MC Bicentennial celebration to conclude with Handel’s “Messiah” Dec. 6

MC Bicentennial celebration to conclude with Handel’s “Messiah” Dec. 6

Oct. 10, 2019 

As the final event of Maryville College's year-long Bicentennial celebration, Maryville College music ensembles will present Handel’s “Messiah” at 8 p.m., Fri., Dec. 6 in the Clayton Center for the Arts’ Ronald and Lynda Nutt Theatre. The performance is sponsored by Clayton Homes.

The Watkins Shaw edition of Handel’s musical masterpiece will be performed during the concert. Directors are Stacey Wilner, director of choral activities at MC; Alan Eleazer, conductor of the MC Community Chorus; and Eric Simpson, conductor of the Orchestra at Maryville College, director of bands, and assistant professor of music at MC. Special guest soloists are Laura Atkinson '05April Martin '08Jesse Neace '19 and John Wesley Wright '87.

Tickets, which can be purchased at the Clayton Center Box Office, are $25 for adults and $20 for students and seniors. To purchase tickets, please call 865.981.8590 or visit

Messiah: An 86-Year Tradition at Maryville College

George Frideric Handel’s oratorio Messiah was first performed at Maryville College on Dec. 17, 1933 in Voorhees Chapel, under the direction of Frances Henry. It was the first performance of the newly formed “Oratorio Society of Maryville,” a group that had been organized by J. Alvin Keen. That first year, there were 115 singers from Maryville and Alcoa church choirs, women’s clubs of Maryville and musical organizations of the College, with piano accompaniment, as well as solo parts sung by college students and guests from the community. Participation was open to all students who were interested but required Sunday afternoon practices and the purchase of the music score, which ranged from 50 cents to $1.

Music faculty member Ralph R. Colbert directed the performance from 1936 until 1941, followed by Richard Vine, who conducted the 10th anniversary performance and served as director for the next six years. In 1947, Harry Harter joined the music faculty and became director of the College Choir. He directed the Messiah every year until his retirement in 1981, except for two years when he was on sabbatical leave. Harter’s successor was Kent Skinner, who organized and prepared the 50th anniversary performance of Messiah on Nov. 20, 1982, but invited Harter to serve as guest conductor for this special event.  

Performances typically have taken place in December, but a curriculum change moved the annual performances to November from 1967 until 1982. Subsequent directors of the College Choir included Robert Ergenbright, Jeff Baxter and Daniel Taddie, although, with the exception of the 1987 performance of Messiah under the direction of Baxter, it is unclear whether the Messiah was performed regularly between 1983 and 1999. After Stacey Murphy Wilner arrived as choral director in 1999, performances have been held every four years, with alternating conductors.

From the beginning, Messiah performances were held in Voorhees Chapel, until it was destroyed by fire in 1947. Performances moved to the Alumni Gymnasium until 1954, when they were held in Samuel Tyndale Wilson Chapel. Performances have been held in the Clayton Center for the Arts since its completion in 2010.

Orchestras for Messiah performances began under Ralph Colbert and Dorothy Horn in 1936, and in succeeding years, orchestras were directed by many talented conductors. Students, faculty, staff and community members have served as soloists and accompanists throughout the years.

Dec. 6 Performance Includes Special Guest Soloists

Recognized by The New Yorker’s Alex Ross for her “refined, restrained” singing, American mezzo-soprano Laura Atkinson '05 has found a home on both the concert and opera stage in the U.S. and Europe. She has debuted with numerous American and German orchestras, has collaborated with various professional choirs, and has performed operatic roles in several German opera houses. She enjoys recurrent collaborations with various groups and festivals, including the Oregon Bach Festival with Helmuth Rilling, the Bach Akademie of Charlotte with Scott Allen Jarrett and the Bach Choir of Bethlehem with Greg Funfgeld.

This season, Atkinson will perform Handel’s Messiah with Bourbon Baroque and at Maryville College, Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass and Vivaldi’s Gloria with the Louisville Chorus, Mozart’s Requiem with the Lehigh Philharmonic and Bach’s St. Matthew Passion with the Bach Akademie Charlotte. Recent highlights include Dvorak’s Requiem at the Konzerthaus Berlin, “Messiah” with the Portland Oratorio Chorale of Maine, Bach’s St. John Passion with the Bach Choir of Bethlehem, and a program of Handel Duets at the Steglitz Early Music Festival.

