Who other than a descendant of refugees of genocide could best recount the Biblical record of Israel’s mass exodus from slavery and oppression in ancient Egypt? Syrian-born Armenian-American visual artist Kevork Mourad is up to the challenge. At Carnegie Hall Wednesday evening, Nov. 28, he simultaneously interprets the account of miraculous deliverance, while an orchestra, chorus and vocal soloists perform Georg Friedrich Händel’s English-language oratorio “Israel in Egypt” (1739).

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Kevork Mourad’s unique artistry—informed by life’s experiences and a rich heritage—will enhance the onstage performance as conductor Ted Sperling leads the New York Baroque Incorporated period instrument ensemble and six soloists, five of whom are alums of or currently enrolled in The Juilliard School of Music”.

Kevork Mourad, the humanist

In an exclusive interview, visual artist Kevork Mourad told Blasting News that he expects more from humans than what we are presently giving. “Humans have the power to change things, even in these catastrophic times.” No mere hopeless optimist, he finds a basis for his views in history. “Unfortunately, history repeats itself. We’re not learning from our mistakes. Why do we create ourselves over and over, continually putting ourselves in misery?” Tying these views to the upcoming performance he says: “That’s true of 3,000 years ago or 100 years ago or today,” referring both to the context of “Israel in Egypt” and the 20th century’s Armenian Holocaust.

Art explained

Asked if he forms an emotional attachment with his works of Art, Kevork Mourad says unabashedly: “Always. The creative process is the most beautiful thing, the most unusual feeling. I love living in that.” Large-heartedly he adds: “I don’t like to commercialize my work. I feel that, once art has been created, it belongs to everyone.” His life’s philosophy is: “Today is your playground. You can put yesterday on the market or offer it for sale, but what you do today is priceless.” Mr. Mourad’s family history and his witnessing the Syrian revolution give him a special perspective on the historical events musically depicted in Händel’s great oratorio. His illustrations will underscore hope. “In these very harsh and dangerous times, there is still hope that together we can reach a peaceful solution.”

Visualizing music

Kevork Mourad’s grandfather, troubadour Mesrob Tomburbán, hailed from Armenia but settled in Syria, fleeing genocide. He first encouraged his grandson to combine music with visual works.

While in art school in Armenia, in 1996, Kevork Mourad’s friend from Los Angeles, trombonist David Minassian, played for him while he drew. “I felt as if this live music, this instrument, was taking over and directing my art.” They often got together, he says, “without planning what he would play or what I would draw, to see what came of it.” In 1998, Jill Hofmann—to whom he is very grateful—sponsored his migration to the United States. Here, clarinetist Kinan Azmeh, invited him to perform in his final Juilliard recital. That experience was what first inspired him to “have visual art share the stage with music.”

The oratorio

Chiefly through powerful choral sections, “Israel in Egypt” majestically musicalizes the Bible’s historical events of 1513 B.C.E. (Exodus, chapter 15). Moses unites the people of Israel, who centuries earlier migrated to Egypt, fleeing severe famine in Canaan. At first, the Egyptians warmly welcomed them. But eventually, they became Israel’s oppressor and slavedriver. Moses confronts haughty Pharaoh, whom Jehovah has humbled by a series of catastrophic plagues. He begrudgingly frees the Israelites, but their taste of freedom is fleeting. Pharaoh and his army pursue and trap them on the shore of the Red Sea. The oratorio condenses this action into its first part; the second part largely concerns the Israelites’ victory song, attributing salvation to their God, Jehovah, who parted the Red Sea and led their escape, destroying Pharaoh and his army behind them.

Masterful stage work

Händel prolifically composed in practically every small- and large-scale musical format. He produced more than 40 operas and, not counting revisions, 25 oratorios—many on Biblical subjects, like “Israel in Egypt,” his eighth. Three years later, in 1742, came his most famous oratorio, “Messiah.” In between came “Saul,” about Israel’s notorious first king, whom King David eventually replaced. Händel produced skin-tingling choral sections, the solo vocalists’ virtuosic pyrotechnics, and the rich orchestral fabric tying everything together. This will be Kevork Mourad’s second outing with the work as his “canvas,” having premiered it live with Los Angeles’ Master Chorale in February.

The music’s modern resonance

Kevork Mourad migrated to the United States nearly 19 years ago. He married Armenian-American singer Anaïs Alexandra Tekerian, who gave him two daughters, age 6 and 13. (Ms. Tekerian teaches piano and forms part of Zulal, a professional Armenian a cappella trio). In 2005 he became a U.S. citizen. Quite the world traveler, his first trip abroad with a U.S. passport was with Silk Road Ensemble’s tour of Japan. He has galleries in Paris, Germany and Lebanon. He collaborates with a Toronto museum that has a performance venue. He texted me after the interview from Doha City, Qatar. His travels teach him parallels between the Bible account of the Exodus and modern events, not just in Syria, but virtually everywhere.

Sad but true

Though this country has long been his home, Kevork Mourad says that he does not feel welcome or safe when returning from abroad. “Getting off the plane gives me a terribly uneasy feeling, worse than butterflies in the stomach,” not knowing what to expect. Since President Donald Trump took office, he says: Twice U.S. airport officials “have taken me to one of their special rooms, then to another room, where they question me about all sorts of personal matters, asking countless details and taking notes of everything I say. It is humiliating, unsettling and disturbing.” This never happens on his frequent trips to France and Germany. “I only feel like this when I arrive in Lebanon or elsewhere in the Middle East. I never know what to expect.” In the U.S., he says, “I just want my wife and our daughters to feel safe and welcome in our own home.”

Solving the world’s problems

Humanistic belief attaches prime importance to human endeavors rather than divine or supernatural intervention. Kevork Mourad believes it shouldn’t take God’s intervention for humans to learn to “view everyone else as equals, all deserving dignity and peace.” It’s curious, then, that he will be illustrating an iconic musical composition portraying divine intervention to free the oppressed. Concerning a tenor-baritone duet in Part 2 of “Israel in Egypt” titled “The Lord is a man of war” (based on Exodus 15:3, King James Version), he says: “I incorporate a great deal of sarcasm into my drawing for this section.” He feels too many people improperly cite that Bible verse to justify so-called holy wars and other bloodbaths. “That, to me, is not what God is about.” It will be interesting to see what sarcasm looks like from the visual artist’s perspective.

If only everyone thought like him

With utter sincerity that’s rarely heard nowadays, Kevork Mourad says: “I don’t want any person to harm any other person in the world. It doesn’t matter where they are from, what their religion is. I respect every human being on this planet, and I want them all to have equal rights and a peaceful future.” He sees a direct connection between his tenets and “Israel in Egypt.” He says: “I want this piece to give the clear message that enough is enough. We need to enter into a new era, to make a better place for all our brothers and our sisters.”

Israel in Egypt,” by Georg Friedrich Händel: one performance only, Wednesday, Nov. 28, at Carnegie Hall, 881 7th Ave., New York, New York. #Everything Music and Theatre