Why the Recorder is not an instrument of the orchestra!

Great social get together at home on 23rd December, 2016. its the end of my fourth year of learning to play a musical instrument from scratch! – the Alto Recorder. In the brief video, captured on an iPhone 5 – an unashamedly way of suggesting that this method may be a contributing factor to any perceived amateurish hiccups – the ensemble comprises Wing on piano, Caryl on Bassoon and Charles and Jonathan on Oboe. If your complaint is that you can’t hear me , that is in truth a good thing. Let me explain – if the Recorder is not sticking out like a sore thumb, it means

  • I am in tune
  • I am playing all the notes correctly
  • I am ‘on time’ … and of course there is a fourth and final explanation
  • I am not really playing it at all but mouthing it.

make sure then volume of your device is set at around 50% as the sound distorts on maximum volume!

 

for those of you who are interested , it is part of the First Movement – Larghetto- of The Sonata No 4 in F major for Treble Recorder and basso continuo.

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Yasmin and me

 

NO …I have become a grandfather again….OR perish the thought, a GREAT grandfather. This is Yasmin, the daughter of Charles the oboe player! The moist spot on my trousers is nothing to worry about.

Finally this is our dessert and what must it be for an Australian Christmas?  Made by Margaret with 10 eggs…. she did not disclose the volume of cream.

 

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Am I getting better?

Two weeks ago our swimming group had a Christmas barbecue with some added fun making music. It is a little more than three years ago since I began to play the Recorder. I remember that upon my return from long service leave travelling to Europe, America and finally to Brazil, I decided to venture into the foreign language of Music and to learn an instrument.

 

I am truly fortunate to have friends who are musically gifted including our swimming coach Kathy and more recently I have become friends with Charles who has a scholarship with the Adelaide symphony orchestra as a cadet oboe player. However I don’t think that I will ever become as proficient or relaxed about playing the Alto Recorder as I am with my swimming!

 

But to give you some idea of the fun that I’m having below are a couple of video clips, including a rather bright Italian folk song and that perennial well recognised tune, Greensleeves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Last Night in London 

A night at the Opera


I met my niece Meg amongst the thousands of predominately young people in a frenzy of noise, alcohol and aimless meandering. One may question the juxtaposition of “frenzy” and “meandering”, yet to my mind that is the best way to describe it. 

Meg works as a physiotherapist at one of the London metropolitan hospitals in the acute assessment section of the Emergency Department.She has accepted a permanent position till 2018, so is committed to Britain for a few years. 

We had a memorable meal at a Peruvian Restaurant in Covent Garden a stone’s throw from what are arguably two of the main attractions of my materialistic existance: the Royal Opera House and the London Apple Store! Covent Garden is the centre of the Theatre world in London and on this evening, could well have been the centre of the universe. 

Several events took place today in London that drove crowds to fill the streets to capacity: the Annual Head of the River (women) and the release of the Apple watch. Finally there was the other quality that brings every Londoner out of the woods – the sun. I am reminded of the witty song about the English weather by Flanders and Swan “January brings the snow..” which describes weather conditions each month and that for July goes “In July the sun is hot, is it shining…….? No it’s not.”

The Apple Store is as packed as the Tokyo Underground. People are drawn like iron filings to a magnet by the Apple Watch. I have not worn a watch for almost 30 years. Can I resist the temptation?
Back to the Opera at Covent Garden and the Royal Opera House. I had a seat in the front row of the Grand Tier (left) for the opening night of that joyful Rossini opera buffo  ‘Il Turco in Italia”.  It was beautifully sung and the orchestra was more than a match but….. I had attended the same opera last year in Melbourne, the Australian Opera  production directed by Simon Phillips, his staging was  extraordinary, world class, beating the ROH offering by a country mile. The Australian singers not only sang their hearts out, but had been thoroughly coached in acting and had perfect timing in both singing and their comedy acting. The Melbourne  production was set in the 1950s on the beach in a bustling Italian trattoria and coffee shop. Vibrant primary colours and those blue, green and pink pastels so reminiscent of that time. The star was the dark handsome macho Salim the Turk who acted his high camp heart out. An outrageous and uproariously funny, unforgettable evening. In summary though the London experience was  not without its moments and as an opera tragic, I had a great night out.
 

part of Covent Garden market

  

the Crush Room at yhe Opera where you may eat your lobster and champagne at interval

  

the auditorium

  

the modern addition to the Opera house

 

Florence – tourists and an opera concert performance

It’s 7:30 am and I wander through a flock of pigeons then three flocks of Japanese tourists, there being more tourists than pigeons in Florence at any one time, irrespective of the season. I sit my music on a wrought iron lamp post on a cement balustrade along the River Arno and start to practice. Within a millisecond of my first note, there is a huge screech, much flapping and panic amongst the flocks, dust rises and there is a general sense of escaping from an approaching Tsunami – although the pigeons, are totally unruffled, remaining earth bound, pecking and courting each other skillfully avoiding the stampeding tourists.

We meander aimlessly at dusk and pass hundreds of what seems to be the stock commercial attraction of Florence: leather outlets alternating with “artisan” gelato cafés. In a crowded piazza, adolescent boys ply their wares. One of which is a small parachute like affair with an LED light that the boys catapult into the air with an amazing degree of skill. They seem to attain the outer atmosphere. Rule number 1: avoid eye contact with them. Terry, foolish man, breaks that rule and we return to the apartment later that night with 12 of these contraptions. In the light of day Terry is still uncertain as to how this happened and more disconcertingly, how many Euros with which he parted company for the purchase.

Our apartment is within an old mansion and is quite convenient as it fronts the river and the main tourist route to the Duomo runs along one side. From about 8am a continuous stream of tourists hurry along in bunches of about 20 or more. In fact their relentless passing reminds me of aircraft banked up at a busy international airport all on final approach to the runway with a separation distance of 100 metres.

After a less than exciting evening meal – an ordinary seafood salad with limp iceberg lettuce and anaemic tomatoes, we went to a concert of famous operatic arias in an intimate performing space of what was a large church. The young soprano was big of voice and bosom. The baritone matched her in all aspects other than bust. The were accompanied by a slim, elegant female pianist in her early 50s. She was dressed in a cool black cotton dress and the highest high heels in all of Christendom. To my utter disbelieve she sat at the piano and I was mesmerized not so much by her hands, but by her black sequined high heels , the points of which appeared lethal. Consequently her pedal foot and shoe had the distinct appearance of a miniature cello with its tail spike firmly pinned into the wooden floor at a very acute angle. So shod, she pedaled with all the aplomb of a seasoned performer.

Below are a few predictable and familiar pictures of Florence.

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Vienna

I have enjoyed Vienna, possibly a little more so than Prague. It is very cycle friendly with well marked dedicated cycle paths. The two frightening aspects were negotiating which side of the road one should be on and secondly avoiding the tram tracks! I have ignominiously had my front wheel caught by the Glenelg tram track in Adelaide and hence gracefully and unavoidably in slow motion come a cropper. Once bitten….

There are two very wide ring roads that encompass the old centre and so I have cycled my way around all the sights in both directions – for variation!

So I don’t want to (and won’t) simply list all the “places to see” in Vienna, I saw the majority and mostly from the outside. Like Paris, one can become “museum-ed out”! The architecture was my focus and delight. Pictures will suffice. Great gardens everywhere as well.

There was one fascinating place that I would not have sought out, were it not for the specific recommendation of Peter Magerl – the Vienna Central Cemetery!

If and when you visit Vienna and have an interest in Classical Music, then cycle the 12 km or so and contemplate the final resting places of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, the list goes on. It’s in the real sense a huge Baroque garden, tombstones all works of art in an autumnal botanic park!

The one disappointment was the Danube. Having cycled 200 km along this unique raging river with thriving well maintained historical towns and villages and finally lush orchards and vineyards, the Danube in Vienna is neither Beautiful nor Blue. It is a canal. The water a muddy brown, the only blue is in the relentless graffiti that covers every inch of the old stone walls.

