Concert Detail

Alexander's Feast

April 16, 2016, 02:00 PM
Grant Gershon, Conductor
Walt Disney Concert Hall
TITLE COMPOSER/ ARRANGER GUEST ARTISTS
Alexander's Feast (The Power of Musick) George Frideric Handel
Trevore Ross , Stage Director
Christina Bristow , Soprano
Claire Fedoruk , Soprano
Elissa Johnston , Soprano
Beth Peregrine , Soprano
Anna Schubert , Soprano
Adriana Manfredi , Mezzo Soprano
Nike St. Clair , Mezzo Soprano
Jon Lee Keenan , Tenor
Michael Lichtenauer , Tenor
Arnold Livingston Geis , Tenor
Todd Strange , Tenor
David Castillo , Baritone
Reid Bruton , Bass
Steve Pence , Bass-Baritone
Azra King-Abadi , Lighting Designer
Namhee Han , Organ
JoAnn Turovsky , Harp
1. Overture George Frideric Handel
2. 'Twas at the royal feast George Frideric Handel
Arnold Livingston Geis , Tenor
Jon Lee Keenan , Tenor
Michael Lichtenauer , Tenor
3. Happy, happy, happy pair! George Frideric Handel
Claire Fedoruk , Soprano
Elissa Johnston , Soprano
Anna Schubert , Soprano
Adriana Manfredi , Mezzo Soprano
Arnold Livingston Geis , Tenor
Jon Lee Keenan , Tenor
Michael Lichtenauer , Tenor
Todd Strange , Tenor
4. Timotheus, plac'd on high George Frideric Handel
Michael Lichtenauer , Tenor
Concerto for Harp, Op. 4, No. 6, Andante Allegro George Frideric Handel
JoAnn Turovsky , Harp
5. The song began from Jove George Frideric Handel
Elissa Johnston , Soprano
6. The list'ning crowd George Frideric Handel
7. With ravish'd ears the monarch hears George Frideric Handel
Christina Bristow , Soprano
8. The praise of Bacchus then the sweet musician sung George Frideric Handel
Todd Strange , Tenor
9. Bacchus, ever fair and young George Frideric Handel
Steve Pence , Bass-Baritone
10. Sooth'd with the sound George Frideric Handel
Arnold Livingston Geis , Tenor
Jon Lee Keenan , Tenor
11. He chose a mournful Muse George Frideric Handel
Claire Fedoruk , Soprano
12. He sung Darius, great and good George Frideric Handel
Elissa Johnston , Soprano
13. With downcast looks the joyless victor sate George Frideric Handel
Beth Peregrine , Soprano
14. Behold Darius great and good George Frideric Handel
15. The mighty master smil'd to see George Frideric Handel
Michael Lichtenauer , Tenor
16. Softly sweet in Lydian measures George Frideric Handel
Anna Schubert , Soprano
17. War, he sung, is toil and trouble George Frideric Handel
Beth Peregrine , Soprano
Anna Schubert , Soprano
18. The many rend the skies George Frideric Handel
19. The Prince, unable to conceal his pain George Frideric Handel
Claire Fedoruk , Soprano
Anna Schubert , Soprano
20. Now strike the golden Lyre George Frideric Handel
Arnold Livingston Geis , Tenor
Jon Lee Keenan , Tenor
Michael Lichtenauer , Tenor
Todd Strange , Tenor
21. Revenge, Timotheus cries George Frideric Handel
David Castillo , Baritone
Steve Pence , Bass-Baritone
22. Give the vengeance due to the valiant crew George Frideric Handel
Arnold Livingston Geis , Tenor
23. The princes applaud with a furious joy George Frideric Handel
Jon Lee Keenan , Tenor
24. Thais led the way George Frideric Handel
Anna Schubert , Soprano
25. Thus, long ago, ere heaving Bellows learn'd to blow George Frideric Handel
Michael Lichtenauer , Tenor
26. Let old Timotheus yield the prize George Frideric Handel
Jon Lee Keenan , Tenor
Steve Pence , Bass-Baritone
27. Let old Timotheus yield the prize George Frideric Handel
Christina Bristow , Soprano
Arnold Livingston Geis , Tenor
Reid Bruton , Bass
28. Your voices tune George Frideric Handel
Adriana Manfredi , Mezzo Soprano
29. Let's imitate her notes above George Frideric Handel
Elissa Johnston , Soprano
Nike St. Clair , Mezzo Soprano
Concerto for Organ, Op. 4, No. 4, Allegro George Frideric Handel
Namhee Han , Organ
30. Your voices tune George Frideric Handel

Alexander’s Feast: 
A Handelian Ode to the Power of Music

by Thomas May

It sounds strange to refer to George Frideric Handel as a neglected composer. Messiah is such a fixture that the holiday season would feel bereft were it suddenly to disappear from the scene. (Never mind that its association with Christmas postdates the practice during the composer’s lifetime.)

