BY JOE FIORITO, Columnist
A Toronto choir, the Pax Christi Chorale, recently performed the North American premiere of “Judith,” a Victorian oratorio which has not been heard in over 100 years.
I was there.
So was my beloved. She is an alto in the Pax Christi Chorale. And I am not just uxorious, I was lucky enough to have listened as she and her mates sang the North American premiere of the oratorio, “Judith” last week.
Conflict of interest?
Try and stop me.
Oh, children, long ago the Israelites went astray and began to stuff their children into the flaming mouth of the false god Moloch, after which they were abandoned by their real god, after which they wandered around and were besieged by the Assyrians.
Judith, a brave and pragmatic beauty, snuck across the Assyrian lines, crept into the tent of the enemy general Holofernes, got him drunk and/or had her way with him; when he fell asleep, she cut off his head and saved Israel. Or something like that.
There is no better story.
Here’s a better story:
Pax Christi, when my beloved joined ten or so years ago, was an amateur choir singing an annual Christmas concert, as well as a couple of yearly performances, mostly consisting of the sweet and sacred songs of the Mennonite and the Anglican traditions.
The choir would raise funds for these events by holding hymnathons – you show up with your copy of the hymnbook, put up some money - perhaps as much as five bucks, if you were feeling flush - call your tune, and the choir would sing it.
The choir, under the hand of artistic director Stephanie Martin, has grown more ambitious year after year, and the concerts – and the fundraisers - have increased in beauty and complexity.
Ambition without heart is a base and useless thing. Here, I will tell you that the greatest single act of artistic courage I have ever seen occurred when, a few weeks before one of the concerts, Stephanie’s husband Bruce died shockingly too soon; rather than skip the performance and step back in mourning, as she had every right to do, Stephanie took to the podium and conducted the choir in his memory.
No greater love than that.
Back to “Judith”.
It was written by Hubert Parry, a Victorian composer who turned out a handful of mostly successful things in his day, including the unofficial anthem of England, which you know as “Jerusalem”.
“Jerusalem” is a musical setting of the quirky little poem of the same name by William Blake about the rumored visit of Christ to Britain; it has the worst opening lines in all of literature or music: “And did those feet, in ancient time, walk upon England’s mountains green?”
Who cares about those feet?
Let us speak of “Judith.”
It was written in 1888 and was very popular for a time. But times change. Parry fell out of favour. “Judith”, which was never performed in North America, went unheard for more than 100 years.
Unheard, that is, until Stephanie decided to take a run at it. She discovered, right off the bat, that she could not obtain the score. Novello, the publishing company, seems to have thrown it out.
So Martin took aim at Parry’s handwritten manuscript, and a couple of her students entered it, note by painstaking note, into a computer that turned the whole thing into a score complete enough for the choir, soloists and orchestra.
Okay, you know how you go to a concert, ho hum, and you hear a couple of big tunes that you’ve heard 35 times before?
“Judith” is not like that.
It is magnificent. It is fresh. It is so old it is new. And when an amateur choir, with Mennonite roots, sings about the mountains drowning in blood and the bodies being dashed on the ground like clay pots, it is something to behold.
The highlight for me was a single clarion note, uttered by the soprano, just after she beheaded Holofernes. She not only beheaded him, she pinned me and every single person in Koerner Hall to the backs of our padded seats. Made me want run out and feed some bratty kids into the flaming maw of Moloch.
Makes me wonder why it has taken so long for this glory to be performed anew. Makes me ask why the music critics from all the newspapers in North America were not present. And yes, it makes me wish there was a medal to pin on Stephanie Martin’s gown.