October 19, 2018

Handel’s ‘Judas Maccabaeus’ comes to Wilshire Blvd. Temple

Although George Frideric Handel’s oratorio “Judas Maccabaeus” has come to be associated with Chanukah, it actually never touches on the miracle that the holiday commemorates: that a single day’s worth of oil lasted eight days. Yet Handel’s celebration of Judah Maccabee and the Israelites, who triumphantly fought off the religiously oppressive Syrian-Greeks, forms a powerful backdrop to the story. 

The Maccabees’ victory in 165 B.C.E. allowed the Jews to cleanse and rededicate the Temple in Jerusalem. And because “Chanukah” means rededication, the performance on Dec. 6 of Handel’s English-language oratorio at Wilshire Boulevard Temple by the UCLA Chorale with the UCLA Philharmonia, from the Herb Alpert School of Music, is perfectly timed for the first night of the holiday. The concert begins at 4 p.m. and will be followed by a menorah-lighting, refreshments and a sing-along. The event is free, but RSVPs are recommended.

Handel, who always had his finger on the pulse of the concert-going public, composed his 1746 oratorio — a quasi-opera for soloists, choir and instruments, often giving prominence to the chorus — to honor the Duke of Cumberland’s victory that year over the Scottish army of Charles Stuart. Following its premiere in London in 1747, the work became an immediate hit. But, over time, Handel’s “Messiah” overshadowed “Judas Maccabaeus,” placing it in relative obscurity, which makes this upcoming concert something of a welcome rarity.

According to Neal Stulberg, a UCLA professor and director of orchestral studies, Handel’s text painting may be more consistently dramatic and vivid in his other popular oratorios, such as “Messiah” and “Israel in Egypt.” But “Judas Maccabaeus” has a unique power of its own.  

“The music is first-class Handel,” Stulberg said, “and the libretto by Thomas Morell gives Judas a deep character with great personality.”

An epic oratorio with big gestures, “Judas” also offers an intimate portrait of a reluctant hero. “Judas takes every opportunity to deflect praise and responsibility,” Stulberg said. “While he’s glorified as a great warrior, he’s always insisting it’s God’s work.” 

Stulberg, who directs the UCLA Philharmonia in this production, said a decision was made to trim the first act from the three-act oratorio and not to do the repeats in Handel’s score. A full production would run more than three hours.

“The first part sets the stage for the revolt,” Stulberg said, “the degradation of the Israelites. The second part begins after the battle’s won, with further ups and downs in their experience, and the third part celebrates the rededication of the Temple.” 

The production features six UCLA graduate vocal students in the solos, with two tenors  — Nathan Granner and Thomas Thompson — splitting duties in the role of Judas. The UCLA Choral Union, including some 100 singers, will be directed by Lesley Leighton, associate conductor of the Los Angeles Master Chorale.

Because the oratorio includes many potentially repetitive-seeming hymns of praise, either to God or Judas Maccabaeus, Leighton’s task is to keep this “Judas” moving along. 

“I add dynamics, phrase arcs and stresses on certain words,” Leighton said, providing a glimpse of the concentrated thought that goes into preparing a chorus for Handel’s oratorio. “This is also part of observing the performance practice of the era.”

Leighton said she especially likes two minor key movements in “Judas Maccabaeus”: the moving dirge “Ah, wretched, wretched Israel” and “We never will bow down.”

“There is such triumph in the text of the latter,” Leighton said, “and both of these movements have beautiful melodies.”

For Stulberg, highlights of “Judas Maccabaeus” also include the second act’s “Sound an Alarm,” which he called “as stirring a call to action as any in music,” and “Oh lovely, peace, with plenty crown’d,” a pastoral duet between Israelite Man and Israelite Woman featuring flutes.

Stulberg said that though “expression is the most important thing,” he’s been working with the UCLA Philharmonia musicians, striving for playing that is informed by period Baroque practice. “I’m encouraging the musicians to take a lighter approach, creating a fleeter sound.” 

Mark Kligman, inaugural holder of the Mickey Katz Endowed Chair in Jewish Music at UCLA, called “Judas Maccabaeus” an important piece for the Jewish community, not only because Israeli schoolchildren sing the Hebrew version of the Part III chorus, “See the conqu’ring hero comes!” at Chanukah time. 

“Judas is a recognizable Jewish hero, reluctant to go to war,” Kligman said. “His wise second-act aria, ‘How vain is man who boasts in fight,’ with its B section, ‘and dreams not that a hand unseen directs and guides this weak machine’ shows a man of great introspection and reflection who knows it’s about looking after the well-being of a people who are being assailed for trying to worship one God.

“It’s a glorious piece of music, but it’s a rarity today. For us as Jews, making this extraordinary work come alive, putting it back into our consciousness, reminds us to be proud of our history and heritage.”

For more information about the performance of “Judas Maccabaeus” at Wilshire Boulevard Temple,