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Chamber choir, Pulitzer Prize novelist Geraldine Brooks bringing King David to life

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Geraldine Brooks


Posted Wednesday, May 31, 2017 2:24 pm


By Andrew L. Pincus, Special to The Eagle

LENOX — David slew Goliath, played the harp and lyre, defeated warrior tribes and wrote poems — perhaps psalms. He had his problems. He coveted and took the beautiful Bathsheba, sending her husband, Uriah, off to die in war. But for 40 years he ruled benevolently over a united Israel.


Now he comes to the Berkshires. Prepare to picture him as a warrior king.

Scenes from the biblical story will be recounted in "King David in Words and Music," a concert to be presented at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in Trinity Church by the Cantilena Chamber Choir. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Geraldine Brooks will be on hand to read from her latest book, "The Secret Chord," which reimagines David's career. Each reading will be followed by a choral setting of the scene or passage.


"I am a big fan of hers," says Cantilena director Andrea Goodman, who describes historical novels as her favorite kind of reading.


"I really have to say that I consider her the best in this genre because she makes the stories so immediate and present. You can relate to the characters even though they are historical figures. They come alive!"


Composers from the baroque to the present have risen to the challenge of the David story, creating works that portray scenes and aspects of his life. The Cantilena repertoire goes from an excerpt from Handel's oratorio "Saul," which celebrates David's victory over Goliath, to "When David Heard," a contemporary piece by Eric Whitacre. Also on the program are selections by Salamone Rossi, Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Honegger. The 24-voice chorus will be accompanied by an orchestra made up of local players.


The next morning at 10, Brooks will discuss and sign her book in Pittsfield at Temple Anshe Amunim's "Spring into Summer Brunch." (Reservations necessary.)


In a review in The Washington Post, novelist Alice Hoffman describes "The Secret Chord" as a book in which "most of the action is concerned with the brutality and complexities of battle." It thus becomes "a study of loyalty and betrayal at its most basic level."


Brooks' David, Hoffman writes, "is a complicated character, and not one we especially like: He is a warrior with enormous flaws and an equally enormous ego. In Brooks's telling, his dream of the future precludes caring about the fate of anyone other than himself and his progeny. But can a king be anything other than a dreamer, and can the hero of that dream be anyone but himself?"


Goodman favors thematic programs with her choir. Her last previous concerts were Bach-to-Brahms and in memory of Martin Luther King Jr. Other programs have dealt with such subjects as Americana.


To prepare the David concert, she said by email, she read "The Secret Chord" twice, took an OLLI class on David taught by Rabbi Josh Breindel of Anshe Amunim, and went back to the Bible. She and Brooks compiled a fairly chronological retelling of the story.


"You won't get the entire story of David, which will be impossible unless you present an entire oratorio," Goodman said, "but several key events in his life. Much of his life story is in the program regardless."


Goodman emailed Brooks, who lives on Martha's Vineyard, to suggest the concert with readings.


"She responded that not only did she find the idea intriguing, but that she had done something similar with a choir in New York." All Goodman had to do was to find hotel accommodations and a co-sponsor, which became Anshe Amunim.


Goodman regards the 17-minute Whitacre piece, "When David Heard," as a contemporary classic. Premiered in 1999, it has a text based II Samuel, 18:33, in the King James Bible. The single sentence goes: "When David heard that Absalom was slain he went up into his chamber over the gate and wept, my son, my son, O Absalom my son, would God I had died for thee!"


Whitacre writes: "Setting this text was such a lonely experience, and even now just writing these words I am moved to tears. I wrote maybe 200 pages of sketches, trying to find the perfect balance between sound and silence, always simplifying, and by the time I finished a year later I was profoundly changed. Older, I think, and quieted a little. I still have a hard time listening to the recording."


"An amazing work, what a challenge!" says Goodman.

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