LOCAL Houston | The City Guide MAY 2015 - Page 40

Local May_Final.qxp_002houston 4/23/15 12:19 PM Page 40 SEX! DRUNKENNESS! WAR! REVENGE! ARS LYRICA BRINGS ALEXANDER’S FEAST TO ZILKHA HALL “He sought her snowy breast, then round her slender waist he curled” – not an image that springs to mind when we think “early music ensemble” or a piece of musical theater from early 18th-century London. But then, as now, passion puts butts in seats! The early music ensemble, Ars Lyrica, is playing that card big time for its Zilkha Hall season finale, offering Alexander’s Feast by Handel. It really isn’t so much a story told in music as a vehicle designed to drag us through a whole range of strong emotions in a short span of time through, as the piece is subtitled, “the power of music.” Ars Lyrica founder and artistic director Matthew Dirst describes it as “a tale of how Alexander the Great was charmed by the power of music . . . to do both great and appalling things!” (laughs) “The music both soothes his savage breast and drives him to finish the war [against Persia] that he had started. It’s a double-edged sword.” With no real action to depict, this ode to Saint Cecilia (the patron of music) is a precursor of Handel’s great biblical oratorios to come and the first non-staged work he produced in a London theater, where he was the reigning master of opera. Another early oratorio, Esther, had been presented in a pub, accompanied, as Dirst puts it, by “the clink of wine glasses and beer steins, I should think.” This is a much bigger enterprise than Handel’s earlier Italian cantatas/oratorios, which didn’t feature chorus at all and required only a small instrumental ensemble. For Alexander’s Feast, Dirst will lead (from the harpsichord) a cast of soloists plus a full orchestra involving a large string section, theorbo, oboes, bassoons, “two horns, trumpet, tympani, the whole nine yards . . . plus harp.” Houston’s Bach Choir also plays a major role. Those forces, deployed in such an intimate space as Zilkha Hall, are sure to create a powerful effect, says Dirst. “The musicians are literally right in front of you. You can reach out and touch them practically. Certainly the sound envelopes you in a way that doesn’t happen in a large venue like Jones Hall.” “We know that people in the 18th century went to the opera and oratorio in order to be moved – in order to weep, in order to laugh, in order to cheer. We’re trying to create the same kind of effect for our audiences today. This is not music that you sit and are dumbfounded by – it’s music that needs to get a rise out of you in some way, shape or form.” ARS LYRICA | www.arslyricahouston.org By Dean Dalton | Photography by Pin Lim 40 L O C A L | may 15