Some people may have been intimidated when asked to take over a tradition going back more than 80 years. Gideon Burrows was thrilled.

Burrows, the director of choral music, is getting ready to conduct the 85th continuous performance of Handel’s Messiah at Eastern Arizona College. Roughly 80 EAC students and community members will gather on the stage Sunday to perform the oratorio that’s traditionally marked the start of the holiday season in the Gila Valley for decades.

Before joining the staff at EAC four years ago, Burrows said he was in the doctoral program at University of North Texas where he was part of the Baroque orchestra. He loved the classical music that originated in Western Europe from 1600 to 1750 and when told he’d be expected to take over Messiah, Burrows said he jokingly responded, “OK, twist my arm.”

“I was really excited at that aspect. Excited about what we could do as we look forward to future years of performing this event and trying to find ways to make it new and bringing in new movements that might not get performed as much,” he said.

His predecessors, David Lunt and Bruce Bishop, have always been a huge support to him over the years, so any fears he may have had went away quickly, he said.

Handel and Bach are the best examples of Baroque period composers, Burrows said.

“These were the rock stars of their day, they were pushing the envelope in many different ways,” he said.

He loves that he not only gets to conduct the oratorio most known for the Hallelujah chorus, but that he gets to introduce students to it.

“Handel’s music is different than what most people are used to listening to today,” Burrows said. “It’s interesting because for a lot of our students this activity might be the very first time they engage with music from the Baroque period...Even though they’ve grown up listening to parts of the Messiah, everyone has heard the Hallelujah chorus, it’s a different beast when you’re actually there learning it.”

Because English wasn’t Handel’s first language, the piece is much different than it would be otherwise, Burrows said.

“There are some weird word stresses and he treated the voice a lot more like another instrument of the orchestra,” Burrows said. “It’s really fun watching them; ‘Oh, that’s how it goes. Oh, this is getting to be really cool.’ It’s really fun for me to see, as we go through the rehearsal process, seeing them realize ‘Oh, I can do this.’”

There will be more pieces in this year’s performance than in years past and the audience will be invited to sing the Hallelujah chorus with them, Burrows said. There will be arias, recitatives and 19 soloists, among them EAC students, alumni, high school students, high school choir directors, other community members and adjunct professors.

The EAC students involved in the production are members of the A Cappella choir and Resonus, the tenor-bass choir, many of whom also recently participated in the Festival of Carols.

“They’re incredibly dedicated. One of the reasons I came to EAC was the program and how ambitious it was. We do a lot more here and have more students involved than many of the smaller four-year universities,” Burrows said. “There are just a lot of opportunities here for our students and they come with such a great attitude and a great work ethic.”

Handel originally composed operas, but he moved to oratorios as a way to make money, Burrows said. He wrote Messiah in three sections during Lent one year. One section talks about the prophecy of Christ’s life and birth, which is the Christmas section. There’s a section about his sacrifice, death and resurrection and then there’s the third, more introspective section, Burrows said.

It premiered at a fundraiser for an orphanage, he said.

If you’re among those who haven’t attended the performance, there are a few things that may need explanation.

The performance starts with a prayer and because the entire thing is more like a religious service than a collection of songs where people clap throughout, people only clap at the end of Messiah, Burrows said.

In addition, the audience stands up during the Hallelujah chorus.

“As the legend goes, (King George II) in that first performance stood when Handel and his group were performing the Hallelujah chorus. Some people joke it was because he needed to stretch his legs and if the King stands, everyone stands. Others like to say it was because he was so moved by that moment, recognizing the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, he had to stand,” Burrows.

Whatever the truth, to this day, everyone stands, he said.

The event is always an exciting one, especially because the students and community members come together and work so hard on it, Burrows said.

“We want to showcase the community,” Burrows said. “It’s really not EAC’s tradition. It’s not my tradition or even David Lunt or Bruce Bishop’s tradition, it’s the Gila Valley community’s.”

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