UA Singers in Europe to Perform the Famed 'Stabat Mater'

La Monica Everett-Haynes and Ingvi Kallen
May 6, 2014

Members of the Arizona Choir and the UA Symphonic Choir are in Europe to perform at Vienna's Musikverein and Prague's Dvořák Hall in a once-in-a-lifetime experience after having received a personal invitation to present.

Photo credit: Gary Mackender

Organizers of the Varna International Music Festival extended the invitation to the UA given the reputation of the University's graduate choral conducting training programs. It is the first known invitation extended to any higher education institution in the world to present on such stages.

While in Vienna and Prague, the group of 80 UA performers will present Antonín Dvořák's "Stabat Mater." The selection of the piece was intentional, and will serve as a symbolic tribute and show of gratitude to Austria and the Czech Republic, said conductor Bruce Chamberlain.

Chamberlain purposefully chose Dvořák's "Stabat Mater," the largest and most complex setting of this archaic text in the choral and orchestral repertoire. It was at the present cite of the Dvořák Hall that the piece first premiered.

"It carries great importance in that part of the world, and it is a very big deal that an American choir is doing a piece that they honor and hold dear," he said. "The music is so beautiful. It tugs at your heartstrings because of what the text is saying, and also what is behind the text. It is a profound statement of human experience."

This magnum opus holds 20 verses containing three lines of text each and takes about 90 minutes to perform. Dvořák's 10 movements divide the text, narrating the story of the Virgin Mary.

"It certainly is one of those pieces every major choir wants to be able to do, and to say they have done," Chamberlain said.

But given its size and complexity, and also the vocal range required, choirs seldom perform the masterpiece, Chamberlain said.

"With its enormity, the size of the piece, not every orchestra can get it off the ground. It taxes the choir and the chorus musically and in their ability to stand there, toe to toe, with the massive orchestral forces" Chamberlain said.  

And it is emotionally exhausting. 

"For this piece, that is probably its largest challenge – the emotional roller coaster that Dvořák puts you through," Chamberlain said. "The highs are very high, and the lows are very low. But the amount of time it takes to get from low to high varies so much."

Just as compelling is the story behind the piece.

Dvořák began working on it in 1877 following the tragic loss of three of his children. The work was well-received by the public, especially in England, and was Dvořák's first major compositional success. The work attracted the attention of Johannes Brahms, who encouraged his own publisher, Fritz Simrock, to publish the work in 1884, only four years after its premiere in Prague in December 1880.

In fact, when the UA choirs sing at the Musikverein they will be performing on the exact same stage where Brahms, the first conductor at the Musikverein, presented his own works.

"It's a huge responsibility, and that is what's so powerful and magical for the students and for the University," Chamberlain said. "This is a supreme educational experience for our students."

Chamberlain serves as a faculty director of the ensembles along with associate professor of music Elizabeth Schauer and Thomas Cockrell, the UA Nelson Riddle Endowed Chair and the Rogers Institute of Orchestra and Opera Conducting director.

The Arizona Choir is the premiere choral ensemble in the School of Music, with dozens of graduate voice majors and choral conducting majors involved. The Symphonic Choir is the premiere undergraduate choral ensemble, specializing in choral literature from a range of style periods.

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