Tuesday, October 27, 2015

A Concert, an Opera and a Train Trip

A Concert, an Opera and a Train Trip

The past 10 days have been quite eventful as we become increasingly comfortable in Poland and eager to experience all it has to offer. This post describes several events that illustrate the multi-faceted opportunities available to us here.

Academy of Music Inaugural Concert

Associated with the Poznan University of Economics, where I am teaching, is the Akademia Muzycna, or Academy of Music. On Friday, October 16, its symphony orchestra performed the year's inaugural concert in the Aula Nova, or New Hall, just across the street from the building in which my office is located. The facility is stunningly beautiful and elegantly designed. The 75-piece student orchestra is exceptionally gifted with young talent of the highest caliber. I played French Horn in a number of orchestras and symphonic bands for several decades, and I know I would not have auditioned successfully for such an ensemble! Bedecked in formal attire, poised and professional in every respect, the orchestra performed magnificently. No wonder the hall was packed, with standing room only for many patrons.

The entrance to the Aula Nova in Poznan
The first piece was a symphony written by a local composer. I must admit I'm a more traditional musician, and this piece was a bit too experimental for me. Nevertheless, it showcased some of the talented performers in the orchestra, and the audience was appreciative. Next, the stage was rearranged slightly to introduce a concert grande piano downstage center. A young man took his position at the keyboard and, supported by the full orchestra, performed Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto Nr. 3 in D Minor, one of the most technically challenging piano concertos in the standard classical repertoire. His performance was stunning. Thunderous applause demanded three curtain calls from this superb pianist, leading finally to an encore performance -- Chopin, of course. After all, this is Poland!

The audience eagerly awaiting the start of the concert
The orchestra is in place, awaiting the conductor's arrival
The evening's concluding piece was Scherazade, the symphonic poem by Rimsky-Korsakov, based on One Thousand and One Nights. The piece blends traditional Russian style with music of the East and provides a showcase for a number of orchestral instruments. Performers on flute, oboe, bassoon and, of course, strings, were featured and displayed artistic and technical mastery of their instruments. 

What a delightful Friday evening in Poznan!

A Bit of Argentina

The following evening, we attended a fine performance of Evita in the Teatr Musycny here in Poznan. Teatr Musycny is housed in an older building, and the interior is somewhat reminiscent of London West End theaters. It appears to be organized at least partially as a repertory company, and the professional level of the performers is comparable to any major U.S. city. As impressive as the individual performances were, the staging of this opera was especially remarkable, making highly creative use of limited stage space for such an ambitious production.

Teatr Musycny in Poznan
The performance was in Polish, but Robin and I are sufficiently familiar with the piece that no translation was needed. In fact, we had seen a very early production of Evita in London around 1982, not long after it first opened there. It was remarkable to think, as I was enjoying the recent performance here in Poznan, that when I first saw the opera in London, it was very much in the context of the Cold War. As a U.S. Air Force officer then, my focus was very much on the geopolitical situation that defined the time. I'm sure it never occurred to me, as I was seated in that London theater in 1982, that a few decades later I would be enjoying the same opera in Poland!

Return to Szczecinek

Last week, Robin and I made the 2 1/2-hour train trip north to Szczecinek, a city of around 40,000 situated on a lovely lake and surrounded by forests and farms. The importance of the area to me is that documents indicate my Great Grandfather Karl Freitag emigrated from here around 1880, arriving in the U.S. port of Baltimore and eventually finding his way to Milwaukee. He would have been in his mid-20s at the time, a tanner by trade. I can't imaging the courage it must have taken for him to make such a journey, knowing that a return was highly unlikely. Szczecinek was known as Neustettin then and was part of the German territory of Pomerania. Life was difficult for Poles in this region under German rule, even brutal at times, especially from 1939-45. At the end of World War II, the city returned to its Polish designation and identity, and nearly every vestige of German presence was erased. Consequently, I had no expectations of finding "long lost relatives." Still, the prospect of walking and exploring my ancestral grounds was magnetic.

Central Square and  City Hall, Szczecinek
We spent several hours in Szczecinek's "Archivum," the repository of official documents, paging through collections of magistrate proceedings from the mid-19th through the early 20th centuries, but found no references to the Freitag family. Archivists were exceptionally helpful and tried their best to accommodate our search, but they explained that most official records -- such as birth, marriage and death certificates -- are maintained in the nearby city of Koszalin, essentially the county seat of the region. Looks like another family history search trip in our future.
A helpful employee in Szczecinek's Archivum helps with our search

Anna, a curator at the Regional Museum in Szczecinek was delightfully helpful and provided a personal, guided tour of the museum's modest but fascinating collection. Anna holds a degree in film studies and spent a bit of time in New York City pursuing her deep interest in classic Hollywood films, especially those by Polish-born American director Billy Wilder. Anna was able to recount to us the remarkable sweep of history that defined Szczecinek and the surrounding region.

Scanning through the delicate pages of 19th century city records
We retrieved one document on line indicating that Karl Freitag's father, Gottlieb Freitag (my great, great, grandfather) was married in the church in Hütten, a village a few kilometers outside Szczecinek, in 1852. Hütten reverted to its Polish name of Sitno in 1945. Last Saturday, I made the short trip from Szczecinek to Sitno/Hütten and found a tiny, peaceful village surrounded by rich, expansive farms. There is only one church in the town, but it was built in 1909. Nevertheless, it's reasonable to accept that the village church has always existed on the same piece of ground. To my delight, the church doors were open, and a young woman was inside preparing the church for Sunday worship services. She was genuinely interested in the purpose of my visit and explained that Sitno was her home. However, her husband was in Berlin working as there were simply no jobs in their home village. She hoped to join him soon in Berlin, but said it would be very sad to leave her village. I thought Karl Freitag must have faced similar circumstances 135 years earlier. 

Anna describes some of the Regional Museum's artifacts
So I learned a good deal about the area from which my ancestors originated, though nothing new about my forebears themselves. I'll have to keep working on that. Nevertheless, I can certainly report that Szczecinek is a delightful destination with much to offer. A lakeside resort town with a central pedestrian walkway and many attractive features such as historic architecture, important historical sites, fine restaurants and an impressive museum, Szczecinek is certainly worth a return trip or two.

The church in Sitno, constructed in 1909, likely on the site of earlier churches

I've include a few photos in this post, but I've posted many more on Dropbox at these sites:
So that's a recap of events since my last post. In between these adventures, my classes continue to progress productively, and my students seem to be thoroughly engaged in the topics and activities introduced in each class. The perspectives I'm gaining from the dozen or more countries represented by these great students are invigorating. The weather has been chilly but sunny in recent days, and the charms of Poznan seem inexhaustible. Thanks for your visit to this blog, and I hope you will continue to return. Do widzenia! 


  1. I so enjoy reading the details in this post. The Rachmaninoff piece would have been a delight to hear. I'm always interested in old churches and glad you were able to meet someone at the one in Sitno.