Handel from another view

Performance: The oratorio `Israel in Egypt' features cantors from area synagogues in pivotal roles.

Classical music

March 20, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

George Bernard Shaw, who took a dim view of many things, once unleashed this unrivaled definition of oratorio: "Unstaged operettas on scriptural themes, written in a style in which solemnity and triviality are blended in the right proportion for boring an atheist out of his senses."

This weekend, several Baltimore-area groups should have an easy time disproving that notion with performances of oratorios and a near-oratorio.

Although the public never tires of "Messiah," there is much to savor in the rest of Handel's roughly two dozen oratorios. His "Israel in Egypt" is a particularly grand example of the art form.

A recounting of the Moses-led exodus of the Jews, the 1738 work contains some of Handel's most ambitious and brilliant choral writing; the chorus is, in fact, the chief protagonist. The composer also filled the score with some of his most delectably pictorial orchestral writing - the hopping violin motives that accompany the aria "Their land brought forth frogs"; the buzzing, whirling violins at the mention of "all manner of flies"; the unsettled harmonies that depict "a thick darkness over all the land."

The Handel Choir of Baltimore's presentation of "Israel in Egypt" on Sunday is noteworthy in two ways. This will be the ensemble's first appearance at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. And music director T. Herbert Dimmock's choice of vocal soloists is intriguing and unprecedented locally - they are all cantors from synagogues throughout the region.

Dimmock has taken the Handel Choir into synagogues for performances on several occasions over the years. The idea of bringing the cantors out of their temples reflects a desire to increase an appreciation for Handel's oratorios.

"Although 18 of them are on texts from the Old Testament - the Jewish bible - people think of Handel, `Messiah' and Christian all in one thought," Dimmock says.

"Baltimore has a very large and important Jewish community. I thought, `Why not invite these very talented cantors as soloists to help their congregations realize that this might be something they should be interested in, to help us reach out and build a bigger audience?'"

Programming "Israel in Egypt" near the Passover season also drives home the point that this oratorio composed by a German-born Protestant can speak strongly to Jews. It is, of course, like all of Handel's music, open to listeners of any religious persuasion - not to mention Shaw's easily bored non-believer.

Participating in the Handel Choir's presentation will be sopranos Kimberley L. Komrad of the Harford Jewish Center Congregation and Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation, and Judith Rowland of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation; alto Nancy Ginsberg of Har Sinai Temple; tenor Emanuel Perlman of Chizuk Amuno Congregation; and bass Thom King of Beth El Congregation.

"Israel in Egypt" will be performed at 3 p.m. Sunday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Cathedral and Preston streets. Tickets cost $15 to $40. Call 410-366-6544.

A search for justice

There's also a strong Jewish thread running through an oratorio by jazz legend Dave Brubeck, who has composed several large-scale works of music with religious themes. "The Gates of Justice," which will be given its local premiere Saturday by the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, incorporates texts from the Psalms and the Union Prayer Book of Reform Judaism. But there is much more to the work, which was written in 1968, when many U.S. cities were still smoldering from riots that followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Scored for tenor and bass soloists, chorus, jazz quartet and brass ensemble, Brubeck's oratorio looks at the search for justice through the eyes of Jews and African-Americans, who have had common experiences with bigotry and suffering. The composer writes in this program notes that the work attempts "through the juxtaposition and amalgamation of a variety of musical styles to construct a bridge upon which the universal theme of brotherhood could be communicated."

The tenor, with Hebraic-style music, becomes a kind of cantor in the oratorio; the bass, whose music is infused with spirituals and blues, represents the African-American community. The chorus is "the voice of the people who have been pawns of history." At the end, Brubeck celebrates the diversity of the human race by fusing texts from various sources and everything from folk music to Chopin, the Beatles and improvisation.

"It's a very interesting, can't-we-all-get-along kind of piece," says Choral Arts Society Music Director Tom Hall. "It's also very hard for the chorus, but we're getting it. I think it's the best birthday present we could get Brubeck - he turned 80 in December."

That gift will keep on giving - the performers will make a recording of "The Gates of Justice" under the auspices of the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music, which plans to release 50 CDs within the next few years.

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