a hillside tilled by ladders nailed to steeps.

   Next stop, Cheb (Eger), our entry point. AM spent, wife asleep, finishing two "roofs." Walked by the red clay courts, had lunch, then to the four PM concert at the 17th century Balthasar-Neumann Haus. Dum Balthasara Neumanna, once a Benedictine cloister, now a concert hall, cultural center for the Deutsch.
   No signs advertise Cheb as Europe's biggest brothel. The trees didn't show it. All mixed together, the Czech/German border, Cheb centered, beauty and ugliness, proved again, harrowing opposites, like camps where prisoners transcend. Danger and blessing, like going to Vegas for the glory of God. It was in Cheb, calling it Eger didn't change it, it was in Cheb the blessing came.
   The Deutsch ladies host us in the Neumann Haus grounds. Friends of Mrs. Sura. They have the same manners and appearance, formal clothing even, smiles, gestures, of my grandmother's family, the Mennonite Macks, familiar, give little pats as they tell us about the facility and serve coffee in demitasse with pastry. They gave snifters of Czech brandy too at the outset. Many more than a hundred in that room of long tables, chairs along walls, some round tables at the other end. Mrs. Sura pronounces the greeting.
   But the girls are giddy from snifting, speculate about cloves and herbs. Laughter ripsaws the table, vibrates back against throats. Kay says they must not laugh or they'll not be open for singing. Currents, arch remarks. They brought out their children, our hosts, who performed, sang, played recorders among pantomimes of "this one is mine, do you see" and grandmotherly hugs.
   I ask grandmother, "Where have all the communists gone?" "Like the weather," she says, "and the new part of town." There the wide-spaced cobbles march straight where the old parts have Fleur-de-lis to walk. But the giant chestnuts and red maples in both regimes bloom, new or old communists, republicans or democrats.
   Like the people who laid the first sweep of stones, I take asylum in the park, wait for the concert to begin, pray for an outpouring of love, which later overflows. A cocker romps with a boxer in the grass. Nobody in earshot has a gun. The subtext is the plaintext. The faces look like babies, toddlers respect their elders. Can the Czech be more democratic than this?
   I walk back. The concert echoes off buildings. The sisters have returned. A Latin piece. I stand in the back. The men of the entourage are clunking. Shifting, squeaking, scraping, clicking their cameras. Auto rewind. Notes are falling like stalagmites and showers of sharp glass. The emotion deafens me. I grab two by the collar, tell them to sit down. At the end of that piece I move to the middle, close my eyes in the center of the sound pearl. Every breath echoes. There is a message to McConnell, slow notes of a hallelujah. Praise. Love.
   After each number the man next to me claps like a bushman sucking the Kalahari for water. He does not smile yet. His applause is desperate. Each number meets more hunger. Not six encores were enough. We get one. The notes are razors cutting down apathy. The choir grows confident early, concentrates to a precise frost, condenses, melts in the orb of the sanctuary. The shivers and tingling make us even colder. The faces change too. Are they still changed? Fatigue changes for joy. Skepticism for love. People start to look up at the large glass-dropped chandelier. The worship of God, the love of woman, the agony of war. I'm trying to wipe my eyes inconspicuously. The audience leaves shorn.
   Maybe it's the lack of TV, this sound bath. Mrs. Sura has the audience rise to sing the Czech anthem. Every note resounds. I hear my own humming as if I were standing facing my lips. Extraordinary. Exquisite. The choir believes its song, circles the audience. We stare straight ahead in our intimacy. After, in the bus, the girls are gone gids. 

