By Bryce Christensen
Writing about Handel’s Messiah, music critic Leonard Turnevicius asserted, “Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a performance of the work.” Fortunately, the hundreds gathered in Cedar City’s Heritage Center on the evenings of December 10th and 11th joyfully recognized that once again Christmas was Christmas as they thrilled to the magnificent strains of Handel’s masterpiece, performed for the 77th time in Cedar City. Bringing together the vocal and instrumental talents of the Chorale and Orchestra of Southern Utah, this year’s rendition ratified the realty of the holiday for all who shared in it.
Welcoming the audience, Orchestra President Harold Shirley promised a performance “approaching perfection,” a performance fully justifying the inclusion he noted of a printed program for the concert in the time capsule incorporated into the cornerstone of the newly dedicated Latter-day Saint Temple on Cedar City’s Leigh Hill. The performances were indeed so marvelous that listeners might have forgiven Shirley for dropping the word “approaching” in characterizing them.
The orchestra delivered nearly perfect sublimity in their offering of this Christmas-making music, that sublimity transporting the audience from the first majestic strains of the opening Overture. Director Xun Sun conducted with such inspiring musical passion that listeners might well have supposed that in witnessing his ecstatic movements, they were seeing a modern David dancing once again before the sacred Ark of the Covenant. In his opening remarks, Shirley identified Sun as a source of the orchestra’s energy. And in these performances, that boundless source never once subsided, nor did the instrumentalists under Sun’s baton ever waver in delivering all that he asked of them. The orchestra’s stirring musical instrumental mastery was, of course, most fully in the spotlight during the dignified opening Overture and the reflective Pastoral Symphony midway through Part I of the concert. But the orchestra sustained that same impressive mastery while accompanying the Chorale’s vocal artists.
The outpouring from these approximately 140 vocal artists swelled into a mighty river of celebratory sound in the irresistible choruses of this wonderful work. Swept along by the currents of that river, listeners might well have recalled the aptness of the original 1742 review in the Dublin Review praising Handel’s work as a distillation of “The Sublime, the Grand, and the Tender, adapted to the most elevated, majestick and moving Words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished Heart and Ear." Superlatives fail to describe the way the Chorale and Orchestra together gave Handel’s “majestick and moving Words” both the polish and precision earned through long hours of practice and the unmistakable authenticity of emotions born in that very moment.
In the heart-piercing pathos of “Surely He Hath Borne Our Griefs,” the exultant joy of “Unto Us a Child Is Born,” the laudatory exclamations of “Glory to God,” and the rapt reverence of “Worthy is the Lamb That Was Slain,” the Chorale and Orchestra gave easily recognized numbers a fresh brilliance. And in bracing “Let Us Break Their Bonds Asunder,” singers and instrumentalists successfully ventured into a part of the oratorio often omitted from abridged performances of Handel’s great work.
The performance of the Chorale so amazed listeners that when they rose to their feet for the “Hallelujah!” Chorus, they did so with an alacrity suggestive of more than venerable tradition.
Complementing the excellence of the entire Chorale in performing the choruses was the praiseworthy merit of the solos rendered by the concerts’ eleven soloists, all deserving of favorable mention.
Alto Krysten Tomlinson delivered the recitative “Behold! A Virgin Shall Conceive” in the tones a celestial dulcimer before seamlessly segueing the more vigorous measures of “O Thou That Tellest.”
Soprano Leslie Perkins demonstrated comparable interpretive versatility in singing “There Were Shepherds Abiding in the Field,” “And the Angel Said Unto Them,” and “And Suddenly There Was With The Angel,” her voice so luminous in the final number that listeners could easily have supposed that Perkins herself qualified for inclusion in the heavenly host announcing glad tidings to the astonished shepherds.
In notes of transcendent rapture, soprano Terri Metcalf-Peterson riveted listeners with “Rejoice Greatly, O Daughter of Zion!”
In deftly modulated measures Alto Brook Allredge captured the emotional import of her scriptural texts in singing “Then Shall the Eyes of the Blind Be Opened” and “He Shall Feed His Flock Like a Shepherd,” listeners sharing fully in the wonder of the first, the comfort of the second.
Soprano Kristina Maggio gave compelling voice in “Come Unto Me” to the divine love that pleads with erring mortals, urging them to return to the supernal source of forgiveness and healing.
Lambent with gratitude, soprano Jaclyn Thomas rendered the air “How Beautiful Are the Feet” with unforgettable fervor.
And with a voice luminous with conviction, soprano Emily Diamond illuminated the priceless linkage between Christmas and Easter in her rendition of “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth.”
Among the male vocal soloists, Ethan McBride left a lasting impression as a young talent already poised and fully in command of his exceptional artistic power. In performing the recitative “Comfort Ye My People” and the air “Every Valley Shall Be Exalted,” McBride dazzled the audience with a voice at once strong and supple, delivering even the most challenging passages with effortless grace.
Likewise astounding as a young male vocalist was baritone Alex Byers, who amazed listeners with his masterful rendering of “Thus Saith the Lord,” “But Who May Abide the Day of His Coming?” and “Why Do the Nations so Furiously Rage Together?” Delivering prophetic authority in the first, a probingly introspection in the second, and perplexed wonderment in the third, Byers left no doubt as to his artistic gifts.
Manifesting the confidence of a seasoned vocal veteran, tenor Shane Pierce invited listeners into the circle of light cast by his vocal lamp as he visited empyreal regions in “He that Dwelleth in Heaven” and galvanized those listeners with the rigor of “Thou Shalt Break Them.”
Another experienced and mature performer, bass Richard Waldron plumbed the depths of a redemptive miracle in “Behold, I Tell You a Mystery,” his voice of forged steel plunging into the very shadow of death, before emerging in the dawning of Resurrection. And in “The Trumpet Shall Sound,” Waldron sharpened his voice to a soul-piercing point, a lance that pierced unbelief with testimony of divine truth. Augmenting the overwhelming force of this penultimate number, trumpeter Richard McMaster made his virtuosity with his brass instrument an arresting complement to Waldron’s skill with his voice.
Chorale director Jackie Riddle-Jackson deserves high praise for preparing the singers under her direction for such an outstanding performance. As the relative numbers of female and male singers in the Chorale as a whole and among the soloists made evident, finding talented male vocalists can prove more challenging than finding talented female vocalists. But Riddle-Jackson is meeting this challenge, with the presence among the male soloists of two quite young luminaries indicating that she is doing so in ways that promise similarly favorable experiences for Messiah-lovers in the years ahead.
And though bankers and insurance brokers may not take to the stage to sing, the State Bank of Southern Utah and the Leavitt Group merit the gratitude of all who attended this admission-free concert courtesy of these sponsors’ generosity. These are sponsors who smash the negative stereotype of Scrooge-like business executives: these are community benefactors using their resources to allow all to experience music that truly does make Christmas Christmas.