by Rebecca Rollett, Artistic Director of The Pittsburgh Camerata
Last night I had the pleasure of attending the Bach Choir’s performance of Handel’s Occasional Oratorio. This is a piece which I knew existed, but that’s about as far as my knowledge of it ran, and it turns out I’m not alone. In a brief talk prior to the performance, Artistic Director Thomas Douglas asked how many in the room had heard a performance of the work. Not a single hand was raised.
Douglas went on to explain the circumstances under which the work was written. Briefly, Handel had retired after a highly unsuccessful year. We modern conductors think we have it bad, but Handel was the underwriter for all of his concerts and productions, and if, for whatever reason, an insufficient number of people attended the performances and he had to cut the run short, he could lose a LOT of money. So “classical” music of the time functioned more like a Broadway play, except that, generally speaking, you were your own primary or sole underwriter.
But to return to Douglas’s remarks, he noted that 1746 was a time of great national unrest, as George II had returned to Hanover and “Bonnie Prince Charlie” was threatening an invasion on the Scottish border. Handel, despite ill health, was prevailed upon to write an oratorio to hearten the populace.
Since he had only three weeks to write it, Handel, who was not opposed to the practice at the best of times, cribbed a great deal of the material from earlier works, particularly Zadok the Priest, Messiah, and Israel in Eygpt.
In honor of the political situation, Douglas chose to wear a kilt to conduct the performance. Or so he said. I think he just liked the idea of having a sporran available in which to secret cough drops, a handkerchief, and all the other things we conductors need but don’t have a good place to put. I may try it myself some time.
Prior to attending the concert, the one thing I pretty sure would be the case about the performance is that it wouldn’t be an oratorio performed in the standard “stand up and sing for x number of hours” oratorio format.
After all, Handel developed the oratorio form because, as an entrepreneur, he discovered numerous advantages to it:
- you could perform them during Lent and other solemn seasons in which secular entertainments were discouraged or banned,
- you could save a great deal of money up front on the spectacular costumes and complex machinery expected of any popular opera
- you could get away with a few really good soloists, as opposed to a houseful of divas/divos,
- you saved a ton of money on stage directors, props and people to disburse them, dance masters and troupes, and the various other accoutrements of a Baroque stage production, and most importantly,
- a whole lot more of the gate would be going straight into your pocket.
But Douglas is steeped in the stage, and not a fan of the expected. And as a result, the Social Hall in East Liberty Presbyterian was a constantly-shifting tableau of singers and soloists.
In many ways, it was the ideal venue for such a production. The Social Hall has a large main floor, balconies running the length of the room on both sides, a dramatic double staircase at the back of the room, and a stage area in the front. Douglas used just about every possible configuration of the singers, mostly to good effect.
The one place where this venue falls short for a choral performance is in the acoustics. “Dead as a doornail” wouldn’t be an entirely accurate description of the room, but it isn’t very “warm,” in the acoustical sense, and just a little bit more reverb would have really helped out the soloists in particular. The little reverb it has decays flat, and this occasionally produced pitch difficulties when the orchestra and singer(s) were separated by a good distance.
I attended a Quantam Theater production of an opera a year ago or so, and they used very subtle miking of the singers. It was quite effective and really helped to overcome the inherent acoustical disadvantages of the space. Because of the numerous soloists in last night’s performance and their deployment in multiple spaces it would have been almost impossible to do, but almost all of the soloists would have benefitted to a degree from some help overcoming the spacial sonic limitations.
But let’s talk about the music.
The small orchestra of 14 musicians was good to excellent for the most part. Amazingly, the violins, who were sawing away pretty much without respite for the entire two hours, held up their end of things with verve and assurance. The oboists were also extremely busy, and Jim Gorton’s mini-concerto which began the third portion of the work was stunning. The orchestra was in the center of the room, with choir risers on either side and audience seating in front and behind the orchestra. As a result, because I was sitting at the back of the room, the conductor was facing me. You don’t think about how accustomed you are to seeing a faceless conductor until you have the opposite experience. It was very interesting, and I was able to appreciate the absolute clarity with which Douglas conducts.
