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Piedmont Chamber Singers Present Handel's Jephtha

by William Thomas Walker

If only more local choral groups would show as much enterprise and imagination as the Piedmont Chamber Singers did for the March 4 concert in Brendle Recital Hall at Wake Forest University. They presented a well-prepared performance of Handel's final oratorio Jephtha, his last composition of any importance. Nine men and twelve women made up the chorus. They were joined by five of the region's finest vocal soloists.
Concertmaster John Pruett organized the chamber orchestra of mostly period-style instruments. The recitative was accompanied with restraint and taste by Susan Bates, playing a fine sounding positiv organ built by E. C. Klop. William Osborne conducted a stylish performance with a clear beat, keeping ensemble tight with a minimum of show.

Handel's oratorios, being given in concert, were moneymaking projects that skirted Lenten bans on staged operas. Jephtha's plot is taken from the stark and tragic story related in Judges 11 in the Old Testament. Jephtha, the bastard son of a harlot who has been disinherited by his legitimate half-brothers, becomes the leader of a gang of outcasts from the tribes of Israel. The Jews are attacked by the Ammonites, and Jephtha is chosen to lead the defense because of his fighting experience as a chief of the outlaws. Despite having God's favor, Jephtha makes a rash vow to sacrifice the first person who greets him should he be victorious. The victim is his daughter, and she is killed. Such an ending was no more acceptable to an 18th-century audience than a contemporary one. The librettist, the Reverend Thomas Morell, took wholesale literary license, fleshing out the battle scenes and adding a deus ex machina in the form of a last-minute reprieve delivered by an angel following a legalistic parsing of the vow. Instead of death, his daughter is allowed to live a virginal life dedicated to God.

Handel lost the vision in one eye over the eight months of 1751 that he spent composing Jephtha. The score is as inventive as any of his mature works. The string writing is richly varied throughout all three acts. Extra brass – a pair of valveless trumpets and a pair of valved horns – and timpani are used in Act I to evoke the clash of battle and the glory of victory. An extended solo for wooden flute and the mellow sounds of paired baroque oboes and bassoon color the more intimate drama of Act II. Valveless trumpets return in the last act to heighten the joy of the artificial "happy ending." The ad hoc period instrument musicians played with confidence and fine technical skill. An example of their accomplished playing was the pure and focused line of Jeffrey Collier's wooden flute joined with pizzicato strings to give pastoral-flavored support for the aria "Haste, Haste, ye maidens" sung by Jacquelyn Culpepper as Iphis, Jephtha's daughter.

The clarion tenor of James Albritten fully limed Jephtha from his wavering self-confidence to his horror upon finding his daughter to be his sacrificial victim to his unwavering resolution to carry out his vow. Mezzo-soprano Mary Siebert brought ample and dusky tone to the role of Storgè, Jephtha's wife. His daughter, Iphis, was brilliantly sung by soprano Culpepper. In two engaging duets, her agile highs blended beautifully with those of counter-tenor Steven Rickards, as her finance Hamor. Rickards' even and full sound was welcome. Bass-baritone John Williams brought a dark round tone and stentorian delivery to the role of Zebul, Jephtha's legitimate half-brother. From within the choir, soprano Bethany Brookshire sang the lines of the Angel with a firmly focused bright voice. The excellent diction of the soloists was matched by that of the Piedmont Chamber Singers. Multiple vocal lines were exceptionally clear. The most memorable episode was the great double-fugue chorus of the troubled priests, "Hear our pray'r in this distress," interwoven with "And thy determin'd will declare." Each line is supported by its own separate melody.

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