By Jim Pegolotti
NEWS-TIMES MUSIC CORRESPONDENT
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
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
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
"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.