Symphony Orchestra plays overseas to save festival

This summer, nearly 5,000 miles away in a small, picturesque German town, fears abounded as a cultural heritage was on the threshold of vanishing forever. Hope would come in the form of an extraordinary plan of action involving student musicians: one that would fundamentally unite two cities on opposite ends of the earth.

Since 1951, Eutin, a Lawrence sister city of some 17,000 people located in northern Germany, has held an annual summer music festival, attracting between 30,000 and 40,000 visitors from across Europe during the months of July and August. The festival has come to symbolize a strong, collective identity for the citizens of Eutin, while also bringing in a yearly economic stimulus that local business owners could depend on. Despite the festival’s vital role in the community, a lack of financial oversight was threatening to close the doors of the festival for good, bringing about a plea for assistance that the University would answer with the entire University Symphony Orchestra and a cast of opera singers – altogether some 70 students.

In the fall of 2010, after learning of the festival organizers’ file for bankruptcy, a group of local merchants known as the Eutin Trade Association began considering ways to save and revitalize the ebbing event. In December, Hans Wilhelm Hagen, treasurer of the Eutin Trade Association, contacted David Neely, KU director of orchestral activities, and proposed the idea of bringing over student musicians from the University to comprise the festival.

David Neely and Robert Walzel, dean of the KU School of Music, led a team of five students to Germany to perform a teaser concert in January. The show sold out and local newspapers caught on to the story. The city and state then approved funding for the summer music festival.

The Show Must Go On

The KU orchestra members began rigorous preparations for the festival shortly before their departure for Germany in July with a German guest conductor who would be composing for the opera “Don Giovanni.” Upon their arrival in Eutin, the orchestra immediately started rehearsals for their first performance. Expectations for the festival were high. Being accustomed to professional musicians, there was much speculation in the community as to just how well a student orchestra would perform.

“One great thing about it for the students was they really got a sense of what a professional routine is at a music festival,” said Neely, who accompanied the orchestra to Germany and directed many of their shows. “The orchestra was rehearsing at a professional pace, playing at a professional pace, expected to play on a professional level. The singers as well, the cast members also were working like that, and it was terrific. They grew immensely, as I knew they would. Something like this is a life-changing experience for a musician.”

The orchestra played its first show in a large barn that had been converted into an elegant concert hall. The performance was sold out, and the students received an immensely favorable response from the audience. Local papers wrote impressive reviews and began to spread the notoriety of the KU orchestra throughout northern Germany.

With news of the success of its first concert expanding, the KU orchestra would then play its next shows at the primary opera venue in Eutin, an open-air stage located by a pristine lake in the northern section of town.

“It’s a place on the edge of the world,” said Jānis Porietis, a graduate student and trumpet player from Latvia. “The audience was basically sitting almost on water, because that’s where the land ends and there is a lake right behind them. It was really kind of magical. I’d never seen anything like that anywhere before.”

Singing in the Rain

Without any roof to speak of, the stage and audience seating for the outdoor theatre were highly susceptible to adverse weather conditions. Unfortunately, Eutin experienced one of the rainiest summers in recent history while the KU musicians were there. Nevertheless, that did not stop the music-loving people of Eutin from coming out to enjoy the students playing.

“They came prepared,” Porietis said about the audience. “They know to what they’re going. So one minute it’s OK, and the next it’s just pouring down rain and they’re covered up with umbrellas and anything that could protect them. But nobody left.”

The few times bad weather did strike during the performances, organizers pulled a tarp pulled over the orchestra pit at the front of the stage, providing the musicians some shelter. However, there was no refuge for the cast of opera singers who had to brave the fickle elements on their own for the duration of the routine.

“We actually had our premier canceled because of the rain,” said Etta Fung, a doctoral student from Hong Kong who played Gretel in the fairy tale opera “Hansel and Gretel.” “It was really disappointing. For an opera, the premier is the most important show of the whole string of performances. Even when we did our second show it was still raining, so we were singing in the rain, like literally! And we’re jumping everywhere on stage trying not to fall. We were covered in rain and dirt and food by the end of the opera. It was great!”

German Hospitality

During the course of their period in Germany, the University orchestra members stayed in two hostels on the outskirts of town, while the opera cast and faculty members lived with host families.

“The Germans really embraced the students like you wouldn’t believe,” Neely said. “They were an integral part of the community and people embraced them and invited them to events. For example, the entire cast of ‘Hansel and Gretel’ was brought out to a country house for an outdoor barbeque.”

Eutin’s openness to the students helped dampen some of the anxieties many of them faced at the thought of playing for a foreign audience.

“I was really excited about it and I was just kind of worried what would happen after we started singing,” Fung said. “But the community in Eutin was just so amazing. We started off with a couple smaller concerts. We sang at the market place, and people would just stand there for like two or three hours just listening to everything, and they were always really attentive. They were so nice to us.”

“And we were in the newspapers every day,” added Annalize Sussman, a graduate student from Santa Fe, N.M., who played Hansel.

Success and a Promising Future

The music festival in Eutin this summer has been deemed a triumph, and the overwhelmingly positive reaction for the University students’ contribution has already sparked dialogue for what role they will play in the immediate future of the German event.

“The partnership between Lawrence and Eutin gained a new dimension,” said Hagen in a recent email. “Seventy Americans brought international flair and sympathy to our festival city. They brought a new, young and fresh air to Eutin. For 2012, our new music director, Professor Urs Theuss, will put together a new orchestra comprised of KU students working side-by-side with German music students. The young students from America made it possible for us to have an opera festival at all. Financially, despite the bad weather conditions, it was a successful season; the festival broke even. That means the show goes on.”

Edited by Stefanie Penn

  • Updated Oct. 18, 2011 at 2:17 am