With ‘Elijah,’ Hernandez Brings Out Music Program’s Best

April 25, 2012 / by / 0 Comment

Review by Doug Carroll
GCU News Bureau 
Photos by Tim Winzeler

Dr. Juan Hernandez is going for broke. 

How else to explain what the assistant dean of the College of Fine Arts and Production has done in just two years with the music program? He is getting spectacular results from pushing the envelope with GCU’s choirs, and all of us are culturally richer for the experience. 

Take Felix Mendelssohn’s majestic “Elijah,” performed Tuesday night at First Southern Baptist Church by the 100-voice Choral Union, accompanied by a 30-piece chamber orchestra from the Phoenix Symphony. The 19th-century oratorio, based on the life of the biblical prophet, is an ambitious undertaking for a choir, clocking in at well over two hours. It’s a workout, a test of preparation as well as performance.

VIDEO: GCU Choral Union presents ‘Elijah’

Dr. Juan Hernandez, conducting Tuesday night's performance of "Elijah," has set lofty goals for the music program he oversees.

Other directors might back away from such a challenge, reasoning that it’s too much for a fledgling program. And they’d be justified in doing so. But Hernandez saw opportunity instead of obstacles, and “Elijah” is now the new standard for choral performance at GCU. Yes, it was that good. 

From the opening section “Help, Lord!” to the final “Amen,” a mighty sound filled the church and held the audience spellbound. The well-known “contest of the gods” from the Old Testament book of 1 Kings, which pits Elijah against the prophets of the god Baal, summoned in music and lyrics the rich imagery of the story (“Call him louder! He heareth not!”). 

For those who might be unfamiliar, the Choral Union is considered GCU’s community choir, consisting of students, faculty, alumni and others, and it practices only once a week for an hour and a half. However, it includes the two dozen members of the Canyon Singers, the best voices in the music program, all tutored by Dr. Sheila Corley. 

For this occasion, the Choral Union presented four soloists of distinction: alto Deidra Palmour Gorton, an adjunct professor of voice at GCU; tenor Gabe Salazar, GCU’s campus music minister; bass/baritone Christopher Herrera, who sang the demanding part of Elijah; and soprano Amber Wagner, Salazar’s wife and an alumna. All four were simply splendid, as was GCU senior Christina Cullers in singing a smaller part. 

Certainly, many in the audience came for the homecoming of Wagner, who studied at the University under Corley and has been playing concert halls all over the world to rave reviews. She is regarded in opera circles as a rising star. It’s hard to believe that when she was a student, she didn’t make the cut on her first tryout for the President’s Singers (now the Canyon Singers). 

Amber Wagner (left) and her mentor, Dr. Sheila Corley, have helped put GCU's music program on the map.

In her four “Elijah” solos, Wagner didn’t disappoint. It’s a hold-on-to-your-seat thrill to hear a voice of such beauty, clarity and power, and her solo immediately after the intermission, “Hear Ye, Israel,” won’t soon be forgotten. Listening to her, one is fully aware of being in the presence of a great gift, but she deserves credit for the hard work in developing that gift. 

Best of all, she’s ours. It’s a source of pride that her career arc began at GCU with the coaching of Corley, whose influence on the choral program — then and now — is impossible to overstate. 

Wagner seemed to be relaxed and having a good time. She smiled warmly throughout the program at Gorton and Salazar, and she appeared fully engaged in sections of the oratorio that didn’t require her participation. She was happy to be back — she hadn’t sung on campus since graduating in 2006 — and it showed. 

The evening’s only disappointment was that “Elijah” didn’t play to a full house. With so much going on at the end of the school year, including major theatre and dance productions, perhaps that is to be expected. 

Yet the smartest people in Phoenix on Tuesday night were the ones inside the old church at 31st Avenue and Camelback Road, bearing witness to the fine work of Hernandez and the music program he has built from scratch. 

Why were they so smart? They got to hear a 100-voice choir, a 30-piece orchestra and an international opera star — for free. 

Contact Doug Carroll at 639.8011 or doug.carroll@gcu.edu.

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