George Fideric Handel is perhaps best known for his oratorio Messiah, which concludes with the famous Hallelujah chorus; in fact, however, many of his 27 oratorios were based on Old Testament themes, with an emphasis on Israelite historical figures.
One of those personages is Judah Maccabee, a hero of the Hannukah story. And yet, while I have heard the Messiah -- about Jesus -- countless times, I had never heard this very Jewish oratorio until this past Hannukah.
It was a doubly enjoyable performance because, for a change, everything was in languages we all understand: Hebrew and English. The oratorio is in English because it was written during the years Handel lived and worked in England, and wrote for British audiences. The Hebrew, meanwhile, was from Sefer HaMaccabbim -- the Book of Maccabees -- from which a narrator read excerpts that provided the historical context for the events described in the oratorio.
(The two volumes of the Maccabees is considered holy Scripture in many Christian traditions, and thus canonized in their Bibles, while the rabbis left it out of the Tanakh.)
The three-part oratorio is not a long piece, but it runs the gamut of musical and vocal expression: solos, duets, and choruses, alongside marches, airs, recitatives, and accompagnatos. It was sung by the Israeli Vocal Ensemble, under the baton of Music Director and Conductor Yuval Benozer.
The ensemble was accompanied by the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, while the performances took place in Haifa, Tel Aviv, and Raanana. In addition to the choir, the various roles were sung by soprano Daniela Skorka, alto Alon Harari, tenor Ron Silberstein, and bass Oded Reich. The narrator was actor Tomer Sharon.
The oratorio -- whose theme reflects the occasion for which it was written, in commemoration of a great English military victory -- boasts some familiar Handel motifs, culminating inappropriately triumphant and exuberant song. As a splendid representation of the work of a composer that rarely fails to delight, it deserves to be added to the repertoire of concerts held each year in celebration of the joyous holiday of Hannukah.
The Israeli Vocal Ensemble’s next series of concerts, scheduled for March, will feature choral adaptations of themes inspired by Johann Sebastian Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier.