GCU goes big — Hallelujah! — for ‘Messiah’
By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau
The Canyon Choral Society doesn’t just dust GCU Arena with a dappling of “Messiah.”
It goes almost full “Messiah,” with a two-plus-hour choral excursion through George Frideric Handel’s most famous oratorio.
While some choirs opt to perform the traditional Christmas portion of the piece – the composition is divided into three major sections — Grand Canyon University‘s musical groups also will perform what’s considered the Easter portion, too.
“We do almost the whole thing,” said Mark Fearey, College of Fine Arts and Production pianist/music director. “It’s pretty close to the full version – it’s the full orchestra version, so we have the full brass, full winds, all the strings.”
Think grand, as in a 110-member choir as well as the professional musicians of the Canyon Symphony Orchestra, four soloists and a high school choir.
It’s a production – and a tradition – for GCU and will return at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
The University first performed “Messiah” in a newly constructed GCU Arena in 2011. COFAP Dean Claude Pensis envisioned bringing the work to the yet-to-be-built structure, and the music event has become a part of the Christmas architecture of the campus since then.
Handel might never have written the oratorio if he had followed his father’s wishes for him to go into law, but it was obvious he was not destined to be a lawyer. The German-born composer was just 7 years old when he performed at the keyboard before the duke’s court in Weissenfels; he was just 20 when he composed his first opera.
He wrote “Messiah” in 1741 while staying at Gopsall Hall in Leicestershire, England, the home of wealthy landowner Charles Jennens. He wrote the work, featuring scriptural text by Jennens from the King James Bible, in just 24 days in a passionate sprint – so passionate that it has been said a divine force must have been working through the composer. Handel himself said that when he wrote the famed Hallelujah Chorus, the heavens opened up and he saw the face of God.
The work tells about the Birth, Passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is a beast of an epic masterpiece that, if performed fully, takes about 2½ to three hours to perform.
“It is one of the few works to be performed continually since Handel wrote it, which is pretty rare,” Fearey said.
The 277-year-old work made its debut in Dublin in 1742 as part of a series of charity concerts and is one of the most sublime examples of high baroque sacred and secular English oratorios, though the German-born Handel previously had been known for his Italian opera compositions.
It became a tradition to stand during the singing of the Hallelujah Chorus after King George did so. He was so taken by the music and, still today, audiences often rise during the famed chorus.
Tuesday’s performance, under the direction of COFAP Assistant Dean Dr. Juan de Dios Hernandez, aims for grandeur: the almost-full scope of the oratorio to be performed, the full brass and full winds, and an arena as the setting.
“They like us to make it a big event,” said Fearey, who will perform on keyboard.
Featured soloists will be GCU associate professor of music Dr. Rachel Velarde, mezzo-soprano; GCU adjunct faculty in voice Justin Carpenter, tenor; La Casa de Cristo Lutheran Church Music Director Jennifer Sheldon, soprano; and Phoenix Chorale vocalist David Topping, bass.
Following Tuesday’s presentation at GCU, “Messiah” also will be performed as a singalong Friday at La Casa de Cristo Lutheran Church in Scottsdale, though it won’t be as big in scope as the University’s version. The singalong will feature the first part of the oratorio as well as the Hallelujah Chorus.
While Fearey will play keyboard for the GCU Arena concert, at the singalong “they have a real harpsichord,” he said.
Fearey himself has been performing “Messiah” since college – a beautiful and inspiring work that will continue to be performed for, likely, hundreds more years.
“It’s an enjoyable piece of music, and the students enjoy singing it,” he said.
Velarde estimates about 2,500 attended the Canyon Choral Society and Canyon Symphony Orchestra’s presentation of “Messiah” at the Arena last year.
As always, Christmastime is a busy season for the music department. It will follow “Messiah” with the department’s choral concert at 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 6, at First Southern Baptist Church of Phoenix, featuring the Canyon Chorale and Critical Mass.
IF YOU GO
What: Handel’s “Messiah”
Where: Grand Canyon University Arena
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday
Tickets: Up to two tickets free for GCU students and $5 for GCU employees (purchase online using a valid GCU e-mail address). Otherwise, prices range from $10 to $25.
GCU Today senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.
GCU Today: Slideshow — Handel’s ‘Messiah’ concert