Handel Done the Right Way:Clarion Music Society Performs Handel’s Judas Maccabeus

24/05/2011

Handel, Judas Maccabeus: Chorus and Orchestra of the Clarion Music Society, Steven Fox (conductor), Park Avenue Christian Church, New York City, 17.5.2010 (SSM)

Soloists:

Israelitish Woman Lauren Snouffer
Israelitish Man Silvie Jensen
The Priest Daniel Taylor
Judas Steven Caldicott Wilson
Simon Jesse Blumberg

George Frideric Handel was known to be a shrewd, if occasionally misguided, businessman. In his biography of the composer, Christopher Hogwood states that at the time of writing Judas Maccabeus, Handel showed signs of “healthy opportunism slipping into a slightly weary pragmatism.” The libretto was written by Reverend Thomas Morrell (a new librettist for Handel), and much of it is just plain old doggerel. But when Handel received it, he began composing almost immediately.

In this case his judgment was good. Judas Maccabeus may not be anywhere close to the top in popularity of Handel’s works, but it was second only to the Messiah in the number of performances done during his lifetime. As a pragmatist Handel knew just what to do to stack the deck in favor of a theatrical success. He holds back much of the military and war pieces until the last third. The trumpet doesn’t appear in the work until “Sound an alarm,” the thirty-sixth out of fifty-four numbers, in Steven Fox’s abbreviated production. And even in this aria it’s not until the da capo that the trumpets actually come in.

From this point on, no one sleeps: the music is so wonderfully intense that I wished Mr. Fox would have done the entire oratorio (about sixty-eight numbers), but I could understand why he didn’t. First, it would have added half an hour to the performance which already ran a good two hours. Second, for whatever story this oratorio is meant to tell, the items removed had no impact on the “plot.” Finally, the rejected pieces were in most cases slower tempi and Mr. Fox excels in fast-paced music. I only regret his not having included the spirited “So rapid thy course is” and the plaintive air “Wise men, flatt’ring, may deceive us,” both from Act II.

So rapid thy course is

Wise men, flatt’ring, may deceive us

The singers were particularly impressive. Steven Caldicott Wilson had a slow start, but was formidable in “Sound an alarm.” Both Lauren Snouffer and Silvie Jensen sang with great poise and élan. Daniel Taylor’s Priest reached a whole other level of beauty in “Father of Heav’n.” Indeed, his ability to produce such a wonderful rounded bell-like sound so effortlessly is something from “Heav’n.” Jesse Blumberg sang warmly and sensitively. Commendations are always owed to any and all players of the torturous valveless instruments. It is said that W. F. Bach, J. S. Bach’s eldest son who was somewhat behind the times, went fruitlessly in search of musicians to play valveless horns and trumpets for his old-fashioned cantatas. They were too difficult for most musicians to play.

What can I say about Steven Fox that I haven’t said before? Adding to my last rave review, I can attest that having experienced his recent conducting with two different orchestras, where he achieved similar impressive results, there is no questioning his ability to draw out from musicians their best possible playing. Clearly, he has a tremendous rapport with musicians, and this ability makes him a conductor to follow.

Stan Metzger

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