I Know It When I Hear It

Handel’s Israel in Egypt
Princeton University Glee Club and Nassau Sinfonia
Gabriel Crouch, Conductor

I do not profess to be an expert in musicology, so I shall not attempt to guess the criteria by which one may deem a musical performance to be “good.”  To use a reliable colloquialism, I know it when I hear it.  I can therefore say the recent performance of Handel’s Israel in Egypt by the Nassau Sinfonia and the Princeton Glee Club was most certainly good. And by “good”, I do not mean the meh-type of good usually reserved to express my indifference towards a truly mediocre performance. This concert was really good.

Like most of the Princeton Glee Club’s performances, this performance was held at the Richardson Auditorium, a place that boasts wonderful acoustics. One seldom realizes this.  For me, it was only when the warmth of the Baroque music had filled the room that I actually appreciated the treasure we have here on campus. There’s something different about having an orchestra on the stage as opposed to being tucked away in a pit, and while concerts consisting only of an orchestra can, and often are enjoyable, I find that performances which call for both an orchestra and a group of singers generally offer more variety. Handel’s Israel in Egypt is no exception. The oratorio begins with an stirring overture.  I could not help but to watch as the violinists play with their whole upper body. The immensely talented Nassau Sinfonia is completely attentive to their conductor. This lasts several minutes. Then begins the tenor recitative:

Now there arose a new king over Egypt,
which knew not Joseph;
and he set over Israel taskmasters
to afflict them with burdens,
and they made them serve with rigor
(Exodus 1:8, 11, 13)

As the opening lines suggest, the libretto to the piece consists only of passages from the Old Testament, primarily Exodus and Psalms. Operatic elements can be found in this piece, but since the libretto is taken from the Scriptures, the Church of England would have found the use of costumes or actors to be highly irreverent and inappropriate.  Yet, through the use of music alone, Handel evokes a drama of the Exodus in an arguably more powerful way than a play or musical could hope to achieve. What better way, to quote Conductor Gabriel Crouch, to portray the events such as “the leaping of the frogs represented in the violins during the first Alto aria; the maddening buzzing of the flies in the chorus ‘He spake the word’; the sense of watery wilderness depicted in ‘The depths have covered them’; and my favorite, the feeling of expectation at the beginning of a storm, so brilliantly captured in the opening of ‘He gave them hailstones’ ” if not through the medium of music? Indeed, this hailstorm was one of my favorite parts. It rivaled the conjuring up of real hailstones: so flawless was the performance.  This section is followed immediately by the lines:

He smote all the first-born of Egypt,
the chief of all their strength.

Whereupon, a chill went down my spine. This is the Handelian portrayal of the vengeful God of the Old Testament, exemplified by the tenth plague. The use of the brass instruments at this point is particularly indescribable.

To say, however, the whole performance was completely austere would not be entirely accurate. At one point of the performance, the talented Ryland Angel, who sang the alto part, went from a high note to a low note (I believe those are the technical terms) and, dare I say, took a little too much glee in this, causing a few chuckles from the audience. Another memorable instance, and perhaps this attests to the talent of tenor Dann Coakwell, occurred during one of the tenor solos, when Crouch looked over his shoulder at Coakwell and gave a nod of approval. The other soloists, who were professional singers, were also quite impressive. The only complaint (which I suspect is an ungrounded and irrational one) is that during one solos, soprano of the Maya Kherani was a bit too quiet. and had her beautiful voice drowned out by the orchestra. Bass-baritones Dashon Burton and Jonathan Woody had powerful voices and were a pleasure to listen to, as was Soprano Lily Arbisser.

As I looked around during intermission, it seemed to me that the majority of the audience members were from the town and not the university. Perhaps the date of the performance was set too close to midterms week, but it would be terribly unfortunate to miss out on the rest of the Princeton Glee Club’s performances for this academic year.  I emphatically recommend attending their future performances. I still have fond memories of attending my first Princeton Glee Club concert back in freshman year when they had performed Bach’s Passion of St. John. In fact, after this performance I could barely handle the fact that I had missed their performance of Dixit Dominus a week ago.  Please do go: it is an experience not to be missed.

About Charles Ouyang

Charlie Ouyang is a junior in the Mathematics department. He can be reached at couyang@princeton.edu.
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