But I do feel the instinct, like a migrating snow goose, to move on. As I have explained before, 4 or 5 days is sufficient in any major city.

An observation on the older couple, travellers from Australia and USA specifically. There has been a fair number pass through the hotel during my week here.

Both wander or stumble in a rather stunned way into the hotel dinning room especially at breakfast.

The Americans present an obvious yet subliminal message “God this place is average , can’t wait to move on”.

The Australian couple on the other hand are overcome with apprehension and if anything, mild confusion. The male especially, gives the distinct impression, that he has no idea of how he woke up in what is obviously a foreign country. ThIs troubling thought overwhelms him when he surveys the breakfast spread and is confronted by food that he would normally eat at dinner and secondly there are no obvious Kellogs Corn Flakes.

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A few of the ornate tombstones! Has given me a couple of ideas for my own final resting place. The bust I mean, not the marble fairy.

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Presumably a large mausoleum in the cemetery.

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A few snaps from around the Hofburg district.

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Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert graves in the Central Cemetery.

Tristan und Isolde. VSO

Wagner and Verdi were born in the same year, that as far as I am concerned is the only fact common to both. Let’s get this off my chest at the outset, I prefer Verdi. It’s a bit like saying I prefer men! There is a vague sense of guilt and that I need to explain and justify this statement.

This opera in true Wagnerian fashion, is in 3 Acts over 5 hours. It is on my opinion, a cross between “The Elixir of Love” and “Romeo and Juliet”, interwoven with a prolonged session of Freudian self psycho-analysis . The latter aspect is manifestly inadequate as one is left with a profound sense that both protagonists still require veterinary doses of antidepressants. Inevitably the mental health system lets them down as they both in the end, commit suicide or die heart broken.

Whilst it is de rigueur to poke fun at an operatic heroine in severe respiratory distress as the consequence of poison induced paralysis or disseminated tuberculosis, coughing and wheezing through her final aria, in this epic, Tristan is mortally wounded at the end of Act 2, yet survives the second intermission and almost all of Act 3. No mean feat if one calculates each Act is an hour and a half to which I have added the 25 minute second intermission.

This opera, at least as I saw in Acts 1 and 2 in Vienna (I left before Act 3, call me a philistine) is in all senses “heavy going”.

Why “heavy” ?

Let’s start with the term “leitmotif” ˌa “short, constantly recurring musical phrase” associated with a particular person, place, or idea. One could be forgiven for translating it as a “light melody”! Wrong. The technique is notably associated with the operas of Richard Wagner, although he was not its originator and did not employ the word in connection with his work. The problem with a leitmotif is that Wagner is the archetype of a “tune tease”.

Secondly both Tristan und Isolde were also “heavy”. In the strict medical sense, they were to be blunt, “obese”. Let me clarify immediately that their singing was sublime. Both had costumes which were very loose black “sack dresses”. From the upper dress circle, I suspect the audience would have been hard pressed to tell them apart! My fashion guru tells me that both “black” and “sack” will make the wearer appear smaller. On the night, perhaps.

So before I enlarge upon the niggling irritations of the evening, let me set the record straight. The orchestra was outstanding, the singing sublime. In short, an ideal ensemble for a concert performance. Hence I spent most of the evening with my eyes closed or admiring the auditorium.

I am not in anyway biased and as an Australian openly admit that when I was privileged to see and hear Dame Joan Sutherland more so in the twilight of her career, I could close my eyes and instantly see Gilda, Violetta or Lucia, effortlessly negotiating stairs like a 21 year old, infatuated and love stricken. I do accept that this was not quite the picture with Violetta – as the Madame of a Parisian brothel, she had obviously seen a thing or two.

Anyway, for most of the night my mind was distracted by these contradictions.

The first hour involves Tristan und Isolde circling each other like a couple of suspicious dogs, growling and bristling! Think Rotweilers! They both drink what turns out to be love potion 99! Suddenly they pounce on each other and embrace. Unfortunately given the size and costumes of both, previously described, from my box seat, this gave the awesome appearance of a tent – the circus big top – with two heads. To carry on with the analogy, they remain locked in this apparent canine copulation for the next 15 minutes. I shall write and recommend that the conductor be provided with a bucket of water.

The whole set and costumes were in one word “dark”. I thought to myself how could the director get the message across that in the latter half of Act 1 Tristan und Isolde are head over heels in love? It was all rather incongruous. They were all at sea, literally and figuratively, on their way to, of all places Ireland! Isolde is a princess, she must have some sort of wardrobe? A quick dash below deck to slip into something more seductive! Even a bright simple sash!

Perhaps throw down a table cloth and have a lovers’ picnic on deck? I quickly crossed this option off the list of options, as I foresaw the distinct possibility that once down on deck, they could not get up again with any sort of grace or agility. Being at sea would of course add a lot of tossing and turning.

As to acting the part, it requires much skill to project youthful true love when the lovers are in years not Romeo and Juliet. Similarly with anguish. This emotion, especially in female singers is often shown by walking stage left with hands clenched into fists and pressed into the forehead. Unfortunately, as a neurologist, the only image this evokes is that the poor woman is experiencing the mother of all migraine attacks.

Finally in Act 2, and by now I have had a snack and a glass of champagne, things improve. That is until King Mark appears. He looks like that infamous long gone Australian actor Frank Thring in an episode of Game of Thrones. This is reinforced by the situation that Tristan, the nephew of King Mark is getting it off with Isolde, who King Mark is supposed to marry. In true Game of Thrones fashion, Mark is well on the way to decapitating Tristan. Thankfully, Isolde is not forced at sword point to disrobe and stand naked whilst her left nipple is sliced off.

By now it’s the end of Act 2, and I need more alcohol.

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The outside of the VSO

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The front of VSO house night!

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Part of the main vestibule and staircase

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A panorama of the interior

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Vienna Sunday

A beautiful sunny day and the locals were out in droves ! These were admixed with an equal number of tourists. Speaking of which, I know you won’t believe this, but within the space of half an hour, I bumped into the 2 Spaniards then the 4 Israelis!

To paraphrase, “There are eight million tourists in the naked city. This has been a story of 6 of them”! All of them heading back to their respective homes tomorrow.

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A strange quirk about shopping in Vienna. Conrad at reception told me “everything is shut on Sundays. “Everything”, he repeated with a flourish of his arms, for emphasis. I had run out of toothpaste. In the past, unintentionally in a poorly lit bathroom, I have squeezed shaving cream onto my toothbrush. Anyway it is true that except for tourist orientated food and ice-cream parlours, shops are indeed closed. However I found one of those ubiquitous small supermarket shops, indeed open. I entered, making a mental note to update Conrad on his local knowledge later.

Imagine my disbelief when faced with a well stocked supermarket, the health and hygiene shells were roped off! “Where do I find the toothpaste”? I enquired. The young assistant explained ” Sorry, Sir we are not allowed to sell toothpaste!” Not allowed? I was flabbergasted! He was eventually able to get it across to me that they stock toothpaste, but it is “verboten” to sell it on a Sunday’! I briefly toyed with asking him about flossing, but just as rapidly dismissed the idea as fraught with interpretative innuendo.

It is impossible to do justice to Vienna as a cultural city of charm and steeped in history either on words or pictures. To me it is a complex combination of Prague and Dresden. Chaotic traffic, hordes of tourists but with a old centre where the baroque buildings are hundreds of years old yet are so strong and stable that one knows they will still be standing and just as ageless in other 500 years.

The House of Music

This was a totally unexpected but so very rewarding and fascinating discovery. It is part museum and part interactive technology centre. A must visit place for the music lover.

The first floor is dedicated to the history of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. To give one example it has a display of all the batons preferred by the resident conductors over the years starting with Strauss of Tone Poem fame.

The second floor is an interactive “laboratory” in which one can learn about the complexity of sound via touch screens and headphones.

There are a couple of fun activities even for aging Recorder students.

