The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music preview: Handel’s oratorio ‘Israel in Egypt’ at UW exults in sound painting and freedom

November 15, 2010
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend will see a feast of Baroque choral works, including the oratorioIsrael in Egypt” by Georg Frideric Handel.

Handel’s oratorio – famous for its vivid and dramatic sound painting — will be performed in Mills Hall by the UW Choral Union (below top, rehearsing) and the UW Chamber Orchestra (below bottom) this Saturday at 8 p.m. and this Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m.

Soloists include soprano Emily Birsan (below top), mezzo-soprano Jennifer Sams, tenor James Doing (below middle), baritone Paul Rowe (below bottom) and bass-baritone Benjamin Schultz. The Choral Union has about 160 members, from both campus and community.

Tickets are $15 for adults, $8 for seniors and students. They are available through the Wisconsin Union Theater Box Office online, in person, on the phone, by fax or mail. The address is 800 Langdon St., 53706.; call  (608) 262-2201 or fax (608) 265-5084.

Visit this link for program notes by UW early music specialist and Choral Union member Jeanne Swack:

Beverly Taylor directs the Choral Union and will conduct both the singers and the orchestra.

Taylor (below) recently granted The Ear an e-mail interview about the concert and the program:

For you, what makes Handel a great composer and how does he differ from, say, his contemporaries Bach and Vivaldi?

Handel has great variety and pithiness in his choral movements, from the grand to the flowing to the quirky, and often very dramatic.

What I’ve always liked about his choral writing is that he often starts with polyphony–imitation of a theme by the different voices, followed by a burst of homophonic writing, in which all the voices sound together.  You find it in the “Hallelujah “Chorus, and throughout “Israel in Egypt.”  It seems to emphasize a sort of community aspect of Handel–a gathering together of the forces.

Bach is close to my heart. I don’t need to compare the two, as they are both great, but Bach tends to be either all homophonic–as in the chorales — or all polyphonic, in his great fugues. But like Handel, Bach is full of invention in each idea.  Vivaldi to me is less inventive, but has a pulsing raw energy to his work. But I don’t know his writing, really, as well as Handel’s and Bach’s.

What distinguishes “Israel in Egypt” as a work of music and does it have any relevance to today? What do you like about it and why did you choose it?

“Israel in Egypt,” along with Handel’s “Messiah,” has more choral music in it than any other oratorio I know.  Although there are some wonderful solos and duets, they take a back seat in number of minutes of the performance to the great choruses.  Unlike “Messiah,” many of the choral movements are written for double chorus.

The UW Chamber Orchestra (below) has some really skilled violinists as well, and I knew they could show their stuff in the wonderful “flies” movement, which describes one of the plagues visited on Egypt.  It’s simply some glorious writing for chorus.

The Exodus story is one that many people can identify with–the need to escape, the sense of being protected in God’s care, while the danger is removed BUT there perhaps are remains of another cultural view in some of Handel’s writing–his aggressive bass duet of God as a god of war is one, and the fact that Handel borrowed some tunes from himself and others meant that occasionally the music might be cheerier than the text!

What is the historical importance of oratorios as a form and as a genre that Handel worked in?

Handel (below) was a natural dramatist, and during the Lenten season in England, no operas could be performed. But oratorios were sacred and could be performed. Handel’s operatic instincts were given excellent scope in the oratorios.

What should the public listen for in your performance of “Israel in Egypt”?

There’s so much to listen for!  In the first half, there are a large number of pictures drawn by the music–the jerky writing for the plagues of frogs, the whizzing violins for the flies, the pinging of the hail falling, and the low and sparse writing of the thick darkness. (see the manuscript page below.)

There are also some clear dance movements, such as the minuet of No. 16, which closes the first half.  The second half contains some of the loudest and grandest of the movements, and the largest orchestral group, including trumpets and trombones, timpani, oboes and bassoons joining the strings and continuo.

The second half is generally celebratory, while the first half tells the story.  These later choruses feature the writing I described above–grand themes in imitation, interrupted by bursts of homophony.  But there are also some quieter movements that have more formal fugue writing, and all the solos but one are in the second half.

Throughout the piece listen both for the varying articulations of the singers–staccato, legato, slurred, triplets and the vital and active orchestra, which expresses the text without words.

Apart from “Messiah” and maybe “Israel,” (final chorus is below) why is Handel (below) not performed and appreciated more?

I’m not sure I’d agree he’s unappreciated, but many of the wonderful oratorios have a larger number of solos and shorter choral parts, such as in “Jephtha,” one of my personal favorites.  If you are committing a choir to a semester’s work, you’d like the opportunity for them to sing quite a bit.

The oratorios are too long by themselves to combine with other choral works.  If you have the budget for lots of soloists, and not much rehearsal time for the chorus, then the other oratorios make sense.

Of course there are also lots of instrumental pieces, operas and chamber works to choose from too!

Is there something else you would like to say?

Come and hear us on the 20th or 21st!

Posted in Classical music

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