Thus, long ago, ere heaving Bellows learn'd to blow
Let's imitate her notes above
Let old Timotheus yield the prize
Concerto for Organ
Your voices tune
LOS ANGELES - After capturing the Persian city of Persepolis and defeating King Darius III in 330 BCE, Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE) holds a banqu Read More
LOS ANGELES - After capturing the Persian city of Persepolis and defeating King Darius III in 330 BCE, Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE) holds a banquet in a great tent, where the Theban musician Timotheus, who has accompanied the campaign, plays his lyre. By the sheer power of music, he is able to arouse a variety of moods among the crowd, giving German-become-English composer George Frideric Handel opportunity for a grand outpouring of miraculous baroque music in his two hour-long oratorio Alexander's Feast: or, The Power of Music.
Conductor of the Los Angeles Master Chorale (LAMC), Grant Gershon, calls this "one of Handel's most gorgeous and imaginative scores." LAMC gave two performances of the work April 16 (seen) and 17 at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. The chorus of 48 singers, joined by a masterful period chamber orchestra, featured 13 soloists who narrate the story, all from within the chorus ranks.
Stage director Trevore Ross was brought in to make the performance as much a visual as an aural experience. Gone is the static chorus standing in formal rows - like the armies of Handel's day - with soloists taking a few steps forward to belt out their numbers. Here they're sitting around enjoying themselves at a victory party, all in black concert attire, and various individuals pop up and make their way to different positions on the stage to sing their recitatives and arias. The women carry a white organdy shawl that they can adjust to the desired effect; the men are fitted out above the left breast pocket with what looks like a big military ribbon indicating their service in the "Persian campaign." We are all, audience included, in this big tent together.
In Handel's day (1685-1759), British law held that religious subjects could not be profaned on the theatrical stage (which still smelled a little of degeneracy - actors and artists, you know). Thus a whole genre of sacred oratorios emerged, whereby these stories could be told musically but not operatically. In fact, Handel's 1717 Esther, based on the eponymous book of the Bible, was the first oratorio written in English. These works became especially popular in the weeks before Easter each year, when Britain gave up the pleasures of the stage for the Lenten season.
Handel composed Alexander's Feast in early 1736, and the work premiered at London's Covent Garden Theatre on February 19th of that year. It is based on a text by English poet John Dryden (1631-1700), at turns joyous and heartbreaking. Now 280 years old, it became one of Handel's most popular and most often revived works during his lifetime.
Technically speaking, this is an ode, not an oratorio, which features named characters in singing roles, whereas an ode has an omniscient narration with no individuated parts. In some ways the freedom from portraying a role allows the singers greater release from operatic convention.
The first big aria, leading into an upbeat chorus, is "Happy, happy, happy pair!" celebrating Alexander the Great and his mistress Thaïs, which is probably just a touch ahistorical because Alexander's friend, fellow soldier and lover Hephaestion fought in the Battle of the Persian Gate, and was more likely to have been the other half of that "happy pair."
There is growing consensus, as well, that the composer of Messiah, a work sung in Christian churches annually around the world, was also homosexual, though that particular word did not appear until more than a century after his death. He never married, but his circle of "nancy" friends is well documented.
His secular cantatas on the subject of love frequently fail to identify the gender of the beloved as a nod to those wealthy men around him who commissioned them.
As a relevant aside, author Mary Renault's poignant 1972 historical novel The Persian Boy became widely read in the gay community. Bagoas, the title character and narrator, was the favorite of Persian King Darius III, who becomes Alexander's lover, and provides an account of the conquest from the Persian side.
Following the ode to love we learn that "drinking is a soldier's pleasure," and the chorus appropriately sways back and forth as if with steins of mead in their fists.
Rulers must act justly
According to classical literary theory, pre-Christian philosophy stipulates that rulers must be magnanimous, act justly in the pursuit of war, and treat enemies with respect for their humanity and rank. In Alexander's Feast, Darius dies in battle, lamentably "without a friend to close his eyes." Alexander himself cried at Darius' fate.
