Kevin Bazzana: Joshua an exploration of Handel oratorios beyond Messiah

Victoria, like many other conspicuously English cities, has historically had a robust choral life in which Handel’s English-language oratorios have figured prominently. That’s no surprise: Handel was already an honorary Englishman in his lifetime and has remained one ever since. (He was born “Händel,” but dropped the umlaut after moving to London.)

Of course, when we speak of “Handel oratorios” here, we mean, mostly, Messiah, that inevitable fixture of Christmas programming. Every December, at least two or three local organizations program a version of it: conventional, historically informed, sing-along, Mozart’s arrangement.

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The Victoria Choral Society, in fact, was formed in 1934 for the express purpose of singing Messiah, and it has performed the work 61 times to date, most recently last year; its 62nd performance will come around this December.

Fortunately, other Handel oratorios can be heard here with some frequency. The Victoria Philharmonic Choir, for instance, has performed three oratorios besides Messiah, beginning in 2007 with a provocative, controversial staging of Samson set in Jerusalem in 1946, with the titular Biblical hero portrayed as an Israeli suicide bomber. It subsequently performed Israel in Egypt and Theodora.

Since 2010, most of the Victoria Conservatory of Music’s summer vocal academies have culminated in a complete Handel oratorio, including Judas Maccabaeus (twice), Solomon, Jephtha and Athalia.

And the CapriCCio Vocal Ensemble, in addition to offering many a Messiah, gave a performance of Solomon in 1994 that was sponsored by Munro’s Books in celebration of its 30th anniversary.

The Victoria Choral Society has performed only one other complete Handel oratorio, Samson, in 1947 and 1971, and as Brian Wismath, the VCS’s music director, admits, “we’ve been overdue to explore other Handel oratorios.”

Since he became music director in 2012, Wismath has been leading the VCS toward a more catholic and adventurous repertoire — for instance, programming a considerable number of pieces by contemporary composers, and commissioning some new music. He has not ignored big monuments of the standard choral repertoire, but has also programmed less familiar works: Mendelssohn’s Lobgesang (a.k.a. Symphony No. 2), a Mass by Joseph Rheinberger, pieces by Orff and Copland.

On Tuesday, Wismath will expand his choir’s — and our city’s — repertoire of Handel oratorios to include Joshua, which is one of the most successful of Handel’s later oratorios, though it’s no longer performed often or ranked very highly. Tuesday’s performance, indeed, will be its Victoria première — perhaps, Wismath says, the first performance of it anywhere in B.C.

Joshua was composed quickly in the summer of 1747 and first performed at Covent Garden, in London, on March 9, 1748. The three-part, two-hour-long “sacred drama” has a libretto drawn from the Book of Joshua. It tells of the Israelites, under Joshua’s leadership, crossing the Jordan River into the “promised land” of Canaan and battling victoriously against the cities of Jericho, Ai, and Debir. Softening this militaristic story is the (made-up) romance of a young soldier, Othniel, and his betrothed, Achsah.

Handel was 62, at the height of his creative powers, when he composed Joshua, and his score is full of splendours. The battle scenes in Part 2, for instance, stirred his imagination (and impressed Haydn at a 1791 performance), while Part 3 includes two of his greatest hits: the moving chorus “See, the conqu’ring hero comes!” and the perky soprano aria “Oh, had I Jubal’s lyre.” So popular was the chorus that Handel added it to Judas Maccabaeus, which had had its première the year before — and it’s in that more popular oratorio that we most often hear this chorus.

On Tuesday, the more than 120 singers of the VCS (representing Israelites, the Tribe of Judah, youths and virgins) will be joined by four vocal soloists and a 34-piece orchestra mostly comprising regular members of the Victoria Symphony. (The orchestration of Joshua is unusually grand and lavish by Handel’s standards.)

The vocal soloists are some of Victoria’s best singers: the internationally acclaimed soprano (and early-music specialist) Nancy Argenta as Achsah; countertenor Zachary Windus as Othniel; the outstanding young tenor Isaiah Bell as Joshua; and baritone Nathan McDonald as Achsah’s father, Caleb.


What: Victoria Choral Society: Handel’s Joshua

When/where: Tuesday, May 9, 7:30 p.m., Christ Church Cathedral.

Tickets: $30 adults, students and unwaged $10. Call 250-383-2714; in person at Ivy’s Bookshop, Munro’s Books and the cathedral office.

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