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‘El Mesías’: Orange Coast College chorus set to perform Handel classic in Spanish

Orange Coast College conductor Eliza Rubenstein leads some of the chamber singers during a session Friday.
Orange Coast College conductor Eliza Rubenstein leads some of the chamber singers during a session Friday. The unit will be one of the first choruses in the world to present a brand-new Spanish-language version of Handel’s “Messiah.”
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)
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George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” has become a Christmas tradition in the United States and is a recognizable sign that the calendar has finally rolled over to the final month of the year.

Those who come to Orange Coast College’s chamber singers concert next weekend will be getting “Messiah” — with a twist.

The OCC chamber singers have been preparing all semester to perform “El Mesías,” a new Spanish-language edition of Handel’s famous work.

The performance will take place Saturday, Dec. 9 at 7:30 p.m. in the Robert B. Moore Theatre on campus.

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“It’s fun to explore such a famous piece in such a new light,” said OCC chamber singer Anna Grozdanov. “So many people have performed ‘Messiah’ before. Pretty much any choir in the world has performed Handel’s ‘Messiah.’ So exploring it in a new language adds a new kind of zest to it, that I’m really excited to perform.”

Orange Coast College conductor Eliza Rubenstein leads students in a warm up Friday.
Orange Coast College conductor Eliza Rubenstein leads students in a warm up Friday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

OCC choral director and conductor Eliza Rubenstein got the blessing of San Diego musician Ruben Valenzuela to have her students perform the piece that he created. “El Mesías” will be performed entirely in Spanish, with a full orchestra.

Rubenstein said all of the soloists for the hourlong concert are either current students or recent alumni, along with voice teacher Susan Ali.

“One of the cool things about it is that we have so many different cultures and backgrounds represented right in the choir,” Rubenstein said. “For example, for this piece, we had people we could turn to and say, ‘How would you pronounce that syllable to make it sound really authentic?’ Last year, we did a piece in Arabic, and [student] Ramy [Alhawari] was our Arabic coach … Music making for me has always been about building and deepening community, and that is just one of many ways in which we can do it.”

Rubenstein said “El Mesías” premiered last year at this time. The OCC chamber singers are believed to be just the third group to perform this Spanish edition of “Messiah,” joining Valenzuela’s professional ensemble and the Westminster Choir College in New Jersey.

Alhawari said singing in a different language presents a unique challenge. Proper pronunciation is key to getting the message of the words and melody correct.

Orange Coast College conductor Eliza Rubenstein leads the chamber singers into next weekend's production of "El Mesías."
Orange Coast College conductor Eliza Rubenstein leads the chamber singers into next weekend’s production of “El Mesías.”
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

“I don’t speak Spanish, but I did grow up in Santa Ana and almost all of my friends are Latino,” he said. “But also, we don’t start with the pronunciation and speaking immediately. We do this thing called count singing. It is a bit tedious at first, but it’s super-helpful. We sing every beat and every syllable, and then the pronunciation is added on later.”

Tickets for the performance are just $10 at the OCC Tickets website, and parking is free in Lot C on campus. Rubenstein said she feels that the junior college is the best arts bargain in Newport-Mesa.

Cleverly, there will be Handel’s ice cream for sale after the show. Handel’s in Newport Beach also will be giving 20% of its proceeds to the OCC chamber singers on Dec. 13, if purchasers bring a copy of the fundraising flyer or show it on their phone.

Presenting “El Mesías” represents a unique proposition to Rubenstein, who knows Valenzuela personally, and that is expected to be passed on to the audience as well.

“He’s spent a lot of his career, as have most of us in this choral world, doing music by white, western European men,” she said. “I think this is just one of many ways that he has bridged cultures that are important in his own life, and that’s how we see it too. It’s a neat way of bridging culture, bridging communities.”

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