The first involved throwing a furry dice onto a Perspex square plate about 1 meter square. I suspect it uses the detection of minute electrostatic changes to generate a pulse of charge. The pitch and beat of the tone generated is determined by the enthusiasm with which one throes the dice. It obviously bounces around the Perspex plate at variable rate and places! To add to the fun, you do it twice – once with a blue dice – which translates to the sound of a flute and a second cabinet with a red dice and it translates to the sound of a cello! The two are combined and played back to you as a sonata for cello and flute! I could have composed all day, it was delightful.

But the one that well and truly won me over was an interactive display which allowed one to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. There was a huge video screen, the “conductor” stood on a podium in front of the screen and held a baton which was a rod of clear Perspex. An infra red light detected the frequency at which this baton moved and this determined the speed at which the movie of the orchestra in front of you projected. I was ecstatic, especially as I was alone in the cubicle so could over act to my heart’s content!

The third floor was given over to famous composers who had a significant association with Vienna.

Hadyn, Mozart, Beethoven , Schubert, Mahler and Berg.

One fascinating titbit- Haydn acquired a pet parrot. It screeched his name and whistled the Austrian National anthem!

I have to start getting serious about my Conference from Monday.

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Beethoven

Sunday was a full day of musical magic and at times mayhem. Firstly the old part of Vienna city is literally over-run with handsome young men all dressed as Mozart look alikes! As in Prague, they are spruking tickets to an evening of classical music and opera – the programme inevitably has works by Mozart, Strauss and Haydn. Not much Beethoven.

What do they look like? Think the movie “Amadeus”! Wig, bright costume with waistcoat and tails! What set them apart from the genuine article is that to a man they were wearing Ray Ban sunglasses, Nike runners, had an iPhone in one hand, a glossy brochure in the other and a cigarette in the corner of the mouth.

I accidentally walked past a sign which stated there was a Beethoven museum close by. It was an apartment on the fourth floor and it was extremely difficult to fathom how to gain entry. Indeed one had to push the bell at the front door of the block whereupon the door was unlocked and one then entered what was obviously mostly private dwellings. One’s frustration was magnified by an aging, irritable middle aged man with bad hair coloring (jet black) on a comb over, watching a movie on a portable DVD player. He was completely out of character for my Immortal Beloved and I suspect he would have been not out of place at a gothic convention. I am not alluding to architecture. The least I expected was twin set and pearls – or if it was a woman ….

Beethoven did not get along very well with his landlords as he was continuously playing music. He was constantly finding landlords who were supportive. From 1804 to 1825 he stayed in Baden 15 times taking lodgings in at least 8 different houses as a consequence.

In my efforts at learning the Recorder, my routine is a daily practice in the hotel room and having to cope with the banging on the walls from the room next door, I can only emphasize with poor Beethoven. Some people have no appreciation of genius.

I now practice in the bathroom with the door closed.

The museum was a little underwhelming, the more so when in a state of supplication, I asked the Visigoth, breathlessly if Beethoven actually lived here? Without looking away from his DVD, he said “NO”! At first I thought he was trying to irritated and upset me! He was I can assure you most successful if this was his purpose. It turns out that Beethoven actually lived in apartment 4 directly opposite! Near enough is not good enough for me. I contemplated ringing the doorbell of Herr Helmut Wizzenburgermiedrer, the occupant of apartment 4.

I now realize that all manuscripts, furniture and paraphernalia in these small museums are reproductions, the originals usually in the National museum or archives. Similarly the piano was labeled “Beethoven piano” in large type but beneath it in minute lettering “a piano from the same era as Beethoven would have owned”.

I left mildly disappointed passing the front desk. Under my breath I muttered “fuck off” hoping that his English was poor and that he assumed I said “Fur Elise”.

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If I could not actually be in his apartment at least I was floating on air knowing that I was genuinely walking in Beethoven’s footsteps.

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The piano “of a type that Beethoven would have played”. Sigh.
It has FIVE foot peddles. People have pontificated on what medical condition Beerhoven had to cause his grumpy behaviour and early onset deafness! Whatever syndrome it was, includes 3 extra legs!

