Uplifting Choral Concert Delivers Splendid Feast of Christmas Fare
Review by Doug Carroll
Photos by Darryl Webb
GCU News Bureau
There’s nothing wrong with a choral Christmas concert that serves up a platter of everyone’s favorite carols.
There’s just a lot more right with one that challenges performers and listeners alike to expand their palate.
Two years ago, GCU’s four choirs delivered a solid concert that included classic versions of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “The First Noel” and other familiar holiday material. To be fair, that was about the right depth at the time for a music program that had been reinstalled on campus only a few months earlier.
Tuesday night’s nearly two-hour concert, “A Grand Canyon Christmas,” at a packed First Southern Baptist Church adjacent to campus, served as yet another example of how much the program has matured in those two years under Assistant Dean Juan Hernandez of the College of Fine Arts and Production.
The concluding, six-movement piece, Francis Poulenc’s “Gloria,” sung in Latin, rates as one of the most ambitious efforts undertaken by the Choral Union, GCU’s largest choir. And even the old standards were heard in refreshingly different (and difficult) arrangements throughout the evening. This is sophisticated choral music that you won’t hear from your neighborhood carolers or church choir.
A 30-piece orchestra that included several Phoenix Symphony musicians — a first in accompaniment in three years of GCU choral concerts — also played a role in taking the choirs to new heights. A lush and expansive “Et in Terra Pax” by Gerald Finzi, sung by the 80-member Canyon Chorale, and a majestic Gary Fry arrangement of “O Holy Night,” sung by the Chorale and the Canyon Singers and punctuated by trumpets and timpani, led perfectly into “Gloria.”
Hernandez also chose as soloists two of the best voices ever to have come through GCU. Campus music minister Gabriel Salazar followed up his brilliant performance in last week’s “Messiah” with two exceptional tenor solos. (If you’re familiar with him only as the leader of the Chapel band and director of the New Life Singers, you’re missing out.) And recent graduate Christina Cullers, back from vocal study overseas, reminded us of her talent with soprano solos in three movements of “Gloria.” It’s always a treat to hear her, and she exudes the confidence of someone who has worked hard at developing their gift.
Even Salazar’s a cappella New Life group, known for its pop leanings, has successfully transitioned into more demanding material over two years. Its three selections were “In Dulci Jubilo” (a terrific arrangement of “Good Christian Men, Rejoice”), an especially rich “In the Bleak Midwinter” and a swinging, gospel-flavored “Joy to the World,” complete with beatbox accompaniment.
New Life also joined the Canyon Singers for a spine-tingling arrangement of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” that stationed the vocalists along the perimeter of the church sanctuary, giving the piece a surround-sound feel. Most of GCU’s choral concerts employ this technique on at least one selection, and the presentation invariably works.
With Hernandez (Choral Union, Canyon Chorale), Salazar and Sheila Corley (Canyon Singers) giving the University’s voice majors first-rate training, it’s safe to say that those who have grown weary of Muzak carols and all-Christmas radio stations always will find a pleasurable alternative in “A Grand Canyon Christmas.”
Our only complaint: If you missed it or want to hear it again, you’re out of luck. There is no second performance. You’ll just have to wait until next December.
Contact Doug Carroll at 639.8011 or firstname.lastname@example.org.