Fortunately for the audience, LAMC opted to project supertitles so we could understand the text throughout. Dryden has his chorus quoting "the vanquished victor" Alexander:
War, he sung, is toil and trouble,
honor but an empty bubble.
Never ending, still beginning,
fighting still and still destroying.
If the world be worth thy winning,
Let the world be worth enjoying
(or as Emma Goldman put it, "If I can't dance, it's not my revolution.")
In part two, Timotheus strikes up his lyre and launches into vengeance mode. Enough with the platitudes about war and the tears for the honorable foe! Now he stirs up the crowd with images of those Greeks who "injured remain inglorious on the plain" those soldier ghosts "that in battle were slain" in the fight against the Persians' "hostile gods."
Plato himself, in The Republic, commented on the capacity of music to catapult emotions out of control: "Musical innovation is full of danger to the whole state, and ought to be prohibited." Which is what conservatives in the 1950s thought about rock 'n roll.
And when the saint comes marching in
It would hardly do to conclude a work performed during Lent with an act of revenge by one set of pagans (or more properly, multi-theists) against another. How Christian is that?? So Dryden, and Handel, use the ever-handy St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music herself, to descend to earth and restrain the fury. Cecilia is often portrayed by painters at the organ, for what instrument could better symbolize the heavenly power of the musical art?
Composers such as Handel often wrote "occasional" music to mark a state funeral, a royal wedding or coronation, and the end of a war. War being a disruptive event in the ideal order of things, it's only proper to bring reliable old Cecilia in to calm the savage breast. During these martial passages describing the fallen Greeks, the modernistic, chaotic-looking Disney organ itself was lit up blood-red, as if to make a pun about the soldiers' body parts strewn over the fields. Sure enough, at this point we get a little organ concerto (performed with the orchestra by Namhee Han) and the natural order is restored. Until the next time, of course.
For centuries after Handel's death, his music was little performed, except for Messiah, which always retained its popularity. The rest was largely forgotten. In this light, it is no great stretch to speculate that the revival of interest in Handel's operas, which honor the wisdom and generosity of just rulers, began in the 1920s after a horrific world war proved how brutally insane the world's leaders had become.
In subsequent years of the "Hidden Handel" initiative, Gershon is slated to lead productions of Handel's Saul, Israel in Egypt, Theodora and Samson. He explains: "Each of these vivid works is really an opera under a different name with great dramatic stories and flair."
All those music lovers who wonder what else the creator of Messiah left us will wonder no more.
On April 16th the Grammy-nominated Los Angles Measter Chorale led by Artistic Director Grant Gershon who also serves as the Resident Conductor of the Read More
On April 16th the Grammy-nominated Los Angles Measter Chorale led by Artistic Director Grant Gershon who also serves as the Resident Conductor of the LA Opera put on a performance of Alexander’s Feast by George Frideric Handel.
During Gershon’s tenure the Los Angeles Times has declared that the chorale, “has become the most exciting chorus in the country.”
He has led more than a hundred performances at the Walt Disney Concert Hall and has been nominated for Grammys for his recordings of Sweeney Todd (My all time favorite musical) and Ligeti’s Grand Macabre. In addition, he has led orchestras at Carnegie Hall, the Lincoln Center, Zankel Hall and many other notable theaters.
Alexander’s Feast launches the chorale’s mullti-year Hidden Handel Project comprising of semi-staged/multimedia production of five of Handel’s great but largely underperformed and recognized oratorios.
“I’m very excited to introduce audiences to these incredible yet rarely performed masterworks,” stated Gershon.
Alexander’s Feast portrays the story of Alexander the Great after he conquered the ancient city of Persepolis. Alexander would later burn down the city in revenge for the loss of his soldiers killed in battle.