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Beethoven lived on this street.
I return home content!

Dvorak – The museum

Dvorak – of “New World” symphony fame , was an inveterate follower of trains. He was the original Czech train spotter. It was his preferred method of transport, other than when he journeyed to London or New York (naturally), when he was, to his frustration, forced to take a boat!

Now thinking this through, how else was one to travel at the beginning of the 20th century?

He spent hours at the main railway stations of the big cities he visited, chatting to the engine drivers!

He is said to have bemoaned:

” I would give all my symphonies to have invented a steam train”!

The museum is rather forlorn and for its’ entrance fee, disappointing. There is not much to see, the gardens are overgrown and unkempt. There is his desk, his piano, a violin, a few original manuscripts, but surprisingly, given his first love, not one single sepia shot of him standing next to a steaming engine or a sooty driver.

Today is my fourth day in Prague and I feel the itch to move on. I have a definite feel for Prague. I have, however, no fundamental sense of which side of the Moldau River I am on at any given time, but for me the sense of history and specifically, it’s place in the history of many classical and romantic composers is palpable.

What I find endearing is the unique way that the city and its’ tourist industry have incorporated classical music and its’ composers into the experience. The multitude of daily concerts in very church or historical venue, is but one example. All seem remarkably well attended.

Then there are delightful quirky touches, which I suspect the average tourist would not appreciate or recognise – public announcements at the main train station are initiated with the opening few bars of “Ma Vlast” – My Homeland, by Smetana. Whilst on a river cruise music by Dvorak is background to the commentary! It’s all a little insulting to poor Dvorak, his music should be at the train station!

As I prepare to get back into the saddle, some pics of Prague and the river.

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Prague had a severe earthquake just after the record floods in June!

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The view from the tower in Petrin Park, looking over river towards the Palace.

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The interior of St Ignatius Church – I would classify it as “high camp” rather than “high church”! It’s a Jesuit thing.

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Prague Day 2

I wrote about the joy of arriving in a town and discovering a programmed classical soirée in the local church or hall.

I thought all my Christmas’ had come yesterday, when as I was carried along in the previously described tourist tsunami, on passing an amazing Baroque facade church, an ernest young man handed me a stylish professional flyer, describing a concert of “Grand Masters in Old Prague”

The program went something like this:

Bach Toccata and fugue
Handel Messiah
Mozart Exultate Jubilate
Schubert Ave Maria
Vivaldi Four Seasons
Dvorak “various”
Puccini “excerpts”

To be held in the unique mirror chapel 17th century – Klementinum at 8 pm sharp with soloists of the State Opera as well as “top Czech Orchestras”!

As the young shop assistants in Bakers Delight say with enthusiasm as you place your order… ” awesome”!

Awesome indeed. I mentally noted the chapel location, intending to attend, and walked on, or rather was pushed along.

Truely I did a double take when around the corner was another Baroque church and, as Bach is my witness, another young man was just as earnestly, publicizing another concert in equally sumptuous surroundings again with various solo members of the Czech professional orchestras.

By days end I had been accosted by at least another half a dozen concert touts. All these soirees seemed very genuine and professional held in medieval auditoriums, all I assume with perfect acoustics. All had slight variations in programming but in short, every one comprised selections from the “The best Baroque Classics of all times”. All instantly recognizable.

I confess to a niggling sense of unease. I calculated that if all these advertised Baroque classical concerts were consummated on this one evening, should perchance there be a competing professional symphony concert in the National Theatre, the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra ensemble would be decimated to a level of the village band!

Finally what do you make of this english description on a poster in the main church of St Nicholas in the old town square;

“.. the complexity of configuration of its interior, together with its interesting lighting scheme and picturesque plasticity, combine to make it one of the most suggestive church interiors in Prague.”

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Inside the cathedral of St Vitus – patron saint of dancers.

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The St George Monastery part of the township surrounding the Prague Palace

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The back of St Vitus cathedral – the bishop who ordered its construction specified it had to be grand and surpass that at Notre Dame. One can see the similarity!

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The Charles Bridge at dusk