By Kyle MacMillan
CHICAGO – At this festive time of the year, George Frideric Handel’s Messiah can be heard in hundreds of churches and concert halls across the country. But last weekend during performances at two venues in the Chicago area, Music of the Baroque provided a refreshing switch, offering not that ubiquitous staple but another of the celebrated composer’s more than two dozen oratorios. Instead of a work with a large section devoted to the Christmas story, the Chicago-based organization chose the much less frequently heard Judas Maccabaeus, with ties to another holiday’s tale. The 1746 creation chronicles a military revolt in the 2nd century BCE that led to the restoration of Jewish worship in Jerusalem and the miracle of light celebrated during the feast of Hanukkah. (Despite its subject matter, it was actually written as a tribute to William, Duke of Cumberland, who successfully put down a bloody attempt by Prince Charles Edward Stuart to claim the English throne.)
On Nov. 30 in the 1,525-seat Harris Theater for Music and Dance on the edge of Chicago’s Millennium Park, music director Jane Glover and the first-rate Music of the Baroque Orchestra and Chorus offered a nimble, incisive, and altogether compelling take on this sweeping oratorio. Glover brought supple phrasing, rhythmic clarity, and propulsive drive to her interpretation, capturing the work’s bountiful emotional range from the pathos of the opening chorus, “Mourn, ye afflicted children,” to the rousing final “Hallelujah!” chorus, which does not top its famed counterpart in Messiah but is memorable enough in its own regard. Although the 32-piece orchestra (composed of Lyric Opera Orchestra members and other area musicians) played modern instruments, they performed with a well-ingrained period sensibility, which included less vibrato and a lighter, transparent sound. Stephen Alltop, one of Chicago’s best and busiest keyboardists, supplied solid continuo on organ and harpsichord, with Glover contributing as well during some of the recitatives, playing a second harpsichord positioned on 1-foot-tall blocks so that she could stay standing.
That Glover and her forces were at home in this music comes as little surprise. The British conductor has given Handel’s oratorios an unusually prominent place on Music of the Baroque’s concert schedule since she took over as music director in 2002. Indeed, during her tenure, the ensemble has performed six of the works, including Israel in Egypt and Hercules, plus the composer’s pastoral opera, Acis and Galatea. The organization first presented Judas Maccabaeus in 2006 under principal guest conductor Nicholas Kraemer, and this second outing provided Glover her chance to take the helm.
Judas Maccabaeus is sometimes criticized for its seeming emphasis on talk over drama, and it is true that Thomas Morell’s libretto might have been helped by more closely following the old journalistic dictum, “Show, don’t tell.” But in truth, most such complaints likely derive from the oratorio being held to the impossible standard of Messiah. Examined on its own terms, this work is a masterpiece by just about any measure. High points abound, such as the chorus, “See, the conqu’ring hero comes!” which Handel originally wrote in 1747 for his subsequent oratorio, Joshua, but inserted several years later into Judas Maccabaeus following its popularity. The Anima-Glen Ellyn Children’s Chorus offered a spirited performance of this section and then were joined by the adult chorus, which added an extra jolt of electricity.
The clear stand-out among the soloists was Thomas Cooley, who is serving as Music of the Baroque’s 2015-16 artist-in-residence. The tenor brought a commanding presence and storyteller’s sensibility to the title role of Judas Maccabaeus, injecting energy and expressiveness into every line. He possesses a distinctive, wonderfully natural voice with a lilting falsetto top and ample bottom as well as multifaceted, subtly delineated vocal timbres across his entire range. Cooley had many strong moments, such as his character’s call to arms during a recitative in Part 1, “Resolve, my sons, on liberty, or death!”
Mezzo-soprano Meg Bragle effectively handled the role of the Israelitish Man, and bass-baritone Eric Owens was strong and sure as Simon, the smallest of the four main solo parts. Soprano Yulia Van Doren has a silvery, nicely rounded soprano voice, but she did not mine the emotional depths of her part as the Israelitish Woman; for example, she failed to convey the full sense of “desponding woe” her character sings of during an air in Part II. It was not until the chorus repeated her lines that the audience felt their full impact.
Members of the chorus took the four smaller solo parts. Deserving particular note was Amanda Koopman, a mezzo-soprano with an appealingly amber-tinged voice. Displaying self-assurance and fine technique, she made the most of her limited time in the spotlight as the Israelitish and First messengers.
But as it should have been, the 26-voice chorus was the real star of this concert, delivering unerring intonation, consummate blend, and unstoppable energy. Especially noteworthy were the soaring, sometimes haunting upper lines of the high sopranos. There were high points aplenty: the ebullient celebration of victory in “Sing unto God,” the contrasts in dynamic and tempo in “Fall’n is the foe,” with Glover weaving back and forth as she urged the chorus on in the most ardent parts of this section, and the swirling, emphatic repetition of “never, never” in “We never, never will bow down.”
While the Music of the Baroque certainly excels at other repertoire as well, this stirring version of Judas Maccabaeus confirms the organization’s place as one of the leading performers of Handel’s oratorios in the United States.
Kyle MacMillan recently marked his 25th anniversary as a music critic and reporter. After serving 11 years as fine arts critic for the Denver Post, he is now a freelance journalist in Chicago, where he contributes regularly to the Chicago Sun-Times and writes for such national publications as Opera News and The Wall Street Journal.