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Festival lingers on note of finality


There's a poignant story about Handel discovering that he could barely see out of his left eye - a precursor to his eventual blindness - just as he was setting to music these lines: "How dark, O Lord, are thy decrees/All hid from mortal sight."

The words were part of the text to "Jephtha," the last of his extraordinary string of 18 oratorios in English. That passage cannot help but sound deeply inspired. The score abounds in such moments of melodic beauty, affirming Handel's long-lasting powers - the gentle tenor aria, "Waft her, angels, through the skies" is probably the best known example.

True, there are creaky moments, when either the text or the music fails to stir the senses, but the rewards outnumber the dry spots.

For the past 20 years, the Maryland Handel Festival has been devoted to performing, in chronological order, the 17 oratorios with dramatic narratives; the contemplative "Messiah" was also included.

This remarkable project reached its termination Sunday with an often impressive account of the rarely encountered "Jephtha" at the new, inviting Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland, College Park. On Friday, the equally rare "Theodora" was performed there.

The bad news about the weekend's festival, which included symposiums with Handelian scholars, was that there are no plans for another, unless fresh funding is forthcoming. So there seemed to be an air of reluctant finality when Paul Traver, co-creating artistic director of the festival, kissed the score of "Jephtha" before taking a bow after conducting the performance.

Traver's devotion to the composer, which has earned him a loyal following over the decades, could be felt throughout the long afternoon - nearly three hours' worth of music.

There were details in the singing by the soloists and the University of Maryland Chorus and the playing by the Smithsonian Chamber Orchestra that needed to be tightened. And Traver could not get a wide range of dynamics from his forces; climactic points lacked forceful emphasis. But the conductor's basic rhythmic vitality had the oratorio unfolding with an increasingly affecting expressiveness.

"Jephtha," with a libretto by Thomas Morell, is based rather loosely on the biblical character who vows to sacrifice the first live thing that greets him after battle if he is victorious against Israel's enemy. Victory comes, and so, bearing congratulations, does his only child.

Handel taps Jephtha's despair in the aria "Open thy marble jaws, o tomb," delivered with arresting vividness by tenor Charles Reid, whose work all afternoon was characterized by musical eloquence. Sherri Karam sang the role of Jephtha's daughter, Iphis, in a bright, agile soprano.

Phillip Collister (Zebul), was the lush-toned baritone soloist, admirably attentive to articulation. Mezzo Leneida Crawford, as Storge, did vibrant, communicative work. Countertenor Derek Lee Ragin's soft-grained sound was not always effective, but his phrasing was always stylish.

Overall, the chorus demonstrated cohesiveness and sufficient agility; the women achieved an ethereal effect intoning the line "Cherub and Seraphim."

The Maryland Boy Choir handled its brief appearance artfully; too bad the kids had to remain in full view of the audience afterward, fidgeting, chatting and sleeping. Even allowing for occasional bumps, the orchestra of period instruments, including delectably subtle brass, re-created Handel's sound world with considerable flair.

Divine, sublime 'Requiem'

A late start of the "Jephtha" performance delayed my arrival at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Baltimore, where the Baltimore Choral Arts Society was presenting Faure's sublime "Requiem" and the local premiere of "Lux Aeterna" by California-based Morten Lauridsen.

I missed the first half of the Faure but heard enough to confirm my conviction that this is the city's leading choral group. Music director Tom Hall coaxed from these singers a warm, seamless blend that took on extra glow in the reverberant venue.

Articulation was sure, phrasing full of nuance and color; the concluding "In paradisum" movement seemed to float out of a celestial haze. Baritone soloist Robert Cantrell's contributions were elegantly shaped.

Although I can't share Hall's enthusiasm for "Lux Aeterna," with its gooey, movie-soundtrack style of easy melodies and comfortable chord progressions creating a "Cliche Aeterna," he fashioned a remarkably polished, heart-felt performance.

The singers maintained superb control and produced a gorgeous sound throughout. And, as in the Faure, the orchestra provided solid support for this finale to the Choral Arts Society's 35th season.

Here's to 35 more.

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