Saturday, April 18, 2015 • 7:30 p.m.
First Free Methodist Church
Seattle Chamber Singers
Roupen Shakarian, conductor
Catherine Haight, soprano
Sarah Mattox, mezzo-soprano
Zack Finkelstein, tenor
Ryan Bede, baritone
Ben Grover, baritone
Georg Frideric Handel (1650–1759)
Israel in Egypt, HWV 54
About the Concert
The events described in Handel’s 1738 oratorio Israel in Egypt form the turning point of Israel’s national history. Written for double chorus, it tells the great story of the miraculous occurrences, recalled every year at Passover, that finally secured the release of the long-enslaved People of Israel from their servitude in Egypt. This grand and deeply moving work not only celebrates Jewish freedom from bondage, but encourages us to turn from our own suffering and to begin a remarkable pilgrimage toward renewed life in “the Promised Land.”
About the Conductor
Guest conductor Roupen Shakarian is presently in his eleventh season as music director of the Skagit Symphony. He has also served as the music director of Philharmonia Northwest and the Cascade Symphony. As a guest conductor, Mr. Shakarian has appeared with many regional orchestras, including the Seattle Symphony, Victoria Symphony, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Northwest Chamber Orchestra, Orchestra Seattle, Skagit Opera and Whatcom Symphony.
A published composer, his works include Whimsy for orchestra, Five Bagatelles for wind quintet, Inner Places for organ and brass quintet (commissioned by the American Guild of Organists and premiered at their National Convention in April 2000), Pastime for a small ensemble, a flute concerto (premiered by Orchestra Seattle) and The Turnip, Clock and the Kid, commissioned and recorded by the Rainier Chamber Winds.
Mr. Shakarian’s other works include “ is but a dream” for solo oboe (written for Rebecca Henderson, and recorded by her on Boston Records), Other Voices for chorus and small ensemble, Bone Island Suite (a song cycle for soprano and orchestra) and Eventide (for trumpet and piano), in addition to many choral pieces, among them Almighty and Everlasting God and If Ye Love Me, Keep My Commandments (both published by Oxford University Press). In June 2013, he recorded his violin concerto with members of the Seattle Symphony and soloist Victoria Parker (who premiered it in 2008), aired last June on the Seattle radio station KING-FM. Echoes, commissioned by the North Corner Chamber Orchestra, received its premiere in November 2014.
OSSCS is delighted to welcome Roupen Shakarian back to the podium this evening. As a member of the Seattle Chamber Singers during the ensemble’s early years, Roupen once sang tenor solos in a performance of Israel in Egypt, a signature work of SCS over the course of its first decade.
About the Soloists
Soprano Catherine Haight appears frequently with the region’s most prestigious musical organizations, regularly performing in Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Carmina Burana and The Nutcracker. Reviewing PNB’s world premiere of Christopher Stowell’s Zaïs, The Seattle Times called her singing “flawless.’ She appears as soprano soloist on the OSSCS recording of Handel’s Messiah, the Seattle Choral Company recording of Carmina Burana, and on many movie and video game soundtracks, including Pirates of the Caribbean, Ghost Rider and World of Warcraft. Recent concert performances include Bach’s Mass in B Minor with OSSCS, Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 with Seattle Collaborative Orchestra and Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs at Seattle Pacific University, where she has served on the voice faculty since 1992.
