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Handel Israel in Egypt: The Collegiate Chorale and the American Symphony Orchestra, James Bagwell (Conductor), Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, New York University, NYC, 12.5.2010, (SSM)

Sari Gruber, Soprano

Megan Taylor, Soprano

Brian Asawa, Countertenor

Rufus Müller, Tenor

Ron Loyd, Baritone

Robert Osborne, Bass-baritone

We probably all know at least one story of a composer whose great works were not appreciated in his time. Whether it's Emperor Joseph II's complaint that The Marriage of Figaro had "too many notes”; Mark Twain's comment, “I have been told that Wagner's music is better than it sounds”; or Rossini on the same composer, “Wagner has lovely moments but awful quarters of an hour” – we often feel superior to those who couldn't hear the “true” music. According to Christopher Hogwood in his biography of Handel, the first performance of Israel in Egypt had such “high density of choral writing” and “such scarce opportunities for solo virtuosity” that the audience was numbed. Even with a second performance that Handel billed as “shortened and Intermix'd with Song,” it failed.

If I never had heard this oratorio before, I would have had to agree with Handel's audience's complaints about this work. Part I in this particular performance has eleven consecutive choruses without a break. To make matters worse, the chorus of 150 so overwhelmed the twenty-five piece orchestra that you couldn't turn your attention to the instrumental accompaniment for relief from sonic overload. And that was a shame, because the orchestra plays some delightful music as can be heard in the arias. Note, for example, the trumpet-like oboes in “The Lord is a Man of War.” (Sir Malcom Sargent in his classic 1955 recording actually substituted trumpets here for the oboes, stating almost convincingly for purists like me that he was sure that if Handel had had our modern-day valved trumpets, which are capable of playing this music, he would have used them.)

There are many versions of this oratorio, some with three parts, some with two, some with overtures, some starting out with only a recitative, some with as many as fifty-two movements or more, some with as few as half that. The real issue here though is not which edition is used but how each version produces the most satisfying musical experience given the number of performers involved. It is understandable that if the Collegiate Chorale contains 200 members, you would want as many as possible to perform. You would also want to make sure that the music chosen would be suitable for the size of the chorus and orchestra. I assume some attempt was made to do this, since there were only about 150 singers in this production's chorus. If reducing the chorus by twenty-five percent doesn't work (which, in this case, it doesn't), then the size of the orchestra should be increased. Except for the parts where Handel specified a double chorus, the singers could be split so that that each half of the chorus sings a number in turn.

As for the soloists, the two sopranos were adequate. The countertenor, Brian Asawa, could have controlled his histrionics a bit, but only he and tenor Rufus Müller s seemed to be awake and alert enough to attempt (though unsuccessfully) to spark some espirit de corps. At least these singers, in contrast to the two other male singers, were in key. If the rest of the production were even minimally adequate I would have felt that the baritone and bass made some effort, but baritone Ron Loyd had minor intonation problems, and bass-baritone Robert Osborne sang neither as a bass nor as a baritone. I don't remember when I last wished I could turn my ears off, so insufferable was his singing.

To quote from a most intelligent
review of a previous performance of Israel in Egypt conducted by James Bagwell back in 2007 with a different chorus and orchestra, “Just what went wrong here? I don't believe that the conductor, James Bagwell, is entirely to blame, although his interpretation came across as fussy and lacking in spirit, especially the festive Handelian spirit we all love.” I would have to be less kind and say that I'd give him one more strike and he'd be out.


Stan Metzger

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