“We are creating an all-encompassing environment that allows patrons to be completely immersed and because of the unique layout of Walt Disney Concert Hall, they will actually feel like participants at the great feast, “said eminent Director of Alexander’s Feast, Trevore Ross. “We are not limited by a proscenium or stage with a fourth wall, so we are able to play all the way around the house and use lighting I very creative way throughout the entire venue.”
Classical performers are adjusting to new generations. Forced by the new taste of consumers, the highbrow and traditionally exclusive culture is finally beginning to adjust to incorporate and attract audiences that are looking for more immersive and approachable experiences.
The Los Angeles Master Chorale has gone looking for Handel. The composer of "The Messiah" is, of course, in plain sight every Christmas and Read More
The Los Angeles Master Chorale has gone looking for Handel. The composer of "The Messiah" is, of course, in plain sight every Christmas and Easter. Opera companies everywhere have been increasingly turning to Handel, and a significant new recording of one of his more than 30 major operas comes along practically every month or two (more than for any other composer). Still, concert presenters worship but one "Messiah," leaving too many of the remaining two dozen oratorios neglected masterpieces.
"Hidden Handel" is the Master Chorale's salvaging operation of five, each to be semi-staged, and the first took place with performances of "Alexander's Feast" on Saturday and Sunday at Walt Disney Concert Hall. I would bet that the vast majority in Disney for the Saturday matinee, like me, knew the piece only from recordings. The hall was not full. It's-not-the-"Messiah"-Handel is a surprisingly hard sell.
Still "Alexander's Feast" is an ideal starting place. Once the fad for the German composer's Italian operas in London (where he spent most of his career) died down, he needed a new business. This setting of a John Dryden ode in tribute to music patron saint St. Cecilia and subtitled "The Power of Musick" was Handel's English-language oratorio startup.
"Alexander's Feast" proved a great success and remains irresistible. It also remains shockingly relevant. The conceit concerns Alexander the Great, who, having sacked the Persian capital of Persepolis, is partying with his lover, Thaïs. In their drunken revelry, she suggests that it would be a blast to burn down the town. The Svengali-like songster Timotheus applies the power of music to inflame passions. Any stage director who wanted to update this to Palmyra wouldn't have to stretch far.
That is not to say "Alexander's Feast" is a nasty piece of work. An angel is summoned to set things right. And in its most delicious moments, the score proves one of the all-time most irresistible hymns to music. The chorus, "Love was crown'd, but music won the cause," wins the beatific cause as memorably as any "Hallelujah" chorus.
But what to do with "Alexander's Feast"? It is both ode and oratorio (neither of which can be exactly pinned down), enlivened by instances of operatic insight. No music is specifically assigned to characters but rather implies them in narrative recitatives and highly characterful arias, with the choruses commenting on the action.
The Master Chorale walked a fine line between concert and theater, being neither quite here nor there. While Handel tailored his score for three trusted opera singers, Master Chorale music director Grant Gershon and stage director Trevor Ross treated Alexander's feast as just that. Fourteen singers from the chorus assumed the solo duties, sometimes dividing a single recitative among as many three tenors. The middle sections of the three-part da capo arias were taken by a second singer.
The chorus members, in formal concert dress, stood on risers behind the stage, and soloists came forward to sing either in front of the orchestra on one of two staircases placed behind the orchestra (an illuminated lyre hanging in front of the organ loft was the only other décor touch). For the opening of the first part, the singers amusingly broke out into partying. For the opening of the more militant second part, they assumed the stance of warriors. But otherwise they mostly stood and sang concert style.
Similarly, the soloists, not accustomed to assuming stage roles, could be stiff. They also projected variably. But the singing itself easily delighted, and the variety of voices lent a convincing social character.
Elissa Johnston was rightfully relied upon for the oratorio's most introspective aria, "He Sung Darius, Great and Good." Claire Fedoruk made for a bewitching Thaïs as she sang of sighing, looking and seductively sighing again. The chorus was tremendous in its big moments. The Master Chorale's orchestra played with a suave Baroque style.
