It is an accomplishment no other higher education institution is known to have gained: a personal invitation to perform at the Wiener Musikverein in Vienna, one of the most prominent stages in the world.
Members of the University of Arizona's Arizona Choir and Symphonic Choir have received that invitation from organizers of the Varna International Music Festival.
The personal invitation to the UA musicians, who also will perform at the Dvorák Hall in Prague, another highly regarded stage, speaks directly to the strength and competitive nature of the University's choral and choral conducting programs.
"When you think of the top name recognition premiere collegiate schools of music in America, their choirs have not performed there," said Bruce Chamberlain, UA director of choral activities since 2000.
All told, 80 students and four faculty members will represent the UA, the state of Arizona and the nation while performing at the Musikverein on May 6, 2014. So prestigious is the invitation that the UA and private donors have begun making financial contributions to support the trip.
"This is huge, not just for the program, but for the University and all the individuals participating," said UA Provost Andrew Comrie.
"Getting invitations like Varna is a rare treat; it is all about being connected professionally," Comrie said. "This is a way to expose generations of students that could then lead to spin off to other kinds of invitations."
Comrie also said such involvement is an important example of active student engagement and service, which the University promotes and supports at the undergraduate and graduate levels.
"Always, when you are trying to educate and train students at the graduate and professional level, it is important to give them as much experience as you can," Comrie said. "You have to put their professional preparation in as much context as possible, which helps students to learn as much as possible."
A Rare Invitation
The Musikverein is home of the Vienna Philharmonic and the globally competitive Varna International Music Festival tour; it is the site where historically famous composers and conductors like Johannes Brahms and Gustav Mahler have showcased their works.
"The invitation is auspicious; it usually goes only to European choirs," said Scott W. Dorsey, the education and communication director for the American Choral Directors Association, or ACDA.
"For a U.S. choir to be invited is really quite significant," Dorsey said. "The Southwest is not generally seen as an arts mecca, for the fact of geography in this country. But the UA is, in fact, an arts mecca."
In addition to the Musikverein, UA students and faculty will travel to Vienna and, under the same invitation, also perform on May 9 at Dvorák Hall, home of the Czech Philharmonic. The group will perform one of the major works by Czech composer Antonín Dvořák, the "Stabat Mater," which premiered at the hall in 1880. The group will return to Tucson on May 11.
"This is yet another example of the University as a strong research institution," said Ellen Bussing, senior director of development for the UA College of Fine Arts, where the School of Music is housed.
In addition to performing, UA students and faculty will tour Vienna and Prague and will be introduced to others in their host cities.
Practice Makes Pitch Perfect
In preparation for the 2014 tour, students practice daily with Chamberlain and associate professor of music Elizabeth Schauer in the UA Music Building. The musicians will begin rehersing the "Stabat Mater" during the spring semester.
On a recent Wednesday, Chamberlain guided the 39-voice Arizona Choir through the complexities of Benjamin Britten's choral tour de force, "Hymn to St. Cecilia," correcting group members on their pitch, energy and enthusiasm while praising their improvements, even the slightest ones.
Speaking with the group about note values, Chamberlain urged: "You are responsible for every rhythm and every articulation. Now that you know all of this intellectually, we're going to make it happen."
The group is, at this early stage of the academic year, learning to rehearse and perform at an extremely high level, Chamberlain said. And when the tone comes together, the result is a goosebumps-raising performance. Later in the rehearsal, and with an unconstrained smile and laugh, Chamberlain beamed, "Pretty spiff. Pretty doggone spiff."
Louisiana native and UA music student Mindy Martin said that in addition to working with Chamberlain, she looked forward to working with different repertoires. She said she chose the UA knowing that she would experience the personal and professional challenges necessary to develop her skill.
The daily preparation for the Varna invitation and the eventual performances represent the epitome of such a challenge.
"Professionally, this will look fantastic on a resume," said Martin, a second-year master's student in the choral conducting program.
Having served as a music teacher in the four years prior to her UA studies, Martin had a chance to tour the likes of London and Paris with her own students.
"It will be nice to be able to get that experience myself," she said. "I know how big of a responsibility this is, and we students really appreciate what Chamberlain is doing. This is a wonderful experience."
The Invitation: How it Happened
Over the last 12 years, Chamberlain has helped to raise the profile of the UA's graduate choral studies program, with students consistently placing in the national ACDA Graduate Conducting competition.
"When you transfer a leader, whether it be a football coach or a choral director, there is going to be a dip in performance. There was no dip at Arizona," said Dorsey of ACDA, who previously worked with Chamberlain.
UA alumni and current students have enjoyed strong placement in ACDA's Biennial Conducting Competition in recent years, gaining national recognition and prestige.
"Chamberlain hit the group and ran full speed. It's been astonishing that his students have won award after award," Dorsey said. "I know how hard that process is. People throw razor-tipped elbows to get into that spotlight – the winner's circle. It's a career maker."
Also, Chamberlain and alumni Adam Eggleston, Scott Finch and Lee Nelson performed at Carnegie Hall in 2012. During the concert at the famed New York hall, Chamberlain conducted the New York City Chamber Orchestra and Masterworks Chorus.
"We have been increasing our quality, our excellence and our focus on research with the community," said Rex Woods, director of the UA School of Music.
Officials with the Varna International Music Festival had learned of the UA, given the recent successes of Chamberlain and University students. They then reached out to Chamberlain with the invitation, hoping to feature the UA's programs.
Jason Dungee, a Delaware native, opted to pursue his doctoral degree at the UA because of the institution's supportive nature, its record of success and also so that he could study with Chamberlain. He learned about the Varna invitation through his UA welcome package.
"It was exciting news that this was happening, and the University is really backing us in this endeavor," said Dungee, a first-year choral conducting doctoral student.
Understanding the importance of the invitation, Dungee said he and his peers are proud to serve as "ambassadors" of the University and nation.
"It is my last leg as a student, so this will be my last hurrah as a student," said Dungee who will be traveling with a chorus for the first time.
"This is such a serious, major invitation, and the stakes are high for us to perform to our best level," he said. "I am excited to be part of what will be part of the UA legacy."