By Bryce Christensen
For the seventy-fifth time in the history of Cedar City, holiday-season listeners thrilled to the majestic harmonies of Handel’s Messiah as rendered by local musicians. Performed at the Heritage Center on December 13th and 14th, this year’s production once again stirred feelings of worshipful adoration of the Lord whose birth we celebrate, feelings sometimes suffocated by the frenetic commercialism that now dominates so much of Christmas observance. And once again, local music-lovers had reason for deep gratitude for the talents of those who have made The Messiah such a rich local tradition (a tradition shared with local residents at no cost this year thanks to the beneficence of the State Bank of Southern Utah and the Leavitt Group).
The talents on display in this two-night concert were the instrumental gifts of the Orchestra of Southern Utah (OSU) felicitously fused with the vocal endowments of the Southern Utah Chorale (SUC). No doubt it initially occasioned some disappointment when concert-goers first realized that OSU director Xun Sun—who has inspired audiences with his passionate conducting of this concert over the last decade—would not be on the conductor’s platform. But from the first down-beat of her baton, SUC director Jackie Riddle-Jackson proved herself a fully capable replacement, leading the combined singers and instrumentalists with a fervor that drew forth an outpouring of sublime sound. Sweeping away the stale, the old, and the dreary, the wonderful sublimity of this concert refreshed the heart with the timeless truth of sacred writ, set to heavenly music, so renewing the miracle that is Christmas.
Both in the collective strength of the chorale and in the individual soloists, the vocalists under Riddle-Jackson’s baton moved and delighted the assembled listeners. The twelve soloists all delivered masterful interpretations of their numbers, deserving of favorable mention:
As the evening’s first soloist (and, appropriately, the great-grandson of the man who directed Cedar City’s first-ever Messiah), tenor Tyler Melling delivered “Comfort Ye My People” with poignant feeling, redolent with divine compassion.
Tenor Taylor Rowley perfectly modulated the mood into transcendent expectation in “Every Valley Shall Be Exalted.”
Baritone Glen Reber impressively conveyed the profound gravitas demanded by “Thus Saith the Lord” and “But Who May Abide the Day of His Coming.”
Seamlessly transitioning from the celestial hope of “Behold! A Virgin Shall Conceive” to the exultant joy of “O Thou That Tellest,” alto Taliah Byers strikingly captured the mood of both numbers.
Plumbing somber depths before ascending to redemptive heights, baritone Alex Byers carried the audience with him with remarkable self-assurance. This same aplomb characterized his later number, “Behold I Tell You a Mystery,” his depth-sounding voice taut with astonishment at the Savior’s power over the grave. And in “The Trumpet Shall Sound,” Byers’ bold assurance marvelously complemented the piercing trumpet solo by instrumentalist Adam Lambert.
Soprano Leslie Perkins sang of the angels with the voice of an angel in “There Were Shepherds Abiding in the Field,” “And the Angel Said Unto Them,” and “And Suddenly There Was With the Angel,” her rendition of these three numbers radiant with empyreal luminosity.
Likewise incandescent was soprano Terri Metcalf-Peterson’s performance of “Rejoice Greatly, O Daughter of Zion!”-- alive with the divine ecstasy of the sacred text.
Alto Taryn Thomas delivered “Then Shall the Eyes of the Blind Be Opened” in compelling tones of expectant wonderment, smoothly segueing into the stirring gratitude of “He Shall Feed His Flock Like a Shepherd.”
Soprano Brandi Hall interpreted “Come Unto Me” with a soul-melting pathos not soon to be forgotten.
Her voice soaring to celestial spheres, soprano Corlissa Jensen sang “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth” in tones of exalted conviction.
Last of the soloists, soprano Shannon Birch infused “If God Be for Us” with a sense of awe and amazement at God’s redemptive power.
Though all were superb, four of the ten chorus numbers merit particular mention. “And the Glory of the Lord”—the first of the night’s choral numbers—absolutely transported listeners in its joyous rapture. “Surely He Hath Borne Our Griefs” plunged the audience into rare depths of harrowing emotion. The sheer propulsive energy of “Since By Man Came Death” was overpowering. And “Worthy Is the Lamb That Was Slain” palpitated with worshipful elation.
Listeners surely noticed the persistence of the sharp gender imbalance in the overall chorale and in the soloists, an imbalance likely reflecting the relative paucity of available male vocal talent. But the male singers Riddle-Jackson has recruited still carried their musical roles with praiseworthy artistry and power.
Serving as accompaniment for the vocalists most of the evening, the orchestra shone in its own right in the opening “Overture” and late in the “Pastoral Symphony.” Matching the vocalists in their mastery of the music, the orchestra burnished their already high reputation for professional performance. Given the 18th-century origin of the night’s program, the inclusion of a harpsichord (with Christian Bohnenstengel at the keyboard) was a laudable addition. Teresa Redd added tonal depth with the organ part. And it was a highly fitting remembrance of the silent night on which the Savior was born to have the orchestra play the “Pastoral Symphony” in nearly complete darkness.
Though the vocalists were the marquee artists on this night, when the entire orchestra—strings, winds, percussion, and brass—swelled to triple forte in “For Unto Us a Child Is Born” and in the “Hallelujah Chorus,” the torrent was irresistible.
Appropriately, most of the numbers featured in this performance were familiar. But most listeners appreciated the inclusion of “For Behold, Darkness Shall Cover the Earth,” “The People That Walked in Darkness,” and “The Lord Gave the World”--parts of Handel’s sprawling masterpiece that are often omitted.
In his welcoming remarks, OSU President Harold Shirley promised an evening that would reach the “sensitive parts of our souls.” For an hour and a half, the distractions of tinsel, toys, and candy disappeared as director, orchestra, and chorale indeed revived the sensitive parts of the soul with a blessed reminder of the real reason for the season.