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From across the ages, rising to a choral challenge

Teens schooled in Handel oratorio

Lawrence Performing and Fine Arts High students rehearse with Handel and Haydn Society chorusmaster John Finney. Lawrence Performing and Fine Arts High students rehearse with Handel and Haydn Society chorusmaster John Finney. (Dina Rudick/Globe Staff)
By Joel Brown
Globe Correspondent / February 13, 2011

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LAWRENCE — “Gum in the barrel, please.’’

That request isn’t normally heard at Handel and Haydn Society rehearsals, but most of the singers taking the stage under associate conductor and chorusmaster John Finney last Monday morning were students at Lawrence Performing and Fine Arts High School.

At their teacher’s direction, they filed past the trash can in their Uggs and Timberlands, bantering in English and Spanish, then stepped onto risers alongside the society’s adult vocal quartet. Under Finney’s direction, they sang a short passage from Handel’s oratorio “Israel in Egypt,’’ and when he stopped them, he was smiling.

“Even with six snow days, you’ve done beautifully with this music,’’ he told them.

Finney and his colleagues were preparing the choral students to sing excerpts from the challenging work that Friday, in a joint performance with students from Brockton High School and a small orchestra of about 15 H&H musicians, as part of the society’s educational outreach.

“It kind of renews our faith in the next generation,’’ said Finney. “I really like the energy that these kids bring to the music, because they’re singing something they’re not necessarily well versed in, so it’s like speaking a foreign language, and they rise to that challenge.’’

Artistic director Harry Christophers will conduct the H&H orchestra and chorus in “Israel in Egypt’’ — a work the society was the first to perform in America, in 1859 — at Symphony Hall on Feb. 18 and 20, the unofficial start of programming leading up to the society’s bicentennial in 2015.

In coming seasons, the chorus and period-instrument orchestra will revisit other works it gave their American premieres, including Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,’’ leading up to the annual performances of Handel’s “Messiah’’ in December 2015, 200 years after H&H played excerpts at its very first concert.

Handel wrote “Israel in Egypt’’ in 1738, and it had its world premiere in London the next year. In two parts, it tells the biblical story of the tribulations of the Jews, the plagues, and Moses leading his people out of Egypt. H&H gave the work its US premiere at what was then called the Boston Music Hall, now the Orpheum. It last performed “Israel in Egypt’’ in 1974.

“It’s full of color. It’s an incredibly tiring work for the chorus to sing, because it’s just wall-to-wall chorus,’’ Christophers said by phone from his home in England. “It always makes me think of the great Hollywood blockbusters, things like ‘The Robe’ and ‘Ben-Hur’ and all those sorts of films. The energy Handel gets hold of is just staggering.’’

“It’s just a great, great piece of music,’’ said vocal quartet member Emily Marvosh. “There’s so much that happens. Handel is such a genius at using text painting so the sounds that the chorus makes and the orchestra makes just bring to life these stories.’’

Take, for example, stories of the plagues. “There’s a chorus that is talking about the plague of flies,’’ said Marvosh, “and so they sing this whole chorus and not only are there a lot of voiced Z’s — surprizzzed — that the chorus can really jump on and use to illustrate flies and lice, but the violins sound like buzzing insects, they’re whipping around. It’s just incredibly exciting.’’

H&H’s outreach around “Israel in Egypt’’ also included Boston Latin School and Boston Arts Academy students. It marks the 25th anniversary of the society’s educational program and has been extended to include programs at Jewish day schools.

“There’s still more we can do in our own community,’’ said Christophers, “not just spreading the word of classical music, but more importantly of period music and the style and the way we approach it, and the way students are brought into the world of period music. It’s a lot to learn.’’

“They feel pretty special that they get to do something like this,’’ said Lawrence teacher and choral director Nancy McGhee, she of the chewing gum edict, who also sang with the altos. “It pushes them to the absolute limit of their abilities. And the kind of gratification they get from that is really unparalleled, when they feel they have mastered an adult-level piece.’’

Finney had to adjust his historical perspective a little when tuning in the students via pop culture versions of the Exodus story.

“How many people have seen ‘The Prince of Egypt?’ ’’ Lots of raised hands for the 1998 animation. “How many have seen ‘Ten Commandments’ with Charlton Heston?’’ A couple of hands, but mostly blank looks for the 1956 movie. “OK, that’s the old people.’’

When the singing began, however, there was no failure to communicate. McGhee had her students well prepared.

“It just kicks in that you have to put work into it, and you actually got to put in all you’ve got and show everybody you can stand next to them and be good,’’ said Gadriel Valentin , a 17-year-old junior.

“I’ve been singing since I was 6 and I started at church, so it’s really different singing music like this, because I’m used to singing R&B and stuff like that,’’ said Kelsy Duran , an 18-year-old senior. “So it’s really nice to get different things coming at you and learning different things, because your vocals just change, and you get to do different things with your voice.’’

“Whether this is an intended goal or not, we’re helping to bring on the next generation of concertgoers and we’re helping to keep classical music alive in the minds of people,’’ Finney said. “These kids will, hopefully, remember this.’’

Occasionally during the Lawrence rehearsal, he asked members of his quartet to sing one of the solos to lead into a choral passage. Soprano Teresa Wakim delivered one so beautiful it created a slight problem.

As Finney told the Lawrence students with a smile, “Try not to get too caught up in listening to her sound, so that you forget to come in.’’

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com.

ISRAEL IN EGYPT Handel and Haydn Society, Harry Christophers, conductor

At: Symphony Hall, $18-$75; a free public symposium on “Israel in Egypt’’ at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium at 2 p.m. Saturday. 617-266-3605, www.handelandhaydn.org