Jonathan Cohen launches his first season as Handel and Haydn Artistic Director with Handel’s epic Israel in Egypt at Symphony Hall on October 6th and 8th Tickets HERE. We asked Cohen some questions such as “Why is this night different from all other nights?”
JC: The opening night of the season is a very special one for me as it is my first concert in my new capacity as Artistic Director of H+H. I chose this wonderful piece for several reasons; first the music is extraordinary, monumental Handel with double chorus and a colourful orchestral tapestry; second, we get to showcase our extraordinary home talent and can celebrate the wonderful strengths of the musicians and singers of H+H; third, Israel in Egypt (and Messiah) was highly likely heard in London by Haydn and served (in my opinion) as Haydn’s inspiration for his choral compositions, especially The Creation. Israel in Egypt is therefore a symbolic piece in the connection between Handel and Haydn.
FLE: Should H+H issue a trigger warning for the pain Handel dispenses on the Egyptians in the name of God? The smitings and plagues come across with visceral power and unimproved-upon word painting. (The strings’ swirling swarms of 32nd-note flies and lice tops the category.) In the final double chorus the oratorio energetically posits that “The Lord Shall Reign Forever” while taking glee in drowning the Egyptian horses and riders in the sea (sing “rickety-tickety-tin”). Is this ok by modern standards?
J.C.: Israel in Egypt is a setting of biblical passages from Exodus of the Old Testament. The libretto is directly that of the Bible. I think people understand that the biblical stories are from a different time and are complex at all levels of analysis. In Exodus, the Egyptians hold the Israelites captive and in slavery performing extremely hard and cruel labour. This is a story of faith in God and a deliverance from suffering.
Handel’s music rejoices in the wonders of miracles and the natural world, using ingenious orchestral colours in creative and bold depictions of the plagues and the parting of the red sea. I believe that Haydn would have heard this piece in London and this would have served as inspiration for his Creation.
There is certainly a victorious element to the music celebrating the Israelite’s escape from the pursuing army of Egyptians as they made their miraculous crossing of the Red Sea. The rhythm of the pursuing galloping horses in the music is ingenious and very pictorial. I don’t believe that the right way to “judge” a story of ancient origin (Exodus was approximately 1445 BC) is to apply “modern standards” of morality and modern notions of “justice.”
Will you be staring the show with the somewhat dreary 1739 “Lamentation of the Israelites for the Death of Joseph?” Without some intro, Part II begins awkwardly. Will this necessitate any cuts?
We’re doing the 1757 version of the piece. Handel revisited this work several times with some major cuts and additions. The 1757 version has an entirely new part 1, containing a balanced proportion of arias and choruses by selecting items from Solomon, the Occasional Oratorio and the Peace Anthem. Parts 2 and 3 are largely unchanged, a few cuts and changes and the inclusion of new aria “Toss’d from thought to thought” from Alexander Balus.
Did you personally audition and/or select the 13 soloists? Are some stepping out of the chorus?
All the solo arias in this concert will be performed by various singers in the H+H chorus. Casting has been done by H+H in collaboration with me and I’m thrilled that we get to showcase some of our extraordinary local vocal talent.
Can you tell us the history of H+H performances of the work?
I believe that the duet “The Lord is a Man of War” was performed in the inaugural concert at the founding of the Handel and Haydn Society in 1815.