On a gloomy, dripping Sunday redolent of English weather, the Handel Week Festival 2005 offered a timeless message with their performance of Judas Maccabaeus at Grace Episcopal Church. It was the final event of the three-concert series, which ran here from Feb. 5 to Feb. 13.
Composed by George Frederick Handel in 1746, Judas Maccabaeus is a first-century BCE account of a Jewish leader who triumphed over the Syrians. The oratorio premiered before a Protestant audience of noble Londoners who were basking in the economic triumphs of England's global supremacy. Not yet at war with the pesky pioneers in North America, England, under the strong arm of the Duke of Cumberland, had just bullied the Scots into the jaws of defeat at Culloden. And like the victorious house of Israel with Judas Maccabaeus at the helm, the Brits were pleasantly delighted, perhaps even smug, in their superiority.
Handel approached this setting with his usual keen sense for both public taste and musical expression, which is why it's even worth writing about his 250-year-old oratorio today. He appealed to the human psyche by tempering magnificent songs of victory ("See, the conau'ring hero comes!") with stirring moments of abject defeat ("Ah! Wretched, wretched Israel!"), solemn admonitions to shun temptations ("Wise men, flatt'ring, may deceive us"), and solid psychology to chase your dreams with God's help ("Arm, arm ye brave!"). Handel supposedly lamented that the audiences who heard Judas Maccabaeus were swept up in the dazzling glory of trumpets and riveting vocal virtuosity (neither of which were absent from this performance), while missing the underlying cry for peace and freedom. In short, Judas Maccabaeus was more a paean to peace than a call to battle. Herein is the message for today.
The message was doubly strong because the performing forces?#34;the Handel Week Festival chorus and orchestra, and the Schola and Madrigal choirs of Grace Church, under the perceptive and enthusiastic direction of Artistic Director Dennis Northway?#34;executed the parade of arias, recitatives and choruses with intensity and vivid conviction.
This was not a performance where slips or musical weaknesses diverted attention from the greater artistic content. The musical foundation was entirely solid, from the steady continuo played by double bass and harpsichord to the soprano's sky-scraper arias surmounted splendidly and convincingly by Sarah Gartshore. The performance was a sincere telling of the Maccabee's conquest and engaged the audience to such a level that the second and final acts closed with "bravo" and "amen" shouted boldly amid the applause.
In a world where complacency and mundane routines too often permeate our days, it's refreshing to hear talented and well-rehearsed musicians who are visibly touched by the power of music, in turn touching those who listen. This is what great art, old or new, is all about.
Perhaps after hundreds of performances of Judas Maccabaeus over the centuries, Handel's cry for peace and freedom was finally heard in Oak Park. Commendations to the cadre of volunteers and professionals who have pursued the vision to recreate Handel's music with such a high degree of excellence for the past six years.
Cathryn Wilkinson, who first heard an excerpt from Judas Maccabaeus as a fourth-grade singer in a church choir festival, holds a Ph.D. in music theory from the University of Iowa School of Music and has taught at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh and Concordia University in River Forest. She'll be contributing reviews of local concerts from time to time.