The stars were out in force and all in proper alignment, too, for a performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah in Baldwin Auditorium on May 1, a humid and at times rainy night on which there were lots of important competing events. Still, Baldwin, which seats 835 people, was packed for the occasion, and a glance at the list of performers reveals why this was so. Under Rodney Wyknoop’s leadership, the Choral Society of Durham has become our region’s most important and consistently reliable large choir, one that manages to fill Duke Chapel routinely but that only once a year or so performs in the more acoustically pleasing confines of Baldwin, where the music is heard only once, without echoes and reverberation….

The great American baritone Sanford Sylvan returned for his second appearance with the CSD and did more than just sing the title role – from his very first notes, in the Introduction (which precedes the Overture), he embodied the role, never once letting up, even when he was seated between the numbers formally assigned to him. ECU-based soprano Louise Toppin, fresh from her triumphant performances of Hoiby’s “The Italian Lesson” with Long Leaf Opera, and whose last appearance with the CSD was in the 9/11 memorial performance of Mozart’s Requiem, in 2001, was in radiant voice as the Widow, an Angel, and in various unnamed roles. Alto Robin Lynne Frye, currently teaching in Aberdeen, returned to interpret an Angel, Jezebel, and other sections, singing with great if sometimes soft-spoken effect in her second appearance with the CSD (the first having been in last year’s King David ). As Obadiah and Ahab and in other tenor assignments, Andrew Skoog, based at the University of Tennessee, debuted with the CSD, displaying a light but refined voice that complemented Sylvan’s instrument admirably. The Youth was treble Terrisha Bullock, an eighth grader at the Durham School of the Arts.

The orchestra of 43 players was among the finest and most responsive yet assembled for one of these programs, and that is all the more remarkable since the customary source of good instrumentalists in this region, the NC Symphony, was occupied in Raleigh with its own concert. The fact that we can now mount two substantial professional orchestras here at the same time says a great deal about the development and importance of good music in our midst. With Wynkoop at the helm, his hair often drenched with perspiration – the male instrumentalists shed their jackets before the concert began, and the male choristers did so at intermission (and no one appeared to fall out from the heat) – the performance was in exceptional hands, and indeed glitches were few and far between: there was a false start at No. 5 (“Yet doth the Lord see it not”), Sylvan opted for an (unwritten) variation in the opening section of No. 23 (“The lord hath exalted thee”), and Toppin seemed to have miscalculated her breath requirements at one isolated point toward the end of her portion of No. 33 (at “…He draweth near”).

That short hit-list means that, during the course of the great work, which consumed a little over two hours of performance time, not counting the intermission, there were incredible delights and artistic revelations, only a few of which can be cited here. The 150 or so choristers sang in sections, not quartets; there were plenty of tenors, and they and the others sounded rich and full and mature, delivering the goods with exceptional skill and fervor. In addition, the relatively shallow stage – the choir stood the entire time, there being no place for chairs – meant that the space between the CSD and the audience was not vast, so the singers’ impact was direct and often visceral. Sylvan and Toppin excelled in their big duet, early on (No. 8, “What have I to do with thee…”), she investing her lines with emotion atypical even for her, and he continuing to embody the part of Elijah. Two numbers later, the exchanges involving Sylvan, Skoog and the choir were literally hair-raising – and here, as throughout the evening, one could hardly have expected better diction and projection or more precise and responsive dynamics. In all the choir’s sections, including the score’s most popular numbers (Nos. 15, 20, 22, 28-29, and the finale, starting with No. 34), one could not have asked for more, from any massed group. And the several a cappella sections presented some of the finest choral singing yet heard here from any ensemble. The start of Part II (the soprano’s “Hear ye, Israel!”) was taken at an unusually rapid pace, the evening’s only significant departure from the norm, but it succeeded brilliantly, making one wonder if the marking in the score (adagio) is correct. Among the many outstanding contributions from the orchestra, few stood out as much as cellist Jonathan Kramer’s several solos with Sylvan in No. 26 (“It is enough”), but it may be worth noting, too, that the low strings, although relatively few in number, projected vibrant depth. The great trio, “Lift thine eyes,” was sung by all the women, an approach that is often taken. The finale could have been called a stem-winder if it had not been at once so profoundly moving and so magnificently realized.

The audience responded immediately and with enthusiasm that is rare in Durham (although common enough after lesser performances elsewhere), and the applause lasted many minutes.

The program notes were by R. Larry Todd, whose new book on Mendelssohn is garnering lots of prizes and awards, and the texts, prepared for the composer by William Bartholomew for the work’s premiere in Birmingham, England, were annotated by Wynkoop himself. These adjuncts to the program served as icing on the cake. Bravo!

Elijah was on the boards and in the air elsewhere in NC the same weekend – the Oratorio Singers of Charlotte and the Charlotte Symphony performed it on Friday and Saturday night, too, and the occasion, there, marked the farewell of the Queen City’s distinguished choral person, David Tang, whose regular, full-time gig is now with Choral Arts Society of Philadelphia. With all due respects, however, we submit that Durham was the place to be – ’cause Charlotte didn’t have Sylvan!