Music

Historic achievement

Handel's 'Judas Maccabaeus' concerts are rare and a first in Taos

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Taos Community Chorus does not require an audition or the ability to read music to join. Although Taos already has a deep talent pool, it doesn't matter if you haven't sung since your days in that college rock band, or you are a morning songbird in the shower. The only requirement for membership is that you show up for practice every week for two and a half hours. Remarkably, for 39 years, the TCC has presented polished performances of challenging material to ovations and standing-room-only audiences.

Anna Mae Patterson, a TCC member and self-described "quasi-historian," said the upcoming concert of Handel's "Judas Maccabaeus" is rare and a first in Taos. The oratorio is about the Jewish struggle for religious freedom, and the music evokes heartbreak, passion, purpose and victory against all odds. Performances are planned Saturday and Sunday (May 12-13), 3 p.m., at St. James Episcopal Church 208 Camino de Santiago.

Tickets are $20, $15 seniors, and free to youth 18 and under (the print edition of Tempo listed the admission incorrectly).

Two concerts took place last weekend at First Presbyterian Church of Taos.

"Judas Maccabaeus," composed in 1746, is an oratorio in three acts. The events take place from 170-160 BC when Judea, ruled by the Seleucid Empire, set out to destroy the Jewish religion. Ordered to worship Zeus, many Jews obeyed under the threat of persecution

An elderly priest named Mattathias defied the Empire and killed a fellow Jew who was about to offer a pagan sacrifice. Mattathias then destroyed the pagan altar and retreated to the nearby hills to gather others in the fight for their faith. Judas Maccabaeus, the son of Mattathias and their leader, won the temple in Jerusalem back by 164 BC. Handel's music depicts the emotional roller coaster of the Jewish people in this epic journey, from darkness to sweet victory.

Erik Brunner, TCC's music director wrote this in his conductor notes about the work, "I am personally very fond of this great choral work. It is hardly ever performed in modern times; to my mind a very significant loss to the listening public. Handel's fabulously inventive composition is analogous in scope and concept to the great epic movies of Cecil B. DeMille in the 1950s and 60s."

Patterson continued, "The performance of Judas Maccabaeus is timely because of the rise in anti-Semitism in the world and because there is a long history of the religious struggle in the human experience. We need to call attention to this struggle. This is not just a musical challenge but also a call to be sensitive to issues and the impulse for justice in our time. This is important in Taos where we have so much spiritual diversity, and we are just learning to listen to each other."

Claire Detels, the pianist and assistant choir director, is a musicologist and taught music history for 25 years before settling in Taos four years ago. Detels said this concert program is historically speaking, "very exciting. London audiences (in the mid-1700s) had just experienced the revolutionary attempts of a takeover. They were ready to celebrate a victory in the music. There is joy, elation and triumph." The Jacobite rebellion had finally been ended by a British government victory at the Battle of Culloden.

She continued, "As a choir, we are focused on mastering the music. This is a long piece, with 20 to 30 different choruses each with a different rhythm, melody, diction and pronunciation to learn...it's a labor of love for these unpaid [TCC] volunteers."

She said preparing for the performances goes far beyond learning the notes. "It goes to making a performance effective, one that will leave the audience thinking and talking about it long after it is over."

Taos native and tenor soloist Salman Lee is excited to perform the role of Judas Maccabaeus. "This is the most epically tenor heroic music I've worked on in my life ... I am a queer man. This is so beautiful as a singer and as a human being to explore a viral masculine part of yourself...I'm loving it."

Lee said he was "moved to tears and goosebumps and jumping out of my seat listening to the choir during rehearsals. If you're prone to be moved by classical music, this will move you. This music showcases the virtuoso talents of Handel as a composer...with a completely different plot. I prefer it over his more famous Messiah."

Featured soloists for the concerts include Taos alto singer Julia Armstrong, Albuquerque bass singer Paul Bower, Los Alamos bass Tjett Gerdom and Jennifer Perez, a soprano from Albuquerque. Instrumentalists for the concerts include Taos cellist Rebecca Caron and Vickie Ford on the harpsichord.

For more information, call the venue at (575) 758-2790.

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