The Bach Choir of Pittsburgh will kick off its 80th season with 85 singers backed by a 15 musician orchestra performing one of George Frideric Handel’s less frequently produced works - "The Occasional Oratorio."
Handel composed the work in haste to motivate and inspire English troops threatened by an invading army from Scotland in 1746. Based on a libretto after the poetry of John Milton and Edmund Spencer, Handel wrote the piece in the first two months of that year and premiered it on February 14, 1746.
"This grand work received only six original performances and has had too few performances since," artistic director, Thomas W. Douglas said. "In addition to some familiar choruses drawn from other pieces, you will hear some wonderful new Handel in these pages. We are very excited to bring it to our western Pennsylvania audiences for the very first time."
While writing the oratorio, Handel stole from himself according to Matthew Dooley, the Bach Choir’s managing director. "The Occasional Oratorio," written on the "occasion" of the threatened invasion, could be described as a secular Messiah with the king and military success replacing the second coming.
"Handel took choruses from other works he wrote in one form or another such as ‘Israel in Egypt’ and ‘Judas Maccabeus,’ Dooley said. "The audience will also hear strains in the work that sound like a section from "The Messiah.’"
Interestingly, "Judas Maccabeus" was written to honor the victorious Prince William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, on his return from the Battle of Culloden in April 1746, which proved the decisive battle of the Scottish revolt against the House of Hanover, the event that prompted "The Occasional Oratorio."
For its Pennsylvania premier, the choir will cleverly use the entirety of the Social Hall of the East Liberty Presbyterian Church for its presentation. Two pieces of the oratorio will feature the choir’s 16 member core. Soloists will also be positioned in the balcony, and other parts of the work will solo the bass and soprano sections separately.
"Each year, the choir has about a 15 to 20 percent turnover in singers," Dooley said. "This year we’ve had a handful of new male singers, who’ve made a big difference. The way Handel wrote choral music, you need a good balance of the soprano, alto, tenor and bass voices, and we certainly have that this year."
From its title, you might expect the Bach Choir to perform only works by Bach, which is exactly what it did when it first formed in 1934. Since then, however, it’s added other composers to its programming and even had some years when no Bach works were featured at all.
"Our artistic director has a vast knowledge of the choral repertoire and loves finding new works - whether old or new - and presenting them to the public," Dooley said.
"The Occasional Oratorio," two hours of wonderful music, seems a great start to the 2015 concert season.
Handel’s "The Occasional Oratorio" is at the East Liberty Presbyterian Church, 116 S. Highland Avenue in Pittsburgh at 8 p.m. on Saturday, November 15 and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, November 16. Tickets are $9.95 to $30. Phone 888-718-4253. For more information, go to www.Bach ChoirPittsburgh.org.