Choral performances uplifting and unifying
March 7, 2011
It was a choral Saturday.
The community chamber choir Voces Novae served up a luscious appetizer, a 40-minute late afternoon concert at the Unitarian Universalist Church devoted to music inspired by or in some way suggestive of Psalm 137, “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down, yes, we wept, when we remembered Zion.”
Then in Auer Hall, the Pro Arte Singers, members of the Early Music ensemble Concentus and the IU Baroque Orchestra performed Handel’s eloquent, grandly scoped oratorio, “Judas Maccabaeus.”
Leave it to Susan Swaney. The artistic director of Voces Novae knows how to fashion provocative themes for her choir’s programs. This one, as the psalm expresses, spoke to sorrow and oppression, the Jewish exile and enslavement in Babylon, the search for a voice, in whatever place and time, to unify those facing the struggle.
The music, all of it carefully prepared and entrancingly and passionately sung, ranged from late 16th and early 17th century settings of the psalm by Salomone Rossi, Orlando di Lasso, Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck and Thomas Campian to “On the Willows” from the musical “Godspell,” the 1970’s hit song by Brent Dowe and Trevor McNaughton, “Rivers of Babylon,” and a pair of shape-note hymns, one the 1811 “Babel’s Streams” by Stephen Jenks, the other, the 1986 “Wood Street. L.M.” by Judy Hauff.
Also sung was Verdi’s “Va Pensiero,” the prayer of the Hebrews held captive by the Babylonians in the opera “Nabucco,” a chorus that became the anthem of Italians seeking their 19th century independence and unification. Finally, there was “By the Waters,” an other-world-like, highly evocative work by a member of Voces Novae, the creative, locally based composer Cary Boyce, with music that paid heed to flowing waters, harps “hanged . upon the willows,” and the razing of the temple in Jerusalem. The piece was something to admire; Voces Novae treated it so.
Handel at night
The resplendent performance of Handel’s “Judas Maccabaeus” had the benefit of the meticulous and sensitive William Jon Gray as conductor, expert orchestral preparation by Stanley Ritchie, and coaching from both IU’s Paul Elliott and the Welsh soprano and Handel specialist, Eiddwen Harrhy, all this thanks to funding from the Georgina Joshi Fund, established to support a series of performances here of Handel’s operas and oratorios.
The money was well spent. The efforts were well rewarded.
This reviewer heard the second of three performances given (the first was Friday in Indianapolis, the third in Auer Sunday afternoon). It offered an authoritative, spacious and wonderfully energized reading of an oratorio far less heard than “Messiah” but certainly worthy of more exposure than it now tends to receive.
The subject deals with the history touched upon in Psalm 137, in this case the revolt during the second century B.C. of the Maccabeans against a disintegrating Babylonian empire. Judas Maccabaeus was their victorious military leader. Music and words (by Thomas Morell) celebrate the leader, the victory and God.
The best-known item in the oratorio is the mighty chorus, “See the conquering hero comes,” but a number of the choruses, along with an array of melodic and challenging arias, made their mark. That’s not only because of oft-inspired music itself but the fine efforts of the performers.
The two leading roles were assumed by students not in Pro Arte or Concentus: tenor Jacob Williams as Judas and baritone Scott Hogsed as his brother Simon. Williams did some heroic singing, negotiating breathtakingly-long lines, vocal pyrotechnics and multiple high notes with aplomb. Hogsed gave needed clarity and resonance to a string of recitatives and arias.
By the end, close to three hours from the start, a number of the choristers had taken a turn as soloist. They held their own. Some — including mezzo Lauren Walker, soprano Christine Buras and countertenor Brennan Hall — faced major technical hurdles but emerged as victors.
This “Judas Maccabaeus” was a combined effort that worked because of all its parts. And up front, it was conductor Gray who, much praise to him, kept the performance unified and spirited.