Saratoga Voices opened their season Friday night with a striking performance of Handel’s oratorio “Judas Maccabaeus” at Universal Preservation Hall. It was also the first concert the group has given since they changed their name from the Burnt Hills Oratorio Society.
The two-hour show was quite an undertaking for the 63-member chorus, the seven local soloists, the two guest soloists, and the 20-piece orchestra all conducted by artistic director William Jon Gray.
Like all 25 of Handel’s other oratorios, this one had an English libretto, which Thomas Morell wrote in the 18th century. Gray adapted some of the three acts to allow for a continuous performance without intermission. He did give some time for a “stretching break” to the very large crowd midway through.
To most of the audience, including this reviewer, this oratorio, which debuted in 1746, is unfamiliar as there have been few local performances — unlike Handel’s “Messiah,” which usually gets annual outings ever since it debuted in Dublin in 1742. But Handel’s wealth of spirited orchestral writing, vocal arias of moving sentiment, and his use of the chorus often in action scenes were all present.
All the players and chorus were seated at floor level with the chorus surrounding the orchestra like a horseshoe. Gray, who also played harpsichord, stood in front of the group. Soloists came and went to stand next to him to sing — an organizational scheme that was followed closely.
The hall’s excellent acoustics allowed the entire chorus to sound mellow and well balanced at mid-volumes, although they were less connected at fast-paced segments especially when the sopranos had to reach for the high notes at full volume. The chorus’ diction, however, was exemplary.
The local soloists, which included sopranos Sylvia Stoner, Carla Fisk, Ashley Manocchi, and Jean Leonard; mezzo-soprano Tess McCarthy; tenor Casey Gray and baritone Siddarth Dubey, were all solid with some more expressive than others depending on the text. They also did well with the often difficult melismatic singing, which involves a particular degree of vocal agility to cover all the notes in tempo. Among the many arias, recitatives and airs that were sung, some were especially noteworthy. These included Stoner’s “O let eternal honours…” for her sly theatrics; Fisk’s “Ah wretched, wretched Israel,” which was particularly moving with its beautiful melody and her sustained lines; most of Gray’s solos, which were always well controlled, fluid and clean; McCarthy’s “So rapid thy Course” for her spirited delivery and focused attack.
The two guest artists were tenor Thomas Cooley as Judas and baritone Jesse Blumberg as his brother Simon. Both gave ringing performances with strong phrasing, excellent melismatic singing, animated delivery and great precision. The orchestra, too, was outstanding. Bassoonist Gerald Lanoue had several great solos and concertmaster Ann-Marie Barker Schwartz did well with the one solo she had with Blumberg. Everyone was in sync with the Baroque style, which meant little or no vibrato. Gray kept the pace moving, rarely lingering between sections. Tempos were always upbeat; cues were on track and balances between the chorus and orchestra steady.
The crowd, which had been rapt throughout, responded with “bravos” and a standing ovation.