After the peculiar wonderland of Venice, it was a relief to arrive in the bustling metropolis of Bucharest. With its young population and unpredictable traffic, Bucharest is a living, breathing city. Upon arrival the choir was broken up and ferried out to a series of apartments by the genial Domnul Bogdan. The choir was dispersed in the region around the National University of Music and the venue of our single concert, St. Joseph’s Cathedral. Finally! Our own rooms! No more queues for the bathroom! But with luxury comes isolation and the realisation that we didn’t really know where we were, where anybody else was, or where our next rehearsal was to be.
Wandering out to orient ourselves, one had the impression that Romania’s history is inscribed in its architecture. In the centre of Bucharest, the French Second-Empire buildings of “Little Paris” jostle with crumbling modernist apartment blocks. Art deco buildings reflect traditional bold, triangular decoration, while wrought iron railings all over the city sport the rising sun of the former Socialist Republic of Romania. In the nearby mountains, castles from the medieval period to the nineteenth century reflect the territory’s importance as a trade route and pleasure retreat. To return to the theme of the last blog post, the city is itself a palimpsest of architectural style and political history. The country’s feverish drive for development, for access to the Schengen Area and the Euro, has not been met with a property boom that would erase this history. Instead, the beautiful nineteenth-century buildings bought dirt-cheap after Ceaușescu’s fall slowly crumble. Billboards are erected over ancient façades and public squares are used for parking lots.
Though we knocked down our best old buildings long ago, Australia has certain parallels with Romania, including a meat-intensive local cuisine thankfully embellished by multicultural street food. Both countries also suffer from a cultural cringe among their aspirational youth. Ceaușescu’s pro-natal policies resulted in Romania having one of the highest concentrations of young adults in Europe. Bucharest now has a burgeoning hipster culture, with Melbourne-style cafés (complete with Melbourne prices) and bars. A former manager of one of Bucharest’s most fashionable bars explained to us the pressure amongst fellow Romanians to speak English over their boutique imported beers.
At the center of our visit to Romania was the rector of the National University of Music, Dan Dediu. Australian audiences are now familiar with Dan Dediu’s Stabat Mater setting, from its raw opening cries to the spacious chords of the “Eja mater.” The piece showcases the composer’s acute sense of harmony and choral texture, drawing inspiration from two other great chromaticists, Gesualdo and Verdi. John broke up Dediu’s chromatic onslaught with original Gesualdo and Verdi pieces, including the latter’s “Ave Maria” setting based on a repeating “enigmatic scale.” The melodic lines entwining the scale sit well in the voice, tempting the choir to sing out as one hears in so many performances and recordings. John’s original direction had a marvellous effect. As the choir dropped down to let the enigmatic scale cut through, the piece gained an architectural continuity worthy of St. Joseph’s Cathedral itself. The Stabat Mater ends with what can only be described as a penitential mega-mix, with motifs from each movement returning in juxtaposition. Though the piece begins with a scream, it ends with the most exhausted “Amen” you have ever heard, and not just because of the choir’s flagging breath.
Unfortunately, we saw little of the composer of this masterwork. Dediu kept his distance during rehearsals, though was effusive after the performance. The same cannot be said for Dediu’s student, Mihai Murariu. Murariu is a mountain of a man and an excellent composer. He towered over John during rehearsals, offering some very helpful pointers on his meandering piece Rugăciune (of which, he informed us, he was glad to hear the “real notes” for the first time). It was a pleasure to sing in Romanian, the easternmost Romance language. Like so many things about Romania, the language is familiar yet strange. You leave with the uncanny sense that, although the country might be entirely new to you, you have been there before.
To return to the sacrificial theme of the first blog of the tour, the chromaticism of the Stabat Mater is a lance that pierces consonance. This sacrifice grants access to a third-hand pain, the pain of the Virgin Mary beholding the pain of her son on the cross. In its scope and persistence, the pain of the Stabat Mater is great, and so is its function in bringing the audience together. Never did we see so many people smiling in Romania than after our concert. And, as always seemed to be the case throughout the tour, after the sacrifice came “the rich food of mercy.”
Much was made of the choir’s patience and resilience throughout the tour. People looked after each other and formed bonds that will only strengthen with time. A particular highlight in this regard was Catrina and Marc’s decision to organise a birthday dinner for Rob Franzke, which turned out to be a marathon meal that even the choir’s supreme teamwork could not conquer. Bonds were especially formed amongst the newer members of the choir (you know, those who have been in Astra for less than twenty years). I think I speak for much of the choir when I say that I returned inspired about what the choir could achieve in the future.
If I could name a highlight of the tour, I would be hard pressed to choose between singing to the frescoes of Santa Catarina, climbing the stairs past the improvising choir in Venice, or even being absorbed into a raucous accordion-fueled party in the Carpathian mountains. I would say it was one sunny morning in the Chiesa di Oggnisanti in Camino. We rehearsed the Australian composer Kim Dillon’s Im Frieden dein, a simple piece alternating a group of soloists and the full choir. Singing “the rich food of mercy,” the choir, the space and the soloists all seemed to click into place, one of the hard-won effects of a group working together in an intensive environment. There were a few misty eyes in the room as the secondary group of soloists sang out magically from within the ranks of the choir and the nonnas of Camino pedalled by outside.