Challenging 'Israel in Egypt' keeps singers on their toes

CLEFNOTES

October 30, 2008|By TIM SMITH | TIM SMITH,tim.smith@baltsun.com

Close on the heels of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's bold presentation of Leonard Bernstein's Mass, the area is about to get another jolt of music for voices and orchestra that incorporates sacred texts - Handel's Israel in Egypt.

"It's going to seem old-fashioned and stodgy compared to Mass," says Tom Hall, artistic director of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society. "It's not one of Handel's more theatrical oratorios."

One of his greatest, though.

"The story it tells is very dramatic," Hall says, "but the oratorio is not dramatic in the way that we're used to. I should point out that, at the time, it was not one of Handel's most popular oratorios. It had no star soloists, hardly any solo arias. Most of the time, the chorus is singing, front and center, moving the story along. They don't just have a lot of music to sing, they have some difficult music to sing. Israel in Egypt is a choral singer's dream."

Sunday's performance marks the first time since 1988 that the Choral Arts Society has programmed the piece, which, like Handel's Messiah, uses only biblical texts, a rarity among the works the composer created in this genre. Those texts come chiefly from the Book of Exodus.

"It's very resonant with what's going on today, just as it was for Handel's public," Hall says. "The British people identified with the Israelites; they identified the most with the idea of being the Chosen People. And just as the Israelites overcame the Egyptians, the British hoped to overcome Spain during what was called the War of Jenkins' Ear." (That war broke out some months after the 1739 premiere of Israel in Egypt, but went on for nearly a decade.)

Hall also sees the oratorio as unusually significant today because of U.S. history.

"Dr. Martin Luther King took a lot of inspiration from Exodus," Hall says. "It's serendipitous that our concert will be two days before, quite possibly, we ... elect an African-American president. That would not mark the end of the civil rights movement in America, but would be an important development in the quest for civil rights." (Hall will moderate a preconcert panel discussion about Jewish, Christian and African-American perspectives on the oratorio's texts.)

Needless to say, no contemporary reference points or considerations are necessary in approaching Israel in Egypt, which abounds in richly descriptive music. The Exodus story, after all, includes the plagues visited upon the Egyptians, and Handel spares no effort in colorful effects in both the vocal and instrumental writing to conjure up images of such things as frogs, flies, storms and darkness.

"The challenge for the chorus is to keep it all vivid and sustain the interest," Hall says. "It requires a tremendous sense of word-painting."

Israel in Egypt, which opens the Choral Arts season, will be performed at 3 p.m. Sunday at Goucher College, 1021 Dulaney Valley Road. Tickets are $25 to $38. Call 410-523-7070 or got to baltimorechoralarts.org.

The season continues in December with the choir's annual Christmas program and a concert in March that includes the area premiere of a large work by noted American composer Tina Davidson.

A Sunday pileup

Sundays are typically overloaded with enticements for music lovers. This weekend is no exception.

When Choral Arts starts digging into the score of Israel in Egypt at Goucher, Music in the Great Hall will offer a recital a little farther up the road by pianist and University of Maryland faculty member Bradford Gowen: 3 p.m., Towson Unitarian Universalist Church, 1710 Dulaney Valley Road, $20, 410-813-4255, migh.org.

A half-hour later, Community Concerts at Second Presbyterian Church will present musicians from the famed Marlboro Festival, including the eloquent soprano Hyunah Yu and dynamic cellist Amit Peled: 3:30 p.m., 4200 St. Paul St., free. And, at the same time, Pro Musica Rara has a big program at Towson University.

Just about the time those events finish up, others will be starting, including a performance by the nearly legendary Guarneri String Quartet. The ensemble, which has announced its retirement next year after 45 years, will play works by Mozart, Dvorak and Bartok for the Shriver Hall Concert Series: 5:30 p.m., 3400 N. Charles St., $17/$33, 410-516-7164, shriverconcerts.org.

Fleisher in W.Va.

Earlier this month, pianist Leon Fleisher and three of his stellar former students gave a wonderful concert at Shriver Hall. Fleisher and one of those students, his wife, Katherine Jacobson Fleisher, will team up next week for a duet recital of works by Schubert, Brahms, Dvorak and Ravel. The event will require a bit of a schlep for Baltimoreans, but would doubtless be worth the effort: 8 p.m. Nov. 7, Shepherd University's Frank Arts Center, Shepherdstown, W.Va., sufom.org.

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