A Handel oratorio is almost too much fun; it's just so easy to bellow out that "good old Handel," the louder the better, and let artistry go hang. It takes work to make a concert performance of Handel significantly more than an exercise in sight-reading. The Glee Club, Choral Society, and Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra supplied the necessary work last night. They made things "happen" in Israel in Egypt; conductor Elliot Forbes took good advantage of the vocal discipline which the choruses maintained.
This oratorio is a troublesome one. Handel wanted to write an epic. But he wished to convey more monolithic artistic ideas than a narrative could portray, and so dispensed with distinct characters and made the story of the crossing of the Red Sea only the first half of the work. What then resulted is what one scholarly critic called "an overblown anthem"--a series of resounding proclamation of the Lord's might, many of them superb in their declamatory power--yet the whole work lacks drama.
But Forbes captured well what form the Oratorio has. By maintaining an admirable control of dynamics, he made the individual choruses grow within themselves and contrast among each other; the work ended with the largest sound the group produced all evening. The chorus closing the first half, also sounding as if it were ending something, possessed a motet-like lightness which is a remarkable achievement in this style.
Graceful and effective pronunciation is always a sticking-point in English, but the choruses and the soloists dealt with the problem well. The words were quite distinct, if I some times did feel spat upon. Several instances of unusual word-painting had delightful enunciation: "silver (seelver) and gold," "nostrils," and "blotches and blains" (the last by alto Betty Lou Austin).
The soloists carried off the few solos in the oratorio excellently. The women, Junetta Jones and Janet Winburn, sopranos, and Betty Lou Austin, alto, had strong, vibrant voices. The men, all from the Glee Club, equalled them: Robert McKelvey, Clayne Robison, basses, made "The Lord is a Man of War" very convincing; Ivor Francis, tenor, was weak in his upper register, but contributed fluid recitatives and good airs. The orchestra was fine but not overly distinguished.
But after praising the choruses so, I should add that the oratorio has been done better, notably by Paul Callaway at the Washington Cathedral. A sniveling thing to do, perhaps, but it is an important qualification. The Choral Society, for one thing, was too frail when its parts were exposed. Yet what in some ways limited the Glee Club's performance helped in others: at times its resonant sound became dull--particularly in the opening narrative--but elsewhere created awesome solidity. Yet, because the oratorio's greatest asset is its power and not its drama, the Glee Club's distinctive sound was quite in place.