Symphony gets a ‘Handel’ on its holiday concert

Sequoia Symphony performs Christmas choral concert Handel’s ‘Messiah’ Dec. 8 at Visalia Fox Theatre

The Sun-Gazette

VISALIA – Messiah has been the preeminent Christmas choral concert since George Frideric Handel composed it more than 275 years ago. 

When it premiered in Dublin in the winter of 1741, Handel’s orchestras were so popular that women were asked to leave their hoop skirts and men their side swords at home for fear of overcrowding the Great Music Hall. Despite its mandate as a Christmas concert offering, Messiah was actually an Easter piece as the last two parts portray the passion and resurrection of Christ. Handel was revered by those who came after him, including Mozart who re-orchestrated Messiah in 1789 but not before paying homage to his predecessor: “Handel knows better than any of us what will make an effect,” Mozart said. “When he chooses, he strikes like a thunderbolt.”

Handel was a millionaire by modern standards but was extremely generous with his money. A portion of the proceeds from the Messiah’s debut went to a debtors’ prison and hospital in Dublin. Messiah was also a standing segment of his annual benefit concert for London’s Foundling Hospital, a home for abandoned and orphaned children. Despite writing the play in haste, Handel held the Messiah in high regard up until his death. In 1759, when he was blind and in failing health, he insisted on attending an April 6 performance of Messiah at the Theatre Royal in London. It was the last concert he would ever attend as he died eight days later at home.

In a departure from its traditional pops holiday concert, the Sequoia Symphony will perform Handel’s Messiah at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 8 at the Visalia Fox Theatre. Music director Bruce Kiesling thought the timing was right for a different holiday concert since the symphony is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year.

Four soloists from the Bay Area will perform the choral parts along with the combined El Diamante and Golden West High School choirs. Soprano Sheila Willey works with Kiesling at UC Santa Cruz putting on each spring’s opera. Willey’s connections in the Bay Area brought in the other soloists: Heather Jones, mezzo-soprano; Chad Kranak, tenor (and husband of Jones), and Ben Brady, bass-baritone.

The symphony will play the Christmas portions of the nativity story in the original orchestration, which includes a smaller orchestra as Handel originally wrote it in 1741. Handel was originally known for his Italian operas, but by the early 1730s, public taste for that kind of opera was beginning to fade, so he turned to English oratorio.

A fashion for large-scale performances began in 1984, and more instruments were added to the performances of the “Messiah.” But in the 20th century, there were increasing calls for performances more faithful to Handel’s conception.

Tickets are $25-$50 at the symphony office, 208 W. Main Street, Suite D, Visalia, downstairs in Montgomery Square. Student prices are $10. Tickets are also available at 559-732-8600 or online at 

To encourage new people to attend concerts this season, the symphony is also offering a limited number of tickets to every concert for only $1, the cost of tickets 60 years ago. These legacy tickets are on a first-come, first-serve basis and are limited to availability and location in the theatre. They can only be purchased in person at the symphony office the week of the concert. These tickets have sold out for the first two concerts of the season.

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