October 14th marked the highly-anticipated debut concert for Trinity Church’s new Director of Music and the Arts, conductor/composer Dr Julian Wachner, with the Trinity Choir and the Trinity Baroque Orchestra. He chose Handel’s final 1756 version of the oratorio “Israel in Egypt,” rich in variety and text painting, but difficult to pull off due to its sectional structure and length – 28 double choruses, numerous recitatives, 5 arias and 3 duets running over two hours. An odd work for a debut, I thought.

The story is, of course, based on the Israelites’ long captivity in Egypt, and their eventual Exodus. It is a narrative, with very few actual characters and no dialogue, much like “Messiah” but unlike some of Handel’s other non-dramatic oratorios. That this colorful work so greatly moved and influenced Haydn, particularly in his “Creation,” is no surprise.

My concerns about the choice of repertoire were quickly allayed; Dr Wachner’s grasp of the big picture was astonishing, and even the silences were so dynamic that the entire audience listened intently, as though waiting for something fresh and new that might follow. And although Dr Wachner is a very dynamic and expressive conductor, one hardly noticed him; the focus was always firmly on the music, where it should be. We audience members were the collective witnesses to a grand narrative, painted in exquisite musical tones.

Rather than using outside big-name soloists, Trinity Church has a long-standing tradition of drawing the soloists from its own outstanding professional choir. This lent a tonal cohesiveness to the performance, rather than what is often an “us vs. them” sort of experience. The choral sound was smooth, supple, relaxed yet focused, and powerful where needed. Especially notable were basses Jonathan Woody and Charles Wesley Evans in their duet in Part III “The Lord is a Man of War” – these are two extraordinary singers to keep your eyes (and ears) on! In the orchestra, oboist Washington McClain and trumpeter John Thiessen, both highly regarded master artists, engaged in sublime dialogue in Mr Woody’s moving rendition of the Part I aria “To God Our Strength.”

One of the marks of fine musicianship (among others) is being able to adapt one’s tone, affect, and diction/articulation to reflect the text, rather than relying solely on the composer’s instrumentation and writing. This was accomplished to such a degree that the attention of the audience was held securely through the entire performance without exception. Everything worked. I suspect that Dr Wachner chose this work because it is not so well known to most listeners, and he had every confidence that he and his ensemble could pull it off. The standing ovations and cheers at the conclusion were ample indication that he succeeded.