1/5

Beautiful Encounter with Johann Strauss in Australia

Barbara Semenov

Chief Editor of Cechoaustralan

I could have easily missed it - an unexpectedly beautiful experience with Johann Strauss in Australia - were it not for a call by a subscriber of our magazine, Mr Charles Zahra, the treasurer of the Robert Stolz Viennese Music Society Inc in Melbourne, who inquired about advertising of a concert of Johann Strauss Ensemble. Information about concert of the visiting Austrian ensemble was then printed in the March issue. The sell out concert, attended by lovers of good music and food, was above all expectations.

The evening (Sunday, 6 March 2011) was actually a bonus performance, organized by a local musical society, Robert Stolz Viennese Music. On their Australian Tour earlier this year, the 22 member Johann Strauss Ensemble has performed at a number of concerts, presented by the Australian promoter Andrew McKinnon. The ensemble played in Brisbane, Penrith, Newcastle, Sydney Opera House and in Melbourne Recital Centre. They also recorded a CD at the ABC Studios in Sydney. What was so unusual about a concert of typical popular Strauss music, which we know from so many interpretations? Traditional waltzes, marches and polkas with the inevitable Blue Danube Waltz, Wiener Blut, Trish-Trash Polka can be listened to over and over. The charm and magic with which this music captivates us is not dissimilar to the ‘hits’ of our Czech composers Dvorak and Smetana. 

Yet, all the concerts presented by the Johann Strauss Ensemble in Australia carried its specific and unique stamp, that of their ‘leader’, conductor and first violinist - Russell McGregor. The first class musician, I hitherto had no idea about, but of whom I have, from this moment like so many Australians, become a great admirer. Russell McGregor transforms every single concert he conducts into a truly engaging show and experience. He is sometimes compared to the renown Andre Rieu (but, in my opinion, is much better). He appears more natural, more sincere and his personal charisma is incomparable. He conducts the concert with such a zest, gusto and grace, that the audiences are naturally drawn into the performance with the very first tones of the orchestra.

 

Since I didn’t know anything about Russell McGregor from Vienna, I was surprised by his English, or literally Australian English. I had no idea that Russell is actually a ‘Glen Waverley boy’ who, as a seven year old started his violin lessons here in Melbourne, and then, a few years later, 20 years ago, visited Vienna, a city he fell in love with instantly. He returned to Australia only to sell his home in Elsternwick, for which he bought a rather special violin, made in 1697 by a famous Italian Carlo Giuseppe Testore.  He swapped his car for a one-way ticket to Vienna and 6-months rent in the new country, and was on his way back to Vienna. His precious violin, one of the most expensive instruments in the world, was his driving force and inspiration. The beginnings in Vienna were more than tough; struggling with the foreign language, he stayed in the attic of an old house where, in the winter time, he practised on his violin in cut-out gloves. All the hard work and unfaltering effort in extreme competition with the best of the best got him where he is today: at the Schonbrunn Palace, where he conducts big concerts, and to his great love, the Johann Strauss Ensemble, that he conducts and accompanies brilliantly as a violinist. His greyish mane and good looks together with his charming ways have the women all over the world wondering at resemblance to Richard Gere.

The Johann Strauss Ensemble has attracted a wide range of audiences in Tokyo, Osaka, Melbourne, Sydney, Paris, London Monaco, Madrid, Rome, Brussells, Berlin, Zurich, Hamburg, Salzburg, and many other cities. The success of the Ensemble is based on typically pleasing Viennese music, but it also excels on wit and spirited performance of this orchestra led with unswerving bravura by the Austrian Australian.

Whilst at this Australian imprint, that ‘our‘ Russell McGregor adds to the Austrian musicians, I must mention the wonderful adaptation of “Waltzing Matilda”, with which the musicians surprised the audience at the end of their performance. The standing ovation saw many of the listeners moved to tears, - so strongly have they been touched by the music. The sounds of Australia were resonating with everyone in the hall, be it the wide spectre of the ethnic groups present – the Austrians, Swiss, Germans, Czechs, Irish, Hungarians, Slovenes or the Australians.

Among the guests I have also discovered the founder of the Robert Stolz Viennese Music Society, Roger (Vratislav) Prochazka. An elegant and bright gentleman, who was born in 1918! - “Then, in the year I was born, everyone in the new and liberated state Czechoslovakia was obsessed with Slavism, thus I got my name Vratislav, but explain that in Australia”, says Roger, and describes the later dramatic circumstances in 1948, when he was defecting from the country after the communist takeover. Apart from a long life, fate must have endowed him with a number of other good fortunes. Originally a lawyer, he built in Australia a successful company importing frozen seafood. The music was his lifelong companion.

His second wife Hedy, born in Bratislava into an Austrian family, was a professional singer of classical songs. “We were a perfect couple - she sang and I accompanied her on the piano. Apart from that she baked the best ‘gugelhupf’ in the world and made coffee Australians can only dream about”, reminisces Vratja. The Robert Stolz Musical society that he and Hedy founded together in May 1984 is still active and has a wide following in Melbourne. Music is a potent medicine, it ignites new energy, gives strength and enhances longevity in any weather, under any rule and at any age. Vratislav Roger Prochazka remains, in his age of 93, an active supporter of young musical generation at the Australian National Academy of Music. Let him inspire us and let us not stop discovering the magic power of music, just as I have discovered it at the unexpected and beautiful encounter with Johann Strauss in Australia.

Reprinted from Czech bi-monthly Cechoaustralan.

Translation: Charles Zahra, Barbara Semenov

© 2014 Robert Stolz Viennese Music Society Inc.