Less Becomes More in Second-Year Performance of ‘Handel’s Messiah’

December 10, 2012 / by / 0 Comment

Review by Doug Carroll
Photos by Darryl Webb
GCU News Bureau 

A performance of “Handel’s Messiah” is much like a big game for a sports team: Once you’ve participated in your first one, sheer familiarity makes it easier to be in the next one. 

GCU’s choirs and soloists showed Friday night over two hours that they’ve got a good handle on the music of Handel, and the German-born composer’s 18th-century masterwork sounded even better than it did a year ago in its Arena debut. It was the difference between “Can we do this?” and “We do this,” and it was impressive. 

"Handel's Messiah" brought together a 200-voice choir and the Phoenix Symphony on Friday night in GCU Arena.

This year’s performance was aided by the Arena’s half-house configuration, with the chorus placed on risers at midcourt, facing north and creating more of a concert-hall feel, and by the skilled baton of the Phoenix Symphony’s music director, Michael Christie. A guest conductor was used last year, and the risers were all the way at the south end.

The enhanced intimacy was unmistakable, and the quality of the sound was superb everywhere in the building for a crowd of about 1,200. 

Choirs from nine high schools and community colleges joined GCU’s four choirs last year, for a total of nearly 400 voices, but Friday’s chorus was only about half as large. Arizona Christian University, Trevor Browne and Cactus high schools, and Joy Christian School were the only schools to send singers this time. It should be noted, however, that it’s not easy for GCU’s Music Department to recruit for such a concert, as the material can be difficult for high schoolers to learn and schools are preoccupied in the fall with work on their own holiday productions. 

Even so, “Messiah” favorites such as “And the Glory of the Lord,” “For Unto Us a Child Is Born,” “Glory to God” and the mighty “Hallelujah!” didn’t suffer in the least. And soprano Deidra Palmour-Gorton, mezzo-soprano Rachel Velarde, tenor Gabriel Salazar and baritone Christopher Herrera — all GCU vocal instructors — were outstanding as the soloists. Palmour-Gorton replaced Sheila Corley; the other three reprised their parts from 2011. 

The Phoenix Symphony's music director, Michael Christie, demonstrated solid command of the orchestra and chorus.

Christie commanded the very best from the three dozen orchestra players, and he did everything but flash ’Lopes Up to encourage the chorus. He smiled broadly during “Hallelujah!” and gave the distinct impression that this was more than just another night in a maestro’s tuxedo for him. (The symphony will accompany “Messiah” a total of six times, in a variety of venues, this holiday season.) 

“This is one of the most enduring works of all time,” Christie told the audience in brief introductory remarks before the start of the performance. “The most impressive part is how human it makes the Old Testament, the prophecy of the coming of Jesus.” 

The engaging, 38-year-old conductor will wrap up his eight-year tenure with the orchestra next June and move on to become music director for the Minnesota Opera. His enthusiasm for great music of all kinds will be missed. 

Dean Claude Pensis and Assistant Dean Juan Hernandez of the College of Fine Arts and Production merit praise for bringing “Messiah” to campus for two years — and during a season when both are exceedingly busy with other productions. “A Christmas Carol,” directed by Pensis, recently ended a two-weekend run at Ethington Theatre. And the Music Department’s Christmas concert, with choirs directed by Hernandez, Corley and Salazar, is scheduled for Tuesday night at First Southern Baptist Church, adjacent to campus. 

With general-admission tickets as inexpensive as $10, this was an accessible “Messiah,” and it was nice to see the orchestra and chorus rewarded with a well-deserved standing ovation at the end. 

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

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