Jane Glover Leads Music of the Baroque in Handel's Oratorio "Judas Maccabaeus"

By John Von Rhein, Chicago Tribune
November 30, 2015

Just about any holiday season, you can hardly turn around without bumping into multiple performances of Handel's "Messiah." But there are more than a few other worthy Handel oratorios audiences don't often get to hear, at any time of the year, and among them "Judas Maccabaeus" ranks very high.

So, good for Jane Glover for choosing Handel's beautiful and imposing work for her first concerts of the season with Music of the Baroque, and for the urgently dramatic performance she led with her chorus, orchestra and vocal soloists Sunday afternoon at a sold-out North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie. A repeat performance was scheduled Monday night at the Harris Theater in downtown Chicago.

"Judas Maccabaeus" (1746) was Handel's most popular oratorio during his lifetime, its vein of patriotism and relief suiting the mood of the British public following the Duke of Cumberland's bloody suppression of the Jacobite rebellion a year earlier. The libretto reduces the biblical plot to its bare bones: The oppressed Israelites defeat their conquerors, suffer a reverse, then defeat them again, and give thanks.

But the music of mourning, rousing calls to arms and rejoicing in victory give true Handelians (count me in that number) what we crave, and quite a lot of it.

By omitting seven sections that do nothing to advance the drama, Glover managed to hold the performance to a manageable 2 ½ hours, including a single intermission. The lithe, athletic quality of her approach honored "Judas" as a work of the theater, steering an informed midcourse between bombastic and overly tasteful. It helped greatly that Glover's performing forces — 26 choristers, with a somewhat larger orchestra — were in scale with both the size of the auditorium and her musical conception.

Adding greatly to the success was the new acoustical shell the North Shore Center management had installed earlier this fall to accommodate the needs of its star classical tenant and other groups. The shell enhances the auditorium visually and sonically. The sound is less dry, more pleasing to the ear, than before, helping the MOB chorus and solo singers to render the words clearly, without having to force.

Director William Jon Gray's chorus is a disciplined, finely responsive body of voices, rising with hearty vigor as much to the songs of praise as to the dirges of lamentation. The fugal textures of such big choruses as "We worship God, and God alone" and the final "Hallelujah! Amen" were admirably clarified, while the fresh young voices of the Anima — Glen Ellyn Children's Chorus enhanced the exultant mood of one of Handel's most familiar choruses, "See, the conqu'ring hero comes."

The orchestra, which Glover led from the harpsichord, played with full commitment, not least the obbligato trumpets and timpani that punctuated the stirring tenor air "Sound an alarm," in which Judas summoned his people to battle. The all-important continuo part was taken with their usual stylish expertise by Stephen Alltop, on harpsichord and organ, and Craig Trompeter, cello.

Heading a sturdy roster of soloists was tenor Thomas Cooley, a conquering hero in both voice and manner. Named artist in residence for MOB's 45th anniversary season, he sang with a clean, forward sound and a natural command of style. A superb technique allowed him to articulate the florid passages as musically as he did the more lyrical pages. Most important. there was a nobility of address in everything he sang.

Close behind in quality was soprano Yulia Van Doren as the Israelitish Woman. Her bright, expressive singing and crystalline diction conveyed a full measure of heartfelt emotion. The duets with mezzo-soprano Meg Bragle's Israelitish Man (Handel assigned the role to a female singer) brought a matching of vibrato and enunciation that were close to ideal. Bragle was a late substitute for Krisztina Szabo, who had withdrawn, and while her vocalism was always pleasing and musical, it sometimes felt rather faceless expressively.

Bass-baritone Eric Owens, in his MOB debut, thundered powerfully in Simon's "The Lord worketh wonders," commanding rock-solid low notes as needed. He also was strong and stirring in the bellicose summons, "Arm, arm, ye brave!" that roused the chorus of Israelites into the succeeding battle chorus. Owens was luxury casting indeed; too bad this fine artist didn't have more to sing.

Music of the Baroque will present a second performance of Handel's "Judas Maccabaeus" under Jane Glover's direction at 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph St.; $27-$75; 312-551-1414, baroque.org.

John von Rhein is a Tribune critic.


Twitter @jvonrhein