On the way to Prague

It took us 6-7 hours to drive 200 miles because of terrible traffic jams due to road construction—on a Sunday yet!

It was a travel day so we left the hotel with our bags to drive to Prague, about 200 miles away. A few days ago, our tour director, Paul Vladu, took some time to tell us about life under Communism. He was born in Romania and someone mistyped his last name on his birth certificate, adding a ‘U’ to his family name of “Vlad.” You see, his brother and father have the last name of “Vlad,” but Paul’s last name is “Vladu” because that is what his birth certificate says, and nothing can be done about it!

He said that there were only two good things about Communism: 1) Everyone gets a good education; and 2) Everyone can be guaranteed a job so there is no unemployment.

Paul trained and worked as a civil engineer for ten years. But because there were 10 other civil engineers at his place of work, he spent his whole time reworking plans for the same building.

The economic fallacy was that all people are equal and all people should be paid equally, whether you are an engineer, a teacher, a policeman or a waitress. Because of this policy, people tended to have a very negative attitude—no motivation and no creativity to do a good job.

The motto was “You can pretend to pay me and I can pretend to work!”

Ever since the fall of communism in 1989, Paul has worked as a tour director. Before 1989 no one was allowed to travel. Now he has visited over 100 countries in the last 25 years, but unfortunately he has never visited Hawaii.

At lunch in Mikulov at a restaurant with a grapevine pergola.

So today everyone on the tour got up and had the opportunity to say a few words about themselves. We started out with 29 people (one woman had to leave to attend to a dying mother) with all but two from the United States; the other two are from Toronto, Canada. The rest are from Washington, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Georgia, New Jersey, New York, and I am from Hawaii. We have a wide range of ages—from a young girl going into the 6th grade traveling with her parents and college age brother to retired people in their mid-70s.

Lednice Castle

Along the way we toured a spectacular castle at Lednice with French-style gardens and interiors with exquisite woodwork which interlocked and used not a single nail! Look at this beautiful staircase!

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Happy music

Happy music. That is how one of my fellow GoAhead travelers described the concert we heard at the Palais Palffy, the very same site where Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart performed here with his sister, Nannerl, in 1762. That would make him 6 years old.

The concert hall seats about 200 people and as far as I can tell, every seat was taken. The building was first mentioned in the 14th century archives and was owned by Count Paul Eberhard Palffy and family until the 19th century. It was damaged in World War II but was restored to its former glory.The ensemble consisted of three violins, one viola, one cello, one flute and on piano. There was also a soprano and baritone, and a male and female ballet dancer. 

The musicians played on modern instruments and were technically flawless. The flute player was absolutely virtuosic with incredible technique to play extremely fast.

They were dressed in period costumes for the first half which was all Mozart and in concert black for the second half which was all Johann Strauss.

As you know I can be quite critical of musical performances and there were two things which were a little strange. The first was the concert ‘A’ sounded by the pianist. She played ‘A’ then added ‘F’ ‘D’ (this is typical in the US at chamber music concerts) but then she added a ‘B’ natural, creating a B minor diminished seventh chord! This I have never heard before.

The second unusual thing was the combination of three violins and flute combining together to play the melody. This made the ensemble top-heavy (a little screamy) in my opinion, against one viola, cello and piano. 

Of course, all the Top Ten of Mozart and Strauss were played, most all in super fast and breathless tempos, especially for the flute player. But, the ensemble was perfect and nobody got left behind.

The concert ended with a rendition of the famous Radetsky March with the audience clapping in unison. Everyone went home happy!

Here is a performance of the Vienna Philharmonic playing this piece.

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A day in Bratislava

The day began with a high-speed ferry boat ride on the Danube River to the town of Bratislava in the country of Slovakia. It just so happens that Bratislava is the capital city of Slovakia, and is located on the border of Austria and Hungary, which is highly unusual. So one of the very first sights our local guide took us to see was across from the Bratislava Castle—and that was a viewpoint in which you could see three different countries in one glance: Austria, Hungary, and Slovakia.

You can see Austria, Slovakia and Hungary from this viewpoint.

