A Performance Worthy of Princes

BY Lynette Lobban

This fall a group of OU singers and dancers
delivered a Haydn masterpiece
in the Austrian hall where the Maestro lives on.

In 1761, Joseph Haydn was hired as music director in the Palace Esterhazy in Eisenstadt, Austria. Over the next 40 years, he would create some of his most important music for the pleasure of the court. The Princes Esterhazy entertained in a magnificent room, three stories tall with gilt medallions and romantic fables told in fresco across the ceiling. Nearly three centuries later, Haydnsaal remains one of the most beautiful and acoustically perfect concert halls in the world.

Earlier this semester, in the same opulent space where Haydn premiered his symphonies, quartets and cantatas, a group of University of Oklahoma students made a debut of their own—performing Haydn’s masterpiece, The Seasons, as ballet with chorus and orchestra. What made the performance all the more dizzying was that it came by personal invitation from the artistic director of the most prestigious Haydn festival in the world.

Two years ago, Haydntage’s Austrian director, Walter Reicher, experienced two Oklahoma phenomena that he would not soon forget: the touchdown of a spring tornado, and the premiere of Haydn’s The Creation performed as ballet. Colleague and Fond du Lac native Richard Zielinski, who is both director of choral activities at OU and artistic director of the Eisenstadt Summer Academy, invited Reicher to attend the Norman, Oklahoma premiere. The famous oratorio, based on the Book of Genesis, traditionally is performed by chorus and orchestra alone. Original choreography by Mary Margaret Holt, director of the OU School of Dance, and Steve Brule, associate professor of ballet, brought a powerful, physical presence to the miracle of creation, both Biblical and artistic. When combined with OU choirs and the Norman Philharmonic, and faculty soloists, under the direction of Dr. Z, Reicher was blown away, more by the performance than Oklahoma’s tempestuous weather.

“I think that was our unofficial audition,” Holt said. “That August we went to Eisenstadt to perform at the Summer Academy, also known as the Classical Music Festival. It was the first time ballet had ever been presented in the palace—or at any of the Haydn festivals—so we were curious as to whether it would be accepted or not.”

She need not have worried. At the end of the performance, Haydn devotees jumped to their feet, showing their delight in a 10-minute ovation. Reicher then extended an invitation to OU to return to Eisenstadt in 2014, to perform—not at the Academy—but at the International Haydntage, reserved for the most celebrated classical musicians in the world.

His proposal was this: from Haydn’s oratorio The Seasons, OU would produce an original ballet, provide dancers and choir, and the festival would select a professional chamber orchestra and four soloists from the Vienna Folk Opera—all under the baton of Dr. Z.

“Haydntage is the 10-day crown jewel of the festival,” says Zielinski. “For Walter Reicher to trust these young singers and dancers to come over and open his festival? His baby? It’s pretty heady stuff. We were in the line-up with some of the finest musicians and ensembles in the world—the Academy of Ancient Music, the Academy of St. Martin in the Field, conductors like Sir Neville Mariner—and we’re the opener!”

By July, Reicher reported that the two OU performances were nearly sold out and that both the president of Austria and the governor of Burgenland would be in the audience opening night.

“I had not choreographed The Seasons when we were asked to present it at Haydntage,” Holt said, “The Seasons was chosen for us. Basically they said, ‘Here you go, here’s a chance to make a ballet. No pressure (sic), but we knew it had really better be something.’ ” Holt began pouring over the oratorio in August of last year with collaborator and dance professor Ilya Kozadayev.

“We listened to the music together a lot,” she says. “We were truly guided by the score, not in a pantomimic way, but in a reflective way. From what I’ve read and discussed with Dr. Z, Haydn was in his later years when he wrote The Seasons—the winter of his life. I think really the whole design of The Seasons is an analogy for life, with winter being the most poignant and personal example.”

“This is a well-known piece, ‘The Seasons’ (Die Jahreszeiten),” Zielinski said “but the way we presented it was new, in that it was fully choreographed with a ballet, so there were a lot of changes that had to take place from solos to dance movements to chorus. We really came up with the idea almost 2 years ago.”

The ballet premiered at the 14th President’s Concert in OU’s Reynolds Performing Arts Center in April. From the moment Dr. Z raised his baton, the audience was captivated by the combined narrative power of dance, orchestra and chorale.

The story focuses on three characters—young lovers Hannah and Lucas, and the mystical Simon. When the music is presented in concert, Hannah is the same performer throughout, but Holt and Kozadayev thought Hannah should be a different dancer for each season. The casting would help differentiate the seasons while getting to showcase more of Oklahoma Festival Ballet dancers.

Enhancing the ballet was the exquisite costume design of Lloyd Cracknel. Each of Hannah’s costumes defined the seasons from the golden light of summer to winter’s icy blue.

In late August, costumes, pointe shoes, tights and tuxes were packed and on their way to Austria. Even though the 6o members of the chorale and 15 dancers with Oklahoma Festival Ballet missed four days of the fall semester, both Holt and Zielinski are firm believers in travel-as-teacher.

“We always tell our students that dance is a physical language understood internationally,” Holt said. “They gained a first-hand experience of how this language crosses the barriers of time, generations and cultures. They also learn how to cope with being on tour. They do not have their own pillow, their own food, their own routine. Everything is different—except the cast. And in that way, the cast becomes your family. You learn to rely on each other. If you are fortunate, international travel will be part of your life as a dancer. Touring is a part of their education and an incredible opportunity for personal, intellectual and artistic growth.”