   Third stop, Horni Slavkov, "Impact Gene Forest," Schlaggenwald, home of Mrs. Sura. I don't remember the concert, remember nothing till evening. There was a welcome by the mayor, flowers, presents, entertainments, songs. I remember the road to Schlaggenwald. The day was cloudy, chill. The ground felt grave. Farmland, but harrowing, like scarecrows on wire.
   I guess we just got there late again, maybe 6 PM. The bus was warm with festivities which were over when Mrs. Sura invited the whole party to a dinner club nearby. So the ladies trooped in groups and ones and twos after dark toward the entrance, entered the dim doorway to go up a flight of wooden stairs to this club which took up the whole of the second floor. It was Saturday night. Hanging in the street and by the door were the youth of Columbine, assessing the ladies as if to see which they could cut from the herd. I hang on the sidewalk, a heel on the building, lounge as the herd straggles by. All is well. So we went to dinner. I break my own rule. Do not enter wooden supper clubs.
   Dumplings in gravy, huge room, hundreds of people, the old at one end with the choir, the mayor, Kristin's friends, the ladies. The whole town invited. But much of the room occupied by children and grandchildren who had nothing to do. Leer and menace, the ladies ignore this. The music loud at all times, gets louder. The little wolves shake to metal, kick, glare, stomp by the scores.
   I feel victimized sitting with the choir, their elderly escorts, take my partner to the dance floor and work from the edge to this center of Europe, surrounded by trench coats, expressionless eyes, flat faces. Shouting, arms raised, praising God at the top of my voice, the music was loud, whirling with joy we danced, inventing steps, leaping, praising. They watched like it was brand new, but the ladies were a little affronted, gossiped about the Pentecostal style. "I didn't know he was like that." Nobody hanging around when we left. I have no idea where we spent the night. 

   Prague. Low rent narrow elevators maroon us atop prefab towers, '50s vintage. The pavement is broken, grass grows in the cracks. But the sun is out. We hang in the neighborhood early till noon. Visions of gulag dance in my head. In the afternoon the ladies look for crystal in shops. I shop for rare books.
   Cobblestones confuse the locals. It's embarrassing. Before we left I intended no preparation, went carte blanc. Now the girl with the upside down map corrects me. I'm confusing Eger with Prague. Both with Vienna. The ladies were taking the waters, porcelain and china shopping in Karlsbad, but we walked with crowds on pavement beside the Charles at night. In Eger we walked in the day. She says I gave twenty dollars to an old man there. I don't remember. My feet, burning from promenade toward its end, walked toward a little man pushing a cart with a dog, like he was an outdoor janitor sweeping the street.
   Old Prague, that concert, early PM, Vinohrady theatre. I was there. I was not there. Yes I was. The ladies gave the key of Phoenix to the mayor. Sister cities. Not so well attended maybe. I met a remaining classics professor in the hall, wizened man with a trench coat and goatee, youth baked out of him. I could feel what was left, a compassion excusing beauty. The ladies sang to him. First they sang the mass, then their own star-like works. Some say love is like a river. They call it acoustics without echoes, Ave Maria, goodness, mercy. 

Just remember that in winter, far beneath the brittle snow,
Lies a seed that with the sun's love, in the spring becomes a rose.


