Sziget (1997) is my first large-scale choral piece. A 12-minute predominantly tonal work for a capella choir, percussion, and narrator mixes explores orchestra-like passages with a more traditional homophonic and polyphonic passages. Sziget focuses on a depiction of what internet refers to as one of “the most insane military last stands in history” that took place in 1566 in the former Austro-Hungarian empire, today’s Hungary. The Sziget citadel was defended by a Croat count Zrinski (Zriny) from Ottoman’s overwhelming army whose primary goal was to conquer Vienna, the gates of Europe. Even though Sziget eventually fell, there were no prisoners, and every last person fought defending until they died. Being well aware of Ottoman’s cruelty, Zrinski and his men killed their own families before going out for the final sortie, to spare them the torture that awaited should they fall in enemy’s hands. Due to unforeseen Ottoman’s death during a protracted siege, the conquest of Vienna was thwarted and the course of the history of the Western Europe irrevocably changed. I was fascinated by this story and its relative anonymity in the Western history and hence decided to celebrate it through music. As a result, the work also incorporates Croatian traditional tune Rajska Djevo (Heavenly Virgin) by Petar Perica (a victim of yet another historical massacre in Dubrovnik in post-WWII Yugoslavia).
The work was premiered in 1998 by the late John Leman, a magnificent person, an artist, and an administrator, who at the time served as the professor of the world-class Deterle Vocal Arts Center at the College-Conservatory of Music (CCM), University of Cincinnati, my alma mater. The recording below is of the premiere John masterfully conducted. What makes this feat even more impressive is at the time John already suffered from an advanced stage multiple sclerosis that required of him to conduct from a chair using a single hand. Despite all the obstacles and the fact the piece is amazingly difficult (consider after 12 minutes of a capella tour de force, the piece ends with a basso profundo line, so, if the choir goes flat, something that is not uncommon even for the most professional a capella ensembles, this really puts basses in a bind), John did an amazing job of leading CCM’s Chorale, and even though our paths crossed several times since, I feel like I have never thanked him enough for his willingness to premiere a piece this hard composed by a mere undergrad. I was deeply saddened when I learned of John’s passing in 2007.
I realize now, this page is more of a tribute to John, an amazing person, an artist, and a friend, than it is about Sziget. Thank you for believing in me–this one’s for you, John!