Singing the praises of Han­del’s ‘Pe­sach’ ora­to­rio

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - CHOIRS JES­SICA DUCHEN

to­mor­row. Inset: a poster for the con­cert

THERE’S AN ele­phant in the chapel. As Pe­sach and Easter ap­proach, mu­si­clovers will cel­e­brate in dif­fer­ent ways. But the English cho­ral tradition, which has in­spired so many com­posers over the cen­turies, is by far the dom­i­nant force where con­certs are con­cerned, and it is deeply rooted in the Anglican church. Most of the great or­a­to­rios and can­tatas by Bach, Han­del and even Men­delssohn con­cern Chris­tian sto­ries. Cho­ral so­ci­eties per­form these works up and down the coun­try — and for the sake of the mu­sic, some Jews turn a blind eye to the more un­palat­able texts. But some do not. Where can one go for an al­ter­na­tive?

Kevin Brau, a Jewish Amer­i­can in Lon­don and a keen cho­ral singer, has de­cided to do some­thing about that. He is a mem­ber of a choir, Coro, and is spon­sor­ing a per­for­mance by them of Han­del’s ora­to­rio Is­rael in Egypt, which tells the story of Moses, the Ten Plagues and the Ex­o­dus. More­over, he has made it his mis­sion to at­tract as many Jewish au­di­ence mem­bers as pos­si­ble.

“Many Jewish mu­sic-lovers don’t at­tend cho­ral con­certs in this coun­try for some ob­vi­ous rea­sons,” Brau com­ments, “and es­pe­cially around April, the per­for­mances are mostly about how we cru­ci­fied Je­sus. Is­rael in Egypt, how­ever, is the Passover story. It’s the an­ti­dote to the Bach Pas­sions. And the mu­sic is so direct, some­times so ‘in your face’, that I be­lieve it would be mu­si­cally ac­ces­si­ble to Jews who don’t usu­ally go to clas­si­cal con­certs. Plus two of our soloists are Roland Wood who sang Ford in Fal­staff at Covent Gar­den, and Emma Wal­she of the Tal­lis Schol­ars. And we will have a full baroque orches­tra.”

Brau came to Bri­tain from Bos­ton in 1990. He used to be a physi­cist, then moved in­stead into busi­ness school and the City. But he also had 12 years of voice train­ing and loves play­ing the pi­ano. Mu­sic re­mains a pro­found pas­sion for him and de­spite not hav­ing sung for some two decades, he de­cided about three years ago to take it up again and join some choirs.

Since mov­ing here, though, Brau says, he has found the church­i­ness of the cho­ral reper­toire some­what exclusive, even ex­clud­ing — es­pe­cially com­pared to the broader op­por­tu­ni­ties he used to en­joy in the US, where he started out singing in his univer­sity Glee Club. Why should the Jewish com­mu­nity have to be put off the joy of singing by the dom­i­nance of Chris­tian texts? “I can’t help re­mem­ber­ing that Jews were ex­cluded from Eng­land for some­thing like 300 years,” Brau re­marks — adding that he is the only Jewish mem­ber of his choir.

Per­haps the cho­ral mu­sic scene is one area in which some bal­ance still needs to be re­dressed. A num­ber of the aca­demic mu­sic de­part­ments from which many of the UK’s most prom­i­nent mu­si­cians still grad­u­ate were founded orig­i­nally on cathe­dral and chapel life; it is from those chapels that the cho­ral singing tradition largely emerged. This en­vi­ron­ment can be se­ri­ously off­putting for those who are not Chris­tians. For that rea­son, too many young Jewish mu­sic en­thu­si­asts in Bri­tain never take up cho­ral singing and miss out on a po­ten­tially life-en­hanc­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

Is­rael in Egypt could be one way to help change all that.

“It’s vir­tu­ally the text from the Hag­gadah,” says Brau. “Rather than only en­joy­ing the tra­di­tional tunes we are all used to in­ton­ing around the ta­ble at home at Pe­sach, why not come and find out how Han­del re­sponded to the story? It’s amaz­ing stuff — so pow­er­ful.”

Not only is it per­fect for Pe­sach, but also it is sim­ply top-notch cho­ral mu­sic, writ­ten with the com­poser’s char­ac­ter­is­tic ex­tro­vert flair.

One of its spe­cial qual­i­ties is that most of the dra­matic sto­ry­telling is given to the cho­rus it­self, rather than the soloists, pre­sent­ing Brau and his fel­low singers with some ter­rific and very sat­is­fy­ing chal­lenges.

Han­del composed the en­tire score in one month dur­ing au­tumn 1738.

He had moved into ora­to­rio com­po­si­tion partly be­cause of in­creased com­pe­ti­tion to his own com­pany in the Lon­don opera world and he brought all his oper­atic ex­per­tise We Jews must re­claim Is­rael in Egypt.

It’s our story and fe­roc­ity of ex­pres­sion to bear on the story. The Ten Plagues, in his hands, be­come ab­so­lutely hair-rais­ing. The lo­custs swarm through the vi­o­lin writ­ing; the “thick dark­ness” is op­pres­sive and at­mo­spheric; the slay­ing of the first-born is de­picted in a con­tra­pun­tal cho­rus with swift, vi­o­lent brass chords in the orches­tra.

The text, “He led them through the deep and through the wilder­ness” be­comes a grand-scale fugue based on a vivid piece of mu­si­cal word­paint­ing: the melody plunges on “deep”, then rises up into the light; and that cho­rus cul­mi­nates in a gal­lop­ing, ham­mer­ing pur­suit by the Pharoah’s army — of which, as the Red Sea closes over them, there is not one left. “Han­del keeps re­peat­ing and ac­cent­ing, ‘There was not one, not one, not one!’” Brau points out. “It’s al­most like a re­venge fan­tasy on a grand scale.” You can hear a taster ex­tract of the mu­sic on Coro’s web­site (www.corolon­don.com).

“As Is­rael in Egypt is based on Old Tes­ta­ment texts,” Brau adds, “I think we need to re­claim it for the Jewish com­mu­nity and that’s why I was ea­ger to spon­sor this per­for­mance.

“I re­ally hope mem­bers of the com­mu­nity will come to the con­cert to dis­cover this won­der­ful mu­sic. First, be­cause they will love it. Se­condly, be­cause it is our story.”

Coro per­forms Is­rael in Egypt, con­ducted by Mark Grif­fiths, at St Leonard’s Church, Shored­itch, on 1 April at 6.30pm. Tick­ets can be booked on­line at: www.tick­et­source.co.uk/date/341694

The Coro choir, which will pe­form

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