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Partnerships are all the rage nowadays, as arts organizations everywhere come under increasing financial pressure and - in some cases - ideological assault. It was therefore not in the least surprising that three excellent NC musical groups teamed up for season-ending performances – in Rocky Mount and the capital – of Mendelssohn's most celebrated (and, arguably, finest) choral work, the oratorio Elijah.
The ensembles were the North Carolina Master Chorale, the Tar River Chorus, and the Tar River Philharmonic Orchestra. The work was conducted by Alfred E. Sturgis, M.D. of the NCMC and the TRPO, with the assistance of the TRC's director, Michael Glasgow. With two significant exceptions, the soloists were sourced locally; they included soprano Sally Thomas, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Seiger, and baritone John Kramar, of East Carolina University (where, co-incidentally, Sturgis has been in charge of choral activities this year). The visiting soloists were tenor John Daniecki, a frequent Triangle presence, and his boy-soprano son Noah. These folks took the primary solo roles in this Old Testament tale of the prophet Elijah but they were hardly the only featured vocalists: a substantial contingent of choristers figured in the presentation, too, in trios, quartets, and larger groupings - their names appear, for record purposes, at the foot of this review.*
Someone wondered aloud, Why Elijah? Well, the Brits love it - and so do Americans. It's sort of the quintessential oratorio, available in German and a composer-sanctioned English version (used in these performances). It is a setting of reasonably familiar texts that relate a reasonably dramatic tale – here better elucidated, perhaps, than ever before in the Triangle, thanks to the truly outstanding program insert, which contained not only the words but also clear subtitles for the seven major scenes. The music is from a composer at the absolute height of his creative power, richly informed by his work with Bach's passions and his evident familiarity with some of Handel's finest oratorios. (Indeed, there are constant reminders of the fingerprints of both masters – the cello accompaniment to the big baritone aria in Part II, all those ABA arias, and of course the extraordinary choruses.)
All this – plus the fact that the running time is right at two hours – makes Elijah a hot item on the choral music circuit – and, evidently, a perennial favorite with audiences, one right up there with that old box-office granddaddy, Messiah. Indeed, it seems to turn up somewhere hereabouts every three or four years, at least.
This rendition did not disappoint. Meymandi Concert Hall is an excellent room for large-scale works, even if the impact of the chorus is somewhat more immediate from the floor of the stage than from the choir stalls up above. (This observation is based on the work of the chorus soloists, who were positioned just behind the orchestra on its level.) The huge NCMC choir was augmented by around 30 singers from Rocky Mount, and the work was accompanied and underscored by some 40 instrumentalists from the TRPO.
Of the soloists, the lower voices (on the staff, that is) seemed to fare best – Kramar was an elegant and distinguished title character, Daniecki was his customary magnificent self (although one might question his stentorian delivery of "If with all your hearts…"), and Seiger, when singing alone, produced often-heartbreakingly beautiful vocal sound. Thomas didn't seem to have had as much mastery of her part as the others, for she held her score close, sometimes seeming to block the flow of her sound into the hall. The boy had some difficulties with diction and timing and was clearly uncomfortable, too. The contributions of the soloists from the choir were almost uniformly excellent aside from a bit of unsteadiness at the start of the oratorio's most famous number, the trio "Lift thine eyes." Last but not least, a single instrumental soloist – cellist Jonathan Kramer – deserves mention among these vocalists.
The choral work was exceptional throughout, serving as a constant reminder of how incredibly fortunate we Triangle residents are to have so many great choirs here. These two (Sturgis' own NCMC and the TRC) are hardly the only ones, but here, on this occasion, in this room, we were quite beautifully rewarded – and with all due respects to that great gothic rockpile so admired by culture buffs in Durham, one can hear absolutely everything there is to hear in Meymandi, without sound-smothering reverb (may the saints and prophets be praised).
The conductor clearly knew the score, and thanks to his keen leadership, he brought out its many felicities, its sweep, its power, its sheer emotion, its drama, and its many inspiring passages.
There were, however, two downsides. The concert began a quarter of an hour late while a missing flute part was summoned – presumably – from cyberspace. Delays of this nature never seem like much of a deal at the time they occur but if there had been, say, a thousand folks in attendance (and there probably weren't), then the net would have been 250 person-hours of wasted time.
The other downside was the omission of five numbers from the 43 items that make up the complete score. Yes, these bits are often enough omitted, and perhaps the music in them isn't the equal of the other numbers. Still, when the performance is as good as this one was, it's a real pity not to have had the pleasure of hearing every note the composer set to paper.
Those quibbles aside, those who were hearing Elijah for the first time were very well served, to be sure – and the rest surely knew how good it was!
*Toni Mascherin, soprano, Megan Tirpak, alto, Jack Neely, tenor, & Jonathan deAraujo, bass; Abra Nardo & Katherine Eres, sopranos, Johanna Blake & Evelyn McCauley, altos, Keith Lunday & Ben McKeown, tenors, & Alex Ronke & Lewis Moore, basses; Rachel Holmes, soprano, Nancy Elder, alto, Lunday, & Chris Anderson, bass; Eres & Sarah Heilman, sopranos, & Phyllis O'Keef, alto; & Nardo & Melissa Skiver, sopranos, & McCauley & Blake.