Thoughts from Dr. Joe: Finding music's magic in Bratislava

It's 8 a.m. in Austria. The MS Mozart, queen of the Danube, glides through the current, passing abbeys, cathedrals and villages from the 13th century. The snowflakes fall and nothing stirs from the quaint little houses with the steeple roofs. It is a serene morning in the Wachau Valley. Charlemagne marched through this very corridor. We are passersby; today the world turns for us and we are humbled by this experience.

I'm with the friends and family accompanying the La Cañada High School choral artists. It's the Cantemus tour, during which 101 artists will perform in the cathedrals, palaces, abbeys and galleries in Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Czech Republic and Hungary.

I absorb the sensations emanating from the many experiences. It took Johann Strauss, a musical genius, to capture the enchantment of the mysterious Danube valley; my only tools are words, hardly sufficient.

When our first night underway, I savored a cup of Darjeeling tea while listening to the choral artists rehearse. With my back to them, I gazed at the river, watching the ripples dissipate with the movement of the ship. The singers sang “Hallelujah” and the Mozart swayed to the sound of an American spiritual. Their beautiful voices brought life. “Yes he is,” the artists proclaimed. And at that moment, he was.

The next morning we arrived in Budapest, the Paris of the East. The girls wore beautiful gowns and the boys wore jackets. Off they went to perform in an enormous castle, the Palace of Fine Arts. They sang under the dome; behind them hung a Renaissance masterpiece depicting a Christian victory over the Ottomans.

The La Cañada singers were brilliant. They performed three encores and received two standing ovations. “Oh Lord Hear My Prayer,” they sang. Their words were serendipitous since the Moguls, Romans, Ottomans and Christians fought for centuries over this river valley, and as we float the Danube we see only peace.

I hobbled around Budapest enjoying the antiquated edifices of a remarkable city. I spoke with two old men who told of the Russian invasion in 1957 and the student freedom fighters who fought Russian tanks with Molotov cocktails. Some survivors came to America as refugees settling in my neighborhood in the Bronx. I was a boy; I knew them well; I listened to their stories. And at a young age I learned that freedom isn't free.

On the Mozart the meals are pageantry and the choral students are treated to a gourmet fare of seven courses reminiscent of the country that we travel through. White tablecloths and a fork for every entrée are lessons in civility. Our tour director, Sandra, is loving, giving and German. Her attention to detail is meticulous and when she says, “Be there at 8 a.m.,” she means 7:55. The artists have named her the “Tour-minator!”

We left Budapest with hot chocolate and woke up in Slovakia. It's Easter. The choral artists conducted a Sunday service and then an egg hunt. The town of Bratislava waited, laden with snow. But the artists came to sing, so they trudged through snow toward Saint Gregory's Abbey, built during the 13th century.

There are no words to express their brilliance. Their faces contorted to their voices and the crescendos they hit stirred their souls. There were tears in Erin Salmi's eyes and there I saw the divine. They were alive and when they sang, they were angels.

I've been around the world, held life in my hands and saw the sunrise when I expected I wouldn't, but tonight the choral artists of La Cañada showed me something I've never seen. Magic! In Bratislava, in the snow, in the abbey, in the dark of night, I listened to these beautiful kids. How can there not be a god?

JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a retired professor of education and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at Visit his website at

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