We were told several times that there is no more “Czechoslovakia”—that was during the Soviet years. Now there are two separate countries: the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

The Bratislava Castle

We spent most of the day in old town Bratislava and toured the neoclassical Primate’s Palace with its own, rather small Hall of Mirrors. Most of the rooms were empty of furniture but we did see some well-preserved tapestries, which meant that the colors were still intact and had not faded.

A sculpture of a man popping out of a manhole.

I have to say that outside of the first two days, the weather has been uncomfortably hot and humid, and nowhere is the “air conditioning” really cool except in our hotel rooms. By the end of the day, I’m really wilted and wiped out. However we’ve been told that the weather is going to be cooler as we move to the Prague and Warsaw—thank God for that!

Tonight we’re going to a Mozart and Strauss program in which the performers will be wearing period costumes. However it is doubtful that they are using period instruments but we shall just have to wait and see.

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Mission to Einstadt

Ever since I researched the story of Joseph Haydn’s Kleinesorgelmesse which I played for the Hawaii Vocal Masterworks Festival a couple of weeks ago, I was bound and determined to seek out the town of Eisenstadt, especially since I was going to be in Vienna, 26 miles or 42 kilometers away. 

Bergkirche, Eisenstadt

Today my GoAhead tour activity ended about noon in the old town section of Vienna, so I took a subway ride to the Hauptbahnof (main train station) where I transferred to the train for Eisenstadt, which took about an hour and twenty minutes, including stops. 

It was miraculous that I found the right train platform because nowhere on my ticket or on the departure board was my destination listed. 

From there I took a taxi directly to the Bergkirche, or “hill church,” which was built by Prince Esterhazy in the early 18th century. It was here that Joseph Haydn worked for the Esterhazy family whose palace was just a short walk away. Apparently several of Haydn’s masses made their premieres in the Bergkirche.

Esterhazy Palace

You might know that my reason for finding this church was two-fold: one was to seek out Haydn’s tomb, which is in a side chapel of the church. Haydn’s body (without his head!) was buried here in 1932—his skull was stolen shortly after he died by gravediggers who wanted to study the anatomy of his brain! It has now been returned to this mausoleum with the rest of Haydn’s body. For further information, check out Haydn’s head.

Haydn’s tomb in the Bergkirche

The other reason for looking for this church was that I have signed up for the Hawaii Masterworks tour here next summer and supposedly we will be singing a concert in this very church!

Bergkirche organ

I did take a picture of the organ, built in the 18th century by Gottfried Malleck and now restored to its original state. The original console, though, is in the Haydn museum.

Franz Liszt

While walking around Eisenstadt, I also came upon a statue of composer and pianist, Franz Liszt.

I was also thrilled to find the Hospital Church where Haydn premiered the Kleinesorgelmesse which I played a couple of weeks ago. You may remember it is on the grounds of the Brothers of Mercy.

The Hospital Church

After walking around for awhile, I stopped at a nearby cafe to get something to eat. It was a case of not knowing what I was ordering since the menu was all in German and the only words I recognized were a reference to a kind of meat (I guessed) and potatoes. No one spoke English in the cafe. I was so pleased that I was able to order, ask for a drink and then a refill, then ask for the check—all within the confines of my 50-word German vocabulary!

I was also proud of myself for figuring out how to get on subway and train, and back again, and not getting lost!

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The enchanting city of Vienna

Schonbrunn Palace, Vienna

Our morning started with a little glitch in that the elevators were shut down when apparently the fire alarm must have gone off. Some in our group were therefore late coming to the bus because the stairwell doors coming down were also locked.

Our guide got a little nervous since we had a timed group ticket for Schonbrunn Palace. You see, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site and as such, they have to restrict the number of visitors.

At precisely 8:58 am we were allowed to enter the interior but were not able to take any photos inside. Even though we were at the front of the line a few minutes before, we had to just stand there and stare at the clock.

So I found this short video by Rick Steves (who happens to be a Lutheran, by the way!)

It was a little reminiscent of Versailles without the crowds, particularly the Hall of Mirrors. Somehow though its use of gold was a lot less, at least in the rooms we visited.

