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Music of Baroque explores Handel’s range of emotions in ‘Israel’

British conductor Jane Glover will lead Music Baroque concerts April 7 8.

British conductor Jane Glover will lead Music of the Baroque in concerts on April 7 and 8.

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‘Israel in Egypt” —
Music of
the Baroque

♦ 7:30 p.m. April 7, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd.,


♦ 7:30 p.m. April 8, Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph

♦ Tickets, $27-$75

♦ (312) 551-1414;

Fire mingled with hail, infestations of flies and locusts and darkness across the land. Such grim happenings might not seem like the most likely subject matter, yet they form the dramatic backdrop for one of the most celebrated of George Frideric Handel’s more than 20 oratorios: “Israel in Egypt.”

The 18th-century choral masterwork, which Chicago’s Music of the Baroque will perform April 7 and 8, relates the Biblical story of the Israelites’ bondage in Egypt and their triumphant escape through the Red Sea.

“All sorts of things happen during the course of the exodus,” said British conductor Jane Glover.

“There are plagues, fires and storms, all of which are brilliantly described in Handel’s music. At the same time, the emotional reactions of people, whether it’s fear, gratitude, awe or excitement — all that is in the music, too. You’re never, ever bored in ‘Israel in Egypt.’”

Although Glover has overseen many productions of Handel’s operas and more than 100 performances of his most famous oratorio, “Messiah,” she has never tackled this piece before.

Indeed, her eagerness to finally make up for that omission led her to make it one of the highlights of her 10th anniversary season as Music of the Baroque’s music director.

“I’ve been longing to do it for years,” she said.

The history of the oratorio, an opera-like musical setting of typically sacred text performed without scenery, costumes or action, dates to the mid-16th century. Handel essentially invented the English version of the form in the early 1730s at least partially in response to the Bishop of London banning a stage version of his earlier treatment of “Esther.”

Composed in one month in late 1738, “Israel in Egypt” is one of just two of the composer’s oratorios with texts taken entirely from the Bible. The two-hour piece is also unusual because of the prominent role of the chorus, which does not just comment on the narrative but plays a central role in advancing it.

“ ‘Israel in Egypt’ is really a concerto for chorus,” Glover said. “They do 90 percent of the work, and they have to adopt so many different persona. They have to be dramatic, contemplative, descriptive, emotionally involved and emotionally distant. It’s just tremendous fun as a choral singer.”

Indeed, she pointed to the strength of the Music of the Baroque’s chorus, which director William Jon Gray will prepare for these performances, as another reason for the selection of this oratorio for the 2012-13 season. Glover is confident the ensemble can deliver a performance of “real distinction.”

Although “Israel in Egypt” is sometimes performed with choruses with 150 voices or more, there will be 34 singers for these concerts backed by a 33-piece orchestra.

“The great thing about these Handel oratorios,” Glover said, “is that they are brilliant vehicles for whatever size of forces you throw at it. You can do an intimate one or you can do massive one or you can do something in between, and the music is still phenomenally relevant, powerful and moving.”

Although “Israel in Egypt” tells an overtly sacred story, and the two performances were scheduled to correspond roughly with the Jewish celebration of the Passover, Glover said that attendees need not be religious-minded to enjoy it.

“If you happen to believe it as well,” she said, “then that’s another huge dimension and a great bonus. But if you don’t, you’re not losing out at all. Even if you think it’s a load of bunkum, you’ll still have a wonderful time musically in the way that can you can engage a Shakespeare story or any great drama wonderfully told.”

Kyle MacMillan is a local free-lance writer.

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