In fact, the uninterrupted popularity of Messiah played an important role in establishing the very idea of the standard repertoire in the first place — of an “eternal” treasury of classics that are believed to have withstood the test of time. (Bach’s choral masterpieces, by contrast, had to be reclaimed by later advocates.)

The problem is that Messiah’s mega-success has unquestionably skewed appreciation of this composer’s legacy. If Handel isn’t known quite as a “one-hit wonder,” recognition of his achievement beyond Messiah, as far as the public at large is concerned, tends to be confined to a rather modest list of pieces: the coronation anthem Zadok the Priest, “The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba” (Solomon), a handful of melodies from his operas, and — for commuters who listen to the standard classical music radio fare — snippets of the Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks, with a dash of a concerto grosso or two for good measure.

The revival that began with a milestone production of Rodelinda in Göttingen in 1920 launched a process of rediscovering Handel’s oeuvre of roughly 40 operas. But a great many of these remain obscure, while Messiah is only the tip of the iceberg of the Baroque master’s untiring output of large-scale choral works not written for the stage. At first glance, moreover, the latter category not only lacks the sexiness of opera but has to contend with contemporary biases against the oratorio, which is by and large the genre with which these choral works are identified — biases reinforced by the genre’s association with the Victorian era.

With Alexander’s Feast the LA Master Chorale launches its Hidden Handel initiative. Over a multi-year stretch, the initiative aims to correct such myopia by presenting semi-staged, collaborative, multimedia productions of five of Handel’s oratorio masterpieces that are nonetheless underrepresented in our current appreciation of this composer’s genius. Alexander’s Feast is a particularly apt choice, for it establishes the recurring theme of the series: the power of music itself, which drives the events recounted in Alexander’s Feast (see synopsis below) and which gives the work its alternate title (“The Power of Musick”).

“Every time that the Chorale sings Messiah, I’m reminded of the deep affinity that our artists have for this music,” says artistic director Grant Gershon. “Of course there is a lot of incredibly beautiful and vivid choral music by Handel that is not called Messiah; that’s what I’m so excited to share with our audience over the next few seasons with our Hidden Handel project. This is one of Handel’s most gorgeous and imaginative scores.”

Alexander’s Feast actually does share something with Messiah. Like the latter, it was treated to an “updating” by no less than Mozart (as were two other choral works by Handel). One of Mozart’s patrons (the Baron van Swieten) had become interested in reviving Handel’s neglected works and commissioned him to re-orchestrate the score to appeal to contemporary tastes. (LA Master Chorale audiences might recall performances of Mozart’s Messiah back in 2010.)

Also like Messiah, Alexander’s Feast tells its story by implying the presence of the title character, without actually assigning an artist to portray that role. For his staging of the work, explains Trevore Ross, “14 narrators recount the story, joined by the remaining Chorale — all guests within the Feast Hall. The stunning interior of the concert hall provides a canvas on which we paint the immersive experience. Handel’s score takes us through a dizzying array of moods and colors, provoking us as an audience to become a participant on the emotional rollercoaster.”

There’s still another sense in which Alexander’s Feast resembles Messiah. It stands apart as a unique undertaking within Handel’s career. Winton Dean, the acclaimed Handel expert, called it “a decisive new step” that was inspired by the composer’s discovery of a great English poet — John Dryden (1631-1700). Fittingly, Handel would later be buried near the Dryden memorial in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.

Up until the composition of Alexander’s Feast in 1736, Handel had made his name with the London public as a purveyor of Italian opera. To be sure, there had been previous works setting English texts. These involved both efforts for aristocratic and royal patrons and Handel’s fledgling experiments with oratorio, a genre Dean argues the composer turned to because of extraneous pressures rather than “artistic impulse” and “probably regarded … as a stopgap in his operatic career” until the latter came to a halt in 1740-41.

The chief examples of these works in English include the Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne (1713), the masque Acis and Galatea and the 11 church anthems for the man who became the Duke of Chandos (1717-18), the celebrated anthems around the coronation of George II in 1727, Esther (1718/1732), and Deborah and Athalia (both 1733).

