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MUSIC AND DANCE REVIEWS : HANDEL’S ‘JEPHTHA’ AT ROYCE HALL

Any oratorio by Handel, including “Messiah,” presents major problems. When the oratorio is “Jephtha,” Handel’s last major work, the problems are compounded. The work is excessively long, it is so rarely performed that it has gathered few established traditions, and, while the music is glorious, it offers taxing hurdles to all concerned.

Robert Duerr, conducting his Pasadena Chamber Orchestra and Chorus plus soloists, solved most of the problems intelligently in Royce Hall on Friday night as the finale to the UCLA chamber orchestra series.

Duerr alleviated the problem of length by straight off cutting one hour from the performing time. Even the sizable chunk left eventually proved wearying, with a span of nearly three hours. The concert ended at 11:18 p.m. after an unexpected delay.

The audience and stage forces were in place to resume the concert after intermission when the Royce Hall fire alarm suddenly went into action with flashing red lights and an ear-splitting racket. A startled but unpanicked audience, orchestra and chorus filed out in orderly fashion. Someone had just pressed the wrong button.

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Duerr met the matter of numbers by reducing his chorus to six singers for each of the four parts, ranged across the back and sides of the stage surrounding the string orchestra and wind instruments.

Rather than disrupting, the false alarm actually seemed to inspire the performers. The first part had been neat and precise but a bit perfunctory. Back on stage again, the chorus sang with more color and spirit, and orchestra and soloists seemed bent on exceeding their previous record.

At all times, Duerr seemed to encourage his chorus to avoid both forcing its sound and insipidity. Everything was well adjusted as he conducted with confidence and authority and a deep feeling for both dramatic and musical elements of the score.

The soloists were far better equipped for their chores than is the habit among local choral activities. Seth McCoy sang the title role with his substantial tenor under firm control. Jeffrey Gall turned in a bravura performance with his countertenor in the role of Hamor. His astonishing range, long-breathed phrasing and clean coloratura suggested how the original castrato singer of the part must have sounded. Thomas Paul’s bass was ample in sound and creditably stylish, but often woolly in quality.

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Rarely do three such able sopranos grace the oratorio stage. Marietta Simpson, as Storge, opened up a large dramatic voice that only needs to iron out a few wrinkles. Penelope Jensen floated a pure but strong lyric voice in the best of musical taste. Susan Judy’s voice was ideal for the heavenly message of the angel.

Orchestra and chorus, including the Pasadena Boys Choir, all performed reliably, with every evidence of studious preparation. It was a profitable, if overlong, night for Handel.


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