Saturday night I had dinner with Diane and Danna, part of a group of 10 women who became friends at the Teatro Solis in Montevideo, Uruguay, last summer.
After dinner we went to a concert of the Austin Chamber Music Center called, appropriately, “Two to Tango.” ACMC’s artistic director, pianist Michelle Schumann, puts together concerts with innovative and interesting combinations of music and musicians. This time she teamed up with Raul Jaurena on the bandoneon for an evening of tango music.
The music was, of course, intoxicating, and Jaurena made the bandoneon do everything but actually dance the tango. He gave a brief and charming talk about his instrument. According to his program bio, he is from Uruguay and has played with the Orquestra filarmonica de Montevideo, the same orchestra that accompanied our group, Texas Choral Consort, when we sang Fauré’s Requiem in Montevideo last year. And that was how our adventure started.
Texas Choral Consort teamed up with Bel Canto, a chorus based in Milwaukee, for the South America tour. Bel Canto’s director, Rick Hynson, turned out to be (to use one of my mother’s old-fashioned expressions) a martinet—using the first definition on dictionary.com: “a strict disciplinarian.” I thought he was just mean. When he came to Austin during the rehearsal process, he berated our little group (there were only about 20 TCC people going on the tour), telling us if we sang like this with his chorus they would “hate us,” once yelling “the altos are flat!” He even said if we didn’t improve he would ask us not to sing once we got to South America! This was shocking, because our regular conductor, Brent Baldwin, manages to get great music out of his singers without resorting to insults. I even considered trying to get a refund, because I didn’t want to spend all that money to go to South America and watch four concerts. I had never done a choir tour before, which was one reason I had decided to go on this trip in the first place. I had sung the two major works, the Mozart and Fauré requiems, before, so I thought relearning them would be pretty easy. Clearly, retaining music is not like riding a bicycle, and I spent uncounted hours practicing at home in addition to formal group rehearsals.
I spent most of the tour trying to stay out of Rick’s orbit, wanting to enjoy the trip and the music as much as possible while avoiding his wrath. Because we were having so much difficulty with the two main pieces, Rick and Brent decided that the Texas group would not sing the additional 10 pieces (which I was not aware were on the program when I signed up), American spirituals, plus Randall Thompson’s “Alleluia,” all of which, ironically, Brent would conduct. Rick did allow a few Texans who traveled to Milwaukee for a weekend rehearsal (at their own expense, of course), to sing the spirituals. I chose not to spend money and time to subject myself to a weekend of Rick’s abuse.
July is wintertime south of the equator, and Montevideo was cold and drizzly, much like January or February can be in Austin. The night of our concert at the Teatro Solis, the bus took us to the theater and we were shown to the men’s and women’s dressing rooms—large, brightly lit and cold.
The concert consisted of three parts: Brent’s spirituals, Rick conducting the orchestra in Beethoven’s Symphony Number 1, and the Fauré requiem. (We did the Mozart later in Argentina.)
Because most the Austin women weren’t singing the spirituals, nine of us sat in the cold dressing room wondering what to do for the first two-thirds of the program. Several had explored the theater earlier and mentioned a nice little café in the lobby that served wine, so we all agreed that was a much nicer way to pass the time.
Rather than exiting as we had come in and going around to the front of the theater, we decided to try to make our way without going outside. We squeezed onto an elevator that took us down to the basement and, guessing which way it was to the lobby, wended our way through dim hallways, wondering what we’d do if we were apprehended, until we found ourselves in the orchestra’s green room. From there we reached steps up to the lobby and the café.
With our limited Spanish, we learned from the friendly woman behind the bar that we could buy mini-bottles of red or white wine in exchange for just about anything we had: Argentine or Uruguayan pesos, American dollars, credit cards—she probably would have let us sing for her in exchange for wine if we had asked.
We tipped a cute young man who worked in the café to take pictures of us with our glasses raised so we’d have a record of our little escapade, and we were now the “Whine and wine group,” although we have yet to settle on a name, and we’re sometimes “Wine, women and song,” or the “Whiney Nine.” We have added one more, a non-singer who was ushering that night so did not join us, so we’re really a group of 10: Roxanne, Diane, Lissa, Sue, Margaret, Karen, Danna, Annette and me, with Bernie our honorary member. Not only are these women wonderfully funny and bright and supportive, we are a beautifully diverse group, with nearly a 40-year age range, married, single, divorced, windowed, working, retired, a stay-at-home mom. The most represented occupation is nursing, and those ladies are the most fun—in fact it was a nurse who instigated the escapade.
Video monitors throughout the theater allowed us to track the progress of the concert, and we knew when we heard “Alleluia” the first segment was done and the chorus would be returning to the dressing rooms for the orchestral portion.
We were not about to retrace our steps, so we hoped to join up with the singers as they left the stage. When we heard applause, we left the café, crossed the lobby, and in our poor Spanish asked an usher to help us get backstage. The ushers looked at us strangely, but in our long black dresses we were clearly performers. A young man began to lead us down a hallway behind the theater boxes, but he said, in English and with what I hope was mock umbrage: “This is not a third-world country! What is the password?” Thinking fast, I said “Bel Canto,”which seemed to satisfy him as he led us down the hall and punched in a code to open a door. We were backstage as the choir members were filing out to the dressing rooms.
The Wine and Whine group shared many laughs and glasses of wine throughout the trip, and promised to have regular get-togethers back in Austin to celebrate our love of music, wine and each other. So far we have done the following:
- “Painting with a Twist,” in which a group goes to a studio and, led by an artist, paints a canvas just like everyone else’s, but the wine and snacks reduce the boredom. (To be fair, others enjoyed it, but since I paint, I don’t find much fun in copying someone else’s work.)
- Cooking school, preparing (and eating) a meal of empanadas and other Argentine dishes at the Escoffier school in Austin, taught by Pablo, who was from the Galapagos Islands.
- Decorating ceramic pieces at Café Monet (also with wine and snacks). I made a Christmas tree dish, which turned out much better than I expected.
- A Christmas concert of Celtic music at St. Mary’s Cathedral right before Christmas, which I missed.
- The Two to Tango concert last Saturday night which, unfortunately, only three of us were able to attend.
I have many blessings in my life, but one thing I have lacked is a circle of women friends to laugh with, enjoy food and drink, and provide loving support. I hope this group keeps going. Many of the women are again singing with TCC for the upcoming “Israel in Egypt” concert on February 18. I may sing with TCC again this summer, but in the meantime I hope to continue doing fun and interesting things with these beautiful women.