Jack Kolb is a huge classical music fan. The retired research physicist is a regular listener to WBJC in Baltimore and joins the public radio station's semi-annual international music trek whenever he can.
Recently, the Westminster resident was in classical heaven. Not only did he visit St. Petersburg, Russia, for its extraordinary opera and ballet, but he also spent 11 days on a Baltic classical music theme cruise aboard the Crystal Symphony, one of the most luxurious ships afloat. The featured performers, well known to concertgoers worldwide, were mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade and violinist Leila Josefowicz.
"There are 37 of us from the Baltimore area," Kolb said. "This is the first time we've had a classical music cruise, and it's been a wonderful experience."
Besides food and pampering at a high level, the cruise featured concerts in the main theater almost daily and other classical treats throughout the ship (a string quartet at meals, pianos in the lobby and several bars with musicians). There was even a Mozart Tea, featuring waiters and performers in period costume with, of course, plenty of music by the Salzburg master.
"We've been sponsoring international music trips for twelve years," said Jonathan Palevsky, WBJC's program director, who led the Baltimore group. "But this is our first experience with Russia and with Baltic ports."
In addition to the onboard entertainment, Palevsky said his group also enjoyed a ballet and opera performance on land at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg.
But it was the Crystal Symphony that really attracted the three dozen members of his group.
"Half the fun is enjoying the fantasy world of a luxury cruise line," he said. "Where else can you go and say, 'I want this to happen' and - boom - it does? Or I'd like one of everything on the menu. ... It's a remarkable environment to be in for a brief period of time. People really enjoy it."
The classically trained singers and musicians on Crystal Symphony were invited and organized by Classical Action, a New York-based group dedicated to raising awareness and funds to fight HIV and AIDS. Supporters of the group paid a premium to join the cruise.
"We wanted the music world to be more involved in the fight against AIDS," said the founder of Classical Action, Charles Hamlen. "Many top classical musicians donate their time willingly. So far, we've raised about $7 million."
Josefowicz, the violin virtuoso, has worked with Classical Action for several years. She made her Carnegie Hall debut at age 16 and has performed concerts with the New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony and the London Symphony, among many others. But never on a cruise ship.
"It was a totally different experience but I loved it," she said. "People are here to relax and it's so easy to play for them in this more casual environment." Her program, ranging from Brahms and Schubert to a delightful version of Charlie Chaplin's "Smile," produced rousing ovations and demands for an encore performance.
Frederica von Stade, one of the world's best-loved mezzo-sopranos, also made many new friends with her interpretations of Bizet, Ravel and Offenbach. She was accompanied by talented pianist and composer Jake Heggie. Von Stade often donates her time and talent to Classical Action.
Leila Josefowicz continues her busy concert schedule, but says she is now hooked on cruising.
"My whole life is about packing and unpacking and repacking," she said. "Here you get on this wonderful ship and unpack once. We're totally pampered with an abundance of different things to see and do." She laughed as she added a third element. "And to eat. The food is amazing."
Meanwhile, Palevsky was planning his next WBJC music excursion, a West Coast opera tour.
"But this cruise has been so successful as a musical and cultural experience - with a bit of gluttony thrown in - that we're definitely going to do another one," he said.
John and Sandra Nowlan are freelance travel writers based in Nova Scotia.
if you go
Cruises on Crystal ships range from $2,500 for a seven-day cruise to $4,500 for a 12-day trip, but discounts are often available. Music-theme cruises for 2009 include Jazz, Big Band, Emerging International Artists and Great Composers. Crystal offers Passport to Music on all cruises, featuring lessons in music theory, harmony and orchestration. Visit crystalcruises.com for more information.