Regular readers will recall that most Chamber Singers of Iowa City concerts are performed on Sundays at 3:00 p.m., and that the spring concert is usually sung in May or June.  However, for the upcoming performance of Judas Maccabaeus, the concert date has been moved to April 25 at 7:00 p.m.  There is a reason, and it is a good one. 

The American Handel Society’s 2015 convention will be held that week at the University of Iowa, and the Chamber Singers have been invited to perform the gala closing event of the convention.  To allow for the expected large audience for this performance, the venue will be the expansive West High Auditorium.  Everyone is welcome to attend this performance. 

David Puderbaugh, music director, says, “All the Handel experts I’ve read in preparing for this concert will be in the audience that evening.”  That could give any director or singer pause; however, the Chamber Singers and maestro Puderbaugh are undaunted.  From the first rehearsal in February, the level of singing has been extraordinarily fine, with intense focus and attention to detail.  Though rehearsal dates are fewer than normal, the sound is already exquisite. 

For this performance, Puderbaugh has chosen a new edition by Merlin Channon based on Handel’s 1747 score plus, “See, the Conqu’ring Hero Comes” which Handel had originally intended for Joshua, and the famous and thrilling march. 

The libretto by Thomas Morell is taken from I Maccabees 1-8 and II Maccabees 5-15 in the Apocrypha.  According to Channon, “he also used additional material from Book 12 of Flavius Josephus’s The Antiquities of the Jews.

Handel was a master – perhaps the best – at tone painting, the technique of using music that helps the listener enter more deeply into the music by sounding like the emotion it is meant to evoke.  While with his most famous work, Messiah, Handel was using biblical texts to tell a religious story, inJudas Maccabaeus, there is certainly a religious context, but it is primarily a great story of heroism after crushing defeat at the hands of Israel’s oppressors.  

This is opera at its best, though un-staged.  Handel puts us at the heart of the action.  In the first chorus, “Mourn, ye afflicted children” we grieve deeply the loss of the of the nation’s leader.  The word “mourn” is repeated throughout, in halting pulses, sighs and catches in the breath that emphasize their terrible loss.  While the chorus sings “your friend and father is no more,” each vocal section repeats a descending musical line of broken chords in G-minor that are so heartbreaking as to be difficult to sing. 

Contrast the above with “We come in bright array,” which is as jubilant as “Mourn” is sorrowful, and we get another glimpse of Handel’s brilliance. 

For ticket information and more about Handel and this performance, please go to www.icchambersingers.org

James Petersen sings with the Chamber Singers of Iowa City, and has fallen wildly in love (again) with Handel’s music.