As I sit on the train to my next performance and master class in Rimini, Italy , with the Alps slowly receding into rolling hills and fields, lakes with morning fog holding close, I’d like to capture some of my thoughts on my last week in the picturesque town of Fussen.
After days of rehearsals, program and musical revisions, and sound checks; after the post concert party, where we held toasts, hugged, and where I said goodbye to some who, sadly, I probably will never see again, soprano Janet Chvatal and I sat alone for a few minutes, and she reminded me why we were here.
Since she moved to Germany, Janet has been actively involved with a group that helps families whose children have cancer (Kinderkrebshilfe Königswinkel www.kinderkrebshilfe-koenigswinkel.de.She told me of the people she had seen at the concert, some of whom had lost children to the disease. We talked about how random and cruel it is that this disease afflicts the truly innocent, and about the bravery with which these families face what must be, for a parent, the most difficult situation that life can deliver.
We held two concerts, both benefitting the Kinderkrebshilfe Königswinkel, in the Singers Hall at the historic Castle Nueschwanstein (yes, the castle Disney replicated).This Castle dominates not only the view from almost everywhere in Fussen, but the hearts and minds of Bavarians, as well as the 7,000-10,000 who visit it each day. The first evening was a formal event featuring singers Janet Marie Chvatal, Marc Gremm, Malte Arkona, a Bavarian orchestra lead by conductor and violinist John Arthur Westerdoll, guitarist and lutenist Thomas Konigs, and yours truly. I had, what seemed like, the bulk of the stage time—playing three movements from Bach’s First Cello Suite, Nessun Dorma, (Puccini) and Abendstern, (Wagner) Deh Vieni, (Mozart) Going Home, (Dvorak) Habanera, (Bizet) O Mio Babbino Caro (Puccini) —all arranged by me, some just for this performance. I also performed the Bachianas Brasilerias (Villa-Lobos) with singers Janet Chvatal and Marc Gremm. Thomas Konig and I played his duet version of Asturias (Albeniz) that he had transcribed for two guitars, and we shared the Variations on a Theme of Mozart (Sor) with singers Janet, Marc and Malte Arkona, and orchestra, in a premiere arrangement of this popular guitar solo. There were also string quartets, Tyroler performers, and a harpist who performed in different parts of the Castle as guests arrived.
Travel to Europe from the states can be daunting, and this was no exception. I arrived in Fussen in the late afternoon on Tuesday, and was whisked to a pre-rehearsal party at the home of the conductor, (and BBQ master) John Westeroll.As the guests arrived, John showed me his home, which was over 500 years old. It’s astonishing to think of the lives that passed through this rooms.
I got to meet Karen Markwardt, an engaging woman who would be our moderator for the second concert for the families of Fussen. Karen worked as the host for Karen in Action, a children’s show in Germany, and is now filming a series of documentaries for German television. Karen also grew up in Fussen and is a celebrity there as well as in Germany. As a young girl, she worked as a guide for the Castle Neuschwanstein.
I’d seen the castle many times on my previous visits to Fussen (mostly performing in the Festpielhaus). It’s actually hard to miss seeing the castle, from most of Fussen. But I had never actually been inside the castle before.
As luck would have it, Karen had room in her car, so the two of us started up to the castle, which was now closed to the public for the evening. Fortunately Marc and Janet were detained, and Karen had time to take me on a quick personal tour. She waved to security people, she passed through the “Authorized Personnel Only” doors with only a charming smile, and we found ourselves in the castle itself. Karen said we needed to head to the balcony (where visitors aren’t allowed) of the Throne Room in order to see the sunset.
As we stood on the balcony, Karen pointed out the small community below in which she grew up,the lake she swam in, and the school she attended. The sun hit a cloud formation—it fought to shimmer through, illuminating the formation in a way that was nothing short of heavenly.
As we walked inside, I asked if taking pictures was allowed, and Karen said no it wasn’t, but to go ahead and take a few.Tripping over my guitar case and backpack full of music, I took as many as I could. Paintings gracing the walls captivated my attention. The King surrounded himself with art and music. None other than Richard Wagner had graced this castle. The evening rehearsals (and sound check) with Marc and Janet were held in the Castle. I don’t know if was the surroundings (having been transformed from my home of Portland to a land of deep history in less than 30 hours), or the intense jet lag I was feeling (it was now 5 a.m. back home, and I had already been up for 26 hours), but the rehearsal with Marc and Janet was taxing to say the least. Fortunately, they forgave my lapses.
