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“It's a work that brings people together” - Saskatoon Symphony performs brilliant interpretation of Handel’s Messiah

Updated: Dec 21, 2023

by Scott Roos

photos by Julie Issac of Julie Isaac Photography

The full orchestra and chorus together is quite the sight to behold at Knox Metropolitan United Church (photo by Julie Isaac)

This past Friday, Dec. 15th, The Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra (SSO), under the skillful guidance of Maestra Cosette Justos Valdés, alongside the SSO Chorus with Duff Warkentin,  performed Handel’s Messiah at the venerable, ornate Knox Metropolitan United Church in Saskatoon. Oli Guselle (alto), Spencer McKnight (Tenor), Brenden Friesen (Bass) and Casey Peden (soprano) provided the solo spice for the evening. In general, audience members were witness to a solid night of first rate musicianship from all involved.

“I think it went well,” Valdés told NSMZ in a post concert telephone interview, “I think with the soloists, it was wonderful to have some of them back. I think with the orchestra I could create some beautiful stylish moments and interpretations of the piece. I was very happy with the chorus - the way the chorus was always so ready to create more nuances….”

This was the second consecutive Saskatoon Messiah for Valdés and her fourth in total having also conducted the work in two other cities. She has a great amount of respect for the piece, taking the preparation for the performance very seriously.  

“ I am always surprised about how much production it takes, how much work it takes, how differently it can be interpreted, how things might feel like new when rehearsing,” Valdés told NSMZ, “It's a piece that always demands more attention than people can imagine."

"Time management is important,” Valdés continues, “(As a conductor) It is important to have the piece ready (in advance) because it's a work that gives you so many possibilities. So you have to address how you want (those possibilities performed) and even during rehearsal you have to prepare a lot of notes in advance - notes to the chorus, notes to the soloists….”

Throughout these preparations leading up to the performance, Valdés made sure she was as accessible to the performers as she possibly could be. On the day of the performance itself, apart from the expected routine of naps, showers, picking out outfits and remaining in a state of relaxed concentration, she also tries to be at the venue at least an hour in advance making herself as available as she can for any last minute questions or to provide assistance in any way she can. 

“She brings such a warm energy to everything. She's a really phenomenal conductor. She comes really well prepared…. You feel really well supported. She's open to you bringing some of your own thoughts into a work. She's really receptive to (the soloists) thoughts on how we want things to go. She's really great to work with,” remarked tenor soloist Spencer McKnight when asked about Valdés. 

McKnight was happy to once again be working with Valdes. "She brings a warm energy to everything," he told NSMZ (photo by Julie Isaac)

In the grand scheme of The Messiah, McKnight, as the Tenor soloist, enters the fray directly after the “Sinfonia”. In a sense, his opening recitative “Comfort Ye My People” and the following air “Ev’ry Valley Shall Be Exalted” play an essential role in effectively setting the tone for the work. McKnight’s voice, this past Friday night, when having the chance to shine, soared. There was clarity to everything that he sang. He was emotive but also appropriately reverent. 

“You're there to tell a story and you're there to move an audience so that's our job at the end of the day. I hope that people were moved and enjoyed what we did that way,” McKnight said.

All the soloists, McKnight included, were top notch this night. Alto Oli Guselle took a theatrical approach to each solo feature they were a part of which proved very entertaining to watch. In their opening number “But Who May Abide the Day of His Coming” Guselle demonstrated an appropriate amount of forbearance before bringing the thunder with the line “he is like a refiner’s fire”. Friesen’s big bass voice was authoritative in its delivery whilst Peden’s take on her soprano solos were light and airy. There was intimacy and vulnerability in Peden’s delivery. At the same time, with the soloists taking very personal approaches to each of their songs, everything still fit into Valdés’s overall plan for the interpretation of the work in its entirety.

"I think Oli has a fantastic imagination. Oli likes to create their cadenzas and make them very free and cool. They have this background in theatre and jazz singing and all the genres that they sing. I think Oli brings a lot of freshness into their interpretation, a freedom," Valdés stated of alto soloist Oli Guselle (photo by Julie Isaac)
"Brenden is so young and so full of potential with a huge voice. Great voice, great musicality. He follows (directions well) and wants to give all that is asked of him. He has so much to offer," Valdés spoke very highly of bass soloist Brenden Friesen.(photo by Julie Isaac)
"Casey is wonderful.... She was so prepared. She took it so seriously... She was so consistent (with) her interpretation and every note was well sought. She really came ready to kill it, so she did," Valdés was pleased with soprano Casey Peden's performance. (photo by Julie Isaac)

“I tried to give it an approach and style that expressed the most pure concept of the music that I found in it but at the same time was trying to give it a more operatic, theatrical approach as if we had done any of Handel's operas,” Valdés commented.

It should be noted that the orchestra was in fine form. Trumpeter Aaron Bueckert, who was a last minute substitution for regular SSO principal trumpet Terry Heckman, did an admirable job throughout proving that he is swiftly becoming a force to be reckoned with on the instrument particularly within the province of Saskatchewan. His dynamics in “The Trumpet Shall Sound” showed amazing restraint giving room for Friesen’s bass part to breathe. On the flip side, Bueckert's notes still blazed through the church, showing off an expressive tone and superior technique. 

Trumpeter Aaron Bueckert (left) played flawlessly (photo by Julie Isaac)

The SSO Chorus hammered nails when needed. They handled all the vocal acrobatics that the piece threw their way. Director Duff Warkentin obviously did a phenomenal job preparing his crew but, then again, this was not their first rodeo. Three of the choristers did not look at their music once. Amazing.

SSO artistic director Mark Turner stated at the beginning of the night that this was the 110th anniversary of the Messiah being performed in Saskatoon. It’s an amazing local tradition to be sure. Valdés, who did not grow up with the tradition of regular local performances of the piece (she grew up in Cuba) had, up until this point, been perplexed as to why, apart from it being a musical masterstroke by a Baroque genius Georg Friedrich Handel, it is seen as so important and, dare it be said, essential, to so many people in North America at this time of year. 

“I realized (this) the other day after the first performance actually. I was wondering why people come every year and I felt that coming to Messiah is like going to church. It's something that everybody needs and you know you have it once a year like people have church every Sunday right? Then the next day when we were doing the singalong I realized that it's not only about the story. It's about singing. It's about the music. People care to come every year to sing The Messiah. It's a community thing. It's a work that brings people together,” said Valdés. 

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