Critic's Pick: The Pacific Symphony and Chorale's production of Handel's 'Judas Maccabaeus'

"Judas Maccabaeus" is the Hanukkah "Messiah."

Or it would be if choral groups had an equal-oratorio policy with Handel. Such a policy, in addition, would give us regular airings of another 23 Handel oratorios, all late works (the composer turned to oratorio when the opera business in London went bust) and all of exceptional quality.

This year, though, the Pacific Symphony and Chorale, conducted by John Alexander, are offering a major "Judas Maccabaeus" on Sunday, the fourth day of the eight-day holiday that celebrates the victorious Maccabean revolt by 2nd century Judean Jews against the Seleucid Empire.

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A devout Christian, Handel was not, of course, thinking Hanukkah when he rapidly scribbled down the oratorio in a month's time in 1746, five years after he composed "Messiah." Ironically, the new oratorio celebrated the English army's crushing of a rebel attack against the Duke of Cumberland when his librettist, the Rev. Thomas Morell, came up with the idea of suggesting that the duke belonged in the company of the "Nine Worthies" to which Judas was said to belong. Another irony is that the oratorio was meant as a Lenten season work.

Nevertheless, "Judas Maccabaeus," while more reflective than action-packed in this version, is the story Jews tell, and the music is full of Handel's usual wonders. Judas and his brother Simon are the only dramatic characters, but the composer of "Royal Fireworks Music" has little trouble finding song for firing up the forces. 

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The most moving music, however, can be found in the commentary by an Israelite man and woman (both sung by women). That includes the famously serene aria "Father of Heav'n," a specialty of the great British contralto Kathleen Ferrier, whose recording of it could put the most agitated heart at ease better than even a generous dose of Prozac.

And easing the agitated heart may be the best gift of all for the holiday season.

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