A choir and an orchestra perform Handel’s oratorio ‘Israel in Egypt’ on November 8

For the first time in Chennai, a choir and an orchestra come together to tackle George Frideric Handel’s 270-year-old epic Biblical oratorio, ‘Israel in Egypt’ on November 8.

The Madras Musical Association, along with members of the recently resurrected Madras Chamber Orchestra, presents the vividly dramatic choral work that tells the story of Moses leading the enslaved Israelites out of Egypt, complete with descriptions of terrible plagues and, of course, the parting of the Red Sea.

“The story has been told in so many forms, including movies such as ‘The Ten Commandments’ and ‘The Prince of Egypt’, but Handel’s is amazing because he described all the events just through music,” says Augustine Paul, who will conduct the MMA singers (75 voices split into two choirs for the eight-part work) as well as the 22-piece orchestra.

The performance is timely because it happens to be the 250th anniversary year of the Baroque composer’s death. “The MMA choir was also large enough to be split into two, and the chamber orchestra had been revived, so it seemed like the right time to attempt the piece,” he says. “Excerpts from ‘Israel in Egypt’ have been performed before in the city — including by the MMA itself in 1922 — but no choir has done the entire work with an orchestra.”

‘Israel in Egypt’ has a remarkable variation in pace and emotion, from describing hailstones raining down furiously amidst fire to painting a brooding picture of darkness rolling through the land. “So much mood and action is captured in the composition, whether it’s the sound of thunder or a swarm of locusts or the parting of the sea,” says Jerry Fernandes, who leads the Madras Chamber Orchestra. “That makes it very exciting, musically.”

That makes it tricky too, especially since the massive eight-part double choir piece has been put together in just four months. “We have a great mix of people from different walks of life, including 30 per cent below the age of 20,” says Augustine. “They really took up the piece as a challenge, listening to recordings online, and having private practice sessions.”

He adds, “Everything has to fall in place; a production like this can be done only once in a decade.”

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