November 18, 2018

Singing the story of Moses

When composer Sergio Barer was looking for a subject for an oratorio, he was surprised that he could not find one written about Moses. How had a biblical character with such a dramatic story never received the proper musical tribute?

After several years of research, writing and rehearsal, the San Fernando Valley Master Chorale will premiere Barer’s “Moses, an Oratorio” on April 2 at Wilshire Boulevard Temple. The concert will include an orchestra, choir, soloists and spoken narration.

An oratorio is a musical composition presented in concert form. It features a choir singing about religious matters, usually stories from the Bible or the lives of saints. Oratorios were very popular in 17th century Italy, though they lack the staging, costumes and props that typically accompany operas.

Barer began this project in 2013 after he’d finished recording his second piano concerto. He was looking for a Jewish subject. At first, he thought of writing an oratorio about Jonah. He was drawn to that story’s theme of personal responsibility. But then he began thinking about Moses, and after some research, concluded that the hero of the Exodus story had never been the subject of his own oratorio.

“I said, ‘This is an oversight. We should have the story of Moses. Not just the story we use for Passover, but the whole thing,’ ” he said.

Composer George Frideric Handel’s oratorio “Israel in Egypt,” which premiered in 1739, covers the story of Joseph and Moses. Arnold Schoenberg wrote an atonal opera about Moses. But as far as Barer can discern, this is the first oratorio to tell the story of Moses’ entire life.

Barer, who declined to give his age, was born in Mexico City and began studying piano at the age of 6. He began composing classical music in the 1990s. The Kiev Symphony Orchestra recorded his first piano concerto in 2006.

Barer had a Jewish upbringing and even competed in a Bible competition in Israel during high school. His specific interest in Moses arose more recently, after he began attending synagogue services to say Kaddish for his mother, who died in 2012.

“I was going five or six times a week, and I was learning more about the Torah,” he said. “When the moment came to decide on the project, I said, ‘This is really inspiring.’ ”

The San Fernando Valley Master Chorale formed 27 years ago, and has performed locally at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, as well as at New York’s Carnegie Hall and Avery Fisher Hall.

He presented the idea to the chorale, and it agreed to perform his new work. An early version was performed in 2015, just as the conductor of the master chorale, Terry Danne, was set to retire. The following year, Charlie Kim stepped in as the new artistic director of the master chorale; Kim will conduct the completed oratorio.

A Korean-Filipino American and native of Southern California, Kim also plays piano with Los Angeles Opera and sings with the Los Angeles Master Chorale. He studied in Texas before returning to the Golden State to serve as music director of Our Lady of the Assumption parish in Ventura.

“I was also surprised that there weren’t more musical settings of the story of Moses,” Kim said. “There are a few pieces that focus on the plight of the Israelites leaving Egypt, but the story of Moses from his birth all the way through is very dramatic. He has encounters with God, and confronts government leaders at the risk of his own life.”

The oratorio recounts Moses’ childhood, his marriage to Tzipora, the story of the burning bush, the Ten Plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, the receiving of the Ten Commandments, the golden calf, and the wandering for 40 years in the desert.

Barer also wanted to emphasize Jewish values that will surely be at the center of discussions at Passover seders this year.

“Having compassion for the poor, the stranger, the widow and the orphan is mentioned 33 times in the Torah,” he said.

With help from Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom, Barer prepared the libretto using only Hebrew text from the Torah. He realized that one big challenge would be telling the story of Moses in about an hour, so he introduced brief narrative sections in English to advance the story.

Barer considered writing it in English or Spanish, but decided that certain words were lost in translation, such as “hineini,” meaning “here I am.”

“These words, I’ve lived with them all my life,” he said. “The words in Hebrew are charged with meaning.”

Barer hopes that his oratorio will help audiences gain renewed appreciation for Moses’ life, just as he did while grieving his mother’s death in synagogue.

The San Fernando Valley Master Chorale will premiere “Moses, an Oratorio” at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, 3663 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, at 4 p.m. April 2. Tickets are $18.