The Destruction of Jerusalem - The Musical Version

Mel Brooks move over! Leon Botstein of Bard College has revived the musical version of the destruction of Jerusalem - the 1840 oratorio by the German composer Ferdinand Hiller. The Times liked it. And no there is no chorus, "Springtime for Vespasian and Rome."
Music Review
Next Time Jeremiah Sings, Zedekiah Ought to Listen

Leon Botstein, the music director of the American Symphony Orchestra, is a tireless champion of the also-rans in music history. On Sunday afternoon at Avery Fisher Hall, he presented the remarkable results of his latest salvage operation when he conducted the orchestra, the Concert Chorale of New York and a fine roster of vocal soloists in the American premiere of “The Destruction of Jerusalem,” a two-part, two-hour oratorio from 1840 by the German composer Ferdinand Hiller.

The son of a wealthy Jewish merchant in Frankfurt, Hiller (1811-1885) was a prolific composer, a gifted pianist and a respected teacher who won the support of powerful colleagues, especially Mendelssohn, though they had a falling-out in 1843 when Hiller replaced Mendelssohn as the director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.

In the assured performance conducted by Mr. Botstein, “The Destruction of Jerusalem” made a strong impression. The music balances German Romantic sweep with compositional intricacy. The program for the performance reprinted two admiring reviews of the work by Schumann. The piece holds its own with the oratorios of Mendelssohn. So what happened?

In program notes Mr. Botstein suggested that Hiller’s oratorio was a work of its time, aimed at an audience with shared cultural values. Later generations have fixated on composers who were visionaries. But for Hiller, like Mendelssohn, large-scaled composition “needed to speak entirely to the present moment, communicating simply and without undue evidence of a narcissistic desire to shock the audience with startling originality and lay waste to the past,” as Mr. Botstein wrote.

If “The Destruction of Jerusalem” was never startling, it was consistently pleasing. It tells the story of the Babylonian threat to that sacred city during the reign of Zedekiah, the King of Judah. The prophet Jeremiah repeatedly warns the king of a coming attack. Enraged by this prophecy, Zedekiah has Jeremiah imprisoned. After the Babylonians besiege the city, Jeremiah prophesies that ultimately God’s house will stand taller than the mountains.

The choral episodes, vibrantly sung by the excellent chorale (James Bagwell is the director), are the most impressive elements of the score, starting with the opening “Chorus of Israelites,” vigorous music that swings broadly in a marching triple meter, as the voices sing proclamations in thick block harmonies, until a complex middle section when the choristers break into a studious fugato.

Hiller shows sure dramatic instincts in the way urgent passages of dramatic recitative segue seamlessly into reflective arias and choral outbursts. The demanding role of Jeremiah ideally wants a powerful baritone, and in some passages Lucas Meachem sounded as if he were straining his warm, robust but essentially lyric voice. Still, he gave a courageous account of this challenging music.

Also impressive were the bright-voiced tenor Scott Ramsay as Zedekiah; the earthy and affecting soprano Christine Brandes as the king’s mother, Chamital; the tenor Brian Stucki in the smaller role of Achicam, a pious Israelite; and as his sister, Hannah, the appealing mezzo-soprano Jennifer Rivera. And give these singers credit for learning roles they are unlikely to have opportunities to repeat.

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