Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

July 21, 2010

Judas Maccabeus

Berkshire Choral Festival, Sheffield, MA
July 17, 2010
By Terry Larsen

Handel's career encompassed the zenith and decline of opera in the Baroque period and the instigation of a new form, the English Oratorio - a genre of dramatic musical production that sets stories from the Hebrew Bible in epic musical narrative performed by orchestra, soloists, and the innovative element - a large chorus. "Judas Maccabeus" (1746) celebrates the victories of Jewish uprisings under the leadership of Judas Maccabeus against the Seleucid Empire in 165 BC and the subsequent restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem.

One of the pleasant surprises in the performance was the dynamic balance achieved between vocal soloists, an instrumental ensemble of 40 or so players provided by the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, and the more than 200 voices of the Berkshire Choral Festival. Details of phrasing, dynamic contrasts, word accents, precision of attack and clarity of line, particularly in the extended polyphonic sections, were very evident to the large, appreciative audience.

The ensembles were very well-prepared, some lack of precision on a few attacks and releases notwithstanding. The Chorus sang with gusto and attention to detail; however, balances among sections were not always ideal and a rather bright choral timbre did not always deliver the goods on the more bombastic passages despite the size of the ensemble. The six soloists made contributions that ranged from the beautiful timbres and expressive singing of Leslie Fagan and Charlotte Daw Paulsen (both of whom may have stolen the show), Jason Hardy, and Richard Giarusso, to the more perplexing efforts of Scott Ramsay whose technique did not always seem sufficient to the requirements of the part, and Matthew Shaw, whose lovely counter-tenor timbre was undermined by some poor intonation and the tendency to force the voice in its highest register.

The sheer length of "Judas Maccabeus" (64 section numbers) provides a distinct challenge to performers and audiences alike. Maestro Ferlesch kept the production moving. He led with an economy of gesture while producing attention to detail that is sometimes not found in performances of large works. An evening spent with the BCF is time well spent and highly recommended.