Music of the Baroque provides spirited advocacy for Handel rarity

By Lawrence Johnson, Chicago Classical Review
December 01, 2015

This is the season when Handel’s Messiah becomes omnipresent among choral programs. Even the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is getting into the act this year with rare subscription performances to be led by Bernard Labadie next week.

Give Music of the Baroque credit for clever counter-programming by instead serving up Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus, which was performed Monday night at the Harris Theater.

Written in 1745 to celebrate the Duke of Cumberland’s victory over the rebellious “Bonnie Prince Charlie” at Culloden, the Biblical-inspired text draws upon the exploits of the heroic title Jewish general and his victory over the Syrians, making a kinda-sorta “Chanukah Oratorio.”

Judas Maccabaeus enjoyed nearly as much success in its day as Handel’s more celebrated oratorios. There is an abundance of varied and lilting melody in the composer’s characteristic vein, yet ultimately the music is not as memorable as that found in Samson, let alone Messiah. Thomas Morell’s awkward text doesn’t help, lacking cohesion and serving mainly as a series of disparate episodes rather than a dramatically unified work.

Even if Judas doesn’t quite hang together, Jane Glover made the strongest possible case for the rarely heard oratorio leading a vital and spirited performance, aided by outstanding choral singing and a superb cast of soloists Monday night at the Harris Theater.

Taking some judicious cuts, Glover elicited consistently responsive playing from the orchestra–vigorous in fast sections and finely nuanced in dynamics and coloring in the more somber moments.

As the title leader, Thomas Cooley brought a vibrant and forceful tenor to Judas. If some of his coloratura singing was more aggressive than nimble, Cooley was consistently strong of voice and alive to the text—ardent and elegant in “No unhallow’d desire” and delivering a clarion “Sound an alarm!”

It was luxury casting to have Eric Owens in the small role of Simon, the bass bringing operatic heft to “Arm, arm, ye brave!”

Along with the chorus of Israelites, much of the painting of the Jewish people’s plight falls to the Israelitish Man and Woman, performed by mezzo Meg Bragle and soprano Julia Van Doren.

Both women were exceptional in their solo and duetted moments, singing with expressive poise and crystal-clear enunciation. Bragle brought a natural ease and nobility to her arias and Van Doren conveyed her solos with a fresh, graceful quality. Van Doren’s deeply expressive rendering of “Ah! wretched, wretched Israel” was a highlight, plumbing a dark vein of feeling, aided by Craig Trompeter’s eloquent cello obbligato.

Under the direction of William Jon Gray, the  choral singing was first-class Monday night. As the Isarelite people, the MOB ensemble brought finely layered expression to “Fall’n is the foe,” defiant strength to “We never, never will bow down,” and joyous power to the final chorus.

The chorus’s bracing clarity and articulation in getting their voices around the wayward text was especially impressive, tackling such tortuous lines as “Judah disdains the galling load of hostile chains” at Glover’s fleet tempo. The young singers of Anima made a fine cameo appearance with their introductory chorus to “See, the conqu’ring hero comes!”

Music of the Baroque presents its holiday brass and choral program 8 p.m. December 17 at Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest; 8 p.m. December 18 at St. Michael’s Church in Chicago; and 3 p.m. December 19 and 20 at Divine Word Chapel in Northbrook.; 312-551-1414.