Essays

6. From East to West: Last stop Bucharest

By Nicholas M Tolhurst

In Bucharest we gave our last concert for the tour at the Cathedral of St Joseph on Friday, 14 November to a real audience. We had very real audiences in Camino, St Stae and Treviso, but it was very satisfying to go out with a crowd. Of course, we finished the concert with Pastores Loquebantur but our director John McCaughey only took us as far as the entrance and brought the sound right down to a fade. It was too cold to go outside. So we got to acknowledge hugely enthusiastic applause, and all the composers whose work we gave were there and got their acknowledgements too.

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Cathedral of St Joseph, Bucharest

As an outfit we performed pretty damned well, given we were bringing Romanian music to the Romanians. We gave them Dan Dediu’s Stabat Mater, a long work (Stabats are always an ‘ok, we’re in the long haul’ feeling for me) and broken into 10 distinctive movements. Dediu’s Stabat draws mixed responses. I don’t like it. It is interesting on the page, but too much of it for me reads like he’d set himself a number of compositional challenges involving a coruscatingly dissonant harmonic motif and some too-cute conceits that to me, fail to engage the text in any meaningful way.

But hey, that’s just my opinion, based largely on the fact I find it a very difficult and unrewarding sing. Others in the choir disagree and I understand some of our audiences have enjoyed it. Dediu knows how to write for a choir. We performed his Exultate in Camino and that is a challenging sing, and, as tough, effective piano writing is said to fall beneath the hands, his Exultate (and Harmonic Labyrinth performed in Melbourne) gives itself to the voice. I don’t feel the same about the Stabat Mater.

This was the premiere performance of Dediu’s Stabat Mater in Bucharest. It took an Aussie choir to tackle it—oi, oi and, indeed more oi! It took a conductor with McCaughey’s level of chutzpah to attempt it. I hope Dan Dediu was happy.

McCaughey also gave to the Romanians Marcel Octav Costea’s Coruri Religioase – Tantum Ergo, a work, in Latin, of smoothly evolving lines and a joy to sing. We also sang Livia Teodorescu-Ciocanea’s Orationes Aliquot Sanctae Briggitae and Mihai Murariu’s Rugaciune (can’t find right diacritic for the ‘a’), a prayer in Romanian, very chanty and mystical—nice stuff. Mihai Mururiu was our host in effect, being the organist at St Joseph’s Cathedral and a big number at the School of Music. By big number, I also mean Mihai is clearly a devotee of the gym and is built like the proverbial and also a decisive, agreeable man (cf Italian composers, agreeable yes, decisive …). It is always scary to perform works in the presence of the composer, but despite looking like a benign, Latin Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mihai was generous with his attention, gave very collegiate directions to McCaughey about interpretation and our pronunciation of Romanian and lifted whole pews with his little finger (well not quite, but the young tenors were swooning and he might as well have).

Thinking about the difficulty in pronouncing Romanian, the Astra choir acquitted itself amazingly well in English, Latin, Greek, Italian, French, Hebrew, Chinese and Romanian on this tour—quite impressive (and thanks again to Kim Bastin, our Berlitz man).

Bucharest itself was a fine place to spend six days in. Who would go to Bucharest without a reason? It’s a bit off the beaten track for Australians, although Melbourne-based academic Joel Crotty has been treading the path since 2000, forging links with Romanian musicians for some time.

Bucharest overflows with theatres, music schools and music shops and galleries. Once known as the Paris of the east it has a tired but not strained sort majesty, with winding boulevards, lots of major belle époque buildings plonked all over the place, interspersed with eastern bloc apartments and buildings, none of which I think exceeded the height of the 19th century building stock. So, architecturally, some level of taste has been operating even, behind the Iron Curtain.

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Parliament Palace, Bucharest

The same can’t be said of the Palatul Parlamentului  (Palace of the Parliament) Nicolae Ceaușescu’s enduring legacy to the Romanians. Wikipedia doesn’t do justice to the enormity (in the word’s correct and received meanings) of the project. A few of us did the tour, which involved trekking for a couple of kilometres (true!) around a small corner of the second largest building in the world (the Pentagon is tops). We were taken on a tour of hallways and reception rooms of awful vastness, given absurd statistics about the sizes of carpets, the weights of the chandeliers (a 5.5 tonne specimen in one room) and how Ceaușescu obsessed over every detail during the construction.

At the site of the main reception area for visiting dignitaries, Ceaușescu had one of the 700 architects design two, huge, white marble staircases facing each other—one for him and one for the missus to descend to meet the world’s dictators and kleptocrats he assumed would be beating a path to his door. After the stairs were constructed it was discovered the steps were too big for Ceaușescu to negotiate with ease, so the whole lot was demolished and rebuilt with smaller steps. And this was all commissioned around 1977 after a major earthquake destroyed a large part of the city. Ceaușescu used this as an excuse to raze an area the size of Venice and build the People’s Palace and a ring of outsized government buildings.

The Palace is dreary, wedding cake kitsch. I have to quote Alexander Pope (Epistles to Several Persons: Epistle IV)

At Timon’s villa let us pass a day,

Where all cry out, “What sums are thrown away!”

So proud, so grand of that stupendous air,

Soft and agreeable come never there.

Greatness, with Timon, dwells in such a draught

As brings all Brobdingnag before your thought.

To compass this, his building is a town,

His pond an ocean, his parterre a down:

Who but must laugh, the master when he sees,

A puny insect, shiv’ring at a breeze!

Lo, what huge heaps of littleness around!

The whole, a labour’d quarry above ground.

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Central University library, Bucharest

Nobody says it better than Pope, except that the phrase ‘the banality of evil’ kept popping into my mind as I wandered the halls: the building is wholly banal. I don’t wish to dilute Hannah Arendt’s thinking on this, but I could not but help reflect on what ordinary and suburbane taste this man Ceaușescu possessed and how he held a country to ransom until, one day on the 25th of December 1989, he didn’t. He never saw the finished building, the ongoing existence of which became the subject of much controversy after the revolution. It is now used as the Parliament and, some of it, as offices. You can also hire one of the enormous reception rooms for your wedding, if your guest list is threatening to run to the thousands.

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One of those cats, Bucharest

Bucharest lives beyond the Ceaușescu legacy and, as a Melburnian I found myself feeling very much at home. Ok, there are not as many coffee shops around and there is still dog shit on the streets and smoking in restaurants, but the people look relaxed, the infrastructure is endlessly fascinating, the language is a curiosity and no barrier to communication and it is very cheap on the Australian dollar. In Bucharest I found the best Turkish food I’ve ever eaten (which may come as a shock to some in Melbourne) and in the culture there is a strong flavor of the Byzantine, of the Greek and the Hungarian in the mix of people and the cuisine. I would happily return, as Bucharest is also a city of cats—well-fed, rather dumpy with short tails and businesslike attitudes—but as the weather began to get very cold with days of 8C and below becoming the norm, it was time to fly back east, with many songs in my heart.

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