We were allowed, though, to take as many outdoor shots as we wanted in the time allotted.

After driving around the old part of the city, we came upon the Vienna Opera House. Although it is closed during the summer months we were told that no production is allowed to be presented two nights in a row. So even though they may do just 60 operas a season, they have to take down the stage set every night and replace it with another opera’s set for the next night. Also operas are presented every night. 

Obviously no private business could operate in this manner—the opera house is run by the state government.

Vienna Opera House

We had a short stop at the Hundertwasser House as you will read from Wikipedia:

Friedensreich Hundertwasser started out as a painter. Since the early 1950s, however, he increasingly became focused on architecture, writing and reading in public .’ advocating natural forms of decay.

In other words he advocated architecture in harmony with nature.

To some in our group the expressionist style of architecture was reminiscent of the Spanish Antoni Gaudi, whose La Sagrada Familia I visited last summer.

Even so I could have stayed a lot longer visiting the shopping stalls here and only came away with buying a magnet!

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Meanwhile, back home …

This weekend is the recital of my former student, Joey Fala, at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kula, Maui on July 8 at 6:30 pm. This is Joey’s second recital appearance there and you won’t want to miss his concert as he weaves his magic. I say “magic,” because one needs a lot of creativity to pull off a concert on this small organ which only has 11 stops.

Joey will also be playing both morning services at St. John’s the following day, July 9.

Then the following weekend, on Saturday, July 15, Joey will be playing a rededication concert at the refurbished Aeolian-Skinner organ at Kawaiahao Church in Honolulu. Little-known fact: Did you know that my very first concert in Hawaii took place on this organ in March of 1974? And that I was contracted to play this concert by Carl Crosier who was the Sub-Dean of the Hawaii Chapter of the American Guild of Organists … which began with a long and memorable phone conversation which in turn led to our getting married for 37 years, and you know the rest of the story!

Bonus tidbit: July 15, 2017 would have been our 40th wedding anniversary!

Anyway, here’s the background on this organ:

After years of deterioration due, in part, to age and Hawai’iʻs tropical climate, Kawaiaha’o Churchʻs Board of Trustees, in 2002, laid out an incremental plan to completely overhaul the church’s crown jewel, the 45 rank 1964 Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ. Organ builders who assisted in the refurbishing over the past 15 years were Meloni & Farrier, New York; Richard Houghten, Inc., Michigan; and tonal designer, Jim Gruber of Maui, Hawai’i and Illinois. 

Kawaiaha’o’s Aeolian-Skinner was preceded by two other instruments. The first, a tracker organ installed in 1867 by the Simmons & Company of Boston, Massachusetts. This instrument had the distinction of being played by Hawaiian royalty during Sunday services such as Queen Lili`uokalani, Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, and also by Henri Berger of Germany, who was also the Maestro of King Kalakaua’s Royal Hawaiian Band. The second instrument, a Hillgreen-Lane of Alliance, Ohio was installed in 1927 after fire ravished the interior of the sanctuary. 

It was not until 1960, when the Reverend Dr. Abraham Kahikina Akaka realizing the need for a more substantial and versatile instrument set in motion plans to replace the Hillgreen-Lane. The prestigious Aeolian- Skinner Organ Company, known as the Rolls Royce of American organ builders of Boston, Massachusetts, was awarded a contract, by vote of the congregants, to build this magnificent instrument, Opus 1429. The organ was installed and dedicated in 1964. Funds for the project were primarily made through contributions by its generous church members and friends.

Joey’s third concert will be Sunday, July 23rd at 4:00 pm at St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church in Kailua, HI, as a part of their rededication recitals on the J. W. Walker & Sons tracker organ. You might recall that Mark Wong and I played the first concert on this instrument last May after it was completely overhauled by Hans-Ulrich Erbsloeh this past spring. 

(I am sorry to say that I have not been given a poster for this concert.)

Joey will also be playing July 23 and 30 at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church on University Avenue, Honolulu. for their 9:00 am Sunday services.

I have also arranged for Joey to teach my students while I’m gone. That’s what you call a real busman’s holiday!

