At a prestigious Austrian music festival, Trinity choir brings a fresh voice to classical masterpieces.
Standing in Joseph Haydn’s footsteps, Nicholas Champion ’21 had to remind himself to breathe.
On a sweltering August day in Eisenstadt, Austria, Champion stood in the gilded, majestic Haydnsaal at the Schloss Esterházy Palace. Around him, sleepy gold-and-red streams of light cascaded into the same 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 Musica Festival in Austria, Champion needed to catch his breath.
It was time to sing.
“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 theater 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.”
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. Heller was one of several Trinity faculty members who traveled to Austria to perform alongside the choral students.
“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. And they perform at a very high level. 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 ’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. We were there together, and you become aware that you’re part of something bigger. It’s very surreal.”
Carolyn True, music professor, says these strenuous conditions are a textbook definition of Trinity’s take on experiential learning. “These kids are getting to perform in all of these places, to put history in living context for themselves,” True explains. “They’re dealing with the heat that Haydn dealt with. They’re having to react to weather. We take things for granted in the States. In this little town, they’re seeing how it affects life, how it affects performance life,” True says. “There are some things you can read about in books, but it’s not being here, being immersed in the culture, having rehearsals in the same place where Haydn conducted, the same instruments they used. To be able to see that and experience that, we all come back changed.”
For Saidi, experiencing the thrill of hearing their voices echo through the Esterházy was a dream come true.
“I learned about the Esterházy Palace in 10th grade at my high school, so I’ve dreamt about coming here for a very long time,” Saidi says. “To be singing one of Haydn’s most famous pieces, ‘The Creation,’ in the palace he lived in for 30-plus years is amazing.”
The Haydnsaal, a gorgeous performance hall inside the Esterházy built in the mid-17th century, served its namesake well. The composer spent nearly 40 years writing and premiering his masterpieces within. Haydn was a notorious perfectionist, and according to palace lore, he had individual segments of flooring and wall ripped out and replaced, just to tweak the acoustics of the room.
Fellow choral member 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—especially to be able to do that just as an undergrad.”
Kummerer and Saidi have been waiting their whole lives for a chance to touch history. And at Trinity, big-school resources, small-school size, and generous alumni support mean that Tigers don’t have to wait until they’re retired to travel the world for these experiences, or compete with graduate students or professionals for elite experiential learning opportunities.
At Trinity, we don’t wait: we do
Jonathan Maislin ’18, a communication major from Houston, says the trip wouldn’t have happened without an incredible gift from the Dickson-Allen foundation. 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 go.”
For a kid worried that he’d “get homesick” when he first came to San Antonio 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 Austria trip. “We were literally singing in a palace, performing with professional singers from across the world. We were honored by the mayor [of Eisenstadt]. Trinity allows us to travel the world to spread our name—to show the talents we’ve nurtured.”
Students like Maislin weren’t alone in taking their talents to Austria. At each of the festival’s rehearsals and performances, professors Heller, Seighman, and True 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. “It’s an experience they will never forget for the rest of their lives.”
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, True, an accomplished pianist, “wore several hats” during rehearsal. Joseph Kneer, conductor of Trinity’s symphony, performed on violin, while skilled mezzo-soprano Jacquelyn Matava performed as a soloist during Beethoven’s Mass. 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.
“I feel pride that Dr. Seighman has made this choir what it is, to where we get to perform at these (international) venues,” Nicholas Champion says. “We’re with musicians that have been working towards this their entire lives.”
Ultimately, Champion says, building relationships with faculty who are willing to take action and make music 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.”
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 though they’re not ‘part’ of the experience, they are part of it, in a way, because we’re standing on their shoulders.”
And even if Champion never returns to Austria, or performs in a venue like the Haydnsaal, 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.
“When you perform, you feel like you’re part of something that is constantly breathing and moving,” Champion says. “I think that’s why people love classical music, because it’s always breathing, and you’re breathing new life into it.”