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PGSO gearing up for Handel’s Messiah

Is there any other time of year that is more richly steeped in traditions than Christmas? Or a time of year in which memories, from childhood onwards, have so many senses attached, via sights, sounds, smells and tastes? Think tree decorations, holida
The Prince George Symphony Orchestra and a 110-voice choir was a colorful group during rehearsals of Handel’s Messiah in this December, 2009 file photo.

Is there any other time of year that is more richly steeped in traditions than Christmas?

Or a time of year in which memories, from childhood onwards, have so many senses attached, via sights, sounds, smells and tastes? Think tree decorations, holiday carols, feasts and home-baked goods. I suspect this is one of the reasons why people have such a visceral response to the holiday season.

Personally, I can't really remember what kind of presents I received as a child, but I do vividly remember how our Christmas trees looked and how our Christmas dinners tasted.

It's just how I am wired.

I think that is why an annual performance of Handel's Messiah rates high on my list of top holiday memories. It's the sight of an orchestra and choir along with the sounds of gorgeous baroque harmonies, melodies and rhythms. And it doesn't hurt that for North American audiences, it is the rarity of classical vocal music that is both composed for and performed in English.

This year's performance by the PGSO and Prince George Cantata Singers will be conducted by guest conductor Michael Newnham, who is one of several visiting conductors this season auditioning for the permanent role of music director of the PGSO.

I had a very interesting conversation with Michael by phone a few days ago. It is great that I have an opportunity to connect with these visiting artists in advance of their performances here, to learn a bit more about whom they are as musicians, and potential partners here in the Prince George arts community.

Michael is a very busy man. He has been the music director of the Peterborough Symphony Orchestra in central Ontario for the past fifteen years, and, since 2009 the music director of Symphony New Brunswick in Saint John.

He also is very active in educating our country's musical youth, including being the founder of the Kawartha Youth Orchestra in 2002.

It's great that we could potentially have a symphony music director here who has such a wealth of experience in cities that have many parallels in size and civic scope as Prince George. But Michael's credentials are also richly entrenched in European experiences, as he has also spent much of his professional career in Europe, most notably in Poland.

Which brings me back to Christmas Messiah memories.

Michael told me a story that was really quite moving and profound. To start, Messiah has been a favourite piece of his, ever since he was a child and one of his favourite albums was a performance of Messiah by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

But he also told me about the very first time he was to conduct it in Poland, with the Warsaw Chamber Orchestra. This ensemble was planning a performance of the complete work, fully staged, at the beautiful St. John's Cathedral, which dates back to the 17th century.

The choir had decided to perform the work entirely from memory - quite an ambitious plan, especially for a Polish-speaking ensemble.

A stage had been built for the performance in the middle of the cathedral. Michael worked with the soloists and choir for six months, just on the English pronunciation alone. This all occurred just after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Michael shared with me his experiences of being in Eastern Europe during this amazing time of upheaval and change, and how, during a brief sojourn outside of Warsaw, he inadvertently encountered a rally that included Lech Walesa, leading thousands of Poles in a solidarity rally. Militia were in full response mode, and there were armaments and water cannons present. This, as we now know, all occurred in the months leading up to Walesa being elected President of Poland.

I can only imagine how this affected a young musician, starting out on his professional career, to be immersed in one of the most iconic moments in modern world history.

And quite certainly, connecting that performance of Messiah indelibly with a real life story of redemption and, for the Polish nation at that time, a political "saviour."

And now, I can't help but wonder if the PGSO's performance this Friday will have an emotional framework from the guest conductor's unique intersection with history and music, and whether we as audience members might vicariously share in a story that seems so completely congruent with the genuine spirit of Christmas.

Tickets for the 2016 performance of Messiah are available at Central Interior Tickets at 3540 Opie Crescent, or by phone at 250-596-0020. The performance is Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Vanier Hall.

I hope to see you there, and wish you all a very safe, happy and healthy Christmas season.