Mezzo-soprano Sarah Mattox is a first-prize winner of the Belle Voci National Competition and has sung principal roles with Cincinnati Opera, Palm Beach Opera, Chicago Opera Theater, Lyric Opera Cleveland, Eugene Opera, Amarillo Opera and many others. The Seattle Times said she “raised eyebrows all over the Opera House with her believable, lifelike acting and her well-schooled voice,” while the Akron Beacon Journal called her “a rich-toned mezzo-soprano.” The Seattle Post-Intelligencer praised her “sensitive singing, warm, expressive voice and clear diction” in concert appearances with the Seattle Symphony. Her first solo CD, Copland and Cole, with pianist Judith Cohen, features Copland’s Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson and a selection of Cole Porter’s lesser-known songs. Next month she sings the title role in Carmen with the Walla Walla Symphony. Learn more: sarahmattox.com
Hailed by The New York Times as a “compelling tenor,” Zach Finkelstein made his New York City Opera debut in April 2013 in Rossini’s Mosè in Egitto. Recent performances include: Mozart’s Requiem with the Seattle Symphony; Bach’s Christmas Oratorio (the Vancouver Sun called his Evangelist “first among equals”) with Early Music Vancouver, Pacific Baroque Orchestra and Pacific Music Works; Bach’s St. John Passion with Portland Baroque; Handel’s Dettingen Te Deum and Haydn’s Missa in tempore belli with Jane Glover and the Music of the Baroque in Chicago; and Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle with the Bach Elgar Choir in Hamilton, Canada. Upcoming concert work includes Messiah with Portland Baroque, Symphony Nova Scotia and Rogue Valley Symphony, as well as the Christmas Oratorio with the Victoria Symphony and Haydn’s Creation with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. Learn more: zachfinkelstein.com
Baritone Ryan Bede returns to Tacoma Opera during the 2014–2015 season, where he will appear as Papageno in Die Zauberflöte and Mercutio in Roméo et Juliette. Also upcoming are his first mainstage appearance with Coeur d’Alene Opera as Sonora in La fanciulla del West and Israel in Egypt with OSSCS. Engagements during the 2013–2014 season included the Pirate King in Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance for Tacoma Opera, a concert of French opera selections for the Seattle/Nantes Sister City Organization, Samuel Barber’s Dover Beach with the Seattle-based Bella Sala Ensemble, Dr. Falke in Die Fledermaus with Skagit Opera, and Albert in Werther with Vashon Opera. He presently teaches voice through the Community Music Department at the University Of Puget Sound. Learn more: ryanbede.com
Baritone Ben Grover enjoys singing solos with various choirs in the Seattle area and performs with the Byrd Ensemble, Opus 7 and the Tudor Choir. Mr. Grover has recently sung baritone solos in Brahms’ Requiem with Cantare and bass solos (including the role of Pilate) in Bach’s St. John Passion with Seattle Bach Choir.
Georg Frideric Handel
Israel in Egypt, HWV 54
Handel was born in Halle, Germany, on February 23, 1685, and died in London on April 14, 1759. He composed Part I of this work (originally “The Ways of Zion Do Mourn,” HWV 264) as a funeral anthem for England’s Queen Caroline between December 5 and December 12, 1737, and produced Parts II and III between October 1 and November 1 of 1738. The funeral anthem, scored for SATB choir and soloists, 2 oboes, strings and continuo, premiered on December 17, 1737. The full three-part oratorio debuted in London on April 4, 1739. In addition to vocal soloists and double chorus, Parts II and III call for pairs of flutes, oboes, bassoons and trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, continuo and strings.
By the time of his death, Handel, a German musician trained in Italy, had become England’s “national composer,” a remarkable man who was both a musical master and a “personality” regarded with special awe and affection throughout the musical world. So he remains to this day, although the list of works for which he is famous remains very short: the oratorio Messiah, a “funeral march” from another oratorio (Saul), a chorus from a third oratorio (Judas Maccabaeus), an air from the opera Serse, the Water Music and the Fireworks Music.
Handel was born Georg Friederich Händel to Georg, a surgeon, and his second wife, Dorothea, the daughter of a Lutheran pastor. As a young musician who played harpsichord, organ, violin and oboe, Handel traveled, studied and composed in the very cosmopolitan Italy of the early 1700s, where he met with considerable success.
In 1710, Handel journeyed to London, where he soon prospered as a composer of opera in the Italian style. Handel was employed by the Elector of Hanover, but spent so much time enjoying his musical activities in London that his employer began to notice—and question—his extended stays in England. This employer, however, also happened to be the great-grandson of James I of England, and when Queen Anne died in 1714, the Elector of Hanover succeeded her as George I of England. Thus Handel’s German employer arrived in London, allowing the composer to avoid discipline for his truancy from the Hanoverian court! Handel then embarked upon a successful 20-year career as an opera composer, producing some 40 operas altogether, and became a naturalized British citizen.
By about 1730, however, the English public was beginning to tire of opera in the Italian style. Sensing that his career as a composer of Italian opera might be in jeopardy, the astute Handel soon began to produce another form of dramatic musical entertainment equally suited to his talents: the oratorio, an “opera without action,” which Handel sometimes called “musical drama.”
The Harvard Dictionary of Music defines oratorio as “a composition with a long libretto [text], often of a religious or contemplative character, that is performed in a concert hall or church without scenery, costumes or action, by solo voices, chorus and orchestra.” As opposed to secular opera, an oratorio libretto is less dramatic, with greater emphasis is placed on the role of the chorus: there is little or none of the opera’s quick dialogue, and a narrator often introduces the characters, connects their parts and describes the action. Handel and his audiences found this musical form had numerous advantages over Italian opera: no expensive staging and no overpaid, egotistical, quarreling Italian star sopranos; well-known, exciting plots, taken mostly from mythology and from the Old Testament of the English Bible; texts in English, the language of the London audience; and sweeping, dramatic choruses. Thus, after about 1742, Handel found a “second career” as an oratorio composer. Indeed, he is renowned today chiefly as the master of the English oratorio, his works in this form becoming the standard by which, for decades, all other choral and religious music was measured.
On October 1, 1738, within four days of completing the score of the oratorio Saul, Handel began composing a large-scale choral epic called The Song of Moses, perhaps planned originally as an anthem or a set of anthems. The text from Exodus 15 celebrates the deliverance of the people of Israel from the anger of Pharaoh and the Egyptians by whom they had been enslaved. The sentiments of this text matched the contemporary political mood in England, where war with Spain was being urged by all sides.
As he composed, drawing extensively for musical ideas upon works by some Italian composers (in fact, nearly half of the oratorio’s numbers “rework” various composers’ materials, including Handel’s own), Handel saw an opportunity to reuse his own magnificent Funeral Anthem, which he had written the previous autumn upon the death of Queen Caroline. This music received a new text and, as “The Lamentations of the Israelites for the Death of Joseph,” became Part I of the new oratorio, while “Moses’ Song, Exodus, Chapter XV,” became Part III. The composer then began work on the central act (called “The Exodus”), which describes the sufferings of the captive Israelites and the plagues visited by God upon their cruel Egyptian masters. Two weeks later, on November 1, 1738, Handel finished the entire work, which appears to have been called Exodus at first, and which later became known as Israel in Egypt. As an oratorio, it was unusual in that it featured long sequences of choruses in four and eight parts instead of impressive orchestral effects; it was a drama of nations rather than of individuals; it had almost no solo arias; and its text was taken directly from the Bible. (Messiah is the only other oratorio by Handel whose text consists entirely of biblical passages.)
When Handel first presented Israel in Egypt at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket, on April 4, 1739, along with “several concertos for the organ,” the audience offered a mixed reaction. Some listeners appreciated the “Sublimity of the great Musical Poet’s Imagination” and the novelty of setting a completely scriptural text. Most, however, seem to have been overwhelmed by the awesome, virtually unmitigated deluge of choruses—compositions whose variety, inventiveness and pictorial power remain virtually unmatched in all of music. Certain listeners also took offense at Handel’s use of words from the Bible in the “profane” context of a theater “entertainment.”
Israel in Egypt was presented later that April in a version radically shortened and interspersed with songs in Italian, but it still became, in the words of Julian Herbage, “Handel’s most superbly magnificent failure”; during the 20 years he lived after writing Israel in Egypt, Handel heard it sung only eight times. In 1771, the oratorio was published for the first time, but only the newly composed Parts II and III. Israel in Egypt began to be performed together with Messiah at the gigantic Handel Festivals held in the Sydenham Crystal Palace during the Victorian era, becoming a favorite with choral societies and their audiences from then on (the inclusion in performances of Part I is still somewhat unusual).
Part I of Israel in Egypt—like the rest of the oratorio and much of Baroque music in general—features striking contrasts in mood, texture, tempo, meter and dynamics. Its texts come from a number of Old Testament sources (probably selected by George Carlton, sub-dean of the Chapel Royal). The elaborate, nine-section anthem (a specific type of Anglican church music, often composed for choir and instruments for a special occasion) received its first performance by over 150 musicians at the funeral of Queen Caroline in Westminster Abbey. The heartfelt tribute to Handel’s personal friend, patron and sovereign opens with a short, solemn sinfonia, followed by a choral lament whose initial phrase derives from a Lutheran chorale that was probably familiar to both Handel and Queen Caroline from their youth. There follow appreciative celebrations of a much-mourned monarch’s benevolent character, into which sorrowful cries of “How is the mighty fall’n?” are interjected in the manner of a “refrain.” In the fourth section, sopranos present the slightly varied melody of another Lutheran chorale, while in the anthem’s sixth section—whose music is “borrowed” from a funeral motet by the late-16th-century Slovene Jacobus Gallus (Did the name “Handl,” by which this composer was also known, influence Handel’s choice of this music?)—the bodies of the righteous are buried in peace to hushed, stately chords, while their names live and dance to Renaissance-style rhythms and harmonies. The final section of the anthem assures us, in a somewhat somber chorale, that the Lord’s merciful goodness does—despite distress and death—endure forever, as demonstrated throughout Parts II and III of the oratorio.
