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"There is room for creativity and spontaneity" - Handel's Messiah returns to Saskatoon December 15th

by Scott Roos

photos by Julie Isaac of Julie Isaac photography

It’s become a Saskatonian winter tradition to be certain - one that has lasted an incredible 110 years to be precise. On Friday, December 15th, the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra will once again perform George Friedric Handel’s masterful “Messiah” oratorio under the capable leadership of Maestra Cosette Justo Valdés. The performance will also feature solosists Casey Peden (soprano), Spencer McKnight (tenor), Brenden Friesen (Bass), and Oli Guselle (alto). Guselle, who’s first experience with the work was last year, is looking forward to returning to the fold once more.

When approaching their first performance last year, Guselle (they/them) did not consider early music as a strength in their repertoire. Seeing themselves as more of a chamber singer or artsong specialist, Guselle’s preparation for the "Messiah" was a challenge. They trained with the same effort and intention that an athlete would. The coloratura and melismas of the work required diligence and attention to detail in order to master.

“It was great, a lot of work, a lot of preparation with my teacher,” gushed Guselle in a recent telephone conversation with NSMZ, “(we had to) create that technique and muscle memory to be able to do those super fast passages which, as it turns out, I really enjoy and find very fun. It's a totally different way of expression because there tends to be a lot less text with this kind of stuff - a lot more repeated text but that doesn't mean it's any less meaningful.”

First performed in Dublin, Ireland, in April of 1742, the work that has become known as “Handel’s Messiah”, the piece, in three distinctive parts, was originally intended to cover key points in the life of Christ including the old testament prophecies, the passion of Christ and also key points covered by the apostle Paul that speak of victory over sin and death and the acclamation of Christ. It’s a heady piece of music set in the style of Italian opera that Handel had made a name for himself with. The key difference here is that the structure is that of an oratorio which is essentially operatic in sound but lacks the elaborate costumes and characters. But there’s solos, flamboyant orchestral flourishes and fantastically reverent choral pieces. It’s an incredible work of art.

While considered one of the greatest triumphs in the history of orchestral and operatic form, the close to three hours of running time might tempt many to see the Baroque era work as outdated, stodgy, rigid and stiff. Guselle argues that this is not the case. There’s room, Guselle explains, for soloists to add unique ornamentation to the melodic lines. It essentially makes each performance different based on how each soloist approaches the work. In fact, it’s stylistically correct to do so.

“I like to imagine when I'm adding my ornaments that I get to co-compose with Handel now how many years later…. I think there is room for fun and creativity and spontaneity. There's room there,” said Guselle.

Guselle waxed philosophical when it came to the classic discussion that often happens when it comes to interpreting early music of this ilk like "The Messiah" faithfully or allowing the piece to evolve and change with the times.

"I think there is a way to respect the traditions and keep it within the context of what it is and what gives it its own identity but also adding your identity because I guess when it comes to my thoughts, technique has evolved, instruments have evolved, just the spaces that we're doing it, technology has evolved.... and I think not only that but our society has also evolved or changed in its own way.... We're all living totally different realities than when (people in the 1700's) were living so I think if our instruments and our technology is changing, I think it makes perfect sense that we as humans are changing too."

"I think part of, I don't want to say preserving, but part of keeping this music alive, and keeping it moving forward, and keeping it relevant is also I think year after year injecting the current human experience into this music. I feel like the only way to keep it alive is to keep putting life into it. So I personally think yeah when I sing this stuff I think about society as a whole. I think about what's going on in the world and how I feel about that today and I also think about internally what's going on with me and my own personal connection to faith. How do I view it? I try to find moments within the music for all of that. To be able to say all those things that I wanna say. That's how I like it."

There’s also room for interpretation when it comes who is standing on the podium wielding the conductor’s baton. This will be the second year in a row that the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra will be working under Cosette Justo Valdés’ leadership. Guselle is excited for the opportunity to work with Valdés again.

“She (Valdés) was so awesome and I'm so happy that she's back…. She brought a lot of fire and a lot of unique ideas last year to how she did things. I think she'll probably do that again. I think we got comments that it was a very dynamic performance. She was taking certain songs much quicker than they usually were. She didn't allow it to be a slow somber thing. She took some risks that I think really paid off,” Guselle explained.

The performance on Friday, December 15th, will start at 7:30 pm at the ornate and elegant Knox United Church in Saskatoon. On top of the four aforementioned soloists, the orchestra will be joined by the amazing SSO Chorus with Duff Warkentin. Tickets are moving quickly for this wonderful yearly event. It’s not to be missed. Tickets can be purchased by clicking HERE

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