Music of the Baroque triumphs in Handel's 'Israel in Egypt'

By Andrew A Patner, Chicago Sun Times
April 09, 2013

Major works by Mozart and Haydn have marked Jane Glover’s 10th season as music director of Chicago’s Music of the Baroque.

But it would be hard to find a better demonstration of the high level that this 42-year-old local institution has achieved under Glover and chorus director William Jon Gray, now in his third season, than the brilliant presentation Monday of Handel’s “Israel in Egypt” at the Harris Theater.

Though it’s Handel’s second most performed oratorio after the ubiquitous “Messiah,” it’s a far distant second, and that’s a shame. More than a dozen Music of the Baroque subscribers observed to me at intermission that they’d never heard the work live before.

Yet it is a choral marvel from beginning to end, and this was a marvelous performance.

The chorus-driven nature of the 1739 work — a kind of bridge between similar works of Bach and Haydn, and what Glover has called “practically a concerto for choirs” — is a reason for its rare performance. With very few numbers for soloists, big-name singers are usually not attached to it or to material for ticket brochures. The work’s few solos mostly pertain to the Ten Plagues Upon Egypt, and the bouncy, appropriately reptilian, “Their land brought forth frogs” is not on the top of too many people’s classical playlists.

“Israel in Egypt” is also a liturgical orphan, drawn as it is entirely from the Hebrew Bible (Exodus and the Psalms) and telling the story of the slavery of the Jews in ancient Egypt, the Plagues, the exodus and subsequent celebration of the Israelites. Thus it has no place in church calendars, and the Jewish tradition does not incorporate English-language orchestral oratorios, however communicatively set. Glover herself had never directed it anywhere before.

After a well-attended performance Sunday in Skokie, Monday saw a large downtown crowd for as fine as I’ve ever heard of a performance of a personal favorite work . With its crisp diction, impeccable balances, transparent intertwining of parts in the fugues and other passages, the 34-member chorus was the right size for both clarity and sound and could not be improved upon. The 33-piece orchestra was a strong match, and Glover achieved her special balance of historically informed and lively interpretation with largely modern-style instruments. Chicago Symphony Orchestra trumpets Christopher Martin and Tage Larsen were triumphal icing on this well-balanced and nuanced musical cake.

Each plague — the aforementioned frogs, pestilence, flies, locusts, “hailstones for rain,” thick darkness, and those awfully smote first-born — had its instrumental or vocal impersonation from whirring violins to staccato sung syllables to bassoon-led mournfulness. Riveting choruses ranged from the powerful “He spake the word” and “He rebuked the Red Sea” to the haunting contrasts of “The people shall hear” with the mystical repetitions of the line “till thy people pass over.”

Vocal solos and duets traditionally are given to choristers in this work, and so they were here with male alto Joseph Schlesinger a standout, from those bouncing frogs to the thanksgiving for redemption.

Glover and Music of the Baroque will take the whole shebang July 9 to Ravinia’s intimate indoor Martin Theatre. The group’s May 19-20 Bach St. John’s Passion at Evanston’s Pick-Staiger and the Harris already loomed large on the spring concert calendar. Now you know what one of the highlights of the summer will be, too.

Andrew Patner is critic at large for WFMT-FM (98.7).