The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: UW Choral Union’s magnificent and moving “Elijah” shows Mendelssohn at his best during a time of Mideast turmoil

May 2, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

I generally am not a big fan of Felix Mendelssohn (below), especially when it comes to his piano works and chamber music, which often seem dull compared to the composition of his exact contemporaries like the Romantics Chopin, Schumann and Liszt.

So why, then, was I so moved and surprised by the performance of Mendelssohn’s oratorio “Elijah” by the UW Choral Union, the UW Symphony Orchestra and various soloists, all under the baton of Beverly Taylor, on Saturday night in Mills Hall?

Several reasons are at play, I think.

One is the work itself. Focusing on the Old Testament Hebrew prophet Elijah, the oratorio actually benefits from and plays into, even reinforces, Mendelssohn’s aesthetic conservatism, his accessibility, his pure melodic and harmonic loveliness punctuated by wonderful dissonances. When you are dealing with an epic text, an epic figure and an epic story, the magnitude of the original can remain intact when the music doesn’t interfere with it but instead reinforces it. The oratorio, as a form, plays to Mendelssohn’s strengths.

A second reason, of course, was the outstanding quality of the performance. I found the amassed stage full of singers and instrumentalists very much up to the task. As Phil Spector might put it, the UW Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra projected a “wall of sound.” This was a big story told in big sound that was convincing and subtle in the way that Taylor had shaped and balanced the choral and orchestra parts. Control and tightness paid off (bottom).

The major solo parts were perfectly cast.

As Elijah, UW baritone Paul Rowe (below) brought great expressivity to a figure who can seem like a loud and long-winded, a repetitive and abrasive crank – as many prophets do indeed seem. But Rowe brought out the human side of the holy prophet and was never more moving than when he sang his solo that he is now ready to die. Not even Charlton Heston as Moses in “The Ten Commandments” could compete with Rowe’s bittersweet poignancy of the Biblical prophet who, accompanied by a wonderfully doleful solo from principal cellist Hannah Wolkstein, must stay behind his people.

As Obediah, UW tenor James Doing (below) also proved ideal. His tenor voice has little vibrato, an extremely pleasing tone and top-notch clarity, as well as some of the best articulation and diction you will ever hear. Little wonder, you begin to understand, that Doing is in demand as a specialist in oratorios, passions and cantatas.

The women soloists soprano Celeste Fraser (below right) and mezzo-soprano Jamie Van Eyck (below left), who sang various solos as angels and other figures on Saturday night, were well chosen and projected lovely tone with good diction and drama. And the boy soprano, 9-year-old fourth-grader Nathaniel Johnson, from the Madison Youth Choirs, also acquitted himself well.

Were there disappointments? Sure. One wishes the chorus could do something about all the standing up and sitting down that ends up making a minor racket that distracts from the flow of the music. The same goes for bringing out the double quartets. Surely, there must be a smoother, quicker and quieter way of rearranging forces on stage. And some of the non-professional soloists occasionally had pitch problems and blending or dynamic problems. But these are all minor quibbles compared to magnificent and emotionally moving overall achievement.

And that brings me to the final reason why I enjoyed this work and this performance more than I expected to.

I am referring to the historical context – to current events.

As I sat listening to Elijah warning his people about faith and fate, I kept thinking of the current turmoil in the Mideast, and less in Israel than in many Arab countries.

Is Elijah himself so very different from that largely nameless small-town fruit seller in Tunisia who immolated himself in protest and set the dictatorial Arab world on fire with movements for populist government?

Of course you can interpret Elijah in the narrowest sense, if you prefer. But once you recognize that Christianity, Islam and Judaism are all Abrahamic religions belonging to “People of the Book” and that they recognize many of the same prophets as well as a monotheistic god, then you can also see that Jews are the children of Allah and Muslims are the children of Yahweh.

Even some of the choruses – “He that endure to the end shall be saved” and “Be not afraid” – cry out for broad interpretation in these times.

Then you can understand the universality of Elijah – one that must have appealed to Mendelssohn as a Jew whose family converted to Christianity – as well as of the music.

Maybe others shared those same reasons for appreciating it. In any case, the performance was well attended, its ranks swelled by the UW School of Music’s Alumni Weekend, which happens once every five years.  The thunderous applause and a prolonged standing ovation they offered in appreciation were well deserved.

He, watching over Israel … whatever name you give him … is also watching over a lot else right now, no?

Did you hear “Elijah”?

What did you think?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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