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Last day in Hungary

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Last night we enjoyed a dinner cruise on the Danube river, an “extra” tour made available by our tour director Paul. I’m so glad I went!

It was almost magical as the illuminated buildings and bridges seemed to come alive. Paul told us none of the buildings and bridges were lit during the Communist era, so this is all been done only since 1989.

As for the dinner, it was typical Hungarian fare and really delicious.

I wanted to mention some of the differences between life in the United States versus Eastern Europe. For one thing, breakfast is included in the cost of the room. And what a sumptuous breakfast it is here at the Grand Hotel Margitszekit.  It has as many dishes as I’ve ever seen at a hotel breakfast buffet.

The price you see on an item is the price you pay; there are no taxes added. I have to be taken aback, though, by the huge numbers on price tags: I bought a Budapest T-shirt for 4000 Hungarian forints: that’s only $14.72.

Yet many things are not free, such as ketchup or mustard for a hot dog, drinking water in a restaurant, or even going to a public toilet—you have to pay.

Because of a mechanical problem we had to wait for another bus and were not able to leave our hotel until 11:00. We stopped in a 1000-year old village called Szentendre where there were many vendor stalls to do window shopping. We climbed up a narrow pathway and came upon a church of St. John the Evangelist; I took a bunch of pictures of the interior including of course, the organ with blue painted pipes.

I also took a video of a female street musician playing an inverted steel drum, labeled a space drum.

After a stop in Visegrad for lunch, it was not until after 7 pm that we arrived in our modern and very upscale hotel in Vienna, where we went immediately to a welcome dinner with cream of celery soup, Wienerschnitzel with parsleyed potatoes, and a pear pancake for dessert.



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A walk behind the Iron Curtain


A Holocaust memorial along the Danube river shows the shoes of the Jewish people who were shot and whose bodies fell into the icy river.

Today we visited many statues and memorials devoted to the Nazi and Soviet occupation of Hungary pre-1989. Even though technically the Iron Curtain was a border between countries and not between sections of Budapest, our visit started from across the Parliament building which still shows the bullets made by police shooting at the crowd during the 1956 uprising.

The Hungarian people really suffered during this period. Food was strictly rationed, and people had to go without soap or other essentials. Many people only ate lard on bread.

Markers show where soldiers’ bullets hit the building.

Our local tour director Andrea told of her own family experiences which made the experience all too real. Her own grandmother was imprisoned on a trivial charge and her grandfather was in a labor camp.

President Ronald Reagan

Imre Nagy, Hungarian prime minister during the revolution

The most sobering experience happened at the ‘House of Terror’ museum which is located in the same building used by the Nazi Secret Service and later by the Soviet KGB to interrogate, condemn and execute hundreds of innocent Hungarians. The worst of it for me started with a 3-minute elevator ride during which a video was shown of a former guard describing in detail the whole execution process, ending with a tour of the actual prison cells in the basement. We saw tiny cells which were used to deprive prisoners of sleep by not allowing them to move from anything but a standing position, with nails protruding underneath their feet. Other cells were continually damp, and we were told that when your shoes and socks are constantly wet, your skin will come off when the wet socks are removed. We also saw portraits of the people who used to stay in these cells.

A tank is shown with portraits of the people who died here.

Because we were not allowed to take photographs inside the museum, I found this video on YouTube which shows the interior of many rooms.

Honestly, I think what heightened the profoundly disturbing experience was the somber music piped into individual rooms, consisting of musical sequences which never resolved (for you music theory types, those are called deceptive cadences!)

The bright part of the morning excursion was when we visited a local coffee shop and were given the choice of any dessert found in the case below. I picked the raspberry one!

In the afternoon, Charles and Laurie Wheeler and I went back to visit the Cave Church which we missed yesterday. The natural cave was about 10 deg. cooler than the outside and was founded in 1926, by a group of Pauline monks after a pilgrimage to Lourdes, France. I’m guessing that the acoustics in the cave would be great for music! I felt tempted to sing a couple of notes to test it out, but chickened out because of the other visitors to the church.

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Going vertical 

Today’s physical activity

In spite of being awake since 12:30 am last night, I managed to get through a busy day which began with a Budapest city tour. Boy, was I shocked at the end of the day when I opened up the Health app on my phone!

