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Singing the praises of Handel's 'Pesach' oratorio

Church music dominates choral singing in the UK. But one singer decided to challenge Christian dominance - with a special concert of Handel's Israel out of Egypt.

    The Coro choir
    The Coro choir

    There’s an elephant in the chapel. As Pesach and Easter approach, music-lovers 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 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 word-painting: 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

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