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Long a popular "standard repertory" oratorio in this country and Europe, Felix Mendelssohn's two-hour-plus dramatization of significant events in the life of Biblical prophet Elijah is always sure to attract an audience. Its Romantic melodies and powerful scenes of Old Testament drama, pouring forth from a large orchestra and chorus and highlighted by solo voices, provide musical food for thought, for nourishment, and for enrichment.
Director Rodney Wynkoop's performing forces were his Duke Chapel Choir (104 voices) and Duke Chorale (36 singers), the Orchestra Pro Cantores (47 players), and soloists Grant Youngblood, baritone; Andrea Edith Moore, soprano; Emily Wolber, mezzo-soprano; Wade Henderson, tenor; and an unnamed chorus soprano singing the role most frequently sung by a treble youth.
Oratorio performances at Duke Chapel have changed since my first acquaintance with Elijah as an undergraduate member of the Chapel Choir. In those days, the Choir sang from the chancel, filling it to capacity. There was no orchestra, and no place for one; the chairs occupied by the Orchestra Pro Cantores were placed where there were once solidly-secured pews. Accompaniment was played on the great Aeolian organ. A more recent vocal score has a few word changes, some due to replacement of archaic words (e.g., "demolish" instead of "extirpate"), some due to theological clarity (e.g., "he is God" instead of "let him be God"). Today's Duke Chapel Choir has a more mature sound, being a "Town-and-Gown" group rather than a predominantly student ensemble. The presence of an orchestra means that the composer's performing score is realized. The Chapel's sound has changed with the acoustical treatments which accompanied installation of the Flentrop organ at the rear of the nave, producing a more reverberant sonic environment. This means that wind instruments (orchestral winds and brass) and singers dominate the acoustic, leaving the strings to, as it were, "play second fiddle" to the rest. Many of the more rapid string passages lose clarity, even when heard from some twenty feet away. Musing on these differences, I was reminded of Tennyson's placing these words in the mouth of King Arthur: "The old order changeth, yielding place to new, And God fulfils himself in many ways, Lest one good custom should corrupt the world."
The excellence of this performance began even before the first notes were played and sung, with the program booklet's superb 2004 essay, On Mendelssohn's Elijah, by today's preeminent Mendelssohn scholar and biographer, Duke professor Larry Todd.
When the music began, with the orchestra's opening four chords heralding Elijah's first words, it was clear that Wynkoop's choice of Youngblood to sing the title role was an inspired one. Youngblood's voice was in every respect perfect for Mendelssohn's musical portrait of the prophet. In tone, in diction, and in dramatic projection, Youngblood's portrayal simply could not have been better.
The chorus sang "with the spirit and the understanding also," taking that cue from those words of the subject of Mendelssohn's first oratorio, St. Paul. Whether in the rapidly-moving choruses such as "Then did Elijah ... break forth like a fire," or in the gently-moving prayer, "Cast thy burden upon the Lord," Wynkoop's clear, non-histrionic conducting produced inspired singing by all. The rare a cappella moment of the SSA trio, "Lift thine eyes...unto the mountains," was exemplary. There was a minor flaw: disagreement among the participants about the English pronunciation of "Israel" (curiously enough, the predominant outcome was "Iz-ray-el," uncommon in the USA).
While the title-role baritone is the clear "star of the show" in Elijah, the other solo voices have important moments, even when singing more than one role in the drama. Moore's soprano roles were well-sung, especially when her vibrato was less evident. Tenor Henderson, who is no stranger to singing in Duke Chapel, was excellent in the role of Obadiah, his clear upper voice easily floating above the orchestra. Mezzo-Soprano Wolber (listed on the program cover as "alto," but definitely more a mezzo) commanded attention, especially in her upper register, as a singer with much promise. Her musicianship and her purity of tone were impressive; when her lower register balances the rest of her voice, she will be much sought after. (She teaches applied voice at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is completing her DMA. at UNC-Greensboro.)
The performance was a credit to Duke Chapel, and to its longtime choral maestro Wynkoop, who has brought masterpieces small and large, old and new, to Sunday morning worshipers and to concert-goers alike with distinction, grace, and the highest quality of musicianship. He will be greatly missed as he retires from leadership of Duke Chapel's music in a few short months.