How often in life is it the obscure or unexpected that ends up being so rewarding.That was the case when the Sunshine Coast Oriana Choir visited Hlohovec in southern Slovakia.
An early morning coach departure from Budapest in Hungary saw the choir arriving at the historic town mid afternoon after a stop at the picturesque village of Szentendre, on the banks of the Danube.
The drive into southern Slovakia was at first austere, as remnants of the communist domination of the country by the then Soviet Union still showed through.
The broad-acre farming of grain crops continues as farmers pool their resources to remain cost-effective in today’s world economy.
At the same time this co-operative approach is a reminder of the communist system.
There are many decaying agricultural buildings but also unfinished or faceless unit blocks.
This region must be harsh in winter. Matched by the way the spirit of the people has been downtrodden by continual occupation.
Yet there is hope under the new-found freedom of an independent Slovakia.
There are attempts to brighten life, update the buildings and apply brighter colours.
For so many years the people were made to speak Russian instead of their native language. Just like they had been made by the Austro-Hungarian Empire before that.
A power plant of wind turbines has emerged on the landscape. A symbol of the new energy sweeping through the country. A nuclear power plant is away in the distance.
The coach makes its way through town, past the Church of St Michael the Archangel and up a hill. There’s a glimpse of a hall between the trees and soon we have turned into the car park.
The main hall looks like an old butter factory you would find at Maleny or Pomona. Yet beside it is a smaller hall, the Empire Theatre, much like the church hall at Montville.
At the front is a neat garden. There’s even a monument to Beethoven. So what’s the link?
While lunch is prepared by extended family of choir member Evalee Sharples and their friends in the Hlohovec community there is time for a quick wander.
Behind the theatre is this classic garden with views down to the town. Above it is the original palace which dates back to the 13th century.
The Empire Theatre is part of the palace complex and Beethoven was asked to play at its opening in 1802.
Walk down an avenue of sycamore trees to the town and lake.
Past the old riding school and greenhouses of the castle. Past the sports ground created to identify and foster future champions. Past the small casino to Marilyn’s Coffee Shop – at least that what we called it.
Posters and framed prints of Marilyn Monroe adorned the walls of the bar/cafe, 1960s hits sung in Slovakian played as the owner prepared delightful coffees – layers of frothy milk, coffee and warm milk in glass cups.
It’s back story in this community, one that in a way represents the nation’s journey towards western freedoms.
The town of Hlohovec is in one of the oldest wine-growing centres in Slovakia. Winemaking can trace its roots to the early Middle Ages when vines were grown on the southern slopes if the Povazsky Inovec mountain range.
The town is in the valley at the foot of the range.
The first human footprints date back more than 20,000 years when mammoth hunters used to dwell here in the last glacial era.
The first farmers are thought to have settled in the lowlands of the Vah River.
An old Slavonic settlement is documented in 1113 along with the invasion of the Tatars.
After the Tatars withdrew in 1242 a period of peace returned under King Belo IV.
The reason the choir was in Hlohovec was because soprano Evalee Sharples had family members living there and a civic reception including mayor Miroslav Kollar, deputy mayor Miloslav Drgon and his wife Gabriela Drgonova had been arranged.
Film crews were there so the choir’s visit was going to be on Slovakian televsion the next night.
Evalee’s daughter Lisa is married to a Slovakian, Lubo Gregor who works for their safety engineering company in Maleny, BDA Fire.
“This is Lubo’s home town,” Evalee tells me. “He grew up here, just as his grandma did.”
The Empire Theatre is an intimate performance hall complete with dress circle balcony.
The concert gave soloists Sarah Lawes, Gabrielle Deschamps, Evalee Sharples and Ian Rix to come to the fore, also Melissa Innes and Cath Galloway to perform a duet, and pianist Fay Baker to provide accompaniment.
The choir was also joined on stage by Hlohovec dancers Jazzi Phillips, Lisa Gregor and Anna Ruggeri for Ave Maria.
A very heartfelt version of Waltzing Matilda, performed at a theatre Beethoven played at, was a highlight.
It was introduced to the audience by Lubo, speaking in Slovakian.
He said the audience were so excited by the choir’s performance.
“It’s the furthest anyone has come to perform.
“It was a wonderful concert. Really lovely.
“The passion. The way audience reacted.
“Usually they are a thankful audience here. But the applause today was heartfelt.”
The program included not just hymns but so many fantastic soloists.
They were singing their heart out and the audience appreciated that.
Choir president Melissa Innes paid very big congratulations on the performance.
“I’m not sure where you grabbed that energy from.
“A big thank you to everyone.
“I have not heard waltzing Matilda sung with quite so much passion.”
What really hit home for the choir was the welcome they were given by the people of Hlohovec.
Not just the family connection, that’s important, but it went further than that.
After the concert a restaurant owner and wine maker who was sponsoring the visit, threw his historic venue open.
It was a real sense of occasion with not just dinner and wine provided but a tour of the 200-year-old winery Vanyolai Csaladipince.
Some of the vines in the region go back to Roman times.
Last century, the winemaker told us, the old town had more wine caves than Rome.
Yet the communist times saw the area converted to modern farming.
Now the winemakers are re-establishing their links with the land and wines from this region have made it to world stage in recent years.
“Wherever there are artistic and cultural people together, wine must not be missing,” he told the choir.
Indeed, this visit to Hlohovec showed not just the power of song but real sense of community.