The Houston Symphony Chorus recently completed a highly successful series of concerts in the Czech Republic. Chorus Manager Anna Diemer shares her memories and impressions below.
When I accepted the offer to become Manager of the Houston Symphony Chorus, I never imagined that in two short years I would be pedal-boating down the Vltava River in Prague with my fellow singers. Yet there I was, enjoying the mild summer weather and admiring the majestic medieval castle rising above the city.
The Houston Symphony Chorus was invited to sing with the Prague Symphony Orchestra for their season-closing program, which featured the Te Deum by the beloved Czech composer Antonín Dvořák and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The tour was announced in November of 2015, and I spent a significant part of the following year and a half helping to organize the logistics.
The Chorus was also asked to participate in the Smetanova Litomysl Festival, which takes place annually in the small town where composer Bedrich Smetana was born. Citizens of the Czech Republic take great pride in their musical heritage, and we were delighted to learn several months before our departure that all three of our performances were sold out.
How do you get to Smetana Hall? Practice, practice, practice!
Before we could board the plane to Prague, we had a lot of work to do! During the month of May, the Houston Symphony Chorus premiered a brand new work by our composer-in-residence, Gabriela Lena Frank, and helped bid adieu to outgoing Principal Pops conductor Michael Krajewski in his Classic Broadway concert. In order to prepare for our tour in addition to all of our engagements with the Symphony, we scheduled extra rehearsals on Sunday afternoons, plus Monday through Friday evenings the week before we departed. Preparing and polishing the music was grueling, but our director, Betsy Cook Weber, led us through it with a smile—and her impeccable ear! By the time we were ready to depart, I had gotten to know the tour choir quite well and was looking forward to traveling with my 81 fellow singers and their guests.
On Sunday, June 11, we were off! I only caught a few hours of sleep on the plane, but the adrenaline of shepherding the group to our closely-scheduled connecting flight at Heathrow kept me wide awake and chipper. As our plane descended into the Prague airport, my eyes were glued to the window as I took in the rolling green hills and red roofs of the Czech countryside for the first time.
Our first rehearsal with the Prague Symphony Orchestra was in Smetana Hall on Tuesday morning, and I ogled the pink marble and magnificent Art Nouveau chandeliers that adorned the lobby. The acoustic of the hall matched its decor—as we began the choral fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth, the warm, rich sound of the cellos and basses resonated beautifully throughout the hall. At that moment, I truly recognized what an honor it was to be singing with a renowned European orchestra in an historic hall, whose ornately decorated walls had heard the echoes of Beethoven’s Ninth hundreds of times before.
A Czech Ode to Joy
The night of our first performance, we walked to the hall together in a conspicuous parade of black gowns and tuxedos that must have looked funny to the passing crowds of tourists. As we filed onstage, the audience clapped from the appearance of the very first singer until the very last assumed his place. I was exhilarated as soon as I heard the opening triplets of the timpani in Dvořák’s Te Deum, which is one of my favorite choral-orchestral works. The Chorus embodied the wildly joyful spirit of the piece with ease—we had made it to Prague, and we were singing Czech music with a Czech orchestra! I could not stop grinning during the finale, as the majestic brass fanfare leads the listener up to the gates of heaven.
During the final movement of Beethoven’s 9th, the hall fell into a rapt silence at the first, quiet statement of the “Ode to Joy” theme. When the full Chorus finally chimed in with the theme, many Chorus members were moved to tears. Maestro took a blistering pace for the ending Presto section. It’s one of the most thrilling moments in the classical canon as excitement builds and erupts within the chorus and orchestra. The audience applauded for a full four minutes as the Maestro, Betsy, and the soloists were all presented with flowers. Our second and final performance with the Prague Symphony Orchestra was just as well-received.
When we weren’t singing, Chorus members had time to discover Prague’s many charms, from drinking cheap beer and eating trdelník, a cylindrical cinnamon-sugar pastry, to going garnet shopping and visiting museums. I made a pilgrimage a few metro stops south to the 17th-century fortress Vysehrad, which enclosed the cemetery where both Dvořák and Smetana are buried. I will never forget the melodious sound of the noon bells tolling as I wandered through it to pay my respects at Dvořák’s resting place.
On our last full day, we piled into buses to ride to Litomysl for our festival performance. The Chorus sang in the breathtaking Piarist Church of the Finding of the Holy Cross, and all singers soldiered on admirably through our marathon three-hour rehearsal of Mozart’s Mass in C, Dvořák’s Te Deum, Bernstein’s Missa Brevis and four American spirituals.
Our hard work paid off during the concert, and we received a true standing ovation, a rare gesture for European audiences. Maestro was an effusive, young Czech gentleman, and it was clear that he put his heart and soul into the music he conducted, which was reflected in the Chorus’ enthusiastic singing. I could not stop the tears from falling during the Te Deum’s jubilant “Alleluia.” I realized how beautiful it was for the maestro to conduct the music of his homeland and how privileged we were to be a part of that.
At our farewell dinner that evening, toasts were made and the last liters of Czech beer were drunk to celebrate our successful tour. The Chorus members and their guests had an overwhelmingly positive response to the trip, and I know that many of the singers shared a transformational musical experience that strengthened the bonds within the group. I am excited to share a glimpse of Prague with the Houston Symphony when we perform Dvořák’s Te Deum again in September, and I look forward to the next adventure that brings our voices and our hearts together.