Although the orchestra was comprised of modern instruments, and they were playing in a fairly modern interpretation of Baroque style, there was one aspect of the performance which turned out to be absolutely authentic. I was unaware of this until after the concert, and I think Douglas should have included this factor in his opening remarks, as I think it would have heightened the audience’s enjoyment. What might this possibly be, you may ask?
Well, I knew the Occasional Oratorio wasn’t performed very often, but it turns out that apparently no set of orchestral parts exists anywhere in the Western Hemisphere. Possibly in the Eastern, but I don’t think they checked. This was a surprise to the good folks in the Bach Choir admin offices, as Barenreiter’s catalogue lists a set of parts. However, they lie. The only thing that exists is a full score.
Thomas Douglas, Artistic Director of the Bach Choir of Pittsburgh
So Douglas put his CMU connections to work and contracted an army of student labor to notate parts from the full score. And, very much like a Handel premiere back in the 18th century, parts were still coming in right up to the opening performance on Saturday night.
This also led to one of those wonderful moments you only get in a live performance.Because of the afore-mentioned central location of the orchestra, the bass player was only about four feet away from the first row of audience chairs. So when he attempted to quickly put up the part for the next chorus, somewhere during Part I, a number of pages of music flew to the floor. An alert audience member gathered up the sheets the bass player couldn’t get to and tucked them back on his music stand. You don’t get to see THAT on your CD!
As for the choir, they were extremely well-drilled, both in the “choralography,” if you will, and more importantly the music. The sound was generally very good, although it would have benefitted from better vowel matching. But I was particularly impressed with how cleanly they sang the many florid choruses. And despite the difficulties of ensemble when the singers were spread all over the room, ensemble was only occasionally an issue, and generally a minor one at that, which is impressive.
There were a number of soloists. This is mainly due to an artistic choice on Douglas’s part. One of the difficulties of performing Handel oratorios for an organization in which the choir is the central focus is that essentially all of them consist of endless da capo arias with infrequent choral interpolations. This work is no exception—by my count it consists of 13 choruses, one chorus with solo, two duets, and 29 recitatives and/or arias.
Douglas chose to deal with this in a couple of ways in addition to spreading around the solo work. He made judicious cuts of a number of solos, and chose several of the others to have the full sections sing. Depending on the section, this was more or less effective. The sopranos were particularly good on “Fly from threatening vengeance, fly.” On the other hand, the bass aria, sung by the whole section, suffered from ensemble problems, both within the ensemble and as a result of their being a good ways away from the orchestra. That said, it makes a nice contrast to constant solos to have a single section sound.
Douglas also varied the sonority by having two of the choruses sung just by the core singers (25 singers, out of a total ensemble of 74.) These were especially lovely to me, as I personally prefer the “historically informed” choral sound which uses a great many less singers and less vibrato. On the other hand, the double quartet he used in Hallelujah, your voices raise was almost inaudible.
As to the soloists, as mentioned, almost all of them would have greatly benefitted from miking. Soprano Nicole Tascarella was one of the few exceptions, and her aria was powerfully sung. Ben Filippone’s aria was well-sung but often difficult to hear over the orchestra.
As with the chorus, the soloists sang from all over the room, and some of them moved around during their aria. This led to another wonderful “live performance” moment. Sitting across the aisle from me was a woman and her guide dog, and during Jon Erik Schreiber’s tenor aria, said dog went on full alert as Schreiber moved up the aisle towards his mistress. She gave him a reassuring pat, and he looked around a bit more, sighed, and started licking some phantom speck of food off of the bluestone floor. Since the aria was The Lord hath heard my prayer, it seemed especially appropriate.
So although I may feel that musically the evening would have benefitted from the choir singing from the risers the whole time, if Douglas had gone with the standard choral static format I would have missed some fun moments. And I have to confess that a full evening of Handel, lovely as it is, can definitely benefit from a bit of visual variety.
Finally, I want to commend the Bach Choir singers for managing to move all over the place, on a hard floor, without covering up the music during which they were moving. That’s no easy feat! Altogether it was a fun evening, and I thank the Bach Choir for making it happen.