Almost two years ago, when Connecticut composer Edward Thompson set his heart on presenting Handel's Israel in Egypt, an oratorio based on the Book of Exodus, he couldn’t have predicted that, weeks before its October 2015 performance, the cover of Time magazine would read “Exodus” and feature a photo of Syrians fleeing their war-torn homeland. But that chance of timing underscores his original belief in the timelessness of the Israel in Egypt story. “There’s something about the story that speaks to every human being. To what degree do things like prejudice, racism, sexism or violence enslave any of us? What is the escape route? How many plagues will it take before we are able to raise our awareness to a better way of living?”
Thompson, who is Minister of Music at the Unitarian Church in Westport, has partnered with Music on the Hill to present Handel’s double-chorus oratorio at Norwalk Concert Hall in Norwalk, CT, on Saturday, October 24, at 8 PM. Along with Thompson’s Special Projects Choir, the Music on the Hill Festival Chorus and soloists, the concert will feature The Sebastians, a New York City-based ensemble performing on period instruments. The Sebastians are described by The New York Times as the city’s “leading young early-music ensemble.” The concert is presented free of charge as a gift to the community.
Israel in Egypt, setting biblical text to music, presents the epic story of the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt -- the original Exodus – and does so in monumental fashion. Handel wrote for two distinct choral ensembles and, in the orchestration, three trombones. “Handel never uses three trombones in an oratorio,” says Thompson. Thompson notes other distinctive features of this particular Handel composition: the composer’s “extensive use of choral writing, more than in any of his other oratorios, and the fact that Handel assigned most of the descriptive action to the chorus.” And, of course, there’s the music itself, which Thompson calls “some of Handel’s best, most skillful, most imaginative writing ever.”
Part I of Israel in Egypt presents the ten plagues visited by God on the Egyptians -- from frogs and flies to "a thick darkness" that "smote all the first-born of Egypt" -- culminating in the freeing of the Israelites and the dramatic crossing of the Red Sea. The music mirrors the events described in spectacular fashion. “The violins portray the insects buzzing and flying around in ‘He Spake the Word;’ the first and second violin parts mirror the leaping frogs in ‘Their Land Brought Forth Frogs;’ one can feel the darkness in the exotic and foreboding harmonic progressions of ‘He Sent a Thick Darkness.’” Once the Red Sea is crossed, Part 2 is filled with songs of triumph and praise, for which Handel drew upon the Book of Psalms.
Edward Thompson is an active composer, conductor, and accompanist. His original compositions have been heard in concert halls, synagogues and churches, including the Vatican, and have been performed by the American Chamber Orchestra, the St. James Chamber Choir in Stockholm and, locally, by the Mendelssohn Choir of Connecticut, the Fairfield County Chorale and Music on the Hill ensembles, among others. His most recent work, for organ, was commissioned for the 200th anniversary of the Three Churches on New Haven Green. It will be premiered on Sunday, October 18, at 4:00 PM in a free concert to be held in the United Church Meeting House in New Haven. Thompson has concertized throughout the U.S. and Europe, including Carnegie Hall. Since 1978 he has served as Minister of Music at the Unitarian Church in Westport. He holds a master's degree from The Juilliard School and a doctorate from the University of Hartford.
Music on the Hill is an independent non-profit organization dedicated to high-quality music education and performance for all ages. Under the leadership of its artistic directors, David H. Connell, D.M.A., and Ellen Dickinson, M.M., Music on the Hill offers workshops as well as concerts by four performing ensembles -- the Jubilate Ringers handbell choir, Summer Chorus, Festival Chorus and Chamber Chorus. To learn about participating in Music on the Hill ensembles and to receive notices of future concerts -- including Thanksgiving and Christmas concerts -- join the Music on the Hill mailing list by visiting www.musiconthehillCT.org.
Carol Bogard handles publicity for Music on the Hill.