Part II opens not with a colossal chorus as one might expect, but with a tenor recitative announcing that a new ruler of Egypt has arisen who afflicts the Israelites with grievous burdens. The chorus (often the double chorus) tells, with many remarkably graphic effects, the story of the 10 plagues that befall the Israelites’ oppressors and finally cause the Pharaoh to release the Israelites from their bondage. (The descriptive alto solo, “Their land brought forth frogs,” with its almost comically leaping violin figures, is the only aria in the first two sections of the oratorio.) In “They loathed to drink of the river,” a ragged, chromatic fugue subject conveys the disgust of the Egyptians at the thought of drinking the bloody waters of the Nile. The “Hailstone Chorus” pummels the listener with great chunks of choral sound hurled by one chorus and then by the other. Handel depicts the plague of darkness by means of a choral recitation featuring unsettlingly ambiguous harmonies, the shadowy sounds of low strings and bassoons, and fragmented choral lines that wander and stumble about helplessly in the instrumental blackness.
The chorus “Egypt was glad when they departed” provides an example of Handel’s felicitous reworking of the music of other composers: it is borrowed almost verbatim from an archaic-sounding organ piece by a little-known German, Johann Kaspar Kerll (1627–1693), but it fits Handel’s conception of the Egyptians as dull, complacent and apathetic—even the miraculous torments they suffer at the hands of Israel’s God scarcely stir them from their torpor.
The solemn procession of the Israelites through the Red Sea’s wild waves is well illustrated in “He led them through the deep” (note the plunging of the vocal lines at the word “deep”). trombones, reinforcing the more commonly used trumpets and drums, often add a wonderful weight and grandeur to the orchestra sound. Other colorful instrumental touches include the use of flutes to produce a radiant, pastoral mood at the words, “he led them forth like sheep,” and the employment of furiously “buzzing” violins to paint the plagues of flies, lice and locusts.
Part III, “Moses’ Song,” celebrates the miraculous escape of the Israelites across the Red Sea. Here the solo voices play a more important role, with three arias and three duets, but the chorus remains dominant. A striking orchestral introduction featuring unexpected changes of tonality is followed by the superbly Handelian double chorus “I will sing unto the Lord,” in which galloping horses can be heard in the choral rhythms. Equally powerful is the double chorus “The people shall hear,” one of Handel’s most exultant and dramatic: it builds successive towers of choral sound over a repeated dotted rhythm in the bass line, then climbs melodically above sustained bass notes as the chorus describes the weary wanderings of the Israelites through a desert of jagged dissonances on their way to the Promised Land. Handel achieves a particularly stunning effect at the close of the whirlwind chorus “And with the blast of thy nostrils,” where “the depths congeal in the heart of the sea” into single, stark notes in the bass. In the splendid finale, considered by some to be unsurpassed in the entire body of Handel’s work, the opening music of the “I will sing” chorus returns to “triumph gloriously” in glittering grandeur.
If Messiah is generally considered the greatest of Handel’s oratorios, Israel in Egypt, which Jonathan Keates describes as “an essay in interpreting the relationship between man and God,” ranks a very close second. Although it has no dramatic plot and no individual characters, every possible choral device is employed in its endlessly expressive choral pieces, including choral recitative and arioso, fugue and double fugue, and dramatic narrative. R.A. Streatfeild writes of this work: “Handel might have said of Israel, as Wagner said of Tristan und Isolde, that it was an extravagance, not to be repeated or imitated, but of all his works it is the most completely out of reach of every other composer who ever lived.”
Indeed, Israel in Egypt remains one of the most incredible choral tours de force in music history. Revel in its tremendous, sweeping sonorities, and rejoice with the Children of Israel in their marvelous deliverance!