But with Alexander’s Feast, according to Dean, Handel made his “first encounter with a major English poet … an encounter so fruitful that he returned to a similar source” in later works — not only Dryden again (Song for St. Cecilia’s Day in 1739), but John Milton for L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (1740), Samson (1741, right after Messiah), and, with Edmund Spenser, An Occasional Oratorio (1745), as well as William Congreve and Alexander Pope for Semele (1743).

Donald Burrows, another Handel authority, similarly emphasizes the unique significance of Alexander’s Feast — technically classified as an ode rather than an oratorio — in Handel’s artistic evolution: “Handel’s success in bringing to life the emotional states described in Alexander’s Feast was therefore a crucial step in the establishment of the musical procedures that were to crown his greatest oratorios.”

And that artistic success was immediately ratified by the public. Alexander’s Feast premiered on February 19, 1736, at Covent Garden and quickly won over audiences — more quickly, in fact, than Messiah, which encountered some initial resistance in London — becoming one of Handel’s best-loved compositions during his lifetime, which spurred the composer to revive it numerous times.

Clearly Handel had special affection for Alexander’s Feast. While he was crafting the music in January 1736, he played the score “not yet transcrib’d from his own hand” for Lord Shaftesbury, who paid him a visit at his home on Brook Street in Mayfair (where Jimi Hendrix would later make his residence). Shaftesbury reported that Handel was “in high spirits & I think never play’d & sung so well.”

Handel opted to have the score of Alexander’s Feast published in a special luxury edition that — rarely for him — included the full orchestra parts plus all of the recitatives and choruses. Ellen T. Harris, whose insightful George Frideric Handel: A Life with Friends won last year’s ASCAP Award for Outstanding Musical Biography, points out that this beautifully produced edition (for which he received a fee from his publisher about five times the normal rate for an oratorio) made Handel himself “a valued collectible” in this era known for its “mania” for collecting objects systematically. Included with the publication was an engraving of the composer that became iconic.

In Alexander’s Feast; or, The Power of Music: An Ode in Honour of St. Cecilia’s Day (the poem’s full title), John Dryden drew on the legend of the Theban Timotheus, a musician famous for playing the aulos, an ancient wind instrument (rather than the lyre in the poem). He was said to have accompanied Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE) on his campaigns. Ancient and Renaissance lore depicted Timotheus as casting a powerful spell on his audience through his music, in particular while playing for Alexander — sometimes with a Svengali-like effect.

This theme of music’s capacity to manipulate emotions became an important topic in ancient philosophy as well. In The Republic Plato notoriously recommends regulating music: “Musical innovation is full of danger to the whole state, and ought to be prohibited.”

Alexander is depicted as a “godlike hero” bearing the image of his ancestor, Jove, “a sovereign of the world” — in marked contrast to other assessments of the historical figure, such as Dante, who assigns him to the Seventh Circle in Inferno (though this may be a different Alexander), or the famed classical scholar Mary Beard, who once described Alexander as “a drunken, juvenile thug.” Dryden exploits this imagery of divinity to fuse the Timotheus legend with that of music’s Christian patroness St. Cecilia, who descends from above at the poem’s culmination and to whom old Timotheus must “yield the prize,/Or both divide the crown.”

Dryden wrote Alexander’s Feast in 1697, intending it to be set to music — which it was, first by Jeremiah Clarke (in the same year) and later by Thomas Clayton (in 1711), but neither score is extant. Still, Dryden’s poetic text needed to be “adjusted” to be suited for Handel’s musical divisions and for distribution among soloists and chorus. Dryden’s poem consists of seven stanzas, the last lines of each being repeated as a “chorus.” (The final stanza is followed by a lengthier repeated section, titled “Grand Chorus.”)

To shape this new “book,” Handel enlisted Newburgh Hamilton (1691-1761), a playwright who had enjoyed some success with his comedies and who also served as the librettist for Samson and An Occasional Oratorio. Hamilton, who became one of Handel’s personal friends (he was listed in the composer’s will), makes his reverence for the original poem clear in his published preface to the book: 

“I was determin’d not to take any unwarrantable Liberty with that Poem… I therefore confin’d myself to a plain Division of it into Airs, Recitative, or Chorus’s; looking upon the Words so sacred, as scarcely to violate one in the Order of its first Place…” Hamilton adds that he was motivated above all by the desire “not to lose this favourable opportunity of its being set to Musick by that great Master, who has with Pleasure undertaken the Task, and who only is capable of doing it Justice; whose Compositions have long shewn, that they can conquer even the most obstinate Partiality, and inspire Life into the most senseless Words.”

