Updated 'Messiah' gets audiences grooving in Denver

By Jen Mulson Updated: December 20, 2017 at 8:13 am • Published: December 20, 2017 0
photo - Christopher Dragon, the Colorado Symphony's associate conductor, leads the orchestra during last year's holiday concert. Photo credit: Brandon Marshall
Christopher Dragon, the Colorado Symphony's associate conductor, leads the orchestra during last year's holiday concert. Photo credit: Brandon Marshall

Would George Frideric Handel do the proverbial roll-over in his grave at the idea of a funked-up "Messiah"?

"This reworking of pieces was something that was common even back then," said Christopher Dragon, associate conductor of the Colorado Symphony. "Even with his music, this improv was kind of expected. He'd be somewhat open to this version of it, especially with these instruments we have now that they didn't have back then."

The orchestra will present "Too Hot to Handel" Friday and Saturday at Boettcher Concert Hall at the Denver Performing Arts Complex.

The spicy two-hour updated version of Handel's 1741 English-language oratorio features a Hammond B3 organ, gospel piano, drums, electric guitar, Fender bass and acoustic bass, a full saxophone section, full brass, strings, timpani and percussion. Integrated into the mix are three soloists: soprano Cynthia Renee Saffron, mezzo Vaneese Thomas and tenor Lawrence Clayton.

More than a decade ago, Marin Alsop, the symphony's former music director, was inspired to revamp the classic after hearing non-musician friends complain about how long it took to get to the famous hallelujah chorus.

"I had already entertained the idea that 'Messiah' would lend itself to a 20th-century remake," she told National Public Radio in 2006. "I could clearly imagine the hallelujah chorus becoming a gospel number, and once I got inspired about the idea, everything else began to fall into place."

She called upon two colleagues: Bob Christianson and Gary Anderson. The threesome agreed to keep the melodies, lyrics and form of each number intact, and get creative with the harmonization, instrumentation and groove.

"She wanted a version more accessible for the modern public," said Dragon, who will conduct the piece for the first time. "The soloists in 'Messiah' also added embellishment and extra notes. That's why it fits into the jazz gospel sound world so much. It's very different from the original. Not only are the rhythms different, there are groovy rhythms and thicker instrument harmonies."

JENNIFER MULSON, THE GAZETTE, 636-0270, JEN.MULSON@GAZETTE.COM

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