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Release: Nov. 16, 2001

UI Symphony and Choruses include Christmas section of 'Messiah' in Nov. 28 concert

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- One of the most popular pieces of classical music ever written -- the Christmas portion of Handel's "Messiah" -- will be part of the program for the University of Iowa Symphony and Choruses concert at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 28 in Hancher Auditorium.

The concert, under the direction of Timothy Staler, will be free and open to the public.

In addition to Part I of "Messiah," with texts relating to the birth of Jesus, the symphony and choruses will perform the popular "Hallelujah" Chorus -- taken from a later portion of the work, but traditionally performed with the Christmas section -- as well as three other works written for the Christmas season: the "Magnificat" of Gerald Finzi, the "Fantasia on Christmas Carols" of Ralph Vaughan Williams, and "A Musicological Journey through the Twelve Days of Christmas" by Craig Courtney.

Student soloists for "Messiah" will be sopranos Stephanie Thorpe, Collette Conway and Kerri Middleton; altos Molly Phelan, Matthew Walker and Rachel Lebeck; tenor Dennis Willhoit; and bass Edward Corpus.

UI music faculty member Stephen Swanson will be the baritone soloist for the Vaughan Williams.

Stalter says that the program is intended to be a diverse celebration of the Christmas season, but that nonetheless, the program has one point of unity: an English influence. "Vaughan Williams and Finzi are both English composers, and Handel spent most of his professional life in England," he explained. "'Messiah' certainly gained popularity in England, and 'The Twelve Days of Christmas' has roots in English folk song."

"Messiah" is today the most popular of the many oratorios on Biblical subjects that Handel wrote during his years in England. It was written in 1741 for a performance benefiting charities in Dublin, where it was first performed April 13, 1742. That performance, using local singers and choruses from the Dublin cathedrals, was very successful, earning about 400 English pounds for the charities.

In contrast, the first London performance of "Messiah" in 1743 was not a great success -- partly because its performance in a theater was considered inappropriate for a sacred work. Nevertheless, when Handel began performing "Messiah" in 1750 in benefit concerts for the London Foundling Hospital Chapel, it was quickly established as the composer's most popular work, a position it has held to the present day.

Stalter selected the Finzi's "Magnificat" in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the composer's birth in 1901. Shy and retiring by nature, Finzi spent most of his life living in relative seclusion in the English countryside. He was influenced by his older contemporaries, notably Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughan-Williams. In his own music, he developed an intimate style and concentrated on songs and choral works, with a particular fondness for texts by Thomas Hardy.

In assessing Finzi's s vocal works, Diana MacVeagh praised "the finesse of his response to the English language and imagery, (and) his vision of a world unsullied by sophistication or nostalgia."

In spite of its academic-sounding title, "A Musicological Journey through the Twelve Days of Christmas" is a light-hearted piece. It was commissioned for the 1990 Holiday Pops concert by the Columbus (Ohio) Symphony. Each of the 12 movements parodies a particular piece, style or genre, ranging from Gregorian Chant to Wagner to John Phillip Sousa.

Stalter joined the UI faculty as director of choral activities in 1999. He directs Kantorei, the premier choral ensemble of the School of Music, teaches graduate conducting courses, and administers the graduate program in choral conducting. An active member of the American Choral Directors Association, he frequently presents clinics and workshops in choral conducting around the United States.

In addition to conducting and teaching choral music, Stalter is active as a tenor soloist in the United States and abroad. A specialist in the music of the Renaissance, Baroque and Classical periods, he is known for his performances as the Evangelist in the Passions of J.S. Bach and Heinrich Schuetz. He has recorded as tenor soloist with conductor Robert Shaw on two compact discs released on the Telarc label.

Swanson joined the faculty of the UI School of Music in 1994. For nearly 20 years before that date he had an active operatic career in Europe. During that time his repertoire grew to 91 roles in opera, operetta and musicals. He has sung on German, Austrian and Dutch radio broadcasts and has been a featured soloist in European festivals including the Berliner Festwochen, the Days of Contemporary Music in Dresden and the Festa Musica Pro in Assisi, Italy.

Swanson has also had an extensive career as a concert singer, appearing as featured soloist with many U.S. orchestras, including the Chicago Symphony under Sir Georg Solti, Raphael Fruehbeck de Burgos and Margaret Hillis. He has recorded Mendelssohn's "St. Paul" and Ullmann's "Der Kaiser von Atlantis." Since coming to Iowa City, he has presented solo recitals, appeared in and directed UI Opera Theater productions, and performed with the Chamber Singers of Iowa City.

The Nov. 28 concert by the UI Symphony and Choruses is supported in part by a contribution from the University of Iowa Community Credit Union.

The School of Music is part of the Division of Performing Arts in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

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