Handel hews to Dryden’s organization in just two of the stanzas — the first (“’Twas at the royal feast for Persia won”) and the third (“The praise of Bacchus”) — by setting the main stanza as recitative and Dryden’s “chorus” as an aria with chorus (for tenor and bass, respectively). But for the rest of the poem as restructured by Hamilton, Handel devises a varied and musically effective assortment of recitative, accompanied recitative (featuring some of the score’s most gripping moments), arias and choruses.

Dean observes that through such redistributions, Handel added a new level of theatricality that “identified the chorus with Alexander’s court as actors in a drama, while minstrel and king are interpreted by soloists.” (The casting of a tenor as the lead is unusual in Handel’s oeuvre, since the Italian opera model had favored the castrato.) Dean also points out that his deployment of harmony, pacing, texture, and mood foreground the “principle of contrast” and “sharp juxtaposition” so as to enact the power of music described by Dryden’s poem. 

Many of these contrasts are immediately perceptible to the ear through Handel’s richly detailed orchestration, which calls for a wide array of forces for the time. Notice the almost shocking role of trumpets and drums (withheld throughout the first part) in the accompanied recitative at the start of the second part, or the beautiful sonority of flutes in the final stanza (“Thus, long ago”). Especially admired is Handel’s eerie evocation of the “ghastly band” of “Grecian ghosts” in Part Two through divided lower strings plus bassoons and organ.

For all the reverence he declared for Dryden’s text, Hamilton did append lines of his own. Cast as a work in two parts, Alexander’s Feast was deemed rather too short for a full evening’s entertainment by London audiences of the time (far shorter than one of Handel’s Italian operas). Initially, therefore, Handel composed an extra scene to the nine fresh lines supplied by his librettist, which Hamilton tacked on after Dryden’s final stanza (and which we hear in this performance). Handel additionally elongated the entertainment by interpolating an entire cantata (in Italian!) at the beginning of Part Two, as well as three concertos. His practice differed each time he revived Alexander’s Feast: for the 1751 revival, for example, he supplemented the performance with the otherwise thematically unrelated brief oratorio The Choice of Hercules.

Of special interest are those concerto interpolations. In this performance we hear a concerto each for harp and organ interspersed in Parts One and Two, respectively. These are not mere padding, for the concertos contribute to the overarching theme of music’s power. Handel combines the art of vocal music, with its rich orchestral accompaniments, with instrumental pieces that remind us of music’s ability not only to underscore and amplify poetry but to transcend words altogether. No more the old quandary: which has precedence, the words or music? Poetry becomes subsumed within the power of music, which Handel shows to be both vocal and instrumental, ranging from his sweetest, most beguiling air to the magnificent contrapuntal structure of the final chorus, from the lyre’s gently subdued accompaniment to dazzling keyboard virtuosity. 

Even more, Handel was also well known as an organ virtuoso who would perform the organ concertos he invented as entertainment between the acts of oratorios. So he implicitly takes over the mantle from the poet/minstrel Timotheus and, himself descending into the drama, aligns himself with St. Cecilia. Artistic iconography often depicted the saint playing the organ. By conflating his role with her intervention, Handel plants the message that his music partakes of Cecilia’s transcendent resolution to the potentially negative, even dangerous, power of music, “enlarg[ing] the former narrow bounds.”

Track Name
Listen

Overture

'Twas at the royal feast

Happy, happy, happy pair!

Timotheus, plac'd on high

Concerto for Harp, Op. 4, No. 6, Andante Allegro

The song began from Jove

The list'ning crowd

With ravish’d ears the monarch hears

The praise of Bacchus then the sweet musician sung

Bacchus, ever fair and young

Sooth’d with the sound

He chose a mournful Muse

He sung Darius, great and good

With downcast looks the joyless victor sate

Behold Darius great and good

The mighty master smil’d to see

Softly sweet in Lydian measures

War, he sung, is toil and trouble

The many rend the skies

The Prince, unable to conceal his pain

Now strike the golden Lyre again!

Revenge, Timotheus cries

Give the vengeance due to the valiant crew

The princes applaud with a furios joy

Thais led the way

Thus, long ago, ere heaving Bellows learn'd to blow

Let old Timotheus yield the prize

Let old Timotheus yield the prize

Concerto for Organ, Op. 4, No. 4, Allegro

Your voices tune

Date Review Media Reviewer
04/20/2016
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
People's World Eric A. Gordon
04/20/2016
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
LA Entertainment News Jeremy Bamidele
04/19/2016
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
Los Angeles Times Mark Swed
04/18/2016
"Alexander's Feast" (premiered 1736, revised 1751) was one of three most popular works during Handel's lifetime (the other two being Read More
Classical Voice Truman C. Wang
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