See the first entry: Flights climbed 24 floors!

I know for a fact that we climbed 133 steps at the beautiful Parliament building, our first stop this morning. Can you imagine our Congress conducting business in such a gilded and ornamented space? In spite of its baroque appearance, the space features all the latest electronic voting and tabulation.

We also visited Matthias Church on the top of the hill, which had a colorful tile roof and was highly decorated inside. It is important as the site of coronations and weddings.

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Organ in the Matthias Church.

What’s interesting is that during a period of 150 years the building served as an Islamic mosque, after being built as a Catholic Church. The walls were painted white and all its statues destroyed save for one of the Virgin Mary which the Muslims covered over with a wall. During a large earthquake the wall was destroyed, revealing the Virgin Mary statue. Soon after, the building was restored as a Catholic Church.

Charles and Laurie Wheeler

Of course I had to take a picture of the organ but unfortunately did not hear it.

We returned to the hotel for the afternoon where I got a much-needed nap before heading out in search of the Cave Church with new friends from Toronto, Charles and Laurie Wheeler.

At the Cave Church.

Alas, it had closed five minutes before we found it, after climbing up a steep hill while searching for it. Still we enjoyed a spectacular view as we climbed the mountain.

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Oh, my aching feet!

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It’s a l-o-o-o-n-g way to Budapest!

I am terrible at math but I think I calculated that it has taken me 38 hours to get from Honolulu to Budapest. On Saturday afternoon at 1:00 pm, Joey Fala’s parents were gracious enough to take me to the airport and in exchange, I gave them the keys to my life: my condo, my car, and the keys to the church as Joey will be teaching my organ students while I am away.

My itinerary started with a direct flight to Newark with a two hour layover. I got pretty excited when they closed the door to the airplane on my next flight to London and I found an empty seat next to me. Unfortunately the excitement didn’t last long because a flight attendant came to ask whether I would give up my seat for a couple who wanted to sit together. Sure, no problem. And wouldn’t you know it, the single seat was next to a couple with a baby. The flight attendant assured me that it was a nice baby!

Comforter from Saks Fifth Avenue

Anticipating an uncomfortable flight, I gave up my seat. In exchange I was brought an amenity kit from first class, a real pillow of standard size and a Saks Fifth Avenue comforter which made a huge difference! I was very cozy indeed and the 5 month old baby girl did not make a single peep throughout the entire flight! Yes, she slept some and was awake and playing the rest of the 7 hour flight to London. What a miracle!

I arrived at my London Heathrow hotel at 9:30 pm local time, anticipating a short night because my flight to Munich was scheduled for 7:25 am. So I set my alarm for 4:15 am only to wake up every two hours because of my jet lag. At 3:30 am I just gave up on sleeping and got ready to go to the airport.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that being a United Premier Gold member I was eligible to enter the Lufthansa lounge, in which I got a free buffet breakfast! It sure beat what I was carrying in my suitcase—cheese and crackers! So you can see I indulged myself with typical English breakfast fare: ham, scrambled eggs, a French roll, grilled mushrooms and tomatoes. (I passed on the baked beans!)

I arrived without incident to my next stop, Munich, but I inadvertently left my phone on Airplane mode which meant it didn’t update to local time! I almost missed my flight because I couldn’t figure out why there was such a big crowd going onto the plane when it was seemingly an hour early! As it was, our flight was delayed for about half an hour as we sat on the tarmac.

Our hotel is on St. Margaret Island which skirts the Danube river.

When I finally arrived at the Budapest airport on Monday afternoon and found my shuttle, we were delayed by about half an hour because of a bomb threat, and the police closed the airport to incoming vehicular traffic. 

The view from my room.

It wasn’t until 3:30 pm that I got into my hotel room and found a welcome message on the TV.

Paul Vladu

We met our tour guide, Paul, who told us he has directed this tour, Highlights of Eastern Europe, for over 200 times since 1989—about 9-10 times per year for over 25 years and he considers it his “baby!”

P.S. It’s 2:30 am as I’m writing this. Can’t sleep!


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