Monday, March 07, 2011

European Choir Tour

The call went out two years ago.  The Moravian Music Foundation (MMF) was planning a choir tour to Prague, Herrnhut, and other Moravian locations in central Europe, and singers were wanted.  My decision to register for the tour was, as the youth term it, a “no-brainer.”  The opportunity to sing in historic churches in locations central to our Moravian heritage was not to be missed.
Gradually the planned tour took shape and substance.  The dates were set for July 9 through July 19, 2010.  Dr. John Sinclair, the immensely talented conductor of our Moravian Music Festivals, had agreed to direct the tour choir.  There would be places for up to sixty singers, and an instrumental ensemble would travel with us to provide accompaniment.  Singers who had already made the commitment to participate were encouraged to attend the 2009 Moravian Music Festival in Charlotte, North Carolina, in order to learn some of the anthems to be included in the tour repertoire.  The Festival also proved to be a good recruitment tool for additional participants.
As details were confirmed and communicated, excitement grew.  Emails flew back and forth, announcing the final decision on repertoire, sharing packing tips, setting regional rehearsal dates, reminding us of the myriad details we needed to keep in mind in order to make it a successful tour.  At last we gathered from across the U.S. and Canada, descending on Bethlehem, PA, for two days of intense rehearsal before departing for Europe.  Our company included forty-five in the choir, ten instrumentalists, and an assortment of non-singing spouses providing invaluable support.
Saturday evening we presented our concert to a warmly receptive audience at Bethlehem Central Moravian Church.  The next morning we participated in the worship service at Central.  The Rev. Dr. Nola Reed Knouse, director of the MMF, demonstrated her versatility by playing flute in the ensemble and preaching the sermon.  Both her musical and her pastoral skills were a great inspiration to us throughout the time of the tour.  Following lunch and a visit to the Moravian Archives in Bethlehem, we loaded onto buses for the drive to JFK Airport, where we boarded the plane for Prague.  It was the beginning of an amazing spiritual and musical adventure.
 The tour planners had arranged our schedule to include a mix of sight-seeing and concert-giving.  Prague is a beautiful city, with a wide variety of fascinating sites.  Crossing the Charles Bridge, now open only to foot traffic, is rather like strolling through an outdoor sculpture museum.  The bridge itself dates from the mid-fourteenth century, the cornerstone’s having been laid on 135797531 – that is, in the year 1357, on 9 July, at 5:31 in the morning.  The statue of Jan Hus which stands in the middle of the central plaza in the Old City holds special significance both for the Czech people, who regard Hus as a national hero, and for members of the Moravian Church, who know Hus as the spiritual forebear of the ancient Unitas Fratrum.
Our tour of the city also took us to the Strahov Library, where volumes are stored dating back to the earliest years of the printed book.  The room containing “banned books”, that is, writings which were deemed by Roman Catholic authorities to be heretical, includes many of the works of John Amos Comenius, a prominent bishop of the ancient Unity who is regarded as the father of modern education.  He was the first to include illustrations in textbooks, and taught that children learned more if they were treated kindly and nurtured in their studies than if they were beaten.
The two concerts that we sang in Prague were part of the Charitas Concert Series.  One of our tour guides asked if we noticed that most of the audience was clearly local people.  Then he explained that during the time of the Communist government, the arts were heavily subsidized.  Folks could regularly attend excellent concerts for little or no fee.  Now ticket prices are governed by the free market and tourist trade, making many concerts too expensive for the average local inhabitant.  The Charitas series provides free concerts for those who miss the ready access to cultural events that they once enjoyed.  It was an added pleasure to realize that we were providing a part of this service for the people of Prague.
Our visit to Chalice Rocks was definitely one of the most moving highlights of the tour.  This is a very rugged area near the German-Czech border where members of the ancient Unitas Fratrum could gather to worship in relative safety during the time of persecution.  The terrain reminded me of Devil’s Den at the Gettysburg battle field, with its huge boulders and steep, slippery pathways.  The stronger and more sure-footed of our group lined the path, assisting those of us who needed a supporting hand, so that all were able to make the journey and gather to sing where our ancestors worshipped so many centuries ago.
At last we arrived at Herrnhut.  I had visited that storied village only once before, in 1985, four years before the Berlin wall fell.  Then the buildings were gray and depressing, showing the ravages of decades of deferred maintenance.  The congregation struggled against the oppression of the Communist regime.  As one of the pastors explained to us on this visit, it was a time when every young person knew that choosing to be confirmed in the church meant giving up any chance for higher education and a good-paying job.
Today the town appears to be thriving.  The buildings are bright and freshly painted.  There is still work to be done, but hope permeates the community.  Our concert was a benefit for the congregation’s fundraising toward a new organ for the sanctuary.  International visitors can move freely around the town and countryside, immersing themselves in Moravian history.  The Unity Archives building features a state-of-the-art climate controlled wing to house the valuable manuscripts collected there.  In nearby Berthelsdorf a foundation is busily restoring Count Zinzendorf’s manor house. 
The dreams and plans of two years’ making came to marvelous fulfillment.  For nine days we prayed and sang our way through some of the most significant spots in Moravian history.  It was a privilege and a delight to be part of the tour. 

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