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If a solo recital is one end of the musical performance spectrum as far as logistical simplicity is concerned, then a full-blown oratorio that includes a full orchestra, huge chorus, vocal soloists, a boys' choir, and even a narrator is certainly at the other extreme. Even before the musical merits are addressed it is daunting just to ponder the organizational hurdles necessary to get such a large bird off the ground. Despite some occasional turbulence and even a panicky moment or two, the Chapel Hill Community Chorus (CHCC) took us on a very pleasant flight featuring Felix Mendelssohn's epic oratorio Elijah.
This enormous undertaking was all in the very capable hands of conductor and artistic director Sue Klausmeyer. In past performances in the neighboring and dreadful Hill Hall, customers were often turned away, so it was heartening to see nearly a full house at the acoustically refined and lovely Memorial Hall on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus.
Joining the chorus was an orchestra comprising distinguished musicians from various institutions, the North Carolina Boys Choir, a group of celebrated soloists, and even former Chapel Hill mayor Howard N. Lee as the narrator.
A musical depiction of the Old Testament prophet Elijah became an all-consuming task for Mendelssohn during late 1845 and continuing into 1846 as he and theologian Julius Schubring wrestled with various elements of the work. To make matters worse, the premiere was to be in England, so an acceptable English translation also needed to be in place. By contrast, the huge forces at the first performance, with 271 choristers and an orchestra of 125, make today's performance seem like chamber music.
The featured soloist, singing the role of Elijah, was the Ukrainian baritone Viktor Rud. He has a beautifully controlled and expressive voice that also has a unique piercing, bell-like quality that is usually reserved for tenors. The text (in English) was easily understood, and he portrayed the meaning as best he could within the confines of this type of music. The only incident was a near train wreck in his big "It is enough," an aria in Part II where Rud seemed to start on the wrong pitch, which also temporarily threw off the gorgeous cello solo played by David Oh. Klausmeyer kept her cool and eventually got all parties back on track.
Unfortunately Rud's expertise only served to heighten the problems of the other soloists. Alto Mary Siebert and tenor Glenn Siebert garbled most of their words and might as well have been reading a shopping list for all the emotion they showed. Soprano Catherine Charlton sounded like she was trying to set a record for the widest interval that her vibrato would entail.
When it was the boys' turn to sing "Lift Thine Eyes" as part of the choir under the direction of longtime director Bill Graham, they were assembled in the center section of the balcony. I'd truly like to be more gracious to these young artists, but the truth is that dismal intonation, ragged entrances and screeching as opposed to that angelic "boy" sound made this lovely chorus barely bearable.
The main chorus itself was consistently very good to excellent. Entrances were sharp and confident, there was a lovely blended sound, and intonation was remarkably dead on nearly all the time. They were especially excellent in the "greatest hit" of Elijah, "He, watching over Israel," which was taken at quite a brisk tempo. This is no small feat considering that this is a true community chorus where all are welcome and for the most part auditions are for placement within the chorus, not possible rejection. There were some problems with this large chorus sometimes overpowering the smallish orchestra (usually the opposite occurs) during the more dramatic moments. In a production like this, with two rehearsals, at most, with the orchestra, usually some aspect of the work will inevitably suffer. In this performance, it was the very difficult coordination of orchestra and singers during the recitatives. Very precise and forceful direction was missing, which resulted in staggered and chaotic entrances in quite a few of these semi-sung sections.
Klausmeyer held together this major musical performance with great authority and polish. However, a sameness and malaise settled in after a while and you wished there was more passion and contrast, both dynamically and emotionally. This is not unfair or trifling criticism but a realization that despite the word "community" in the performing ensemble's name, we are surrounded by such high levels of musicianship in this area that to describe a performance based on a "pretty good for them" approach is needless pandering.