   We drive through Moravia to Vienna. My companion navigates good. We take the train downtown, walk the streets all day, frequent shops, benches, ice creams, one museum. This I also forgot. We contemplated the medieval saints and angels, walked like in Paris when I kept up a stream of French in her ear. Flower vowels, rhyme. I left a poem of Merlin in our room, written on a sketch of Orpheus bending over his lyre. I was ejected from the Rodin Museum for sketching this: ". . . my love used to hide me in the woodland / so that when death took every one / still it could never call me." In Vienna the entourage's luggage is just dumped in front of the hotel. The French driver labors to repack. The concert that night in the venerable cathedral, the Votiv-Kirche.
   On the road to Oberammergau I want to pay Charley for the car. Linz, Salzberg to Innsbruck, fog rises in the snow. Charley is like a grandfather. We have coffee together. He calls us kids. The first day she met Kristin my wife came home carrying a rose. I sketch the roofs here too, white, green and black, remember the air best. Early morning we walk the streets, up the foothills. Redheads out and blondes. Birds on signposts. Deep breaths. Shops like Scottsdale. Poster beds. Intimacies of dining rooms.
   In Oberammergau we walk along a watershed. Flowers in bloom, not blood but marigold. The dirt was red. The choir didn't sing here though. They performed a concert in nearby Ettal, in the Ettal Kloster, a cathedral of the 1300's. I guess I remember the alpine strictures, slopes, even colder air, more yellow flowers, but with reserve, not the open hearted enthusiasm of Eger and Elbogen. Not a towering cathedral either. What do Bavarians need?
   Depending on your particular seventeenth century passion, my Mennonite ancestors needed to get out of some town or other here before being locked up and drowned. Bag drowning was big in 1650, boiling in oil on the Rhine. The Palatinate was dangerous, Zurich and Bern. If you didn't believe infant baptism you were probably ruined. Ur-Mennonites were spotted everywhere, in prison and escaped when the animus got rolling. At Wadenswil mine left. It wasn't just one family, it was all of them made exodus. A European thing, mass movements, like the three million Germans purged from Bohemia in 1945, and every one of the nine generations of my Swiss ancestors in America, Clemmer, Gehman, Rosenberger, Landis, Clemens, Bechtel. I am unconscious of this. I feel it in the stones, the faces, the effort to get west, have Wal Mart right early. Leave the Fleur-de-lis behind.
   There's no pagan comfort in recounting fratricides. Wasn't Huysmans, psycho-bot, here and leave himself a testament of illusion in Des Esseintes' plants, "natural flowers imitating the false?" Just the symbolic carnivores to devour later generations. The region of Faustus. They won't trade for peace. They won't trade for the love and forgiveness of Christ. Those Mennonites shot right out of there, ran down hundreds of miles of Rhine and thousands of miles of waves to this shore.
   Kristen and Charley head back to Eger with the car to lengthen their stay. The bus rolls on, there are days in Munich to bear. We go high to low, to appeasement and polka, sausage, loud talk. One patron takes on the waitress over his chair. Cigarette smoke. In the street I commune with a light pole. We have in common the cold. I have not so much German: schnapps, tourist joints, wurst, Reichkinder.
   Munich brought everything we felt into contrast, a surface that longed for depth. I am nostalgic for the Charles River, the walks, its bridge, the concrete pillbox apartments of Prague, the simple Communist vintage, the kind that in an earthquake comes all down in slabs. That was where we stayed. No AC, but running water. Towers of cement made to house ten thousands, but there was no pretense, you knew they were meant to crush spirit. That obvious truth was a buoy, conflict a peace. There were no pagans there, just Christians hoping to escape to a better life, like the cranes hovering over every rebuilding downtown street, with bright wings.
   Coming to München, nothing is obvious. In Paris they steal cameras from dizzy tourists, pretend to show puppets, maybe steal a watch. In London everybody laughs at adversity, museum guards quip and you get all flavors of alcoholic drink. In Elbogen the truth and pathos of facade, spirit stripped essentials, bare rooted, life revealed for what it was, roof caved, chimney broke, windows smashed, stucco black, crumbling walls, no pretense, door dangles hinge, weeds grow tall. This truth of our past was more appealing than high place. It let you participate in the trouble, in the whole, in Victor Frankl, who knew how much he was worth, how much life was worth, the price of a next breath to a jeweled button and bratwurst.
   You could tell such things by talking to Kristin, hear how her life had been, the wealth of her family, the expectations. How the furniture was taken piece by piece, the art, the house and finally the future. What it would have been maybe she never knew. Charley, the MP, all 6' 4" took her away. Has the curtain gone up or come down? Is adversity content or is content the discontent? Those Mennonites want to know.
   I still see the solitary anonymous soul. Crowds in every downtown street stream up and down, but individuals too, old men, grandmothers, children, stirring human dark and light, suffering and bitterness, heroism and courage. The humbler the more profound. The more downtrodden the more transfigured.
   Elbogen, Eger: Of Bohemia hinterland crystalline memory, enthusiasm, desperation of people. Of jammed concert halls, openhearted, sullen children of eternity, destiny cobbled streets continuous with car-less, seeking the granted K Mart jeans, fifty bucks. I know people who fill shipping containers with used clothing for Europe. Our party brings back crystal in exchange. My mineral water is gone.
   The images play out, but the flight is postponed. We don't sleep the night before. Early AM, out of Munich. Fly LA. Still awake I come through customs. Guard looks at me, smiles, "welcome home."
   Fly to Phoenix, wake a dozen times. Exit plane, ladies and consorts. Down the escalator, my last act. Old man in front of me. Glasses, two bags, yellow shirt, falls. About to be swallowed by conveyor and sliced. Small steps, hands under armpits, set him up and off.
   I walk a river of light. Feet don't touch. Out the door. Stalagmites, showers of glass. Desperate bushman sucking the sand. Echoes in a pearl, razor notes, sound frost. I hear humming. I believe the song. 

From a letter to his son Aeyrie, May 19-20, 1995 

Kristin Derck, who grew up in Elbogen arranged for the Phoenix College McConnell Singers, under the direction of Kay Poore to be officially invited by the Bund der Deutschen-Landschaft Egerland to participate in the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, performing concerts in cities of the Czech Republic.

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