"Too Hot to Handel" Explodes with Enthusiam at Boettcher Hall in Denver

Last Night, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra presented their holiday tradition of “Too Hot to Handel”, a Gospel rendition of Handel’s Messiah. Conceived by Marin Alsop (pictured), CSO Composer Laureate, with colleagues Gary Anderson and Bob Christianson, the music takes the beautifully familiar music of George Frideric Handel and updates it with a mix of soul, jazz, gospel, Latin and bebop. And if that isn’t enough to entice you, Maestro Alsop conducted the piece with some of the finest gospel soloists in the industry.

From classical beginnings the music quickly shifts into a brilliant swing rhythm, and then becomes of fusion of the two – within the first couple of minutes letting the audience know just what an exciting evening they are in for. Thomas Young sang “Comfort Me” overtop some funky organ music. His stellar command of both classical and jazz vocal music was evidenced in his ability to switch from classical lines taken directly from the original Messiah to scat singing which nearly brought the audience to their feet in the middle of the first half of the concert.

Not to be out done, Vaneese Thomas added her versatile voice to “Thus Saith the Lord.” She reached the back of the house and into the depths of our souls with strong, yet subtle vocal work. This piece was followed up with “Who Shall Abide” giving Vaneese a chance to show off some smooth sultry jazz vocals. Cynthia Renée Saffron stepped into the Soprano role last night blowing away the audience with her power and flexibility. Displaying an amazing range with crystal clear highs and strong, honey-rich lows, Cynthia also ran the gamut of dynamics from powering out the back wall to whisper silent tenderness, yet still audible throughout the house. When she joined the choir in “For Unto Us” again the audience was nearly brought to their feet with excitement.

Throughout the concert there were numerous instrumental solos too. It began with some funky organ work, then a sizzling tenor sax solo, the trumpets were featured in “The Trumpet Shall Sound”, a trombone solo and several alto/soprano sax solos allowing the CSO musicians to shine. The CSO was also augmented by Clifford Carter on piano who was featured several times throughout the performance. At one point he had the vocal soloists practically dancing in their seats. Toward the very end Clint de Ganon was featured on the drum kit, pumping up the audience for the explosive Hallelujah chorus.

Marin Alsop led the augmented Colorado Symphony Orchestra with the finesse one can expect with the finest conductor in the US. But this was a pops concert!?! From the outset Maestro Alsop showed her command of the orchestra providing both entrance cues and emotional dimension to the music. Reaching up to communicate directly with the brass or percussionist, to getting down and dirty with the jazz ensemble positioned around the podium. Her work with the choir was amazing, offering not only how to phrase the music, but exactly when to come in and when to cut off – a critical element when trying to get nearly 200 voices to do Gospel right! Marin Alsop is also a showman of the first degree, keeping the orchestra vamping several times through the concert to allow for audience appreciation for soloists, while keeping the flow of the music moving. This was never more evident when she encouraged the audience to up the decibel level by a factor of 2 with a reprise of the ending of the Hallelujah chorus, giving the audience a chance to really show their enthusiasm for the performers. Maestro Alsop demonstrated not only her clear, concise command of the classical canon, but her in-depth understanding of modern genres of music; she can do it all.

The chorus, under the direction of Mary Louise Burke, did an outstanding job of popping the music in all the right places. One of the problems with converting classical choral music to gospel music is getting the accents right, and boy did they get them right. “Every Valley” was crisp and tightly wrapped around the beat, while the “Hallelujah!” showed their ability to jump the beat to give it the right drive and punch needed to bring the audience to their feet, clapping and cheering along with the music.

When it was over, the feeling in the concert hall was euphoria. The audience was ecstatic chatting away about the amazing performance they’d just seen and the performers were enthralled with a sense of energy, as if they would be willing to do it all over again – and they will, Tonight! Boettcher Concert Hall could do with a few more concerts like this!

A note about the music:
While I enjoyed the concert there were times I felt the arrangement of Handel's music didn't quite make it. Some of the themes fell flat, and some of the augmentation of the vocal rhythms pulled away from the intensity of the music, rather than added to it. But perhaps the most jarring was when quartet of voices was called for, but there was no bass soloist. A soloist was brought down from the choir, but not mentioned in the program - rather as if his part was an after thought. Unfortunate for both the performer and the audience as it didn't fit with the rest of the program.

However, that said where the music was right was in the using the styles of Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Thad Jones and even some Antonio Carlos Jobim. It is a wonderful concert, well worth standing in line for a chance to get a ticket!


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