“What Binds Us Together: The Binding of Isaac Story in Music,” the program that the Oratorio Chorale presented at Temple Beth El on Thursday evening, seemed like a fascinating idea, in prospect, since the first part of the title promised to examine a story shared (with considerable variations in detail and interpretive perspective) by Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

In that story, told in Genesis 22: 1-19, Abraham is about to sacrifice his son Isaac (or, from the Muslim perspective, Ishmael) before God, speaking through an angel, stays his hand – the last and most terrifying of the tests of faith God posed for Abraham before promising him that he would become the patriarch of a great nation.

From a Muslim and Jewish perspective, the story is about, to use the Muslim terminology, submission to God’s will – although an aspect of the Jewish interpretation was that God’s stopping Abraham and providing a ram for the sacrifice instead was also a way of telling him that the child sacrifice practiced by the surrounding cultures was abhorrent. From a Christian perspective, the story is a precursor of God’s willingness to sacrifice his own son to redeem humanity.

As it turned out, the concert was an odd mélange, not quite ready for prime time. In her introductory remarks, Emily Isaacson, Oratorio Chorale’s artistic director, said she was able to find only one musical setting of the story from before 1950, Ciacomo Carissimi’s 1685 oratorio, “Historia di Abraham et Isaac,” which is for soloists, not chorus. She also said – twice – that having read the story all her life, she still doesn’t understand it.

A paucity of suitable works, and not understanding the underlying story, are not ideal ingredients for a successful program. But that was just the start.

Intent on giving the performance a theatrical quality, Isaacson had her soloists wear scarves of different colors to indicate which of the story’s characters they were portraying. Telling the audience that Abraham’s scarf was red, she suggested – tentatively, as a question – “he had blood on his hands?” But, of course, he did not – that’s an important point on which the story turns.


A priest, Frank Strasburger, and a rabbi, Carolyn Braun, were on hand, the former contributing to some of the concert’s many text readings; the latter singing the Hebrew text, using the Ashkenazic Torah cantillation heard in most American synagogues. A Muslim scholar, Reza Jalali, was listed on the program as the reader of the Koranic Sura describing the almost-sacrifice, but he did not appear (no reason was given); soloists and choristers read the passage instead.

That left Jawad Alfatlawi, a soloist on the oud (an Arabic precursor of the lute), as the only representative of the Islamic world. When he performed, the choir, at the front of the temple, turned to watch him. It was a nice touch, except that with the choir standing and the audience seated, it was impossible for listeners to see Alfatlawi as he performed a soulful, beautifully fluid interlude after the Koran reading.

There were performance deficits, as well. The Carissimi was accompanied by a pianist (Christopher Staknys) and a cellist (Ben Noyes), the piano part played with a heaviness that was not suitable for a Baroque work. Assuming a harpsichordist was not available, or outside the budget, a lutenist would have been a more appropriate choice. This was a surprising lapse, given that Isaacson regards herself as a Baroque music specialist.

The singing, in the Carissimi, was mediocre at first – tenor Joshua Collier had some trouble finding his pitch, but eventually settled in. Soprano Malinda Haslett, countertenor Lucas Coura and baritone Keith Phares were in better form, and all the soloists performed ably through the rest of the concert. Collier and Phares later gave a fine account of Britten’s melismatic vocal lines in Benjamin Britten’s “Canticle II – Abraham and Isaac.”

But where was the choral music in this choir concert? Basically, it came down to two works – “Akedat Yitzchak” (“The Binding of Isaac”) Aharon Harlap’s dramatic, richly harmonized setting of the Hebrew text, of which the choir gave a vivid, beautifully balanced reading; and Howard Frazin’s “The Voice of Isaac,” a somewhat messier fantasy in which the story is rewritten from a modern perspective, with soprano Abby Fortune doing valiant work as Isaac.

“The Cave,” a quasi-operatic 1993 work by Steve Reich and Beryl Korot that looks at this story from Jewish, Islamic and Christian perspectives, captured in taped interviews with adherents from each faith, seems to have been an inspiration for this program. Isaacson presented a few brief excerpts, but these were drawn almost entirely from the interviews, with only a snippet of Reich’s music.

Concertgoers – even critics – attend performances in the hope of being moved or enlightened, not because it might be fun to catalogue poorly conceived presentation notions. Even so, if the performances are top-drawer, much can be forgiven. But this was, by far, the most amateurish presentation I’ve attended in the time I’ve been in Portland.

Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at: [email protected]

Twitter: kozinn

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