Munich, Germany


Dear Readers,

Grusse!

I’m writing from the airport in Munich, on my way out of town at the end of a 3-concert minitour with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.

I’m happy to report that Munich, which can be very dark and clammy at this time of year, was fresh and clear the whole time I was there, though it did get awfully cold at times. I came a few days early and roamed around the city, ducking into my favorite wooden ornament shop several times to buy presents for various people back home; wandering around nearby streets and shops; going grocery shopping.

Everywhere I went, there were crowds of people – which is typical for Bavaria, a favored vacation area for Germans from the north. But one day in particular was more crowded than the others: around noon, near the Marienplatz (the large public square in front of the town hall), I found myself walking along with a large mass of policepeople in riot gear. Some of them were pacing back and forth; others were taking up positions behind big transport vans. It turned out that there was an international trade conference in Munich that day, and crowds of protesters were expected all around the city. Some shops were even boarded up to protect the windows, but – fortunately – nothing happened where I was.

Wandering further, I came across a large and picturesque outdoor ice rink near the Marienplatz, supplied by local food and drink vendors. It was lunchtime, so I bought a true German hot dog and stood by the side of the rink munching my lunch as I watched the skaters pass by. A typical crowd there: the kids as stiff as penguins, plopping to the ice in puffy down jackets and oversized skates; the grownups zipping here and there in hockey skates, spraying ice in all directions.

I said that what brought me to Munich was a minitour with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the orchestra based in Munich that gave me my first German concerts seven years ago. The order of the tour was kind of backwards, as it turned out: usually an orchestra rehearses and plays its home concerts first, then goes on tour, then returns home to rest. This time, though, after my initial vacation time was over, we rehearsed for two days in Munich; then, on the third day, we traveled across the Austrian border to Vienna for our first concert, then we came back to Munich for the final two concerts there. It worked out fine. Franz Welser-Most was conducting, and I played Prokofiev Concerto #2.

The hall in which the orchestra and I played in Vienna was the Musikverein, a beautiful, beautiful place. It’s an old wooden hall, dating from the 1880s, where many of the musicians I admire the most have performed over the years. It’s ornately decorated, and nicely antiqued by age. The wood on the surface of the stage is worn and buffed from decades of use, and the wooden music stands are chipped and beat-up in an attractive way. I don’t know a single musician who dislikes playing there.

For some reason, though, before I got onstage that day, Vienna was a comedy of errors for me. On the afternoon of the concert day, in the process of seeking out some pre-concert dinner food, I got completely lost. I’d brought a map with me, but somehow I’d managed to rip the hotel out of the picture, so I couldn’t use it to find my way back. I did remember the name of the hotel – something that I can’t always do when I’m traveling around a lot – so, after a bit of guessing and after following some very wrong directions, I glanced at my watch, caught a cab, returned to the hotel an hour later than I’d intended, and squeezed a nap into the time remaining before I had to run off to the hall.

Once at the hall, I’d just begun practicing in my dressing room when someone knocked loudly on my door and told me I’d have to go somewhere else to practice, because I was being too loud. He said that an important meeting was taking place next door and I was bothering them. Wishing only to practice, I packed up my violin, went down the hall, and found another room that was empty. I’d just gotten down to work there, when suddenly somebody else appeared apologizing profusely, telling me I could certainly go back to the room. So I packed my violin back up and came back to my dressing room, only to find that, now, the folks next door were too loud for me. I couldn’t concentrate, but I didn’t have time to change rooms again, so I shut the noise out of my mind and got on with my work. That experience was a first for me – but that’s life, if you make your living making noise: it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been playing, or where you are – if you’re an instrumentalist, you’re always going to have problems with our neighbors!

The only other unexpected turn of events in Vienna happened when I forgot that the dressing rooms in the Musikverein are much as they were constructed 120 years ago: attractive, simple rooms, with no sink, no shower, no coathangers, and public bathrooms available only down the hall. When I came back from the sound check, with only an hour or so to go before walking onstage, I found that I needed to steam some wrinkles out of my concert dress – but with no shower and no clothes hangers, that wasn’t possible in the usual way. So I spread the dress out and smoothed it over a chair, where it sat for half an hour, and that did the trick. It was one of my more unusual concert days, but it worked out fine. Once I got onstage, everything went perfectly smoothly – the public was a warm one, the acoustics were top-notch, and the atmosphere in the concert was invigorating. Even the female statues holding up the first-floor balcony seemed to be smiling. So Shakespeare was right: All’s well that ends well!

The next day we returned to Munich for two concerts in the Herkulessaal (“Hercules’ Hall”), the largest concert hall in a downtown castle called the Residenz. The Herkulessaal couldn’t be more different in appearance from the Musikverein: instead of being brown and wooden and ornate, it’s an all-marble hall, grey, deep and rectangular, with wall-hangings and a very long echo. Like the Musikverein, though, when it’s full of people (as it was for both our Munich concerts), the Herkulessaal has just the right resonance, and is a great place to play.

The last Munich concert was last night, and now, it’s on to my next destination, which is… hmmm. I’m drawing a blank. Oh yes, my ticket says “New York”! I’ll write you next from there.

Yours from Vienna,

Hilary