BRATTLEBORO—Who says choral music has to be stuffy?
On Sunday, May 22 at 4 p.m., the Brattleboro Concert Choir, directed by Susan Dedell and accompanied by a festival orchestra, will present Handel’s Israel in Egypt on stage at Persons Auditorium at Marlboro College.
Handel’s choral masterpiece may be 250 years old, but Dedell likes to see it “as a baroque Phantom of the Opera.” She believes “if Handel was alive today, he could very well be writing hit Broadway musicals because the man loved a good story and high theater.”
The modern composer whom strikes her most like Handel is Leonard Bernstein, who could easy shift back and forth from the opera house to the playhouse.
“During Handel’s lifetime, oratorios like Israel in Egypt were not staid concert hall productions — they were popular entertainment, especially when they were based on Old Testament stories,” she said. “And to be sure, Handel was the supreme master of this kind of musical theater, filling music halls with enthusiastic crowds, production after production.”
She believes that, “perhaps no piece of choral music contains as much overt drama and excitement as his supremely colorful oratorio Israel in Egypt, which describes the deliverance of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. Orchestral musicians love playing this piece, singers love singing it, and audiences eat it up.”
Which is not to say the music lacks profundity.
Dedell finds the thematic content of struggle, deliverance, and retribution particularly timely in these days, and Handel’s treatment of this story has some great insights into human action and reaction.
“Handel wrote Israel in Egypt during a time when England was involved in a war with Spain, a dispute that arose from English claims that Spain was boarding English sailing vessels and taking captives to serve aboard their own ships,” she said. “The idea that English sailors were being taken as slaves resonated with the biblical telling of the bondage of the Jewish people in Egypt, a comparison which the English government of the time exploited in order to gain sympathy for their war efforts.”
Although based on the familiar story from the Bible, she thinks the oratorio is not essentially religious.
“The epic tale of the exodus, is, of course, the central focus of the Jewish festival of Passover,” said Dedell. “It has been told as allegory and metaphor for centuries: an oppressed people rise up, and through struggle and miracle, escape and find freedom. It has been fodder for books, plays, music — even movies like Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments — for generations.”
Like Shakespeare, Handel is a great dramatist because he takes an detached objectivity from the events he portrays. Dedell admires most about his treatment of Israel in Egypt is that he refuses to take sides. “He has as much sympathy for the Egyptians as the Israelites. You can feel for the Egyptians as they drown in the Red Sea, just as he does for the Israelites suffering in bondage.”
This year, Israel in Egypt has been performed throughout the United States in every major city on the East Coast at least once, an amazing coincidence considering the uprising in Egypt this past January, and the rising tide of unrest across North Africa.
Dedell herself was drawn to the work because she has “a deep personal interest in how our reactions to violence form us both as individuals and as societies.” She says that there were wonderful discussions amongst the members of the chorus of the complex themes found in this oratorio.
“People kept emailing ideals back and forth to each other,” she said. “It got very intense.”
With all the emphasis on drama, it is worth emphasizing out that Handel tells his story through music.
“Israel in Egypt features some of the most dazzling orchestral writing in the choral repertoire,” said Dedell. Unlike most of Handel’s dramatic oratorios, “the chorus and the orchestra carry the bulk of the musical action, while soloists punctuate key important moments with brilliant solos.“
Featured soloists for this performance are sopranos Junko Watanabe and Karen Smith Emerson, countertenor Chris Dudley, tenor Peter Shea, and bass Andrew Semegram. All of these soloists have worked with Dedell on past projects, except for countertenor Chris Dudley, who is new to the Brattleboro music scene. Dudley currently lives in Washington D.C., where he is on the music staff at the National Cathedral and is the founder/director of the ensemble Countertop.
The 25-piece festival orchestra is made up of free-lance professional musicians all over the East Coast. Unlike many current performances, Israel in Egypt will not be performed on period but on modern instruments yet played in a Baroque style.