Handel on the season

Local conductor Dan Valdez hopes his community sing-along will become a holiday tradition

MAESTRO FOR THE SEASON<br>“Big Dan” Valdez conducts rehearsals for a popular local community event featuring up to 80 local singers performing Handel’s <i>Messiah</i> in Chico and Paradise. The choral group (below) is made up of amateurs and professionals who love the piece.

“Big Dan” Valdez conducts rehearsals for a popular local community event featuring up to 80 local singers performing Handel’s Messiah in Chico and Paradise. The choral group (below) is made up of amateurs and professionals who love the piece.

Photo by Dan Valdez

For hundreds of years, George Handel’s Messiah has been cherished as one of the most popular pieces of choral music ever written. For some, the uplifting refrains to its third “Hallelujah!” section are practically synonymous with the Christmas spirit. The entire work is arguably the most widely performed piece of holiday music in the world.

Last year, Chico conductor and vocalist Daniel Valdez led his first local community performance of the Messiah both in Chico and Paradise—at the Senator Theatre and the Paradise Performing Arts Center. This year, he hopes the two events will be even more successful and will help establish the annual community sing-alongs as a local holiday tradition.

“I’m really excited,” says the friendly, bearish Valdez. “I really want people to bring their kids and make it a family-friendly experience this year.”

Valdez says that there will be a dessert reception afterwards (free for kids) as well as a bell choir performing in the Senator lobby this year.

Last year he was joined by about 64 singers on stage, and he expects between 70 and 80 this year, in addition to a string quintet of professional instrumentalists, including a grand piano and two trumpets. Most of the singers, Valdez says, know the piece from church and come equipped with their own music; but there will be extra copies available for $1 rent (or purchase) for audience members who wish to join in.

Soloists this year include Chico State instructor Dawn Hayes, Pam Thornton as well as a trio of family members: Sally, Kimberly and Tom Mendez.

Last year, between 300 and 400 audience members showed up at the Senator—a venue that Valdez notes suits the piece well because the hard interior surfaces help amplify natural sound. And as for the Paradise Performing Arts Center, there’s hardly a better sound venue in Butte County.

Speaking about the music, Valdez gives a brief history: Handel was asked to write the Messiah oratorio in 1741 for a small community group in Dublin, Ireland, where it was first performed on April 13, 1742. The composer himself conducted the first performances with the amateur community singers, and the grand accessibility with which he had written the work made it an instant, popular success that grew considerably as it spread through Europe. Handel continued to conduct the music for the last 20 years of his life, a time when he desperately needed the money.

“Savvy audience members know to stand up at the third section,” Valdez explains. “That was a tradition begun by the king of England, who was showing his respect for the higher ‘king of kings’ mentioned in the piece. Back then, when the king stood, everyone in the audience would stand.”

Valdez was first exposed to the music himself when he was in high school in Santa Ana around 1974. His whole school choir performed the piece in conjunction with the Orange County Symphony and choral group, which made a lasting impression on the young singer: “There’s nothing quite like the power of that many human voices in concert,” he admits.

“Back when I was in school they gave you aptitude tests that placed you into music programs at an early age,” Valdez notes. “Unfortunately, they don’t do that anymore, and fewer and fewer young people are exposed to world classics and music education in general.”

Valdez has since associated the Messiah with the coming of the holidays, and when living in the Lafayette/Orinda area years ago he began conducting the piece at a local Presbyterian church. Naturally, he would like to continue here in Chico, where he attended the master’s program in music at Chico State and co-founded the now-defunct Chico City Light Opera and the Eaton Road Family Opera House. He also works part-time at Butte College producing its fall musical.

“It would be nice if the Messiah became a local tradition," Valdez adds, "and everybody automatically knew that the first Thursday and Friday of every December was ready and booked for Handel."