Art and artist collide with Handel for LAMC’s ‘Israel in Egypt’

It was heartwarming to see a nearly full house at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Sunday night (Feb 11), with very few empty seats and fewer latecomers coming to hear the Los Angeles Master Chorale and their excellent orchestra. The audience was unusually pumped, discussing the image already projected on the hall’s giant screen behind the stage when we arrived. The opportunity to hear G.F. Handel’s Israel in Egypt is indeed an unusual occurrence, and this particular performance included visual elements that were widely publicized and an artist who apparently brought his own, very welcome claque to the party.  Enthusiasm was interest were keen from the start.

Kevork Mourad in performance

That artist, Kevork Mourad, was clearly treated as a soloist, entering with artistic director Grant Gershon, rather than staying hidden until final bows.  Taking his place behind a specially-appointed podium within the confines of the orchestra, the reason was soon apparent: he was not just a designer, but an active creator during the performance, adding an electric and very political element to the proceedings. Brought in to collaborate in presentation and to offer some modern-day perspective both on the work and its subject, the Syrian-Armenian artist had much to say, with somewhat mixed but unforgettable results.

Projections started immediately after downbeat, not just on the screen, but across the walls, catching some audience members so by surprise that we saw several uplifted arms, pointing out details to seatmates in amazement. While the walls were put to less frequent use as the concert wore on, it was a grand entrance.

Israel in Egypt is lesser-known for several reasons, as it thrives on larger forces, and is likely to test the limits of performers and audience alike.  With so many big choruses, a challenging orchestral score and a lengthy duration, this isn’t a work that’s likely to show up on the seasons of smaller, less experienced organizations.  But as part of LAMC’s semi-staged “Hidden Handel” initiative that started with Alexander’s Feast in 2016, it’s a rather grand and intriguing choice.

The oratorio’s well-balanced choral parts sounded particularly fine in the hands and voices of a high-caliber ensemble like LAMC. That’s especially important since Part I is made up entirely of a symphony/overture and a series of unmistakably Handelian choruses. The work reminds us that George Frederick was distinctly a product of his own era, but Gershon’s handling of the work was appropriately light-handed, letting the music speak for itself and the well-equipped performers do their thing, like a well-oiled machine.

One of the most surprising visual elements was the sense of real-time performance:  the artist not only manipulated and monitored the images from his tech-driven station onstage, but there were moments when we actually saw his hands in action, as he drew specific figures to go with his prepared background and other images.  The camera output was altered and blurred, and on a slight time delay, rendering the hands ghostlike and very alive — part of the story.  This melding of visual art with performance art seemed more vibrant than “normal” multimedia, even if the items drawn live were only a sporadic part of the action. There was a visceral pull to watching the artist create so quickly: a bit heady, and often riveting.

Illustrations were kept in constant liquid motion, rendering them more evocative in their own glorious abstract than pictures that are merely representative. This visual flexibility was refreshing in that it goes beyond the atmospheric (better than just pretty lights), yet set our own imaginations free.  True, a few of the recognizably human figures bordered on the creepy: one couple was heard to be a bit wigged-out afterward by the image of a disembodied soul, arms stretching to infinity, rising out of a mass of unburied dead: “but their names will live forever.”

The animated segments, starting in Part II, initially drew giggles as frogs leapt gaily across the screen, but as the plagues wore on and became more real and more ominous, locusts became helicopters — clearly a nod to the horrific realities of modern life in Mourad’s native Syria. Handel’s frenetic strings throughout this section were so evocative of a cloud of buzzing creatures that I almost ducked. But the animation seemed to lose its novelty, and therefore its narrative power, fairly quickly. Longer sections in which nothing was live-drawn gave a strange sense of stasis, as the artist had little to do but stand there and let his animation play out.  This, of course, is something we would never have thought to question, except that our expectations had so quickly been set to a different interactive standard.

The concert included vocal solos by an impressive string of artists, some more experienced than others, but all turned in lovely and thought-provoking performances, including soprano Elissa Johnston, mezzo-soprano Niké St. Clair, bass-baritone David Dong-Geun Kim and bass Chung Uk Lee. Three cast members inspired particular comment:

Jon Lee Keenan’s voice is bright enough to ride music of this period perfectly, yet light enough to remain flexible and never overblown. His ferocity, however, gives the runs and ornaments meaning beyond the decorative.

Anna Schubert was the other clear standout in this program. Straightforward and nearly flawless, she is a wonder.

Mezzo-soprano Shabnam Kalbasi is one to watch, with a fine voice that currently shows more promise than polish as a soloist, but plenty of both already. With lovely ornaments and elegant delivery, it won’t be long before it all solves itself.

As for the choral force that LAMC, it’s hard to find new things to say about a choir that is almost always this good. They’re superbly balanced, simultaneously precise and smooth, technically excellent, vocally splendiferous, and sublime, while bringing engaging interpretation to the table, to boot.  While hiccups do occur (the tenors had at least one moment of uncertainty), an ensemble both that good and that interesting is rare indeed, and with the additional understanding that these concerts are usually pulled together with remarkably little rehearsal time, there is no doubt that we are truly spoiled for choral excellence here in LA.

Anna Schubert and Elissa Johnston, making it all look so easy…

After intermission, the music of Part III continued as beautifully as in the first two sections, but in spite of an exquisite duet by Ms. Schubert and Ms. Johnston, the composer’s tendency to drag out his subjects and the libretto’s copious fixation on the Red Sea and the destruction of the Egyptians began to wear. What the program notes call a “collective ode of joy” came across, in terms of story, like an exultant beating of the proverbial dead horse.  This piece is just too long, and cuts of up to a half-hour or so would have been welcome.  Curiously, the imagery seemed to revert and repeat as well, returning to earlier slave imagery, depicting humans as beasts of burden.  Somehow (by design?) the artist’s hand become even more prominent on-screen at the words “Right hand of God”, making us wonder if this was deliberate subtext:  is the artist God, or a vessel? Or is he depicting God as an artist, the creator of our reality?


Photos by Patrick Brown, courtesy of the Los Angeles Master Chorale

 

LA Master Chorale’s Lagrime di San Pietro returns March 17 & 18.  Read our review from last season.

Visit LAMC’s website to learn more about their current and upcoming seasons, and to secure your seats for future performances.

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