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An ambitious revival

Koerner Hall
05/03/2015 -  
Sir Hubert Hastings Parry: Judith
Shannon Mercer (Judith), Jillian Yemen (Meshullemeth), David Menzies (Manassah), Michael York (High Priest of Moloch, Messenger of Holofernes)
The Pax Christi Chorale and Orchestra, Boys from the St. Michael’s Choir School, Stephanie Martin (conductor)

S. Martin (Courtesy of Pax Christi Chorale)

Stephanie Martin has been music director of the Pax Christi Chorale since 1996 and has managed to unearth and perform this hugely ambitious work for her farewell concert.

Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry’s Judith was premiered at the Birmingham Choral Festival in 1888 under the direction of Hans Richter. Large choral works were all the rage, and it was soon performed by noted choral groups around Britain before falling into a 130-year period of neglect right up to this revival performance in Toronto. One of the results of this neglect - and a no doubt a further cause of it - was that it was never properly published.

However, the main cause of the work’s disappearance was due to the decline in popularity of the large choral work due to changing tastes. Notable among those urging this change in musical taste was George Bernard Shaw, who in 1890 published a broadside against the creation and promotion of “sham religious works called oratorios” in which he singled out Parry as the worst culprit. Parry was an influential figure: then age 40, he was a professor of Music at the Royal College of Music and a major contributor to the Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians. We think of the era as absolutely hidebound in its tastes, but Parry was an admirer of both Brahms (beloved of the conservative faction) and the radical Wagner. Parry had attended Wagner’s Ring at the first Bayreuth Festival in 1876 and one can hear Wagnerian touches in the music for Judith. Especially expressive are passages in the orchestration that call to mind the Forest Murmurs from Siegfried and the Todesverkündigung scene from Die Walküre, not to overlook the fact that the main roles call for Wagner-scale vocalism. Parry was also an ardent scholar of J.S. Bach; thus major fugal sections in Judith.

With the help of Professor Jeremy Dibble of England’s Durham University, author of a biography of Parry (published in 1992), Stephanie Martin reassembled a full score of the work using Parry’s own handwritten manuscript, with the help of further expertise from Ontario’s Brock and York universities.

Parry wrote the text himself. It tells of the legendary heroine Judith, who in the first part warns the Hebrew people and their rulers (King Manasseh and Queen Meshullemeth) against worshipping the god Moloch, whose priest has conveyed the demand that the royal couple sacrifice their own children to him. The people curse Judith for this, but then the Assyrian army attacks and overwhelms the Israelites.

The second part recounts Manassah’s repentance and return to traditional worship. This angers the Assyrians, and their military leader Holofernes lays siege, giving the Hebrews three days to surrender. Judith puts on her finery and vows to go forth and vanquish the foe. After some tense passages while she infiltrates the enemy camp and seduces Holofernes in his tent, she returns triumphantly carrying the warrior’s head. Lengthy celebrations ensue.

A recording was made of this performance, and it, along with the reconstructed score, will be of no small interest to other choirs. This will help them get a grasp on the nature of the lengthy work. The main thing it has going for it is the huge part for the choir with a wide range of expression required - at times they are actors in the drama and at times commentators upon it.

There are, however, two big problems with Judith. The first is that Parry tries to out-grandeur Handel (building upon, for example, Israel in Egypt). This an act of musical hubris as the grandeur frequently over-inflates into grandiosity. An equivalent in the art of painting would be the Belgian artist Antoine Wiertz whose huge canvases are considered downright freakish. Another problem is that the strong and interestingly varied dramatic tone he establishes for the many vivid sections of the work is not maintained, and the piece tends to subside into something rote and tidy. Manassah’s lengthy section after Judith’s triumph is one example.

Still, I think choir members (who are frequently the driving force within a choral organization) will clamour to perform the work - their role is irresistibly big and juicy.

A large choir is a necessity for the piece and for this special project Pax Christi boosted itself up to 112 singers. They sounded just fine, as did the 42-member pickup orchestra. Shannon Mercer made an outstanding impression in the title role. In Part I Judith comes across as a Cassandra-like figure, reminiscent of the heroine in Berlioz’s Les Troyens. In Part II the role is much like Brünnhilde, especially with the triumphant “Ho! Ye upon the walls!” when Ms Mercer brought forth an extra reserve of vocal power.

Tenor David Menzies did a fine job as Manassah, although he isn’t really the heldentenor type the role ideally requires. The mezzo-soprano roles in such works are frequently of less than good-natured characters (“witches and bitches”), but the role of the queen, Meshullemeth, is a warm, sympathetic figure; Jillian Yemen was an example of perfect casting here. It falls to the baritone to be both baddies: Michael York had a forthright, unyielding quality as both the High Priest of Moloch and Messenger of Holofernes.

And throughout Stephanie Martin kept her customary alert, steady hand on the tiller. One expects this from her with choral works, but especially notable was her way of bringing out so much orchestral detail.

Pax Christi’s many fans came out in force and weren’t disappointed. Despite Shaw’s influential (and well-based) diatribe of 1890, there are still a number of choral aficionados who think that nothing succeeds like excess. Judith’s 130-year hibernation might well be over.

Michael Johnson



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