Inclusion And Handel’s Conqu’ring Hero Light NY Hanukkah Concert

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Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, soprano Angel Blue, and members of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus performing with The Knights at Temple Emanu-El in New York. (Photos by Susan Brodie)

NEW YORK — In music circles, December means Messiah, and in New York City you can find a Messiah performance almost any day of the week. But Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Light, is also a prominent part of the city’s holiday traditions, celebrated with giant outdoor menorahs and latkes even on many goyische tables.

This year the biggest synagogue in town threw a free classical concert dubbed “Everlasting Light” — really, a Hanukkah party. Sponsored by a generous donor who personally greeted many of the 2,000 who packed Manhattan’s Temple Emanu-El’s Streicker Center, the mood was festive and the event a relaxed affair. The mixed program offered alternative Handel, with Judas Maccabaeus standing in for the seasonably ubiquitous Messiah, and a second half of more contemporary pieces on themes of inclusion and hope.

The talent was top-notch: countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, who curated and announced the program (there were no printed programs), soprano Angel Blue, and two Brooklyn-based ensembles, The Knights and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. The Knights, an orchestral collective incorporated 15 years ago, was an outgrowth of student chamber music reading sessions organized by the brothers Colin and Eric Jacobsen. Eric, a cellist, became the conductor, and Colin serves as concertmaster of the 39-member ensemble. Based in the same borough, the chorus founded 30 years ago and still directed by Dianne Berkun Menaker has expanded into a training organization for over 700 children per year, with several performing ensembles and, like The Knights, maintains a robust commitment to new music, including a commission heard on this occasion. 

Blue enjoys a rapidly widening operatic career, recently adding the prestigious Richard Tucker Award to her list of honors. Costanzo is possibly the best-known countertenor active today. His repertoire extends well beyond the obvious confines of Baroque music to contemporary works, with the title role in Philip Glass’ Akhnaten one of his signature assignments. His producing and cabaret experience made him especially suitable as the evening’s genial emcee.

The Brooklyn-based ensemble The Knights participated in ‘Everlasting Light,’ a Hanukkah program at New York’s Temple Emanu-El.

The music was introduced with a greeting from the rabbi, a hymn from the cantor, and brief commentary from a scholar about Judas Maccabaeus. Handel’s 1746 oratorio, written to commemorate the final repression of the Jacobite uprising at the Battle of Culloden, has become the de facto Hanukkah oratorio, because its second-century BCE events include the recapture of Jerusalem’s Second Temple from the Greek occupiers, when a single day’s supply of consecrated oil miraculously lasted for the eight days of rededication. There’s arguably as much delightful music in Judas as in Messiah, but with 68 numbers in the score, limited time, and only two soloists, a treble choir, and a small orchestra to perform it, choices had to be made.

The Knights struck up the overture, in typical slow-fast-slow French form, playing with delicate phrasing and restrained dynamics — an interpretation reflecting acoustical conditions? — and then welcomed the 39 young women representing the Brooklyn Youth Chorus to the front of the platform. What “See, the Conqu’ring Hero Comes” lacked in massive sound it made up for with the aching sweetness of the young voices and, no doubt, the familiarity of the tune. Chorus director Menaker conducted her singers from a separate music desk, coordinating with Jacobsen, who frequently turned to watch her from further back on the platform.

There followed a selection of lesser-known airs, duets, and choruses from the oratorio. Costanzo was more at home with Handel’s style and especially rapid passage work, but Blue’s pearly soprano soared beautifully in her andante arias, and the two were harmoniously in sync for their duets. To finish the Handel section, Blue sang the evergreen “Ombra mai fu,” from Handel’s Xerxes, and Costanzo delivered a brilliant aria with trumpet obbligato from Handel’s opera Amadigi di Gaula. Dramatically incoherent perhaps, but beautiful.

Eric Jacobsen, Anthony Rolf Costanzo, and Angel Blue with The Knights.

The second half sampled newer works and provided a more vivid showcase for the performers’ strengths. In Kodaly’s 1933 orchestral Dances from Galánta, The Knights relaxed and played with incisive energy, flexible tempi and characterful wind solos in each of the five dance sections. The young Brooklyn singers returned for a song from Philip Glass’ 1986 cycle Liquid Days. (Costanzo has also recorded a solo version of the piece). The simple, three-part setting, accompanied by The Knights, allowed for clear articulation of David Byrne’s wryly matter-of-fact text, which drew chuckles: “Love takes its shoes off and sits on the couch. Love has an answer for everything. Love crosses its legs…Love could use a shave.” This clearly well-loved piece was sung with confidence and enthusiasm.

Blue’s rendition of “Peculiar Grace” from Terance Blanchard’s admired Fire Shut Up in My Bones was probably familiar to many from last season’s well-sold Metropolitan Opera run. The soprano’s unforced, ruminative tone and her fluid gospel-like ornamentation floating over a halo of choral sound cast a spell.

Carlos Simon’s Another Rising was commissioned through the American Composers Orchestra, which provided performance opportunities during the early days of the pandemic. It had its premiere on Zoom in the spring of 2020; this was its first in-person performance. Costanzo’s quasi-improvisatory lines over the choral background infused the text — “There will be another rising…what waits for us in the unknown?” — with determined optimism during a time more uncertain than any of the Brooklyn singers had ever lived through.

The full company joined forces to end with “Somewhere” from West Side Story. This rousing hit had its usual effect and here felt like a musical version of the Jewish expression, “Next year in Jerusalem.”

As casual and imperfect as it was, the concert brought a range of high-quality music, well performed, to a substantial local audience with varied exposure to classical music. Waiting to enter the venue, I overheard remarks like, “Oh, it was something to do in the evening, and it was free.” My opera-loving guest was familiar with the soloists but had never heard of Kodaly, who was a revelation to her. The enthusiastic standing ovation at concert’s end suggested that taking music out of the exclusive confines of the concert hall and into the community works as well on Fifth Avenue as in the farthest outer boroughs.