Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXII, No. 17
Wednesday, April 23, 2008
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Princeton University Glee Club Ends Season With Mendelssohn Oratorio

Nancy Plum

This is the time of year at Princeton University for performances dedicated to and honoring Princetonians gone by. Next weekend the University Orchestra will present its annual Stuart Mindlin concerts and this past Friday night, the University Glee Club, director by Richard Tang Yuk, performed its annual concert honoring former Glee Club conductor Walter Nollner. These concerts usually feature the great choral masterworks, and Friday night’s performance in Richardson Auditorium was no exception, as the sixty-voice Glee Club presented Felix Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah. The Glee Club was joined for four vocal soloists performing the major roles and a professional orchestra comprised of players from a number of area ensembles.

Mendelssohn composed Elijah on the heels of his successful first oratorio, St. Paul, and chose to present the full range of Elijah’s character through a narrative taken from the Book of Kings, with up to eighty other passages from elsewhere in the Bible. Revised in final form for the Birmingham Festival in England, the work was premiered by more than 250 singers, a far cry from the lean chorus and orchestra conductor Tang Yuk put together for Friday night’s concert.

This oratorio starts off with a vocal bang —with the character of Elijah proclaiming the first drought to the people. Baritone Grant Youngblood demonstrated command from the outset of a role which is often interpreted as a Charlton Heston-type persona ready to part the Red Sea. Elijah performs great deeds and miracles, accompanied by appropriately pictorial music, and Mr. Youngblood found both sensitivity and authority in his arias and duets. Two minor characters are sung by a tenor soloist, in this case Jason Collins, whose operatic background indicates some pretty heavy duty tenor roles. Mr. Collins was a good vocal foil to Mr. Youngblood and showed understanding of the text, albeit with a little too much pushed vocal sound at times.

Soprano Christina Pier, another singer with substantial dramatic operatic and symphonic roles to her credit, sang the role of the Widow, joining Mr. Youngblood for an effective duet, and was vocally solid in her cornerstone aria in the second part of the oratorio. Mezzo-soprano Mary Nessinger, although not the most powerful singer of the quartet, sang with a clean and clear sound, especially in the lower notes which can be a struggle for mezzos. Her signature aria, “O Rest in the Lord,” was presented in a very nice flowing tempo. The four soloists blended well together in the quartet “Cast thy Burden upon the Lord,” often assigned to the chorus as a whole, but for this performance given to the soloists.

Mendelssohn used the chorus to comment on the action or elaborate on an idea begun by a soloist. He provided the chorus with music befitting an England deep in the roots of Victoriana at the time of the oratorio’s premiere, and enjoying a golden age of a rich choral tradition. The Princeton University Glee Club sang the choral numbers with precision and a strong choral sound. The chorus sang in mixed formation, enabling the sound to become well blended and fill the hall well. Dr. Tang Yuk allowed the singers to sing with vocal color, helping the sound to unfold on specific texts.

A number of students had small ensemble parts. Sopranos Paavana Kumar and Rebecca Harper, together with alto Brenda Jim, effectively sang the angel chorus “Lift Thine Eyes,” and a double quartet of students presented the well-known “For He Shall Give His Angels Charge over Thee,” marked by the soaring soprano lines of Faaria Kherani.

Dr. Tang Yuk kept the oratorio moving along, and the orchestra was sufficiently subtle, rarely overshadowing the singers. Crisp strings marked the opening overture, and a number of wind solos, especially oboist Geoffrey Deemer, could be heard throughout the work.

What was also especially nice to see was the presence of both students and community in the audience. Students dropped in to the performance from their preceding activities, some in varying degrees of shorts and running clothes, and members of the community came dressed for a formal concert. It was refreshing to see an artistic activity at which concert-goers could feel so relaxed.

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