On paper it sounds a crazy idea. Take Part One of Handel’s “Messiah,” translate half of it into Spanish, then divide it up by inserting movements from another piece of music altogether.
That is what happened Friday evening at the Church of the Ascension in Minneapolis as Border CrosSing performed “El Mesías,” the choir’s cross-cultural take on Handel’s choral masterpiece.
That man behind the radical cut-and-paste exercise was Border CrosSing’s artistic director Ahmed Anzaldúa, and he led the team of 46 musicians in a performance which rattled preconceptions and had many uniquely affecting moments.
For Handel’s famous choruses — “For unto us a child is born” and “His yoke is easy” among them — Ahmed adopted a bilingual approach, his singers changing between Spanish and English as they made their entries.
It should have sounded gimmicky and confusing, but it didn’t.
Border CrosSing’s mission is to “truly reflect the cultural reality in which we live,” and the bilingualism did just that — emphasizing commonalities of belief and spirituality across national divisions, and how natural it is that they should come together.
The insertion of movements from Argentine composer Ariel Ramírez’s Christmas cantata “Navidad Nuestra,” which describes the same events as Part One of “Messiah,” had a similar effect.
In a tingling juxtaposition, its toe-tapping opening movement “La anunciación” followed on instantly from Handel’s jubilant “And the glory of the Lord,” the joy of one chorus brimming over to the other.
The Andean instruments used in Ramírez’s cantata — guitar, charango, accordion, quena and zampoñas — began migrating too, popping up to color Handel’s orchestration in the “Messiah” numbers and blurring the distinction between “classical” and folk traditions.
The quality of musicianship on stage was high. The 25-voice choir projected Handel’s choruses with vibrant immediacy, flipping organically between Spanish and English and showing keen appreciation of textual nuances in both languages.
The often complicated part-writing emerged with telling clarity, and there were many striking moments in Ahmed Anzaldúa’s surgingly rhythmic interpretation.
The “Hallelujah” chorus was one. Added to crown the mix-tape sequence of “Messiah” and “Navidad Nuestra,” its cry of “Wonderful!” had a riveting elation, and Anzaldúa’s ramping up of tempo at “And he shall reign” was as exhilarating as it was unexpected.
Among the soloists, Justin Staebell’s dark and oaky bass stood out, full-bloodedly authoritative in his “This Saith the Lord” recitative.
Tenor Matthew Valverde combined sensitivity in a tastefully ornamented account of “Consolad a mi pueblo” (“Comfort ye, my people”), with a mellifluous account of Ramírez’s “El nacimiento” later in the sequence.
Pulling the performers together was the galvanizing musicianship of conductor and Border CroSsing founder Ahmed Anzaldúa.
His vision for a more culturally inclusive brand of choral music was richly vindicated in “El Mesías,” where composers and musicians from different cultures found a common ground to stand on.
The music itself was wonderful, but the message for our socially riven age was probably even more important.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.