Cantate Chamber Singers deliver delightful Handel with “Israel in Egypt”

Mon Feb 25, 2019 at 1:18 pm
By Joan Reinthaler

Handel’s “Israel in Egypt” was performed by Cantate Chamber Singers Sunday in Chevy Chase.

There are several reasons why Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt made an obvious choice for Gisele Becker to include in her farewell season as conductor of the Cantate Chamber Singers. But mainly it is a major dramatic Baroque work of the sort that Cantate has performed so well so often and it is s chock full of enchanting choruses, even by Handel’s standard.

The performance the chorus brought to the Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church on Sunday was delightful, and rarely have 90 minutes of music seemed to pass so quickly.

In the two-part form in which the oratorio is usually performed (its original, lugubrious opening section was cut early on by Handel himself as a depressing downer), the piece has two very different personalities. The first part records the plagues brought upon the earth by the Lord in retribution for the Pharaoh’s mistreatment of the Jews. There are locusts and frogs, “blotches,” “blains” and hailstorms, and all sorts of other unpleasant pestilences—all given vivid musical life with a puckish sense of humor by Handel. The orchestra buzzes and twitters as the chorus dithers. The Pharaoh and his horsemen are conquered, drowned in the Red Sea, and Part Two is an extended celebration of this victory, not as much fun as the plagues, perhaps, but full of majestic Handelian music-making.

Becker put together an excellent Baroque orchestra for the occasion, complete with valve-less “natural” trumpets that navigated with aplomb the fancy footwork in the “He Gave Them Hailstones” chorus.

Three of the six soloists were drawn from the chorus and they did well. Tenor Adam Apostoli, equipped with a light, focused, smooth production was an ideal evangelist-type soloist and managed his several recitatives and duets beautifully. Bass Kevin Frey and baritone James Rogers were well matched in their duo.

Roger Isaacs has been a counter-tenor staple in the area for years and he let go with some impressively celebratory ornamentation to proclaim his pride in filling the king’s chamber with frogs.  Sopranos Rachel Evangeline Barham and Joan McFarland had trouble settling in on the pitch in their Part II duet but Barham handled her solo arias competently.

The 47-member chorus was in fine form, and the many double choruses sounded solid and confident. The eight tenors held their own impressively and the balance was remarkably good. There was some splendidly dramatic dynamic coloring, particularly the powerful crescendo that opened the “People shall hear and be afraid” chorus, and the quiet moments were golden.

The only disappointment was diction; perhaps the acoustic deserves some blame along with the challenges of the frequently eight-part texture, yet the words were very hard to discern.

Becker paced this extended work well, not only driving the tempo where power was needed but allowing lines to breathe in more lyrical passages. She did a particularly satisfying job in timing the transition from one movement to the next, a subtle skill that can make all the difference in a large work’s overall coherence.

The Cantate Chamber Singers’ final concert of the season, “It Is Time” will  take place Saturday, May 18 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Chevy Chase.

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