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James Dixon will conduct farewell concert with UI Symphony March 12

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- James Dixon, for more than 40 years the director of the University of Iowa Symphony, will conduct his final concert with the orchestra at 8 p.m. Wednesday, March 12, in Hancher Auditorium on the UI campus.

The performance, like all University Symphony concerts during Dixon's lengthy career, will be free and open to the public.

The program will consist of a single work by a composer that Dixon has promoted throughout his conducting career: the Symphony No. 6 of Gustav Mahler.

Many current and retired members of the UI School of Music faculty will join the orchestra for the concert, as a tribute to Dixon's career as musician and educator.

The concert will be preceded by a pre-performance discussion of Mahler's symphony, presented by Benjamin Korstvedt, a visiting musicology professor in the UI School of Music. The discussion, which will be free and open to the public, will be at 7 p.m. in the Hancher Greenroom.

Dixon, who is Philip Greeley Clapp/Carver Distinguished Professor of Music at the UI School of Music, has announced that he will retire at the end of the current academic year. He will be succeeded as director of the University Symphony by William L. Jones, a UI music alumnus and the founding music director/administrator of the internationally recognized Greater Twin Cities Youth Symphonies of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn.

Dixon has been associated with the UI School of Music for nearly 50 years, first as a student and then from 1954-59 and from 1962 to the present as conductor of the University Symphony. He also served as music director and conductor of the Quad City Symphony in Davenport from 1965 until his retirement from that post in 1994.

A native of Estherville and Guthrie Center, Iowa, Dixon first came to the UI as a freshman music student with an interest in conducting. He quickly came to the attention of Philip Greeley Clapp, then the director of the School of Music and director of the orchestra, who encouraged Dixon's interest.

Later Dixon's remarkable talent attracted the attention of the internationally renowned conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos, then conductor of the Minneapolis Symphony. Dixon was hired to assist Mitropoulos when he moved to New York as conductor of the New York Philharmonic, and he later accompanied Mitropoulos as he traveled around Europe as a guest conductor.

Dixon returned to the UI in 1954, replacing the recently deceased Clapp as director of the University Symphony. In 1959, after a year as conductor of the Seventh Army Symphony in Europe, he was invited to serve as a conductor at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. Then, after a year as assistant conductor in Minneapolis, he returned in 1962 to the UI, where he has remained as conductor of the University Symphony ever since.

Dixon has appeared as a guest conductor with major orchestras throughout the world, including the North German and West German radio orchestras, the national symphonies of Greece and Peru, the Minneapolis (now Minnesota) Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony.

His support and performance of American music have led to many world premieres under his baton and earned him the Harriet Cohen International Award in 1955, the American Composers Alliance Laurel Leaf Award in 1976 and Columbia University's Ditson Award in 1980.

His commitment to Mahler, a composer who was not widely popular in the 1950s and '60s when Clapp and Dixon first championed his music, won him the Gustav Mahler Medal in 1963.

Other honors and awards have been given to Dixon in recent years. Among others, he received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Augustana College in Rock Island in 1980, and a Doctor of Fine Arts from St. Ambrose University in Davenport in 1988.

Mahler composed his Sixth Symphony during the summers of 1903 and '04. This was a particularly happy period in the composer's life: He had married Alma Schindler in 1902, and his two daughters, to whom he was especially devoted, were born in 1902 and 1904.

Mahler's involvement with his growing family probably influenced the symphony's content. Alma Mahler said that the second theme of the first movement, marked "ardent" in the score, was written with her in mind, and that the irregular rhythms of the scherzo were intended to portray their daughters' toddling first steps. In a more general way, the peaceful mood of the slow movement, and the pastoral imagery of distant cowbells heard throughout the symphony, may refer to the idyllic summer vacations Mahler spent with his family in the Austrian countryside.

Other aspects of the symphony are less cheerful, however. It ends, as it begins, in the tragic key of A minor. Throughout the first movement there is a recurring fanfare motive with an A-major chord turning ominously to minor. And the turbulent finale is punctuated with two "hammer strokes," terrifying musical climaxes that represent psychological blows to the symphony's protagonist and ultimately signal the symphony's tragic conclusion.

2/21/97