Miami Valley Symphony Orchestra presents Judas Maccabeus
When it comes to George Frederic Handel and the holidays, the “Messiah” is king (no pun intended), at least, in the 21st century. Back in Handel’s day, Judas Maccabeus was all the rage among oratorio lovers. Composed five years after the Messiah, in 1747, the oratorio recounts the story of Hanukkah.
The Sunday, Nov. 24 performance to be held at the Dayton Masonic Center is a joint effort by the Miami Valley Symphony Orchestra, the newly recreated Miami Valley Symphony Chorus, the Yellow Springs Community Chorus and several area soloists in the lead roles.
“It was the desire of the MVSO board to do a work like this that was not often performed, but has a great meaning to a large portion of the community,” said David Deitrick, MVSO Director and Conductor of the Judas Maccabeus performance. “It’s important that it gets out there and people hear it.”
A work for orchestra and voice, Judas Maccabeus follows the title character as he leads the revolt against the Seleucid Greeks, a story found in the Book of the Maccabees. The victory won during this revolt, particularly the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, is the foundation of the Hanukkah celebration. With support from the Miriam Rosenthal Foundation, the MVSO has partnered with the Jewish Cultural Arts and Book Festival to present the work during the Hanukkah season.
“Part of the interest in doing this had to do with performing it near the Hanukkah time,” Deitrick said. “Everyone knows the Messiah, it gets performed every year. But this is also a very fine work by Handel, and it doesn’t get performed nearly as often.”
Judas Maccabeus is a work in three parts that calls for a large number of chorus members, a full orchestra and a keyboardist. Pulling the project together has been no small feat for the leadership. “This has been a large undertaking for a community orchestra like the MVSO because it didn’t have an established chorus,” said Deitrick. The chorus of nearly 100 members, under the leadership of Wittenberg University Music Instructor and Springfield Symphony Chorale Conductor Basil Fett, was created specifically for this performance.
“Basil is doing an amazing job with the chorus,” Deitrick continued. “He’s having to put this together from scratch.” Both the chorus and orchestra have been rehearsing the piece since September. “We wanted a head start, so we would be in good shape for the performance,” he said.
The sheer amount of rehearsing is no small feat for MVSO members, who are all volunteers. “Some are professionals and some just do it because they love to do it,” Deitrick said.
The oratorio requires seven soloists in addition to the chorus members. “The orchestra auditioned some wonderful people,” Deitrick said. “We’re very excited about the soloists that are performing in this.” Performers include tenor Daniel C. Stein in the lead role and MVSO guest artist Dr. Minnita Daniel-Cox as the soprano soloist.
Oratorio is similar to opera in that it combines orchestra and voice, but it differs in subject matter and presentation. Oratorios are generally presented as concert pieces, not elaborately staged productions full of “spear carriers,” wild costumes and scenery. The subject matter is usually a Biblical or sacred theme. So, if you’ve never seen an oratorio, take note. Judas Maccabeus is quite user-friendly to classical newbies.
“Handel did most of the composing that we know in English, and he wrote for the English audience,” Deitrick said. “This was originally written in English, […] which helps people understand the words that are being sung. It certainly makes it more approachable.”
The musical mood established by the piece, along with the actual words sung, is essential to moving the story along.
“Under the empire, which won’t let [the characters] worship, there is mourning and despair,” Deitrick said. “Then gradually, as the insurrection against the empire unfolds, they’re victorious in the end. […] The music tells that story.”
With such a large group, there are plenty of musical elements to listen for, especially choral elements. “The music goes back and forth between the soloists and the chorus throughout the performance,” Deitrick said. “The opening overture is orchestra only, there’s a march toward the end that’s orchestra only, but most of the time is the soloists and the chorus performing on the same piece, on the same movement with the orchestra.”
One of the best-known pieces from Judas Maccabeus is “See the Conquering Hero Comes.” Numerous other composers, including Ludwig van Beethoven, have adapted the piece. Listen for it in Part Three of the oratorio.
“The orchestra works hard, and they love putting on music like this,” Deitrick said. “I’m sure they’re going to carry their passion and enthusiasm into this performance.”
The Miami Valley Symphony Orchestra will perform Judas Maccabeus on Sunday, Nov. 24 at 3 p.m. at the Dayton Masonic Center, 525 W. Riverview Ave. Rabbi David Sofian of Temple Israel will give a pre-concert talk beginning at 2:45 p.m. For ticket and additional information, please visit mvso.org.