John Frayne: BACH deserves big bravo for 'Judas Maccabeus'
On Sunday, the Baroque Artists of Champaign-Urbana performed George Frideric Handel's famous oratorio "Judas Maccabeus" in Smith Recital Hall.
This work, written in 1746, four years after "Messiah," is one of a series of Handel's works in the oratorio form after his career as a composer of Italian opera in London had petered out by the end of the 1730s. Its subject is drawn from the Apocrypha of the Bible (First Book of the Maccabees) and the historian Josephus.
The oratorio celebrates the exploits of Judas Maccabeus, who conquered the Syrians, and consecrated the temple in Jerusalem in 165 B.C. after its profanation, and thus inspired the festival of "Hannukah."
Although set in the second century B.C., Handel and his librettist Thomas Morell were also celebrating the return in 1746 of the Duke of Cumberland after his victory against the Jacobite Uprising ("Bonnie Prince Charlie") at the battle of Colloden in Scotland that year. The first and highly successful performance of this oratorio was in April 1747, and it remained one of Handel's most favored works for some time.
BACH's performance was a joyous and uplifting occasion, highly suitable to end a musical season. The solo singers all gave very strong performances.
The diction of baritone Ricardo Herrera as Simon and tenor Lee Steiner as Judas were crystal clear, and their singing had high dramatic impact.
Christopher Holman, counter tenor, sang with lovely nuances in his voice the solos of Israelite Man. The lovely soprano voice of Kathy Linger was heard affectingly in the more pathetic airs of this work. Stephen L. Larson was forceful as Messenger, and Audrey Vallance excelled in her solo passages.
The chorus of BACH sang with splendid enthusiasm Handel's choral passages, ranging from lovely melodies, to dense contrapuntal passages, to the mighty choruses that ended each of the oratorio's three acts.
The numbers for children were affectingly sung by members of the Central Illinois Children's Chorus, who were sensitively conducted below the stage by Andrea Solya.
The instrumentalists of BACH contributed important obbligato accompaniments to the solo arias, particularly cellist Amy Flores, and organist Jonathan Young. Trumpeters Tracy Parish and Jeremy McBain, along with timpanist William Moersch gave that special tang of Baroque splendor to the climactic passages.
There was no mistaking the climax of the evening. It came near the ending of Act III as the childrens' chorus voices intoned the famous melody of "See the conquering hero come!"
Here Handel shows the master's hand. Trumpets softly join in, then Linger and Christopher Holman and then, in the final magnificent stroke, the full chorus proclaims loudly the great melody. It all seems so perfect.
Perhaps it might be better not to know that this climactic "See, the conquering hero comes" was not in the original performance, but was lifted from the oratorio "Joshua" (1748), along with other numbers, to freshen up "Judas Maccabeus" in revivals in succeeding years.
A final bravo should go to Chester Alwes for organizing this festive performance and forcefully leading this resplendent concert.
I recently saw part of the Metropolitan Opera's production of Handel's opera "Giulio Cesare" in the HD movie presentation. My reactions to Handelian opera and oratorio are quite different. The long procession of "da capo" arias in Handel's operas make my eyelids droop.
It is the great choruses in his oratorios which make the big difference for me. They add tonal variety and contrast to the unfolding dramatic tension of the oratorios, an element which I find lacking in the operas.
In any case, for Sunday's reading of "Judas Maccabeus," a well-deserved bravo to all the performers of this BACH performance.
John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the University of Illinois. He can be reached at email@example.com.