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While Messiah has been long established as part of the Christian holiday seasons of Christmas and Easter, Judas Maccabaeus, by George Frideric Handel (1685-1759), has never become established similarly for the celebration of Hanukkah. It portrays the Maccabees, who are central characters to the story.
Judas Maccabaeus, the nineteenth of Handel’s twenty-seven oratorios, was composed in 1746. The libretto, by Thomas Morell, is based on 1 Maccabees 2-8 with motives drawn from the Antiquitates Judaicae by Flavius Josephus. This story of the Israelites' eventual victory over the Syrian king served to celebrate the British defeat of Charles Stuarts’ Jacobite forces at the Battle of Culloden in April 1746.
The oratorio is divided into three parts. In Part I, the Jewish resisters mourn the death of their leader Mattathias. His son Simon rallies their will to fight, and his brother Judas Maccabaeus takes up the role of military commander. Part II covers the celebrations of initial Jewish victories, their terror of a massive Seleucid imperial court counterattack, and Judas' rallying of the people. Part III celebrates the victory of the Jews. The full text alludes to an impending alliance with the Roman Empire.
The 68 numbers in Judas Maccabaeus and the texts are called out in Stanford's wonderful collection of libretti, here. One reason it is so rarely performed is the large proportion of recitative to airs. Most performances are judiciously cut. A review of a New York City HIP (historically informed performance) reported about dozen cuts. A comparison of the list in the archive cited above and in Wikipedia with this concert’s excellent program found similar results.
This oratorio performance was just one of the many cultural activities of the Opus Concert Series, which is one of some seventeen programs managed by The Music Center, whose support comes from the government and enlightened taxpayers of the city of Greensboro. This concert was free to the public though a basket was available for donations. The impressive space that is Christ United Methodist Church was well-filled with music lovers along with the four vocal soloists, the Choral Society of Greensboro, the Cantabile of Greensboro Youth Chorus, a smaller choir from Weaver Academy, and a very able ad hoc orchestra.
Conductor Jon Brotherton led a vital performance. He made the maximum spatial use of his forces. The small choir stall before the pulpit on the left was reserved for the young ladies of the Cantabile and Weaver Academy for Parts II-III, where they were the Chorus of Youths. Most of the women choristers were arrayed on risers in the middle of the chancel before the altar. About a dozen lower-voiced women and the men filled the church’s large choir section on the right, before the impressive pipes and keyboard of the Charles Fisk Opus 82 Organ.
Cuts helped tighten the solo parts, and some singers doubled roles. The two primary women soloists’ voices were strongly contrasted and made for effective characterization while they also blended beautifully in several duets. Soprano Beth Allen-Gardner, as the Israelitish Woman, sang with a bright and pleasing tone that was even across its considerable range. The roles of the Israelitish Man and the Priest were ably sung mezzo-soprano Kayla Brotherton, whose warm and even tone was a constant pleasure. Lightweight bass Daniel Crupi projected his text with admirable clarity. Tenor Brian Thorsett brought a ringing clarity to the role of Judas Maccabaeus, projecting his lines with plenty of heft. A pair each from the men’s choir and the Weaver Academy rendered fine solos: tenor Wendell Putney as the First Israelitish Messenger, bass David Grove as the Second Israelitish Messenger, and Jasmine Ismail and Lauren Small of the Weaver Academy as the Chorus of Virgins. All the singers maintained an admirable level of clarity of diction.
Several vocal solos were highlights. In Part I, soprano Allen-Gardner’s soaring air “O liberty, thou choicest treasure” was paired with a lovely solo cello part played superbly by Gina Pessoli. Percussion and trumpets added to the martial quality of the oratorio’s most famous air, Part II's “Sound an alarm!” The most famous chorus, “See, the conqu’ring hero comes!” in Part III, was added to Judas Maccabaeus in 1751, having been taken from Handel’s next oratorio, Joshua.
Overall, this was a very satisfying performance, and it was a rare treat to hear this oratorio. Co-ordination between the choirs and orchestra was excellent. The continuo playing of harpsichordist Susan Bates and organist Andre Lash contributed so much to the richness and weight of the choral parts.. The textual clarity and agility of Brotherton’s choral forces was excellent. Ornamentation was tastefully applied by the principal vocal soloists.