“Consolad a mi pueblo, dice el Señor.”
These words might seem strangely familiar. They are Spanish for “Comfort ye, my people, saith your God,” a phrase from the biblical Book of Isaiah — and the opening lines of Handel’s “Messiah,” the iconic holiday work that Twin Cities choir Border CrosSing will perform this weekend in a bilingual version entitled “El Mesías.”
The decision to mix Spanish and English in Handel’s great oratorio is no gimmick, said Border CrosSing’s founder and musical director, Ahmed Anzaldúa.
It chimes perfectly with the choir’s stated mission to “integrate historically segregated audiences and musicians through choral music,” and take classical music to communities where it isn’t heard as often as it might be.
“All of the recitatives are in Spanish, and the arias and choruses are half in Spanish, half in English,” he explains. “That immediately makes the piece more relatable for a bilingual Mexican audience, and draws them into the story.”
Anzaldúa’s identification with Latin culture is instinctive. He was born in Mexico, and after periods of studying the piano in Spain and the United States he was hoping to return there.
“So I went back to Chihuahua, Mexico, to open a music school with my wife, who’s a violinist,” he recalls. “We were there from 2008 to 2012, but the drug violence started to explode, and there were terrible stories.”
Some of those stories affected Anzaldúa directly.
“I had a chamber ensemble of clarinet, viola, and me playing the piano,” he says. “And our clarinet player was murdered in an incident. We had a lot of friends who ended up murdered or kidnapped.”
With a young son to think about, he and his wife knew it was time to leave their native country.
“I was very lucky to get on a master’s degree [program] at Western Michigan University, and that is where I really fell in love with choral music.”
From Michigan, he migrated to the University of Minnesota, where he signed up for a doctorate in conducting with Kathy Saltzman Romey, the university’s director of choral activities and leader of the Minnesota Chorale.
Enriching the classical canon
Anzaldúa’s gamble in coming to the United States paid off. As his doctorate neared completion, he was appointed director of music ministries at Unity Church-Unitarian in St. Paul, where he has five different choirs to attend to.
Border CrosSing, of course, makes six.
Born partly from a desire to share the music of his native culture, it was founded by Anzaldúa during the first year of his doctoral studies.
“When I came to America to study piano in 2012,” he said, “I was shocked to find that Latin American music was nowhere in the college curriculum. I wanted someday to start an ensemble to do that music.”
Then came the 2016 presidential election. Anzaldúa’s need to perform the music he loves in his adopted country grew suddenly more urgent.
“Throughout the whole lead-up to the election I kept seeing horrible anti-Mexican rhetoric everywhere, and things that would have been shocking just a few years ago normalized,” he said.
“It got me wondering why people aren’t taught, for instance, that the chaconne originated in Mexico, and the sarabande in Peru. There’s an underlying racist structure to music education and performance, which tends to exclude cultures somehow viewed as inferior from the canon.”
Border CrosSing was duly formed in 2017, with the aim of performing little-known music from Latin America, and exploring how timbres from those cultures interact with the mainstream classical tradition.
The choir and Anzaldúa played a crucial role in the closing concert of the Minnesota Orchestra’s Sommerfest this year — a masterful performance of Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov’s “La Pasión Según San Marcos” (“The Passion According to St. Mark”) that looked and sounded startlingly different from the orchestra’s usual concerts.
Holy Family as refugees
Music by Latin American composers such as Gaspar Fernandes, Blas Galindo and Mari Esabel Valverde has featured in all 18 of Border CrosSing’s concerts so far, and there will be more this weekend in “El Mesías.”
Anzaldúa’s choir will perform Part One of “Messiah” (the Christmas story) plus the “Hallelujah” Chorus but, in a novel juxtaposition, movements from the Argentine composer Ariel Ramírez’s cantata “Navidad Nuestra” will be interjected at regular intervals.
The choice of Ramírez’s cantata is deliberate.
“Last year there were some really ugly incidents on the U.S.-Mexico border, and a whole scare about a caravan of refugees that was coming to America,” Anzaldúa said. “And ‘Navidad Nuestra’ focuses on the Holy Family as refugees, fleeing through the desert. Each of its six movements pretty much corresponds to a section of ‘Messiah,’ so it works well to weave them together.”
To further spice the cross-cultural mix, the Andean instruments used in Ramírez’s cantata will be added to the conventional instruments of Handel’s baroque orchestra, with an accordion accompanying sections of recitative normally reserved for harpsichord.
Does it all fit together convincingly? Anzaldúa says that reaction to the 2017 and 2018 versions of “El Mesías” suggests it does, with “smiles, curiosity and delight” being typical audience responses.
This year “El Mesías” will be performed at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in St. Paul and Church of the Ascension in Minneapolis — two churches deeply embedded in the Twin Cities’ Latin American community.
It will, Anzaldúa adds, be Border CrosSing’s biggest and best “El Mesías” yet, and he is beginning to glimpse a new ambition for his choir’s annual Christmas project.
“I keep thinking of ways in which I can make ‘El Mesías’ better,” he says. “One day I would like for us to do the whole of ‘Messiah’ in this way, bilingually. One day.”
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.