After the rehearsal, Janet received a call from John Westerdoll —I was invited back to their home, where Miriam and their friends from Fussen and England were still engaged in drinking and song. We sat up late and drank—surely a merry bunch. Janet and Marc had, wisely, already gone home.A thunderstorm delivered rain, and we scurried inside and sat around a beautiful table in what was once a livery stable. I was asked if I would play something, and I played the Prelude from Bach’s first Cello Suite, and tried Nessun Dorma only to have my memory fail me completely. I had been up for well over a day and a half now, and the beer wasn’t helping.
Finally, it was time to go home (2 a.m.), and two of the guests offered to walk me back to my hotel. Arm-in-arm, we walked the quiet cobblestoned streets of Fussen to my wonderful abode at the Hotel Sonnes. Finally, to bed!
The Hotel Sonnes is located in the heart of Fussen – wonderful accomodations and what a history. This hotel has been in the same family for five generations and we had a number of lively discussions with the owners (including 99 yr old Frita).
The hotel has a number of pictures of Janet and Marc but my favorite is this one – a true sign that one has arrived!
For the next few days it was the same grueling schedule: waking up to a severe case of dizziness, disorientation and nausea, wondering if I was too old for this, and running downstairs to fill myself with as much breakfast as I could (trying to save money on the road is a musician’s compulsion that one never outgrows).
In the afternoon, it was off to rehearsals with Marc, Janet, and Thomas Koenigs, my fellow guitarist. I had been told to prepare certain repertoire with the knowledge that it may change, and of course, it did. Pieces were added and subtracted daily, and all notes had to be made in pencil.
After these rehearsals, I’d usually go back to myl hotel room and take a nap, after which I would awake worse off than I had in the morning. The heat was unbearable—multiple showers were required each day. I woke up on a few occasions and thought to myself, “I think I’m dying.”
In the evenings, it was time for a quick meal, and then off to the evening rehearsal with guitarist Thomas, the singers, and the orchestra, followed by drinks at the hotel. Bedtime usually occurred by 2 or 3 a.m.
I was excited about the first orchestra rehearsal, as we were doing an arrangement of the Variations of a Theme of Mozart by Fernando Sor for two guitars, singers, and orchestra. Thomas and I approached the stage (we had decided to alternate the variations—I gave him the hardest one, which he pulled off brilliantly, as well as the Introduction).As Thomas finished the Introduction, the orchestra entered, and something seemed off. He and I immediately looked at each other as we realized the orchestra was in the wrong key. The arrangement had been made in ‘G’ major, not ‘E’ major. Our rehearsal with the orchestra ended after only minutes, while Janet and Marc got on the phone with the arranger. The new parts did arrive the next morning, and so one day behind meant we would have only one rehearsal—the night before the performance!
On day three of my visit, I took my morning to visit with guitarist Nicolas Kyriakouand a few of his students that he’d graciously gathered together. The Europeans take their holiday season seriously, so rounding up three guitarists was a big task. Nicolas and I drove to his Music School through some of the most beautiful scenery one could imagine—rolling hills outlined by the Alps, and almost always, the Neuschwanstein Castle somewhere in view.
We had a great discussion, and it became apparent that Nicolas was eager to talk technique. In fact, we agreed on a great many things — rare amongst guitarists! His students were darling, and we went through hand position and movement, finger sweeps (flex-relax-extend), as well as alternation exercises. Then each student played me a piece, and I left them with some ideas on practicing.
Nicolas then took me to his home for lunch with his lovely wife Barbara (who also plays violin in the orchestra). His home has some of the most amazing views of the Alps I’ve ever seen.
After each evening rehearsal, we found ourselves back at the Hotel Sonnes. Generously, Markus Richter, of the Neuschwanstein Castle had arranged that I would be the guest of the Castle—and the owners were no less hospitable. We all sat up into the wee hours of the morning, the beer flowing.The discussions were wide-ranging and lively. I met Vivian, who was an expert in both raw food and single malt scotches. John Westerdoll and his lovely girlfriend Miriam Dunja Berraissoul (an actress and songwriter) were effortlessly charming. Traditional Tyrolean performers would spontaneously break into song, and at one point, John led them in a traditional song “for Scott.” I promised myself that I would retire early, but each night I would usually get to bed around 3 a.m.
On the first night, we performed for a “serious” audience, and the second night we performed for families, weaving our way through the children sitting eagerly on the floor. Holding the concerts at the Castle added a special twist to parking. Guests and musicians arrived at the base of the mountain and another Castle, and were carted up by bus to the Neuschwanstein Castle. If you’d like to watch a slide show of the performance go to this link: Neuschwanstein Castle Performance 2011 Slide Show (A slideshow of my entire trip follows this article).
Friday, the day of the first performance, was the most relaxing of all days—no rehearsal! My jet lag had finally seemed to recede. I took an afternoon espresso, smoked a wonderful Cohiba Cuban cigar, and headed back to my room for a nap.
