The Escape of Jonah retells the story of the biblical prophet Jonah from today’s point of view, bringing together the sounds of a nine-piece band, Jazz choir, soloists and electronics. The ‘vernacular oratorio’ juxtaposes the biblical text performed by the choir with the agitated speech of Jonah, the wandering Jew. The text of the oratorio libretto was originally written in Hebrew by Israeli poet Sivan Beskin. In the new English version, by Janice Silverman Rebibo, the part of Jonah is voiced by the trumpet (Ezra Weller).
In Act 1, a choir of angels tries to get a rise out of the recalcitrant, sleepy Jonah and his stifled trumpet, goading him to “get up and go” to Nineveh. Jonah runs the other way – to Jaffa – and is whisked off on a ship to Tarshish.
In Act 2, aboard this “cowardly crate of a ship,” a band of sailors (saxophone, trombone, percussion, etc.) begins by welcoming the newcomer into their musical midst but is soon disenchanted. The angels’ choir instigates an outrageous storm at sea and informs the sailors that Jonah, the Hebrew, is at the root of their trouble. Jonah is cast overboard.
Act 3 finds Jonah in the belly of the fish, after being assaulted from all sides by increasingly conflicting elements. In the surreal but seductive coziness of the fish’s innards (“Is this a dream?”), Jonah hears the Siren’s Song, a lethal lullaby. He is tempted to totally give in and give up. It is within this very lull, however, at the last possible instant, that Jonah is able to grapple with the utter muddle, an eclecticism of musical genres and quotations from classical, jazz, broadway, klezmer and Israeli pop. He “hears his calling” and rises to the occasion, finding his way and making his own voice heard in a trumpet solo of wonder and praise (the Hasidic nigun, Peliah). Jonah’s journey concludes with a musical wink, a raucous laugh at the rollercoaster challenge of it all.
Written by Janice Silverman Rebibo
Matti Kovler Ensemble
Featuring: Ezra Weller – Trumpet (Jonah)
“The Escape of Jonah” is, in many ways, a hybrid. It combines the traditional and the contemporary, the expected and the seemingly out-of-place. For a lack of a better word, Kovler called his composition an oratorio, a work that tells a story without dramatic action, basically an opera without the actors. But Kovler’s oratorio does have actors: the musicians. The nine-piece brass band moves around the stage, acts and even talks. The story is both Biblical and modern. Kovler uses the wayward prophet as a symbol of his generation: overloaded with information and a little lazy. “Jonah is the ultimate procrastinator,” Kovler said. He is a man with a great voice who is reluctant to use it.
In the original Hebrew version, Kovler played the role of Jonah, using spoken word to give voice to the character. In the English version, however, Jonah will be voiced by a trumpet, plaed by NEC senior Ezra Weller. Surrounding Jonah is the brass band and a jazz choir. The choir’s libretto, written by the poet Janice Silverman Rebibo, mixes Biblical text and colloquial speech. It was inspired by the Israeli Sivan Beskin’s poem about Jonah.
Kovler used an array of musical styles – including classical, jazz, Sondheimian Broadway and klezmer — to convey the muddle of Jonah’s mind.
“After being so confused by all these different styles, he understands only when he is by himself that he has the ability to say things,” Kovler said. “Only when he is alone, can he find his voice”.