We don’t hear Mendelssohn’s “Elijah” that often, more’s the pity, but listening to Seattle Pro Musica’s performance of it at St. James Friday night, the reason is clear. It’s a great work, but it’s an expansive work which takes a first class choir and two and a half hours. It’s too long for a regular symphony performance, and needs a big chorus, at least a full chamber orchestra, four soloists and several first rate solo choir members. It also needs a dynamic conductor to make the most of Mendelssohn’s dramatic score.
Luckily for us, Seattle Pro Musica fills the bill. Conductor Karen P. Thomas has the kind of sweeping vision to see the work as a whole and that it is, as the Handel oratorios are, an unstaged opera.
In the very first notes before even the overture, Elijah himself, sung by baritone Charles Robert Stephens, throws down the gauntlet to the people of Israel, and the whole work recounts the tug of war between Elijah on one side, and the Israelites and the priests of Baal on the other.
The ensuing overture is a nutshell of what is to come, hugely exciting in Thomas’ hands and at the same time leaving the listener keenly aware of Mendelssohn’s mastery in his choice of harmonies and instruments, particularly the brass.
After this beginning there is no let down. Stephens has the lion’s share of the solo work, and as an opera singer he makes the most of all the dramatic recitatives. His fine, authoritative voice filled the cathedral as one godly man against pagan forces. He doesn’t quite shout, but his voice is enormous and unless he is singing really quietly it almost comes across that way.
Unfortunately, tenor Ross Hauck and soprano Katherine Barlow sang unnecessarily loudly, sounding almost as though they were competing to balance Stephens. Hauck, who turned in a superb title role of Monteverdi’s “Ulysses” in March, fitted his singing then to a small theater, but his voice would have carried easily in St. James and as it was he left out much of the nuance in favor of volume. Barlow’s voice is past its prime with a heavy vibrato, and she frequently sang just under the pitch.
St James’ long reverberation time was not kind to these three, causing the vibrato of their voices to make all their sound slightly blurry.
Mezzo-soprano Kathryn Weld however used her voice in a more relaxed way, in sympathy with the music and the words and a pleasure to hear, particularly in the lovely “O rest in the Lord.”
The star of the evening was the choir. Balanced, dynamic, with clear words, the sound was thrilling and beautiful as well in chorus after chorus, outstanding in “He watching over Israel.”
Thomas chose choir soloists for several small parts, such as the Child, who Jan Strand portrayed with a high, clear, straight voice perfect for the role. Mendelssohn’s inspired trio for three angels: “Lift thine eyes,” sounded exquisite as sung by Ginger Ellingson, Jenny Price and Liz Reed-Hawk.
Mendelssohn gives several orchestral instruments prominent roles, specially oboe, cello and trombones, and these also were well executed.
In all, this whole high-caliber performance with all its component parts was organized and mounted by the tiny staff and hard working board of Seattle Pro Musica, who deserve congratulations for job well done. It was a treat for me to hear “Elijah” for the first time in fifty years.
There is a second performance tonight, Saturday at St James at 8.