Glover set to launch Music of the Baroque season with a Handel rarity

By Wynne Delacoma, Chicago Classical Review
September 15, 2022

Thinking big hasn’t been easy for any arts organization in recent years, thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic.

So it’s exhilarating to see Music of the Baroque opening its new season this weekend with one of Handel’s most expansive and rarely performed oratorios, Jephtha.

Celebrating her 20th anniversary as MOB music director, Jane Glover conducts the orchestra, vocal soloists and chorus. Tenor David Portillo is out front on the title role with soprano Lauren Snouffer as Jephtha’s daughter Iphis, backed by soloists mezzo-soprano Clara Osowski, countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, bass-baritone Neal Davies and soprano Katelyn Lee. Music of the Baroque’s new chorus director, Andrew Megill, prepared the vocal ensemble.

Handel was a man of the theater, and like most of his oratorios, the Biblical Jephtha story is highly dramatic. Begging God for a battlefield victory, Jephtha promises to sacrifice the first person he sees when he returns home in triumph. That person turns out to be his beloved daughter, Iphis. The ensuing drama pits Jephtha’s faith in God against his love of family.

Music of the Baroque has presented Jephtha twice, in 1974 and 1988 under MOB founder Thomas Wikman. About a decade ago, Glover conducted a staged version at the National Opera of Bordeaux in France.

“Like so many of Handel’s oratorios,” she said, “it works well theatrically because he’s so good at telling stories and building characters.”

Jephtha has been on Glover’s MOB wish list since she arrived in 2002. She is clearly in love with the oratorio, which had its premiere in 1752, seven years before Handel’s death at age 74.

“It’s so human, this piece,” she said. “It was Handel’s final oratorio. He was then fighting blindness, literally struggling to see, to put notes on paper. The whole process of composition was very tortuous for him. There is this constant feeling of struggling against some higher, non-human force, in this case his blindness and also the results of Jephtha’s vow.”

Containing some of Handel’s most profound music, she said, the oratorio reflects all the composer had learned about human nature and music itself during his long, productive life.

“One of the most beautiful arias Handel ever wrote is ‘Waft her, angels, through the sky’— which, by the way, I want sung at my funeral,” Glover said with a laugh. “It’s one of those arias that is incredibly moving on all possible levels, not least because this is Jephtha singing about the daughter he has just now condemned to death. It’s the father’s grief, but it’s also heavily tinged with guilt. And it’s also spectacularly, exquisitely beautiful, one of Handel’s greatest.”

“And the choruses are amazing,” she said. “Our audience is going to be loving all that. These are tough and vibrant and demanding choruses.”

Glover had discussed doing Jephtha with William Jon Gray, MOB’s chorus director from 2010 to 2019. A respected colleague, he died in July at age 66.

“We always talked about doing the big Handel oratorios,” she said wistfully, “but somehow we never did. You know, they’re expensive and they’re also long. I’ve had to be fairly brutal in my cutting of [Jephtha], which I hate to do. But otherwise we’d be there all night.” (She estimates a running time under three hours including intermission.)

After having had no chorus director for more than two years, Glover is happy to be working with Megill who officially took the position in May. They had worked together over the years, including a production of Mark Morris’s ballet set to the Handel’s oratorio L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato in New York. Professor of conducting and choral studies at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, Megill helped prepare the MOB chorus for a few programs before officially becoming chorus director earlier this year.

Jephtha is a very dramatic piece,” he said. “It’s not technically too difficult, although it’s extremely varied. The chorus plays character roles, and almost every time they sing, they’re playing a different character or state of mind.”

But even in concert performances like MOBs, he said, the drama is gripping.

“Handel didn’t expect Jephtha to be staged, so he’s really built everything you need into the music itself. The music is wildly imaginative; you can very quickly adapt to what the emotion is. It’s one of Handel’s great gifts.

“There’s an incredible sense of directness about his drama. We don’t have to make anything up or act in a particular way. It’s like an actor with a really great script. When you’re doing Shakespeare and you understand the words, that does so much of the work for you.”

For this month’s performances Glover is approaching Jephtha like the hybrid it is.

“It won’t be in any way staged or semi-staged,” she said, “but I think one can do so much with intent, with just the way people look at each other. I don’t think we’ll try and do any movement because you know, that can be quite twee, that mincing about. In general I hate traffic on a concert platform; you get clumping shoes and people moving music stands out of the way.

“From day one we are rehearsing it very much like an opera. We’re just going to be sitting around a table, doing table talk. It won’t be me teaching a singer and then another singer. We’re going to do it all together because it’s such a dramatic story and such a dramatic experience.”

Music of the Baroque performs Handel’s Jephtha 7:30 p.m. Sunday at the North Shore Center in Skokie and 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Harris Theater.