December 14, 2022

Gemma New talks about Handel’s “Messiah”

Gemma New’s holly and jolly Christmastime
By Leonard Turnevicius
Hamilton Spectator

Can’t beat Christmastime.

Just ask Gemma New, the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra’s New Zealand-born San Diego-based music director.

“This is my favourite time of year, and I am full of holiday cheer,” said New. “The big difference is that New Zealand has a summer holiday around this time, so Santa comes on a surfboard with sunglasses on.”

New, whose November engagements included dates with the Houston Symphony, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra where she is artistic director and principal conductor, and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, is back in Hamilton for three concerts with the HPO this weekend.

The first and third of those concerts will be Handel’s sacred oratorio, “Messiah,” co-presented with Alexander Cann’s Bach Elgar Choir on Friday, Dec. 16 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Dec. 18 at 2 p.m. in Central Presbyterian Church, 165 Charlton Ave. W. The soloists are soprano Meredith Hall, mezzo Jennifer Enns Modolo, tenor Benjamin Butterfield, and bass-baritone Giles Tomkins.

New’s conducting history with “Messiah” is relatively brief.

“In 2020 when the world was largely closed, New Zealand was still COVID-free and with live concerts and full audiences, and the NZSO’s December 2020 performance was my first experience conducting the work,” recounted New. “I had assisted the work several times but I’d held off conducting it as it was clear I would need considerable time preparing the parts to do it justice. To look on the bright side, I had plenty of time to prepare the parts whilst in a New Zealand quarantine hotel, and I have now brought these parts to Hamilton for our performances. They encourage an energetic and expressive Baroque style, perfect for our superb BEC, intimately sized HPO, and four outstanding soloists.”

For New, the purpose behind “Messiah” exceeds the oratorio’s prevalence as a sacred cash cow milked for all its worth during the Christmas run-up.

“When Handel was complimented about the piece, his response was telling, ‘I should be sorry if I only entertained them, I wish to make them better,’” quoted New. “This is exactly the reason why we share music together. And I especially love this purpose for our ‘Messiah,’ to emotionally and spiritually bring joy and wellbeing to our listeners.”

The second of New’s HPO concerts is a “Holidays with Gemma New” family-oriented matinee on Saturday, Dec. 17 at 3 p.m. in FirstOntario Concert Hall. Guest artists are David Willms’s Hamilton Philharmonic Youth Orchestra and Melanie Tellez’s Hamilton Children’s Choir.

The ninety-minute concert will include Leroy Anderson’s annually ubiquitous “A Christmas Festival” and “Sleigh Ride,” selections from Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” with the HPYO, John Williams’s “Home Alone Suite” and John Rutter’s “Candlelight Carol” and “Angels’ Carol” with the HCC plus the grand finale, James Stephenson’s “A Holly and Jolly Sing Along,” with all of the musicians and choristers on stage.

“I personally hand-selected every one of these pieces because they are my absolute favourites and also because I know everyone in Hamilton will love them, too, this being my third holiday program with the HPO,” gushed New.

Oh, and there’s also Randol Alan Bass’s “Twas the Night Before Christmas” with Willms as narrator.

“This was important to me as I wanted an opportunity for our HPO audience to get to know David and for us to give David a warm welcome to the HPO family,” said New. “There will also be a few surprises in the program. This is an afternoon of celebration.”

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