Promoters of an Atlanta Master Chorale concert are hoping to attract a Jewish audience to a choral work by a composer widely recognized for his Christian-based themes.
George Frideric Handel wrote the music for the oratorio “Israel in Egypt” in 1738. Like his more famous “Messiah,” it is compiled from texts in the Old Testament, mainly from Exodus and Psalms. Scholars believe that the librettist was Charles Jennens, an English patron of the arts and a friend of Handel’s who was responsible for “Messiah.”
“Most people know the ‘Messiah,’ but this is equally as majestic and beautiful, except it’s not as well known,” said Jim Verrecchia, the executive director of the Atlanta Master Chorale. “Many of our shows have been based on Christian themes; that’s the way the choral world works. This is an opportunity to include the Jewish community in a concert and celebrate our common heritage.”
Verrecchia reached out to Jewish leaders to spread the word about the March 17 concert at Emory University and got help from Rabbi Peter Berg of The Temple and Rabbi Ron Segal of Temple Sinai, among others.
“This looks like an extraordinary program,” Rabbi Berg said in an email, while Rabbi Segal called it “compelling.”
Handel’s “Israel in Egypt” depicts the story of the Exodus and follows the journey of the Israelites from captivity to the Red Sea and finally to freedom from slavery. The chorale’s official announcement describes the work as a “grand and sweeping array of choruses, arias and masterful orchestrations portraying one of the best known and dramatic tales in human history.”
The Exodus is a common thread that connects Jews and Christians, said Verrecchia, citing a parallel between the escape of the chosen people from Egypt to the Promised Land and Christians’ trek from slavery and sin to hope and resurrection.
Handel lived in London and reportedly had a considerable Jewish following, having written oratorios on such Jewish subjects as “Solomon,” “Esther,” “Joseph,” “Saul” and “Judas Maccabeus.”
“Israel in Egypt” was poorly received when it premiered in 1739, apparently because of the lack of the operatic solos that his fans were used to. The composer rewrote key passages two decades later and eventually scored a hit.
Moreover, “Moses and the Children of Israel,” a fragment from the oratorio, is said to be among the earliest extant recordings of music, caught on a wax cylinder at London’s Crystal Palace during the 1888 Handel Festival and sung by 4,000 voices. Though “greatly degraded, (it) is still wonderful to hear the faint, soaring sounds of singers exulting in this beautiful piece almost 125 years ago,” according to the San Francisco Choral Society, which has staged “Israel In Egypt.”
Verrecchia noted that the concert at the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts will be held two weeks before the start of Passover and Easter weekend. He added that “Israel in Egypt” productions elsewhere have been known to create an “occasion for interfaith connectivity in the arts.”
What: “Israel in Egypt”
Who: Atlanta Master Chorale
Where: Emerson Concert Hall, Schwartz Center for Performing Arts, 1700 N. Decatur Road, Atlanta
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, March 17
Tickets: $35; tickets.arts.emory.edu/single/SYOS.aspx?p=111066 or 404-727-5050