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Visual Arts

Fort Lewis College launches Arts April Fest

Fort Lewis College String Chamber Orchestra with conductor Wesley Dunnagan rehearse Tuesday for the upcoming performance of Handel’s “Messiah.” (Courtesy of Judith Reynolds)
Major performance of ‘Messiah’ to be performed

A monthlong celebration of the arts at Fort Lewis College begins Sunday afternoon in the Community Concert Hall. At 3 p.m., the FLC String Chamber Orchestra, Chamber Choir and Colla Voce Singers will be augmented by community musicians in a performance of Handel’s oratorio “Messiah.”

“This is my favorite piece of music,” said Wesley Dunnagan, assistant professor of music. “There are a few Bach works that may compete, but it’s definitely my favorite. Handel’s ‘Messiah’ goes the farthest back in my memory. I’ve sung it many times and twice on harpsichord.”

Dunnagan will conduct the full “Messiah,” a rarity these days. More often the Christmas portion is performed in December. Durango music lovers last heard the canonical work by the Durango Choral Society years ago. Linda Mack-Berven also led singalong performances at St. Colomba Church. So, it’s high time we heard this masterwork again.

Ever since Dunnagan joined the FLC faculty four years ago, he’s dreamed of bringing college and community musicians together for an Easter performance of “Messiah.” Now that the college has mounted a string orchestra for the first time under two faculty members, violinist Richard Silvers and cellist Katherine Jetter, the school is better prepared to undertake a massive work like “Messiah.”

Add Dunnagan’s singing group, Colla Voce, and you have the building blocks for an endeavor of this size.

“We also got funding from Provost Cheryl Nixon,” Dunnagan said. That cinched the plan and the idea of future oratorio concerts.

“When Handel first composed the work in 1742, he wrote it for orchestra, chorus and four soloists,” Dunnagan said. “We were able to attract some of the best singers for this one performance. We have nine from Durango and three guest soloists from Denver. We have 26 people in the choir and 22 in the orchestra. The soloists will be embedded in the choir and step forward to sing.

“We’ll have two harpsichords on stage. My colleague, Brendan Barker, will be playing the second one, and he’ll also be playing the organ.”

If you go

WHAT: Handel’s “Messiah,” conducted by Wesley Dunnagan, FLC String Chamber Orchestra, Choirs and community musicians.

WHEN: 3 p.m. Sunday.

WHERE: Community Concert Hall at Fort Lewis College, 1000 Rim Drive.

TICKETS: $20 adults, $5 non-FLC students, free for FLC students. Available at the door or at www.durangoconcerts.com.

One day, Dunnagan said, he hopes the Concert Hall will have its own organ. For now, he’s grateful to Church Organworks of Loveland, which loaned a portable organ to FLC for the semester and this performance in particular.

For an oratorio composed 281 years ago, Handel’s “Messiah” is evergreen – possibly the most recognized piece of classical music in the world.

For many Americans who grew up singing “Messiah” in junior or high school, church or community choirs, much of it will be familiar. The “Hallelujah” chorus never fails to thrill. “The Trumpet Shall Sound” marshals courage. “Comfort Ye,” the tenor solo that opens the storytelling, has a calming effect about the tale about to unfold.

The first performance took place in Dublin on April 13, 1742, not in a church but in the city’s Musik Hall. Based on texts from the King James Bible, the Book of Common Prayer and the Coverdale Psalter, “Messiah” tells the story of Christ’s Nativity, Passion, or sacrifice for humanity, the Resurrection and the Ascension. It begins with prophecy, the coming of the Messiah, and it ends in triumphant, heavenly music.

Trumpet players Jared Wright and Joe Nibley rehearse with the FLC String Chamber Orchestra for Sunday’s performance of Handel’s “Messiah.” (Courtesy of Judith Reynolds)

The Dublin performance was such a huge, popular success, a more formal premiere was held a year later in London. The storytelling plus the balance of solos and choral and orchestral sections adds up to a remarkable and memorable whole. If you’ve heard “Messiah” many times, only once or never before, this is an opportunity not to be missed.


Throughout the month of April, Fort Lewis College will celebrate the arts with many free events and a few ticketed concerts or plays. Check out the website for details: https://bit.ly/40Ihp2Y.

The big Concert Hall performance of Handel’s “Messiah” on Sunday starts it all, followed by several mid-week events such as the 5:30 p.m. Wednesday closing reception for the Center of Southwest Studies exhibit “As Seeds We Grow,” a master class by violinist Soh-Hyun Park Altino at 1 p.m. Thursday in Roshong Recital Hall and her full recital the next evening at 7. Exhibitions in the Art & Design building run through the month, and over in the Theatre Building, a new production of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” opens April 13 and runs through the weekend.

The FLC Choirs and String Chamber Orchestra will give a joint Spring Concert April 27, and the FLC Jazz Ensemble concludes the month’s celebration featuring FLC Dance on April 28.

The FLC website has a full calendar.

Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.