A classical act

A Christian composer debuts her oratorio with a message of hope for Israel.

311_Esther Upham (photo credit: Courtesy)
311_Esther Upham
(photo credit: Courtesy)
As anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment gain momentum worldwide and many performers continue to boycott the nation, one artist is bringing a message of comfort for the Jewish state.
A Christian American composer is in Jerusalem to debut her oratorio Ahava Mitgala (Love Revealed), a melodic classical work with a theme of hope for Israel and the Jewish people. Esther Upham, a pianist and composer from Indiana, drew her inspiration from scripture and from living in Israel as a volunteer for two years as she composed the 15-song piece.
“The theme of Ahava Mitgala is an expression of God’s love and the continued covenant promises that He made to Israel, both the land and the people,” says Upham.
She began putting the scriptures to music in 2003, but when she moved to Israel in 2007 the composition came together more quickly as the passages became more real to her, she says.
“The inspiration came partly from living in the land and partly from reading the biblical text and feeling the heart of God through His word, for Israel specifically,” she explains. “Living with the people, seeing the beauty of the land – it is not something that you see so much as you feel. You feel God’s love even more when you’re here. And I wanted to express that.”
Although this is Upham’s first full choral and orchestral piece, she has pulled together a broad spectrum of professionals from Israel’s classical music scene. In the debut performance at the YMCA on September 28, she will be accompanied by the Israel Chamber Orchestra conducted by Elli Jaffe and the Jerusalem A Cappella Singers directed by Judi Axelrod.
The Jewish participants saw no conflict in working with a Christian on a religious classical work.
“Esther believes in God, she believes in the Old Testament; and when writing, she was extremely sensitive to our beliefs,” says Jaffe, an observant Jew. “She’s a great supporter of Israel.”
Jaffe, considered one of the leading figures in Jewish music, says the oratorio is enjoyable from a musical perspective and that its theme is suitable for the holiday of Succot, during which it will be performed.
While Axelrod’s approach to the oratorio was on a professional level, she says she was also attracted by the opportunity to “break down the barriers between the religions and people.”
“The scriptures, though from the Old Testament, are excerpts selected from a Christian standpoint,” Axelrod says. “But it is written by a deeply believing, Israel-loving person who has a deep personal belief in Jesus and a deep love of Israel and the Jewish people.”
Born in London and a graduate of the Royal College of Music, Axelrod has been conducting the A-Cappella singers for seven years. She describes the music of Upham’s oratorio as “accessible” and lauds the work for its musical diversity, contrast and quality.
One of the songs is entitled “Eli, Eli,” a melancholy piece wrought with anguish and passion. Another movement, from Jeremiah, employs strong rhythm and an angry tone. “Ki Yeled” is a lyrical and lilting song that ends on a powerful crescendo.
The oratorio is a journey through scripture, highlighting God’s unique relationship with Israel. From the calling of Israel illustrated in The Song of Songs, the piece segues into Jeremiah 9 and 10, recounting Israel’s falling away from God. A song taken from the Book of Hosea incorporates God’s everlasting love for and covenant with Israel and His promise of restoration. One movement portrays the prophecies of the Messiah, using some of the same scriptures as Handel’s Messiah from Isaiah, Jeremiah, Zechariah and Proverbs.
Using lyrics derived solely from the Bible, Upham says that her piece is a message from God, from His word, to the Jewish people. No one can understand it better than Israelis, she says. “It is their heritage, their pain, and also their joy.”
That was one of the reasons Upham had the oratorio translated from English into Hebrew. Now she prefers the Hebrew version, calling it “more authentic” in the original language of the Bible.
Upham was raised in a Christian family that supports Israel. She moved to Jerusalem in 2007 to volunteer for two years at a Christian organization that prays for Israel. The 37-year-old classical musician was born in Chicago and grew up in the Indiana countryside. She attended the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, on a full scholarship and earned a bachelor of music degree in piano pedagogy and a master of music in piano accompanying.
“This is the first big work of this kind that I’ve attempted,” she says. “Performing it here in the Land of Israel is more than I could have ever asked or imagined. I feel privileged to be able to share with the people here.”
Ahava Mitgala is written for strings, oboe, piano and trumpet and orchestra. The oratorio features several soloists in addition to the choir.
Jaffe has conducted orchestras around the world and studied at the London Royal Academy of Music. He signed on to conduct this piece after meeting Upham at a Seder and hearing the music.
“I feel privileged to conduct this concert – for the sake of the music and to express my gratitude to Esther,” he says. “Her desire is to really get the people to enjoy the Bible and enjoy the Almighty. The more I learn about the music, the more I see the humility and the heart of the piece.”
Ahava Mitgala will debut at the YMCA on September 28 at 8:30 p.m. The performance is free.