As the weather still holds, I decide to visit Hohensalzburg fortress, Central Europe’s largest preserved fortress dating from the eleventh century. It is an incredibly steep climb and my knees won’t thank me for it. So I hop on the funicular – similar to our own in Bergen – the oldest in Austria, built in 1892. Presumably the steel cables hauling us up the acute gradient are not the original ones… I’m relieved to escape at the top and am almost literally blown away by the magnificent panorama. All of Salzburg lies below, surrounded by spectacular snowy peaks. The wind is eye-watering and clearly it is only sensible to seek shelter in the café for coffee and strudel. It’s a good job we return home on Saturday – my willpower wilts under the culinary temptation.
As the day progresses, large parties of tourists spill onto the streets and I decide some rest before concert number two is a good move. I pass dogs the size of small ponies. Maybe tiny ones would just disappear into the snow? The dogs, like their owners, are very polite but I catch one shaggy hound eyeing me assessingly. And intently. I say hello. He keeps staring. I haven’t seen a single cat so far.
Darkness has fallen by the time I walk back towards the concert hall. It is six o’clock and suddenly all the bells begin to ring out, one after the other. The bells of the Dom and surrounding churches. Walking through gloomy passageways over cobblestones, I’m passed by someone in a flowing dark cloak and hat. I feel as though I may be in a scene from Amadeus. The opening of Mozart’s Requiem is running through my head. Somehow, despite the tourism and kitsch souvenirs, Mozart the man remains very present in every part of Salzburg – the cobbled streets, the old signs swinging gently overhead, the venerable old-style coffee houses and the river Salzach itself. I feel conscious of walking in his footsteps, seeing glimpses of what he saw; hearing bells, the clop of horse hooves, the Austrian dialect; smelling the coffee, chestnuts and wine. It is comforting to know that he existed and that he left us such musical treasures to experience.
My cello is patiently waiting for me backstage and of course, the dressing room trek is back on. I realise there are also dancers and singers at work somewhere in the bowels of this building. I’m followed on my walk by a baritone efficiently using the corridors to warm up his voice. Upstairs, our musicians are using every corner they can find to similarly warm up. The countdown begins. Sverre and Erlend are running the stage with Swiss efficiency. Chairs, stands, equipment need to be whipped on and off stage between works, depending on ensemble size. And both sides of the stage need to be readied for a precision entrance at seven thirty.
Håkan Hardenberger dazzles again, this time with a concerto by Haydn and Three Mob Pieces by H. K. Gruber. He makes the most of these hugely contrasting works and the delighted audience is rewarded once again with an encore. Mahler’s first symphony requires large forces, especially in the horns and trumpets. It is a work of many layers and infinite detail. Maestro Mena is in playful mood and keeps us on our toes reading his intentions. But that is the best, most giving way to make music and tonight our Mahler is magical, nuanced and glittering. The finale is most striking for the whole row of horn players rising to play standing. A triumphant sound that makes me feel proud and raises goosebumps. Mena raises the tempo in exhilaration and the audience erupts in cheers. I’m delighted to see their wholehearted appreciation – the musically refined Austrians are discerning critics, not given lightly to such displays. But tonight, we get a standing ovation – and my knees get a workout from repeatedly rising and sitting. Mena introduces our two Grieg encores with typical humour, merely indicating the composer’s name on his score to the audience and winking. There’s a murmur of pleasure from the whole audience as they recognise the opening bars of Morning Mood. We also serve up some Grieg trolls dancing into a frenzy and giving our valiant wind players a workout as Mena drives a punishing tempo.
The euphoria makes the corridor hike seem shorter and groups of us disperse into the evening chill, in search of some celebration. A sizeable portion of the orchestra ends up in the same Italian restaurant where we keep the waiters busy and toast a second successful performance. Time is flying – one more concert remains.