Interpolating a movement from a Handel harp concerto (with harpist JoAnn Turovsky) and an organ concerto (with Namhee Han as soloist) added a nice touch. Gershon's Handelian verve placed an empowering emphasis on musical pleasure.
No details about the Master Chorale's plans for the four more oratorios have been announced. Whatever they may be, let them have the musical highs of "Alexander's Feast" and more by becoming a feast for the both ears and eyes.
“Alexander’s Feast” (premiered 1736, revised 1751) was one of three most popular works during Handel’s lifetime (the other two being “Messiah” and “Ac Read More
“Alexander’s Feast” (premiered 1736, revised 1751) was one of three most popular works during Handel’s lifetime (the other two being “Messiah” and “Acis and Galatea”) and, judging from Sunday evening’s superb concert staging by the Los Angeles Master Chorale, it was not hard to understand why. The work itself is sui generis: part-oratorio, part-opera, and vastly entertaining in its variety of choruses, solo numbers, instrumental obbligati and concertos – in a nutshell there is something for everyone. Conductor Grant Gershon and his creative team Trevore Ross (director) and Azra King-Abadi (lighting designer) kicked things up a notch, redistributing the solo numbers among the Master Chorale members, flooding the hall with mood lighting that changed with the music, and building two high platforms resembling two banquet tables where the chorus sat. It was a feast for the eye before the music even began.
Most of Mr. Gershon’s musical choices were sound and theatrically effective, although I question the substitution of perky soprano for alto in the somber number ‘He chose a mournful Muse’, and the slow lethargic tempo in the Part II opening number (‘Now strike the golden lyre again’) that would hardly have been able to ‘Break his bonds of sleep asunder!’ But for the most part, Mr. Gershon’s conducting and phrasing-shaping were dramatically cogent and beautifully nuanced. The rustling of voices in ‘The listening crowd admired the lofty sound’ was wonderfully angelic, and the muted strings of the “Grecian ghosts” were hauntingly eerie. There were also notable instrumental contributions from the harp, horn, trumpet, flute and the cello (as per the original 1736 version of ‘Softly sweet in Lydian measures’, which Handel later rewrote for the violin). Organist Namhee Han’s dazzling performance on the mighty Walt Disney Concert Organ surely beat Handel’s own little portable theater organ used in all his organ concertos.
Despite the lack of traditional SATB soloists in this production, their parts were filled by fourteen (yes fourteen) resident members of the Chorale, each partaking in one part of a multi-part aria or recitative, effectively and seamlessly integrating the chorus into the drama. Among the standouts were bass Steve Pence’s drunken aria ‘Bacchus ever fair and young’, soprano Claire Fedoruk’s wickedly-delicious ‘The Prince unable to conceal his pain’, and soprano Christina Bristow’s gorgeously radiant “With ravish’d ears the monarch hears” (in the same joyful vein as the soprano aria ‘Volate amori’ from Handel’s opera “Ariodante”, written only a year before).
But the greatest feature of the evening was the Master Chorale itself, who sang and acted like a great opera chorus, commenting on the drama as well as projecting a wide range of emotions, from the exhilarating ‘Happy happy pair’ (the happiest chorus since “Acis and Galatea”), and the chirpy will-o’-the-wisp sounds of ‘The listening crowd admired the lofty sound’, to the furies of ‘Rouse him like a peal of thunder’. The multipart fugues were particularly memorable for their expressive power, whether it’s depicting the tragedy of the ‘Fallen, fallen, fallen’ Darius, or launching the final glorious hymn to St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music (‘Nature’s mother-wit, and arts unknown before’)
Writing oratorios, odes, masques, etc. was strictly a business and practical decision for Handel. Opera was his true love and it shows in “Alexander’s Feast” and a host of stage works that he wrote after 1740, when his floundering opera business finally and officially went bust. Thanks to the Los Angeles Master Chorale’s multi-year “Hidden Handel” Project, we are in for more veritable feasts of operatic treats.