Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Celebrating the Reason for the Season

By Bryce Christensen

     “And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” Few experiences evoke the deepest meaning of Christmas as profoundly as does listening to Handel’s glorious Messiah. Sunday, December 8th, and Monday, December 9th, hundreds gathered at the Heritage Center to share in this wonderful experience. They did not go away disappointed. Once again, the Orchestra of Southern Utah (OSU) and the Southern Utah Chorale combined their talents to deliver a deeply memorable performance of this holiday masterpiece.
     It was a performance that, as OSU President Harold Shirley promised it would in his welcoming remarks, lifted those present past the commercial insanity of Black Friday by “putting Christ back in Christmas.” Indeed, as the orchestra musicians responded to the impassioned conducting of OSU director Xun Sun and as the vocalists poured forth the inspired music they had prepared under Chorale director Adrianne J. Tawa, listeners were buoyed heavenward by more than musical technique. From the regal opening strains of the introductory “Overture” to the resounding final Amens of “Worthy is the Lamb That Was Slain,” this was a concert suffused with convictions that make Christmas a holy day, not just a holiday.
     Once again, Adrianne Tawa brought to the stage vocal soloists whose gifts talents elevated their music into a sublime Christmas gift to the audience. Beginning with tenor Jordan Sanders, who rendered “Comfort Ye My People” with a tender pleading and “Every Valley Shall Be Exalted” with the firm surety of prophetic vision, the solos carried the audience above the mundane into regions tinged with the celestial. Bass Jacob Pohlsander maintained the same vocal excellence, while demonstrating remarkable versatility in his four solos. Moving from his depth-plumbing rendition of “Thus Saith the Lord,” he opened “But Who May Abide the Day of His Coming” with a reflective pathos that gave way to sterner measures anticipating the fiery justice of God against the wicked. In his later solo “Behold, I Tell You a Mystery,” Pohlsander delivered the profound sublimity of “Behold, I Tell You a Mystery” before segueing into the thrilling “The Trumpet Shall Sound,” his radiant words accompanied by the piercing beauty of Adam Lambert’s trumpet solo.
     This year’s performance of the Messiah—Cedar City’s 73rd—indeed comprised more male solos than listeners had heard in recent years. Familiar through his strong performances in past years, tenor Lawrence Johnson was, predictably, among the male soloists, as he again lived up to high expectations with the monitory forcefulness with which he infused “He That Dwelleth in Heaven” and “Thou Shalt Break Them.”
However, this year’s concert also featured outstanding female soloists. Soprano Ami Gent opened “There Were Shepherds Abiding in the Field” with an intense expectancy that opened into the soaring ecstasy of “And the Angel Said Unto Them” and “And Suddenly There Was With the Angel.”
      Likewise impressive, soprano Ashley Rowland delivered “Rejoice Greatly, O Daughter of Zion” with a marvelous exultance. Alto Taliah Byers imbued “Then Shall the Eyes of the Blind Be Opened” with heart-stirring wonder and “He Shall Feed His Flock Like a Shepherd” with a perfectly modulated delicacy and warmth, before soprano Jan Pressgrove joined her to sing “Come Unto Me” with an irresistible plaintiveness.
Soprano Annie Powell interpreted “How Beautiful are the Feet” with an overflowing wonder and awe, and soprano Janice Shaw instilled in “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth” a luminous and penetrating hope.
     Complementing the superb solos were the compelling chorus numbers, fusing the voices of dozens of gifted vocalists into a great river of potent yet disciplined music. Who would not yield to the thrilling rapture of “And the Glory of the Lord,” the joyous celebration of “For Unto Us a Child Is Born,” the empyreal elation of “Glory to God,” the insistent staccato of “All We Like Sheep,” the reverent adulation of “Worthy is the Lamb That Was Slain,” and—of course—the holy enthusiasm of “Hallelujah”? All of these well-known and well-loved choruses filled the Heritage Center with a rare bliss. Also deserving of favorable attention is “Their Sound is Gone Out”: the chorale was superb in capturing the restless energy of this moving--albeit less familiar and often-omitted--number. Adrienne Tawa merits high praise for having the Chorale so fully prepared for a dauntingly long and difficult program!
     Likewise praiseworthy, OSU director Xun Sun had the instrumentalists under his baton fully ready both to accompany the vocalists who performed this night and to shine in their own right in opening “Overture” and in the serene interlude of the “Pastoral Symphony.” Together, strings, winds, brass, and percussion seamlessly joined to magnify the magic of the vocal performers, their contribution unobtrusive but essential in accompanying the soloists, powerful and dynamic in swelling the majestic choruses. As the honored instrumentalist of the concert, percussionist James Harrison deserves special mention. His years of devoted service with OSU (and other local and state ensembles) were manifest in his mastery of the timpanic rhythms he provided for this unforgettable night of Christmas music.
     But concert-goers had ample reason to thank all the musicians—instrumental and vocal—involved in this performance. Thanks, too, should go to the concert sponsors—the State Bank of Southern Utah and the Leavitt Group—for giving Cedar City a much-needed reminder of what and why we celebrate at Christmas!