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Breathe It All In

Friday, October 5, 2018

In Austria, Trinity choir brings a fresh voice to classical masterpieces

by Jeremy Gerlach

Standing in Joseph Haydn’s footsteps, Nicholas Champion ’21 had to remind himself to breathe.

On a sweltering August day in Eisenstadt, Austria, Champion was standing in the gilded, majestic Haydnsaal at the Schloss Esterházy Palace. This is the opulent, baroque setting where Haydn, a titan of classical music, wrote and premiered his choral and orchestral works hundreds of years ago.

But Champion scarcely had time to marvel at the breathtaking locale. As one of 40 Trinity choir members invited to perform at the prestigious international Classical Musical Festival in Austria, Champion needed to catch his breath.

It was time to sing.

Nico Champion sings

“You’re in this palace, you’re surrounded by this old, old beauty, and there’s this new beauty being made right in front of you,” says Champion, a human communication and theatre major from Klein, Texas. “You feel a sense of wonder from the first notes, and that’s probably what Haydn wanted when he wrote his pieces.”

At this summer’s Classical Music Festival, elite musicians from more than 25 nations gathered to perform classics such as Haydn’s “The Creation” and Beethoven’s “Mass in C Major.” The festival, now in its 43rd year, is set across a dramatic set of venues, ranging from the iconic Haydnsaal and modern performing arts center the Kulturzentrum, to towering, ancient churches and chapels such as the Mattersburg Pfarrkirche, St. Stephen’s Cathedral, and the Bergkirche.

Even among these staggering settings and professional musicians, Trinity’s choir wasn’t drowned out. In fact, the group was actually invited to the festival to serve as the featured, host choral ensemble, says Gary Seighman, music professor and director of Trinity’s choral program.

“We’ve been singing with the San Antonio Symphony for the past seven years,” Seighman says. “That’s why we keep getting invited to these kinds of things: We perform next to professionals, and that professionalism shows.”

But Tigers don’t have to be professional musicians, or even music majors, to perform at a high level, says David Heller, professor and chair of the music department.

“What makes Trinity unique is that all students are able to participate in music, at whatever level they want,” Heller says. “If you look at the roster of our ensemble, 95 percent of them are from outside the music department. Even if they’re going off into economics or physics or engineering: Those are the people we need sitting in our choirs, strengthening the cultural life of the world.”

Kiyana Saidi sings

Kiyana Saidi ’21, a neuroscience major from Houston, says the trip tested the physical strength of the group, too. Even among the quaint, Alpine alleys and cobblestone streets of Eisenstadt—where vendors will hang cozy fur coats for display in the snowy winters—the summer temperatures reach sweltering levels. On top of this, the choir spent more than a week in daily rehearsals, with eight-plus hours of standing, singing, and perfecting their craft.

“Being there in the heat, everyone’s sweating, but nobody cares,” Saidi says. “It’s raw emotion, creation. You leave everything behind, you hear the music. It’s very surreal.”

The Haydnsall certainly provided a surreal setting for the group. Built inside Esterházy Palace in the mid-17th century, the beautiful performance hall served its namesake well. Haydn spent nearly 40 years writing and premiering his masterpieces within. The composer, according to palace lore, even had individual segments of flooring and wall ripped out and replaced, just to tweak the acoustics of the room.

Kristie Kummerer plays violin

Kristie Kummerer ’18, a music and history double major, holds a reverence for these floorboards.

“There’s a specific spot that’s been preserved so people can know, Haydn walked here,” Kummerer grins. “Having played Haydn’s music pretty much all my life, being able to walk into the palace where he lived and worked, and to be able to sing the piece that he premiered here, it’s an indescribable experience.”

Jonathan Maislin ’18, a communication major from Houston, noted that an “incredible gift” from the Dickson Allen foundation made this indescribable experience possible. This gift allowed Trinity’s ensemble to travel to Austria for two weeks, with some individuals paying as little as $500 to attend.

“I didn’t just have ‘two-weeks-in-Austria money’ laying around,” Maislin says. “But through the Dickson-Allen foundation, I was able to come.”

For a “kid worried that he’d get homesick” when he first came to Trinity from Houston, Maislin has now traveled to Italy for study abroad, China for a previous choir trip, and Austria, all thanks to Trinity’s support for international engagement.

“This is the biggest and most grandiose thing we’ve ever done,” Maislin says of the choir’s Austria trip.

And students like Maislin weren’t alone in taking their talents to Austria. At each of the festival’s rehearsals and performances, professors performed right alongside their pupils. Having faculty as experts in their field is one thing; But at Trinity, having faculty who are willing to provide their expertise in the field can be a game-changer.

For Heller, now in his 32nd year at Trinity, the Austria trip is a beautiful example of how Trinity harmonizes with the outside world.

“Sitting at the harpsichord during rehearsal, hearing everything going on around me—all of these musicians from 26 countries—for our students to be part of that musical expression, creating a choral work, it made my heart swell,” Heller says.

 Heller, a talented organist and keyboardist with a staggering breadth of knowledge on baroque and classical-era instruments, accompanied the group on the harpsichord and the organ. Alongside Heller, professor and accomplished pianist Carolyn True D.M.A., “wore several hats” during rehearsal in Austria, lending much-needed accomaniment and musical input to the group. Joseph Kneer D.M.A.,, conductor of Trinity’s symphony, performed on violin, while skilled mezzo-soprano Jacquelyn Matava D.M., performed as a soloist during Beethoven’s Mass in C. And Seighman, a smooth tenor vocalist and acclaimed conductor, helped mold the Trinity choir’s sound into a force worthy of even Beethoven or Haydn’s masterpieces.

Ultimately, Champion says, building relationships with faculty who are willing to take action, to make music right alongside you, can open doors for Trinity students—not just to the past, but to the future.

“Performing like this, you’re part of something bigger than yourself, and you get to hear and experience this beautiful piece of art that’s happening right in front of your eyes,” he says. “You have these layers and layers of history that you’re performing and interacting with, but also you’re giving it this revitalization…performing it with a group that’s never been together before.”

Gary Seighman directs choir rehearsal

And as Trinity’s ensemble begins to develop an international reputation, they continue to draw the attention—and enthusiasm—of engaged choir alumni.

“We’re making music at a high level,” Seighman says. “It’s exciting to have alumni coming up to me, asking, ‘What’s the choir doing next year?’ or ‘Where’s your next tour?’ So many of our alumni can’t wait to see what we’re doing next.”

And even if Champion never returns to Austria, or performs in a venue like the Haydnshall, the Bergkirche, or St. Stephen’s Cathedral again, he’ll be able to carry the music of this moment with him the rest of his life—every time he breathes it all in.

“I think that’s why people love classical music,” Champion says, “because it’s always breathing, and you’re breathing new life into it.”

Jeremy Gerlach is Trinity University's Brand Journalist, and you can catch him on weekday evenings playing Bach on one of Trinity's fabulous Steinways. Email him at jgerlach [at] trinity.edu or find him on Twitter @JT_Gerlach.