Before there was “Messiah,” there was “Israel in Egypt,” George Frideric Handel’s oratorio celebrating the Jewish flight from bondage, chosen for this Thanksgiving season by the Santa Barbara Master Chorale.
In two performances at First Presbyterian Church on Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, the chorale and a Baroque orchestra gave full measure to this worthy work. It does not have the towering majesty of “Messiah,” and it has been controversial for Handel’s “borrowings” of some passages. But the end result is still gorgeous, and the performance Saturday evening did it full justice.
Steven R. Hodson conducted the chorus and orchestra, including soloists Grey Brothers, tenor; Bryan Lane, countertenor; Ann Dwelley and Heather Heyerdahl, sopranos; and a thundering duet by basses Nathan Rundlett and Michael Shasberger. The latter two sang interweaving lines of the scriptural passage: “The Lord is a man of war; Lord is His name. Pharaoh’s chariots and his host hath He cast down into the sea; his chosen captains also are drowned in the Red Sea.”
Handel was a contemporary of Johann Sebastian Bach, and both were from the same general corner of Germany. Bach, the far-reaching master, never ventured too far from his home area of Saxony. Handel went to Italy, and then to England, where he became a naturalized citizen.
The oratorio form was popular in the Baroque age as a substitute for Italian-style opera. During Lent and other holy times, opera usually was not performed but oratorio was considered appropriate. It provided arias, recitatives, duets and, especially, the lofty choruses that still thrill audiences, including the Halleluiah from “Messiah.”
The program notes for “Israel in Egypt” described “the issue of Handel’s extensive use of preexisting material, both his own music and music by other composers.” Of course, the libretto is straight from the Old Testament, and whatever “borrowings” Handel may have committed, the end result is unmistakably in his own lofty voice.
The Oxford Companion to Music states that Handel, like Bach, was “a sincere Christian and (within the limits which human nature commonly attains) a consistent one.” In any event, his music has provided oratorios that exalt Biblical themes like no other, except perhaps for Bach’s.
Especially notable in this performance of “Israel in Egypt” was the use of the countertenor voice, beautifully exemplified by Bryan Lane. British music in the 18th century was loaded with music for countertenors. Only later did the female contralto voice supersede the countertenor, or male alto. In any event, Lane has wonderful tone and his musicianship was admirable.
Now that Thanksgiving has been appropriately ushered in by the Chorale, we can look forward to the rest of the annual holiday performances from our community’s music groups. That includes, of course, the KDB “Messiah Sing Along” at First Presbyterian Church on Dec. 15, more Handel in this acoustically excellent venue. And everyone gets a chance to join in.
— Margo Kline covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributor.