The Sound of Music

5 January 2018

It seems a long time ago since we were first told about a proposed trip to Austria for December 2017. Within weeks over a hundred singers had signed up, all eager to begin rehearsals. Spring and summer concerts behind us saw rehearsals begin in earnest for our winter concerts at our home town venues which would form the basis of our Austrian debut.

The excitement was palpable one day in November when the singers gathered together for a joint rehearsal in Darlington. It was great to meet our fellow travellers and was lovely to see our numbers swelled by a few members of Scherzo – Inspiration’s community choir based in Gainford.

An early start on the 30 November involving two flights for the main group meant a long day before we arrived at our hotel, the Imperial Riding School Renaissance in Vienna. Built in 1850 as a military riding school, the reception and lobby areas still bore the architecture of the former stables but any trace of horse was long gone and the hotel now boasts four star luxury.

After a leisurely breakfast we were transported by coaches to our first singing venue – the imposing St Stephen’s Cathedral in the heart of Vienna. The Cathedral, with its multi-coloured roof, is one of the city’s most recognisable sights and the seat of the Archbishop of Vienna.

After a short rehearsal nearby we were all eager to sing. What a thrill to stand on the risers and to be confronted by a huge sea of people, many of whom held up recording equipment! When the first bars of ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’ began and our voices rang out round the wonderful Cathedral, people stopped in their tracks and glanced at each other in delight. This surely bearing testament to the fact that we must have sounded as good as we knew we did!

It is perhaps one of the biggest compliments that we could have been paid post-performance by an American tourist who said hearing us sing had been the highlight of her trip. Praise indeed!

With similar compliments ringing in our ears, we then had some brief free time before we gathered again, this time in plenty of layers and a variety of warm headgear in front of the Hofburg Palace where were to perform our first outdoor concert at the Michaelerplatz Christmas market. , too the accompaniment of the clip clopping horse and carriage rides passing by. Again we had an appreciative audience who judging by their applause had obviously enjoyed our singing despite the bitter cold weather.

Mention must be made of our organisers, Kipling Tours of Sherborne, Dorset who, apart from producing informative tour brochures for all singers, were totally professional at all times with every coach pick up and drop off being on time. The sheer fact that they accompanied us on every group outing instilled trust and confidence in their excellent organisational skills.

Evenings were spent with a choice of either staying in the hotel or taking the Blaguss tour coach (quickly renamed Bagpuss) the short distance into the city where we could explore or dine at one of the many restaurants there before returning to the hotel on our own personal Bagpuss Bus!

Saturday morning was free for sightseeing which was spent in various ways,be it an open top bus ride (not as cold as expected due to its glass roof!), a visit to a rehearsal of the Lippizaner Stallions of the Spanish Riding School or an outing to the Prater Amusement Park for a ride on the 120 year old, 65 metre high ferris wheel with its unique cabins. This was used in several films including The Third Man with Orson Wells and James Bond’s The Living Daylights starring Timothy Dalton.

The second of our outdoor performances was based on and around a stage at the Christmas market in front of the Palace of Schonbrunn. The market was huge and again attracted an appreciative audience. Afterwards, and as part of our programme, we were treated to a tour of the Palace and its sumptuous interiors. An excellent end to another exciting but cold Austrian day.

The following day we left Vienna bound for Salzburg, enjoying the spectacular scenery en route and, to the delight of many, our first signs of Austrian snow! The sight of the lovely alpine houses amidst snow covered acres and pine trees laden with the white stuff was like a fairytale. All it lacked was Heidi!

In Salzburg we were split into two hotels, the Mercure and the Holiday Inn, both of which were near each other and within walking distance of the city if one chose not to use the coach transport. Our first Salzburg performance was at the Christmas market Domplatz next to the Cathedral at 4pm. Again this was well received with more people holding up mobile phones and cameras to take a little bit of Inspiration home with them. It would be interesting to know just how many countries around the world will remember us this way!

We awoke on Monday, 4 December to an overnight snowfall, making an already beautiful city even more magical. We had time for sightseeing in the morning with for many a trip up the castle being a must. Salzburg in the snow must be one of the most picturesque places in the world with photo opportunities at almost every turn. The Christmas markets in Austria are a delight and Salzburg’s were no exception with such a colourful variety of ornaments defying description. One could hardly starve either such was the choice of food and snacks available, not to mention the drinks…another gluhwein anyone? Oh go on then!

Later that day we were taken to Hellbrun Palace where we were to give our final outdoor set list performance. Headgear was even more in evidence now, it having got progressively colder as the days went by. Who cares what a balaclava looks like when it’s snowing?!

Singing at Hellbrun was magical. Well that could be said about all our venues, each in their unique setting but standing against the backdrop of the Palace, looking at the wonderful Christmas trees all bearing huge red baubles in the falling snow must surely have added an extra sparkle in all the singers’ eyes.

It certainly added a sparkle of mischief in the eyes of the basses and tenors on the balcony when, as the last notes died away, they saw an ideal opportunity to bombard the singers below with an avalanche of snow from their perch! There then ensued some very childlike antics like only the Brits can do in revenge tactics! But what fun it was and what memories will linger from that fabulous day at Hellbrun.

Our final day dawned on Tuesday, 5 December where we reluctantly placed our suitcases on our respective Bagpusses prior to enjoying some free time before our last performance of the trip. This was to be in the 17th century Salzburg Cathedral which still contains the font where Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was baptised in 1756.

Again we were pleased to see a set of risers on which to stand, giving all singers the opportunity to see the beautiful interior of our wonderful performance venue. Churches and Cathedrals are not often places where applause is common so we were honoured and proud to be subject to this at both Vienna and Salzburg Cathedrals. It was touching to know that our singing brought out the spontaneity of our appreciative audiences.

All in all this trip produced some very special moments, be they new friendships formed, glorious singing in stunning surroundings, wonderful Christmas markets, laughs aplenty, snowball fights and a gluhwein or three! But without the original idea of our special musical director Gary, the planning between him and Sue, the capable assistance of the superb Kipling Tours and not forgetting our often frozen-fingered accompanist Mark, this memory making would never have been possible. I’m sure I speak for all who went on this fabulous trip by saying a huge thank you to all those concerned.  It truly was an experience that will live long in the memory but it just leaves one question…

Where are we going next?

Inspiration at St Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna Inspiration at Schonbrunn Palace, Vienna Isnpiration at Hellbrun Palace Inspiration at Domplatz, Salzburg Inspiration at Salzburg Cathedral