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Why Handel’s Messiah is a seminal work

By Dellon Sanders

One of the difficulties behind performing Handel’s Messiah, a 275 year old piece, is that, well, 275 years old. It’s something that was made for another world, another time. A world where an Ortiz’s burrito run would easily take the better part of an hour by horse and carriage, one-way. A time in which people had the time and inclination to cram into a theater for a three-hour-plus oratorio on a Saturday night, not for the latest action flick. It takes a substantial level of appreciative discipline these days to sit down and really listen attentively and discerningly to a complex wall of sound when there aren’t any flashy lights or pyrotechnics to hold your attention. Believe me when I say I understand where people are coming from when they wonder whether classical music is worth the effort in 2016.

But believe me when I say that certain musical moments transcend the common and temporal distinctions of our worlds and speak directly to us in a meaningful way. Sure, there are moments when your mind wanders to the homework getting in the way your nap later or when you wonder whether Handel could have been more artistically concise. But then there are moments where you are absolutely and utterly swept up into the pure majesty of a truly perennial work. Moment after moment.

I speak on behalf of the audience tightly packed into Brown chapel to see G. F. Handel’s Messiah this last Sunday, the 4th, when I say that Handel’s message rang true. It is much to the credit of Dr. Keith Pedersen and his ensemble that they were able to powerfully channel the impactful message of the Messiah. Point Loma’s Choral Union and Orchestra–composed of music students, community members, professional auxiliaries, and any other dedicated souls hoping to participate–presents the Messiah year after year around Christmastime as a gift, free to the public.

This year was unique. Not only was it the 275th anniversary since Messiah’s creation, but Point Loma’s performance was remarkable across the board. The orchestra maintained a clear and brilliant sound from beginning to end. The sound technicians subtly balanced the acoustics of the space with the integrity of the Baroque aesthetic. The hard work of a variety of people behind organizing this production paid off.

Handel’s Messiah is always a tremendously difficult production to properly pull off. Many venues opt to bring in professional soloists, while universities who instead choose to rely on student vocalists often simply fail to muster the musical skill and vocal dexterity required for the extraordinary technical challenge this Baroque oratorio presents.

Not so at PLNU. This year’s batch of soloists was unqualifiedly exceptional. Each of the 8 soloists–Jon Verdesca, Maddy Trattles, Stephen Rinker, Clair Allison, McKenna Slack, Brandon DiNoto, and Reno Wilson–rose admirably to the occasion. Soloist coach Amy Mein, speaking of their performance, called them “a fine group of young musicians with bright musical futures.”

But the soloists were not the only ones with a challenge cut out for them. According to Dr. Pedersen, “all of the choristers are expected to perform” vocal gymnastics usually reserved for “highly trained solo singers.” One of the demands facing the director lies in unifying 110 voices with adroitness and precision. And, while the Tenor (and occasionally the Bass) section would have been grateful for more numerical support, the choir put forth a impressively mature sound.

Altogether, the ensemble–orchestra and choir both–proved they were capable to the task of refining their sound in order make room for and facilitate the wonder of Handel’s work. The Messiah, says Dr. Pedersen, “is arguably the most performed musical work in the history of the world.” According to Dr. Pedersen, one part of Handel’s success lies in his ability to fit each movement to the text in a way that breathes artistic life into the scriptural account of Jesus of Nazareth. Indeed, by working with small portions of biblical verse at a time, each reworked and repeated, Handel is able to uncover various shades of emotion and meaning from the text.

And perhaps that, more than anything, is what makes Handel’s Messiah a salient Christmas tradition in the world of the 21st century. Its words of comfort and hope to a hurting world of warfare and affliction. In the words Handel lifts from Romans 10:15: “How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things.” Can I get a “Hallelujah!”?


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