More than 100 amateur choral musicians from San Francisco's Bay Area performed in Prague on Monday evening, singing their hearts out in a superlative -- truly outstanding (make that "mind blowing") -- performance of Dvorák's Requiem mass. As a long time Bay Area resident -- now an expat in Scandinavia -- I travelled from my home in Denmark to be there and support my friends in the Berkeley Community Chorus. That was two days ago and I still have goose bumps.
Europeans can be snobby about their national composers. Danes might listen with excessive critical attention to non-Danish performances of works by Carl Nielsen while some English lovers of classical music become overly sensitive to "foreign" interpretations of Benjamin Britten's operas. Knowing this, I was holding my breath when I arrived at the famous Rudolfinum on the Vltava river, that splendid Neo-Renaissance building from 1881. I was nervous for my friends whom I'd heard many times before but always in Berkeley, California on Addison Street at St. Joseph the Worker Church. Now they were in Prague at Dvorak Hall, widely considered one of the most beautiful concert venues in the Czech Republic with acoustics particularly suitable for oratorical music. What would they sound like? Would the Czechs show up to hear them? And if they came, would the performance meet with their approval? I needn't have worried. It was a full house with over 1000 people in the audience, mostly Prague Czechs that loved it! Absolutely loved it!
Antonin Dvorák's mass in B flat minor, Op-89 can best be described as big music. It's basic melodic motif is created by two ascending half tones with an incorporated diminished third, which is heard again and again and again throughout the entire work. It is essentially a passionate piece of music and perhaps altogether too romantic for parochial fans of traditional Baroque music. The work is scored for soprano, alto, tenor and bass soloists and the same ones I heard in Berkeley were in Prague, except for the bass: Carrie Hennessey, soprano; Megan Berti, mezzo-soprano; J. Raymond Meyers, tenor; and Igor Viera, baritone. All four sang like angels. The orchestra was the Czech Academy Chamber Orchestra, large enough to require six double basses. The Berkeley Community Chorus was supplemented with 40 members of The Prague Chamber Choir. Everybody was pulled together under the baton of the Bay Area's Ming Luke, Music Director of BCCO (Berkeley Community Chorus).
BCCO is itself a phenomenon. Founded by Eugene Jones in 1966, under the auspices of the Berkeley Adult Education Program, BCCO is a chorus of non-auditioned singers and an orchestra drawn from the community. For more than 20 years, Jones -- the first African American conductor of a large Bay Area chorus and orchestra -- guided the group and brought substantial choral works to the community. Arlene Sagan became Music Director in 1988 and it was under her that the chorus grew to as many as 200 singers. They performed such works as Bach's Mass in B minor, Gounod's St. Cecilia Mass, Orff's Carmina Burana, Brahms's Requiem, and Verdi's Requiem. Sagan retired in 2011 and after a lengthy search for a new director, Ming Luke was chosen to take over.
Going on tour to Eastern Europe was Ming Luke's idea. They started in Budapest and then moved on to Vienna and Bratislava, in which cities they performed Mozart's Mass in C Minor. They ended their tour in Prague with Dvorak's Requiem, "Berkeley-appropriate" as the international news reported about the critical state of Nelson Mandela.
BCCO is a mirror of Berkeley, California: egalitarian, progressive, courageous and perhaps, a little outrageous, comprised of an over representation of America's most competent citizens. There are not too many other cities in America like it with the arguable exceptions of Madison, Wisconsin and Ann Arbor, Michigan. I've missed living in Berkeley but on Monday evening, sitting in Prague, I got to get close to her again. And I thought I would simply burst with pride.