Our dressing rooms at the Castle were away from the orchestra, and we had a couple of people who were our attendants, bringing us water and juice, and guiding us to the stage, dressed in traditional Bavarian wardrobe and always smiling.
I wouldn’t say that I was nervous, but I was feeling a bit reclusive, and so the private room was welcomed. It would have been very easy to become distracted by the surroundings and I really wanted to save my energy and concentration, at least for the first performance.Thomas opened the program with three works by Dowland (played on lute). It was beautifully charming to hear the lute in this elegant hall, and he played wonderfully, in the style and with warm emotion.
Then I came on and played the Prelude, Sarabande and Gigue from the 1st Cello Suite; followed by O mio Babbino Cara and the Habanera and Bachianias Brasilieras with Janet; Deh Vieni by Mozart and Abendstern by Wagner with Marc Gremm.This last work was especially challenging, as I kept remembering that Wagner himself sat in this room listening to singers, and I wondered what he would think of my arrangement of it for guitar. It was wonderful working with Marc—I just love his voice—and working again with Janet was magical. For eleven years we actively toured, and although we haven’t performed together since 2004, it was as familiar as ‘hand-in-glove.’ I had nearly forgotten how much I enjoy the purity of her voice, her musicianship, and her genuine love for the audience.
Then Thomas joined me for his arrangement of Asturias for two guitars.This was a hard piece to learn, because we split parts that I’m used to playing by myself. He certainly forgave my jumping about a bit, and he handled my surprise entrances with ease.
The finale of the program was the Sor Variations for two guitars, three singers, and orchestra. This was also very confusing, as our notes were altered many times in the ONE rehearsal we had with the orchestra, and I jumped in on a variation early, but Thomas followed me—Thank you, Thomas! Admittedly this could have been due, in part, to the fact that all discussions were in German, and I had to ‘play it by ear’ many times.
The audience was nothing short of enthusiastic both nights—clapping in unison for a very, very long time—and after many bows, we all finally left the stage, gathered our gear, and headed back to the hotel on the bus. I felt like a rock star on the bus as everyone patted me on the back, shook my hand, and gave me compliments. One group from Vienna said they have never heard such tenderness from a classical guitarist, and my Nessun Dorma brought goosebumps (or as they say in Bavaria—goose pimples).
We ended the night with more beer than I’d like to confess to with the owners of the hotel, their son Victor, and John, and Miriam. Finally, it was time for bed again at about 3 a.m.
I woke up feeling NO effects of jet lag or the beer (I was becoming known as a ‘party animal’), as I headed down for breakfast, ran back to my room, and practiced a few passages for that evening’s performance and for the program I had coming up for Italy. Janet came by and took me to her and Marc’s beautiful apartment for lunch, where I enjoyed a panoramic view of the Alps, and an espresso. Then it was back to the hotel (where I ran into a sweet couple who had been at the performance) then a quick nap. Oh, gotta run to the train station to confirm my tickets for the morning!This second evening’s concert had a very informal and relaxed feel, shortened musically, with Karen Markwardt joining in as narrator. She’s a natural, and the children adore her. On this evening’s concert, the singers dressed in costume, and the looks on the children’s faces were priceless. They oo-ed and ah-ed and were as captivated as if the singers were the actual characters they meant to portray. You have to understand, opera to most Europeans is like folk music to Americans:they know the librettos, the music, and its part in their culture, and the music came alive for the children that night.
I certainly felt more relaxed, and totally ‘on.’ Karen’s interview of me brought laughs (I kept answering using my only official German phrase “schoen sie kennen zu lernen”—”good to meet you.” I showed the audience my nails. My solos were solid, and the duets a little tighter. The Sor Variations were fantastic, except for one spot. I was so enthralled by the singers that I forgot my insertion passage in Thomas’s variation number 2.When my part came (singers, Thomas and orchestra immediately drop out), I was simply listening. All eyes turned to me as the music came to an abrupt halt. I jumped out of my seat— ‘OHHHH! ‘— and the place erupted. We restarted the variation, and played the rest of the work intact. People afterward swore it was part of the act. What fun. As the audience left, we retreated to yet another party, a cast party, this time in the Castle, where we shared more beer, food, and sad goodbyes. Bavarians are some of the warmest people I’ve met, and relationships borne out of deep discussions about life and music make for some very lasting friendships. Fortunately, I’m returning after my week in Rimini, to meet my wife Teresa in Fussen. I have a couple of private performances in addition to and more time in the Bavarian Alps with friends!
So needless to say, the ‘cast’ party went very late, and three lovely women whom I had not yet met drove me to my hotel at 2:30 a.m. Leaving for Rimini at 7:00 a.m. was, in retrospect a very bad idea. With four alarms set, I went to sleep for my common European sleep pattern of 3-4 hours!
And off to Rimini.