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OU music professor Richard Zielinski wins international competition with choir

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Richard Zielinski

Hunter Birkhead, Nicole Van Every, Richard Zielinski, Kayley Williamson and David Howard after a cathedral performance in Szczecin, Poland on June 20. Zielinski and his choir competed in this year’s annual International Choral Festival.

The evening of June 22 was cool and crisp in Międzydroje, Poland. A hush fell over the crowded auditorium at the International Choral Music Festival as the singers on stage anxiously awaited the announcement determining who would win the coveted first place award.

The master of ceremonies took to the stage and peered out over the audience.

“Laureat głównej nagrody dla najlepszego chóru ogólnego idzie do śpiewaków Richard Zielinski Singers!” he said.

As the crowd began clapping, the members of the Richard Zielinski Singers choir looked at one another in confusion for a few seconds. Since the ceremony was conducted entirely in Polish, the Zielinski Singers were some of the last people in the room to realize they had just won the 2018 Grand Prix Award for the overall best choir.

The Zielinski Singers is a 40-person semi-professional choir comprised mostly of OU students and alumni. Richard Zielinski, the choir’s conductor, founded the group in 2005. When an opportunity to perform arises, Zielinski invites some of his former students to join the group and sing at different venues.

This was the group’s first time competing in a choral competition.

Approximately 18 choirs from across the globe were competing in this year’s annual International Choral Festival. While many of the groups had years of experience singing together, the Zielinski Singers met for the first time only days before the competition. Luckily, it didn’t take long for the group to connect and work as an ensemble, Zielinski said.

“We hit the competition at kind of our peak. We were ready, we were rolling,” Zielinski said. “A choir is like any team — you can have a basketball team of five great players but if they’re not willing to work together, take care of each other and give up some of what they do to help somebody else, then you’re not going to win the championships. This was a championship choir.”

Zielinski is the director of choral activities at OU, as well as the director of music ministries at McFarlin Memorial United Methodist Church in Norman and director of the Norman Philharmonic. He spends his summers as the artistic director and conductor of the Classical Music Festival in Austria.

His namesake choir has only performed together during their time abroad, but will host a free domestic concert at 3 p.m. Sept. 16 at McFarlin Memorial United Methodist Church in Norman.

While the thrill of winning their first competition was an amazing moment, the choir’s true mission is to get people — especially young people — excited about music and the prospect of expressing themselves through singing, said Nicole Van Every, an OU professor of voice and a soprano soloist in the Zielinski Singers. 

“Even if just a few people in the audience have a seed planted in them and they get passionate about going out and exploring music on their own, as musicians that’s always our end goal,” Van Every said. 

Zielinski, better known by students and comrades simply as Dr. Z, has spent his career traveling the world and sharing his love of music with people from different cultures.

“Every place I go, I don’t speak their language most of the time, but once I start making music with them that becomes our language,” he said. 

Out of all the places he’s traveled, Poland has always held a special place in Zielinski’s heart. Zielinski is of Polish descent and decided to connect with his Polish roots after his mentor and close friend, Jan Syzrocki, introduced Zielinski to Polish music and art.

After Syzrocki passed away from cancer in 2003, Zielinski was inspired to continue his legacy by traveling back to Poland and introducing his students to the world of Polish music, he said.

“That country’s gone through a lot but they still have a spirit about them. They love life and they love each other,” Zielinski said. “Now I’m so proud of Poland. What they’ve done in 30 years is amazing to me.”

Like Syrocki, Zielinski also has a talent for helping others find their passions and turn them into viable career opportunities, said John Morrow, a friend and former student of Zielinski.

Originally, Morrow was an international studies major at OU because he didn’t believe he could make a living with music. After spending time with Zielinski in Austria at music festivals, Morrow finished a master’s in choral conducting in spring of 2017 and is now an associate director of music ministries and principle organist at McFarlin.

“Before I met Dr. Z, I didn’t plan to have a career in music. He could see that passion in me even before I could and relate that it might be something I wanted to do with my life,” Morrow said. “He does this with every person. He just wants them to be the best that they can be. He did it with me, and it just so happens that music really is my calling.”

Zielinski said he worries that people will forget the music he grew up listening to in the 1960s like Peter, Paul and Mary; The Beatles and Woody Guthrie — the music he said tells stories of “the political atmosphere and what was happening in America.”

For Zielinski and Van Every, the solo sopranist in the group, this worry has been a driving force for how the choir picks its songs and performs. 

“Music is how people communicate and that form has changed over time,” Van Every said. “We don’t have to sit around a campfire and sing our songs anymore, we can just sit in the comfort of our heater and push play on our iPod.”

To help reawaken people’s passion for music and excite younger generations, the Zielinski Singers perform a repertoire including classical music, as well as gospel, pop and folk arrangements. This is different than most choirs, which often focus on pieces from the same genre or time period. Zielinski said he hopes that performing a wide range of music will help attract a wide range of audiences.

The beginnings of success are fueling the Zielinski Singers, who are excited to spread their mission across America. They have also been invited to return to Poland next summer as the highlighted choir at Legnica Cantat, a Polish choral competition which will be celebrating its 50th anniversary.

Zielinski said he plans to continue working with the Richard Zielinski Singers for as long as he can.

“Sometimes when I get up I feel that I’m in my 60s, but when I get on the podium to conduct I feel like I’m 20 again,” Zielinski said. “There’s a youthfulness and a spirit, especially when you work with young people — my goodness. It’s wonderful, it’s beautiful.”

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