The Pax Christi Chorale and Orchestra, under artistic director and conductor Stephanie Martin. She will revive the Judith oratorio for a performance May 3 at Toronto’s Koerner Hall. Photo courtesy of Pax Christi Chorale

Long-dormant oratorio reborn in Toronto

By 
  • April 25, 2015

TORONTO - The first and last time the Judith oratorio was heard by an audience was in 1888 in Birmingham, England. It was written by one of Britain’s best-loved composers of the time, Hubert Parry, and was well-received by the critics of the era. But then the work fell into obscurity.

More than 125 years later, Toronto’s Pax Christi Chorale and Orchestra is reviving the oratorio for its North American premiere on May 3 at 3 p.m. at Koerner Hall in Toronto.

The oratorio is based on the biblical story of the Book of Judith. It is a dramatic story about the liberation of the Jews from the Assyrians. Judith is a beautiful and daring widow who decides to take matters into her own hands and goes to the camp of the enemy general, Holofernes. She seduces Holofernes and promises to give him information about the Israelites. Once she gains his trust, she decapitates him and takes his head back to her community. Having lost their leader, the Assyrians surrender and Israel is saved.

Canadian composer and conductor, Stephanie Martin, the artistic director of Pax Christi Chorale since 1996, said she was surprised she hadn’t heard of this piece of music before.

“As a conductor of a big oratorial choir, people give me scores all the time,” said Martin, an associate professor of music at York University. “One of my choir members gave me this score, but this was different than all the other scores because it was by a very famous composer. To see a big dramatic work by that composer, I think why have I never heard of this before?”

The performance will have 100 Pax Christi choir members, 43 orchestra players, four professional soloists playing the major roles and eight singers from Toronto’s St. Michael’s Choir School. The number of performers should make for a dramatic performance, said Martin.

“The big thing about a work like this is that there are hundreds of singers up there, so the chorus really plays a dramatic role in this,” said Martin. “The choir plays the dramatic role of the crowd. There are some really blood-curdling choruses in there and... then after the victory, there are all of these joyful choruses.”

Martin is still amazed at how the community has come together to make Parry’s score come alive.

Parry was an English composer, teacher and historian of music in the 19th century. He is best known in choral music circles for the choral song “Jerusalem” and the coronation anthem “I Was Glad.” Martin said Victorian music is not a popular area to explore, but when she discovered the Judith score, she knew she had to find a way to perform it.

“When I read through the score, I played it on my piano with 30 singers in my living room and we all really loved the music,” she said. “We decided that we had to find a way to perform the music in Toronto.”

Because the score hasn’t been performed in more than a century, Martin did not have other works to use as a point of reference. Choir singers did not have recordings of the score to listen to and study from. The orchestra had a limited reference in the manuscript score.

A librarian at the Royal College of Music in London, England, scanned each page of the frail manuscript score in Parry’s handwriting to send to Martin. She then had York University graduate students John-Luke Addison and Floydd Ricketts transcribe the music to digital notation software.

“It was a huge undertaking,” said Martin. “I gave them both 200 pages of score to transcribe... They produced a new edition of the score.”

The project has gone beyond Canadian borders.

“It has really become an international project,” said Martin. “We also have Jeremy Diggle coming from England, who made a movie with Prince Charles about the composer... That movie is going to be shown on the Saturday before our concert and Jeremy Diggle, himself, is coming to do a talk right before the concert.”

Martin is very excited for an audience to hear the oratorio because the music is surprisingly accessible. Judith is a modern hero who seems to be powerless, but decides to do a heroic act.

The lyrics are written in English, so there will be no language barrier between the audience and the drama of the story. Because the text is biblically derived, Martin said it’s not merely entertainment because the themes of the oratorio provoke thought.

Beyond this one-time performance, Martin said Pax Christi is looking to create a recording of the performance.

“(The oratorio) has never been recorded,” said Martin. “Our first goal is to launch a successful performance, but really the project goes on from here because we want to record it and release a DVD... which makes this music and this story accessible to so many people.”

Tickets to the Judith oratorio concert are being sold at Koerner Hall’s box office at (416) 408-0208 and online at paxchristichorale.org.

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