“One thing that made this a unique experience,” Dr. Zielinski said “is that we had such a short period of time to pull together many different entities. The chorus and the ballet were from the University of Oklahoma, the orchestra was a professional chamber orchestra, “Cappella Istropolitana” from Bratislava, Slovakia, and the soloists were from the Vienna Folk Opera. I left here on a Thursday, arrived in Vienna on Friday about 9 in the morning, drove to Bratislava and rehearsed with the orchestra from 4 to 7. The next day, we rehearsed 10 to 1 and 3 to 6 with the orchestra and then made my way back to Eisenstadt where we had a 5 hour rehearsal with the soloists, with just piano. On that Sunday, the choir and ballet dancers from the University of Oklahoma were showing up and we got them into their hotels and Monday and Tuesday morning we had piano run-throughs with chorus, soloists and dancers and Tuesday afternoon and evening we rehearsed with the orchestra. We had 2 rehearsals on Wednesday. The final rehearsal on Wednesday was 2 hours and then we were taping for a TV show.”

They opened on Thursday to a very experienced and learned sold-out audience.

“People travel from all over the world and come to the Haydntage Festival,” Zielinski said “so there’s a lot of pressure.”

It was obvious from the first time we all got in the same room that we had prepared well and we were focused on our mission, and that was creating a new way to present ‘The Seasons’ of Haydn. The students were simply amazing. They sang with great German diction, to the point where the German-speaking folks said that the German coming from the choir was flawless. They sang with great emotion and I think it inspired all of us because the orchestra was a professional group.”

Many of the members of the orchestra were from the Slovakian State Orchestra, a Chamber Orchestra of select people from that professional group. And the soloists sing in the Vienna Folk Opera, so these are professionals that had performed “The Seasons” before but never with the addition of ballet.

“It was helpful for us to have performed it three times in Oklahoma in April,” Zielinski said “we just kept refining our product. I’m proud of everybody involved in the production because it took a lot of effort and concentration and people really working together, and that’s kind of the message of The Seasons.”

The Labretto is from a book by James Thompson.

“Von Seton, who was the impresario of Haydn’s,” Zielinski explained “took segments of this long poem, ending with Psalm 15, which essentially is about a person’s journey through life, where spring is being born, summer is youthfulness, teenage days, early college days, autumn is middle age, and then winter is a very cold, barren type of existence and everything dies. But in the end, he adds something that told a lot about Haydn’s own faith and how he looked at taking care of each other. In Psalm 15 the choir asks, ‘How do you get to heaven? How do you get to the mountain top?’ And the soloists sing back to the choir, ‘You need to be kind to one another.’ ‘How do you get to the tabernacle of God?’ ‘You need to take care of the poor.’ So he keeps asking these questions and this is the first time there’s any sacred text in the piece and we’ve been performing now for 2 hours and 20 minutes. The last movement, where we’re all brought together is when we’re singing about Heaven, and it was simply glorious! In today’s world, where there’s a lot of negative out there, evil and darkness – this piece is all about light.”

Light, and believing in what’s good. Helping each other.

“Here was a group of college students,” Zielinski said “that missed a week of school and acted like they were pros, and our choir is made up of a diverse group of people. We had graduate students and alumni and we had 4 freshman that were asked to go on the trip, and we had the ballet which were graduate students and undergrads. Then you had this orchestra that’s made up of a lot of experienced musicians and soloists that are in the prime of their career. All working together…it created a great message. We had a wonderful audience. We had the President of Austria there and a lot of dignitaries, choreographers and directors.”

Zielinski believes the international experience is necessary for students.

“There is so much we can learn from countries that have been here 10 times as long as we have,” Zielinski said “and it gives them real world experience.

Two of the students who made the trip are Zeek Wright, who danced in Eisenstadt two years ago and Ashley Leisten, a member of the chorale, who traveled to Austria for the first time.

Wright, a senior dance major performing the role of Simon, said he was just as excited to go back as he was on his first visit.

“It was my first time out of the country,” he says. “The palace is so beautiful. The architecture is gorgeous. There are paintings on the ceiling. The orchestra is playing right in front of us and the chorale right behind us. So every time we danced, we saw beauty all around us. It was truly a ‘wow’ moment.”

Wright admits the The Seasons was a challenge for the dancers and musicians. “The choreography by Mary Margaret and Ilya was wonderful. I’m always nervous beforehand, but when we stepped out onto that stage, I knew it was going to be fantastic.”
Leisten, a public relations major from Keller, Texas, says she appreciates that OU gives non-music majors the opportunity to participate.

“I joined the Singing Sooners as a freshman my fall semester,” Ashley said “students who love music, but don’t major in it, can still have this experience—people from everywhere, pre-law, pre-med, letters, education. It’s just people who genuinely love music. The first day in chorale that we started doing the classics, I felt like I was in way over my head. But the more I stayed and practiced, the better I felt, and Dr. Z always said, ‘You belong in this group,’ I said to myself, ‘OK, I trust you, you know more about music than I will.’ And now I’ve performed in Austria!”

Walter Reicher often refers to Eisenstadt as “Haydn’s Graceland,” a fact that is not lost on the students. Both Wright and Leisten say that performing in the hall where Haydn conducted 300 years ago adds a dimension that borders on reverence.

“Haydn wrote The Seasons near the end of his life,” says Zielinksi. “But the more I studied the score, I was in awe and amazed. He reflects on his life through music and ends with ‘The Song of Salvation.’ It’s very powerful. I say hats off to the students, because they are the ones who delivered the product. Friday was our second sold-out concert, and we were putting everybody on busses at 4a.m. Saturday morning to arrive back home Saturday night. It was a ride! We can provide the score and the choreography, but it’s the students who had to step up and bring this to life. Art is what has defined these countries, and the cities like Vienna, that have given us musicians like Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms and Haydn. You can go down the list. It was a wonderful experience. I think everybody…from the experienced musicians to the four freshman tenors we took over there, we’ve all been changed for the better.”

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