Israel in Egypt
By George Frideric Handel. Performed by Tafelmusik musicians, the University of Toronto Schola Cantorum and Collegium Musicum, the Choir of the Theatre of Early Music and the Clarion Choir, with soloists. Conducted by Daniel Taylor and Jeanne Lamon. At St. Patrick’s Church, 131 McCaul St., on March 9.
Anyone with a glancing interest in classical music has heard at least part of George Frideric Handel’s great oratorio Messiah. But this is only the tip of a Titanic-dwarfing iceberg that is this Baroque-era composer’s music.
Toronto-based counter-tenor, conductor and teacher Daniel Taylor gave us a taste of another great oratorio, Israel in Egypt, on Saturday night at St. Patrick’s Church. The concert was supported by the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music, where Taylor teaches and which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.
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Israel in Egypt, written two years before Messiah, may be Handel’s most ambitious choral work. The vocal solos and duets are short and limited. Most of the 90 or so minutes of music belong to the choir, and Handel poured his heart and soul into the writing.
The result is a bewildering showcase of styles, colours and textures for both the instruments and voices. The text is straight out of the Book of Exodus in the Hebrew Scriptures, retelling how Moses led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. The climax is God parting the Red Sea for his people and then filling it back in, drowning Pharaoh and his army, who are in hot pursuit.
This is a collective story of faith and overcoming adversity, hence best told by a large group of people singing together about it — much in the way the Bible tells us people did in the aftermath of the actual event.
The singers need to be lithe, precise and flexible. The conductor must modulate the delivery to feed a narrative that is marching forward one minute, then pausing to reflect the next.
Taylor, leading his own Theatre of Early Music singers, the University of Toronto Schola Cantorum and Collegium Musicum, and the visiting Clarion Choir from New York City, did an excellent job of laying out this epic tale in music.
The orchestra, prepared by former Tafelmusik music director Jeanne Lamon, was a capable accompanist. The soloists, English tenor Charles Daniels and young singers plucked from the ranks of the choir, were up to the task.
It is so rare in these parts for such a large group of well-matched musicians to present Israel in Egypt that it was enough of a treat to hear this remarkable score performed live. It was even better to have someone with Taylor’s sensitivity to pacing and texture on the podium.
But this wasn’t a performance for the ages. St. Patrick’s Church is nice for appreciating the whole sound experience of a large chorus with orchestra. However, its ample acoustics obliterated most of the consonants that English-speaking singers work so hard to define. The result was a wash of sound in which the words were almost unintelligible.
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There are numerous abrupt transitions in the score itself. A couple were notably awkward as conductor, orchestra and singers struggled to find common ground in the first measure or two.
But Handel himself triumphed as gloriously as God’s people in the story and I can only hope that a concert like this inspired more people to explore the riches of his 29 oratorios and 42 operas.
Classical music writer John Terauds is a freelance contributor for the Star, based in Toronto. He is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @JohnTerauds