She received her master’s degree from the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale University, where she studied with James R. Taylor and Simon Carrington; upon graduation from Yale, she was awarded the inaugural Margot Fassler Award for Excellence in Performance of Sacred Music. She completed additional studies at the Hochschule für Musik in Leipzig, Germany as a Fulbright Grantee. As an undergraduate at Maryville College, she studied music education. 

Hailed by Opera News as "a stand out in the large ensemble" for her portrayal of Mrs. Fiorentino in Street Scene and as a "sweet-toned soprano" in L'elisir d'amoreApril Martin ’08 is "a sparkling respite" who sings with a "waft of unexpected warmth" (The Aspen Times). The summer of 2019 brought returns to the Richmond Symphony & the Bar Harbor Music Festival for productions of Carmen.  She trained as a member of the inaugural class of Resident Artists with the Lyric Opera of Kansas City and apprenticed with Virginia Opera, Central City Opera and the Aspen Music Festival.

Recent operatic debuts include Opera in Williamsburg, New Jersey State Repertory Opera, New Amsterdam Opera and Piedmont Opera. She has performed as a soloist with the Cleveland Orchestra as well as the Kansas City, Duke and Virginia Symphonies. Martin garnered awards from the Metropolitan Opera National Council, the Haefner-Williams and Charlotte Opera Guild competitions.

She studies with tenor Vinson Cole and earned degrees from the Cleveland Institute of Music in Ohio and Maryville College. 

The warm and versatile voice of bass-baritone Jesse Neace ‘03 is enjoyed in concert venues ranging from intimate sacred spaces to booming stadiums to the operatic stage. He holds a bachelor's degree from Maryville College and a master's degree from the University of Tennessee, where he studied as a member of the Knoxville Opera Studio. Neace sang for six seasons with the Knoxville Opera Company. As a soloist, Jesse has performed with the University of Tennessee Opera Theatre, Knoxville Opera Company, Imperial Symphony Orchestra, La Musica Lirica, National Philharmonic, The Washington Chorus and the Cathedral Choral Society in such roles as Colline (La Boheme), Don Basilio (Il Barbiere Di Siviglia), Judge Turpin (Sweeney Todd) and Olin Blitch (Susannah).

Oratorio and sacred work includes Handel’s Messiah, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, both the Verdi and Mozart Requiem and Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light. Jesse was featured with The Washington Chorus at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall in Maurice Duruffle’s Mass “Cum Jubilo”. His rendition of our National Anthem is regularly requested for professional sporting events in the D.C. area, as well as across the country for MLB, NHL and the NFL. As a member of the U.S. Army Chorus, he was featured during Major League Baseball’s World Series both in 2008 and 2009 singing “God Bless America.” In the fall of 2011, he was chosen to sing for the opening ceremony of an episode of “Extreme Make-Over: Home Edition” in Lewes, Del. As a way to give back to the community, Neace is involved with noteBusters, a nonprofit company that produces two shows a year, featuring elementary-aged children in the District of Columbia. 

Tenor John Wesley Wright '87 holds degrees from Maryville College and the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, where he earned the M.M. and D.M.A. in performance studies. A native of Rome, Ga., he works as associate professor of music at Salisbury University in Maryland, coordinating the voice and opera workshop programs. An active clinician and leader of workshops on voice production, interpretation and African American song tradition, he also co-directed the musical theatre program at the Maryland Summer Center of the Arts (2007-2014). He performs solo repertoire ranging from baroque to Broadway throughout the world, including as a member of the internationally celebrated American Spiritual Ensemble. Acclaim has also come as gold medalist of the American Traditions Vocal Competition 2000, with other top prizes from the National Federation of Music Clubs, the Metropolitan Opera National Council, and the International Schubert Competition.

His doctoral dissertation (2014) studies musical borrowings underlying the role of the Celebrant in Bernstein’s Mass.

Maryville College is a nationally-ranked institution of higher learning and one of America’s oldest colleges. For more than 200 years, we’ve educated students to be giving citizens and gifted leaders, to study everything, so that they are prepared for anything — to address any problem, engage with any audience and launch successful careers right away. Located in Maryville, Tennessee, between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the city of Knoxville, Maryville College offers nearly 1,200  students from around the world both the beauty of a rural setting and the advantages of an urban center, as well as more than 60 majors, seven pre-professional programs and career preparation from their first day on campus to their last. Today, our 10,000 alumni are living life strong of mind and brave of heart and are prepared, in the words of our Presbyterian founder, to “do good on the largest possible scale.”