Q & A: Conductor Steven Fox on the Clarion Choir, ‘Judas Maccabeus’ & Live PerformancesBy Francisco Salazar
On Dec. 1, the Clarion Choir and Clarion Orchestra will join forces for a free concert with Isabel Leonard and Anthony Roth Costanzo to perform a suite from “Judas Maccabeus” at historic Temple Emanu-El in celebration of Hanukkah.
The program will also include arias, duets, and choruses from Händel’s “Esther,” “Israel in Egypt,” and “Rodelinda.”
OperaWire had a chance to speak with conductor and Clarion Artistic Director Steven Fox about returning to the live performances and taking on Händel’s “Judas Maccabeus.”
OperaWire: This is a return to holiday season concerts after the pandemic. How does it feel to be performing for a live audience after so long?
Steven Fox: It’s very exciting to be going in front of a live audience again. We have done some small concerts in recent months, but this will be our first Clarion production for a large audience, and we are all thrilled about it. I admire how creative musicians were in producing online content during the pandemic. But there is simply no replacement for live music. The energy that the audience brings, and the spontaneity of the performances that happen as a result of that, are part of the magic that makes us performers love to perform.
OW: Tell me about Händel’s “Judas Maccabeus” and why it is the perfect piece for Hanukkah?
SF: It is really a story about Judea protecting itself from the Seleucid Empire. They identify Judas Maccabeus as their new leader after the death of Matthias. Judas and Judea fend off the threat and are able to restore the Temple of Jerusalem. This is a feat that is celebrated in the “Feast of Lights,” Hanukkah, as sung about in the Act three aria “Father of Heaven.” I thought it would be very special to perform this music in majestic Temple Emanu-El during Hanukkah and at a time when the music of Händel’s “Messiah” is filling most other concert halls and churches.
OW: How does it differ from other Händel pieces and how is it similar to other pieces like the “Messiah?”
SF: Whereas the soloists in “Messiah” and some of Händel’s other oratorios such as Israel in Egypt reflect on the story as it happens, the lead roles in Judas Maccabeus play roles in the drama itself – Judas Maccabeus, Israelitish Woman, Simon, The Priest, etc. These heroic characters bring out some of Händel’s most dramatic and virtuosic writing.
OW: What are some of your favorite moments in the piece? What are some of the biggest challenges?
SF: It was fun to put together a suite for Händel’s “Judas Maccabeus” for this concert because I got to choose some of my very favorite parts. But it was also difficult to pick when there is so much great music in the piece!
I love the elegance of the end of Act one, the chorus, “Hear Us, O Lord.” There is such beauty and grace in the counterpoint, and it is such a bright and optimistic ending to the act. I am glad we have that one on the program. I think that the Priest’s aria that Anthony will sing and which starts Act three is truly one of the great arias that Händel wrote for countertenor. It is perhaps a little bit lesser known than some others because it comes from an oratorio rather than one of his well-known operas. But it is so poignant. There are moments when the orchestra completely falls away and the countertenor’s voice is left alone, filling the space with no accompaniment. Händel is often breathtaking in unexpected ways like that. I love the set of pieces in Act one that celebrate “Liberty,” such as the one Isabel Leonard will sing. And the chorus from Act three, “Sing Unto God,” is one of my favorite Händel choruses. It is amazing the way that Händel punctuates each chord in the upper parts over a brilliant melismatic bass line – a technique he also used in “Zadok the Priest,” which we are performing on the 2nd half of the program. I also could not help but include “See the Conq’ring Hero Comes,” which is perhaps the best-known tune from J.M. – Beethoven even wrote a set of variations on it!
OW: There will also be arias from Händel. How did you pick these into the program?
SF: The original plan was to perform Judas Maccabeus in its entirety. But I am grateful that the sponsor of the program, Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel, really pushed me to find star soloists for the program. Barbaralee created this program to honor her late husband, Ambassador Carl Spielvogel, who passed away about six months ago. She wanted the program to be particularly special and to include some of our favorite singers. So, we asked both Anthony Roth Costanzo and Isabel Leonard and were delighted (and quite amazed) that they both happened to be free on the date. After they signed on, I realized that Judas Maccabeus, written for a tenor lead role, did not have quite enough to showcase these two artists on a full program. So, that is why I decided to tailor the program more to these two great soloists, performing selections from Judas M. in the first half, and then opening up the program in the 2nd half to feature Isabel and Anthony singing some of their own favorite Händel arias. I am happy that, in the end, we have a varied Händel program that includes some of the most beloved arias from “Rodelinda,” “Giulio Cesare,” and “Alcina.”
OW: Tell me about your collaboration with Isabel Leonard and Anthony Roth Costanzo. What excites you about performing with them?
SF: These are two singers I have admired for such a long time. Anthony and I first worked together in New York City Opera’s production of “Partenope,” probably some nine or 10 years ago. I was just the assistant conductor on that project, but he was already becoming a star, and it has been amazing to watch all the great things he has done for the music world since then. We have stayed in touch over the years, but had not found a real opportunity to give a concert together like this until now. Again, I am grateful to Barbaralee for putting us together to work on this project.
Isabel Leonard is someone whose singing and performing I have admired from afar for a long time. I remember seeing her at the Met just before the pandemic and being floored by her singing. I remember thinking, ‘that’s someone I would like to make music with.’ So, I am thrilled to meet her and work with her for the first time.
OW: Following this concert, what other concerts are you excited to work on with the Clarion Choir and orchestra this season?
SF: The Clarion Choir has established a bit of a tradition of performing Russian choral music to usher in the New Year. This tradition began by performing Rachmaninoff’s Vespers (‘All-Night Vigil’) a number of times on New Year’s Eve and Day. Later, we delved into other Russian works from the early 20th-century. In one year performed a varied “Russian Christmas” program. This New Year’s, we are delighted to be performing Rachmaninoff’s other large-scale a cappella work, Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom in the stunning Greek Orthodox Cathedral on the East Side of Manhattan. This is the venue where we recorded Rachmaninoff’s Vespers right before the pandemic, and we will be recording the Liturgy as well this coming January.
I am also really looking forward to a collaboration we have coming up this spring with Met Live Arts at the Met Museum. We are planning to take over the Met Cloisters for a whole day, and be spread out through the galleries performing music of Josquin des Prez, the great Renaissance Flemish master. There will be performances throughout the museum by The Clarion Choir together with string and brass consorts from The Clarion Orchestra. 2021 is the 500th anniversary of the death of Josquin, who is really one of my favorite Renaissance composers. There is such depth to his mass settings and large motets like “De Profundis.” And the way Josquin interweaves different voices, sometimes he can make two voices alone sound like four because the style of counterpoint is so rich and inventive. I am thrilled to delve into his music much more in June with the Clarion singers and players.