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Chorale sings Handel oratorio

By Jim Pegolotti

NEWTOWN — On Saturday evening Tina Johns Heidrich conducted the Connecticut Master Chorale and a chamber orchestra in "Judas Maccabaeus,” one of the several dozen oratorios composed by the prolific G. F. Handel. When first performed in 1747, England fell in love with it, more so than with the earlier "Messiah.”

For his subject, Handel chose the biblical story from the "First Book of Maccabees” where Judas Maccabaeus leads the Jewish people to victory over its enemies. What the English recognized was that the "politically correct” composer was also honoring an event closer to home — the recent triumph of the Duke of Cumberland over the invading army of the Stuarts.

"Judas Maccabaeus” does not offer the many wondrous melodies of "Messiah,” but a variety of choruses, recitatives, and arias reflecting different moods of the story. In Part I, the mood is despair as the Israelites reflect on their loss of liberty and pray for a leader, with Judas accepting that role.

In Part II, the first chorus, "Fall’n is the foe,” tells of their optimistic spirit. Battles have gone well, but word comes of other enemies that still must be conquered.

In Part III, all is celebration as victory is complete, the Feast of Lights is initiated, and Judas is honored as the "conquering hero.”

There were three soloists in this performance: tenor Andrew Childs (Judas), soprano Emily Martin (an "Israelitish woman”), and bass-baritone Brendan Cooke (Simon, Judas’ brother). Should the complete oratorio be given, a total of some two and a half hours of music can be expected, but Heidrich omitted about one-third of the oratorio, especially those arias and recitatives for two additional soloists: a contralto and a second tenor. The fact that it was not the complete oratorio should have been noted somewhere in the program.

But what of the performance itself? First and foremost, the chorale was in top form in all 13 different choruses performed. For example, vocal color reflected the text mood, as in the beautiful phrase of the second chorus: "With words that weep, and tears that speak.” In the succeeding choral section, clean and crisp singing emphasized the Israelites’ fugal petition: "And grant a leader bold and brave if not to conquer, born to save.”

In many choruses, Handel often brings the singers to a dead stop for special emphasis, then after a pause of a second or more, he demands brisk dynamic attacks to continue. Heidrich is very adept at directing the chorale to achieve effectively this aspect of Handel’s dramatic writing.

"See, the conquering hero comes,” the famed chorus of Part III, proved a highlight. First sung almost pianissimo by women’s voices, the change to a fortissimo unison — augmented with drums, brass, and organ — was chillingly effective. However, it must be noted that the concluding "Hallelujah, Amen” ultimately produced more sound than music by the demand of the conductor that every voice and instrument produce maximum output.

"Judas Maccabaeus” relies as much on soloists as chorus to advance the story. Here the soloists chosen by Heidrich proved to be outstanding in at least two cases. In the third case, it may well have been an off-night for tenor Andrew Childs, who sang the title role, the most demanding in the score.

He possessed the necessary flexibility needed in any Handel work. As long as the vocal range of the music remained in the mid-range, his voice had pleasant characteristics, but in his upper registers strain showed through quickly. Nevertheless, he projected the heroic sense well, particularly in the aria "Sound an alarm.”

Soprano Emily Martin delivered her arias with exceptional musicality. In "O’ Liberty, thou choicest treasure,” her voice floated from tone to tone with ease and warmth. In her final aria "So shall the lute and harp awake,” upon the word "sprightly” she produced a deeply satisfying melismatic filigree. At the aria’s conclusion she pulled out of the air the most brilliant of high notes. It was an impressive performance.

Bass-baritone Brendan Cooke similarly impressed in his role as Simon, Judas’ brother, much of it in recitatives. In particular, his initial aria "Arm, arm, ye brave,” which set the oratorio’s plot in action, was sung briskly and with appropriate embellishments. Cooke’s voice had a warm patina at all times, never rough, and every word could be heard clear and firm.

All in all, a good-sized audience heard an evening of many choral delights, augmented by the splendid playing of the chamber orchestra and the fine soloists. Heidrich’s ability as a conductor continues to impress on all levels.  

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