Tom Strini

Bel Canto sings Handel; nice try

By - Oct 17th, 2009 11:34 pm
Sign-up for the Urban Milwaukee daily email
Richard Hynson, Bel Canto music director

Richard Hynson, Bel Canto music director

Give music director Richard Hynson and the Bel Canto Chorus credit for noble ambition in taking on Handel’s Israel in Egypt. It’s more difficult than Messiah, soloists for are harder to find, the chorus had to learn it from scratch, and it’s a harder sell.

A lot of great stuff is in it, especially in the first half. The plagues, the flight of the Israelites, the parting of the red sea and the drowning of the pursuing Egyptians come to vivid life in Handel’s score. Among the examples of powerful tone painting: whirring strings beneath a chorus singing of flies and locusts; brutal, chopping accents and rhythms to represent the cutting down of Egypt’s first-born sons; and timpani brewing the storm of fiery hailstones.

The second half, except for a remarkably complex stretch of counterpoint in the opening chorus, is less interesting. The fun tone painting disappears, as the Old Testament text turns to “the Egyptians are drowned, praise God, praise him some more, and then praise Him some more after that.” One would never refer to Handel’s music as Baroque Boilerplate, but a good bit of Part 2 comes close.

Part 1 shined through a so-so performance. Part 2 needed more than the Bel Canto and friends could give it.

I’ve heard the BCC when it was terrible; Saturday, it wasn’t bad. Handel takes the sopranos very high, and they sounded lovely up there. The chorus (once upon a time at 200 voices, now about 80) knew its parts and sang accurately. The chamber orchestra was competent. The soloists hit all the notes, even in the bravura passages.

But that was as far as it went. Tenor James Doing, who had the bulk of the virtuoso solo work, couldn’t quite make it thrilling. The orchestra, especially the continuo group, sounded listless in every exposed passage. With very few exceptions, the chorus sang almost everything mezzo-forte to forte, showed no feel for the arc of the phrase and finished phrases inelegantly. Hynson beat time, cued entrances and occasionally adjusted a dynamic. He lifted not a finger to give some shape to the continuo, the bedrock of any Baroque piece. Because of all that, the second half of this oratorio became tedious.

It’s hard to put a monumental work such as this together at all, especially with a chorus of volunteers and a minuscule budget. I appreciate that. But if you lack the time or understanding to invest in every phrase and thus allow whole blocks of music to pass indifferently, has ambition outrun reality?

This concert took place at the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center. The other named soloists were soprano Sian Davies, baritone Jason Coffey and countertenor Gerrod Pagenkopf.

Categories: Classical, Culture Desk

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *