November 4, 2015

Princeton Pro Musica Presents Mendelssohn’s Immortal “Elijah”

Felix Mendelssohn did very little in the field of opera, however, his sacred oratorios are as theatrical as any 19th-century operatic work. In particular, the oratorio Elijah, premiered in 1846, musically depicts a dramatic Biblical story through arias, recitatives, and choruses, infused with the composer’s gift for melodic writing. The more than 100-voice Princeton Pro Musica, conducted by Ryan James Brandau, presented a well-informed performance of this work to a very appreciative audience on Sunday afternoon in Richardson Auditorium, showing off the capabilities of the chorus as well as four seasoned vocal soloists.

Dr. Brandau used the full forces of Pro Musica, combined with a smaller orchestra than symphonic choruses usually use in performances of this piece. Although Mendelssohn originally scored Elijah to include a full complement of instruments as well as an ophicleide (part of the family of keyed bugles) and organ, the orchestra in Sunday afternoon’s performance had chamber-sized stringed sections with pairs of winds and brass.

Keeping the orchestra on the small side kept the performance true to Mendelssohn’s ties to the Baroque era, and removed pressure from the singers to work to be heard over the players, serving both chorus and soloists well.

Elijah is nothing without a compelling title character, and bass-baritone Dashon Burton easily fit the bill. Imposing from the first aria and able to find operatic characters in the music, Mr. Burton made it clear that when Elijah spoke, people needed to listen. One could especially hear the supplication in Mr. Burton’s recitatives from the fourth scene of the oratorio. Mr. Burton’s best operatic counterpart in the performance was soprano Laquita Mitchell, also a seasoned performer of 19th-century opera. Ms. Mitchell changed vocal style easily among the different moods and emotions of the music. In her keynote aria “Hear Ye, Israel,” Ms. Mitchell’s plaintive interpretation was perfectly matched by pairs of clarinets, oboes, and flutes.

The vocal quartet was rounded out by mezzo-soprano Sarah Nelson Craft and tenor Rexford Tester. Ms. Craft provided a solid vocal base to her opening duet with Ms. Mitchell, and came into her own in Part II as an “Angel” guiding Elijah. Mr. Tester was lyrical in his approach to conveying the text, not as operatic as the other three singers, but nevertheless effective.

Much of Mendelssohn’s best melodic writing in this work belonged to the chorus, which Dr. Brandau had prepared to be precise and crisp in numerous a cappella sections. Pro Musica excelled in the homophonic and chordal choruses (such as the closing choruses to each half of the concert), and the men’s sections were especially well blended throughout the concert. Dr. Brandau had spaced out the chorus on the stage in slightly mixed formation, enabling sections to hear one another. The women’s sections were cleaner in the gentler choruses, but the ensemble as a whole maintained good control over the music throughout this long dramatic work.

Mendelssohn wrote a small solo part specifically for a child, often cast as a boy soprano. For this role, Dr. Brandau selected a member of the Princeton Girlchoir Cantores, the ensemble under the Girlchoir umbrella for high school girls. Accompanied by single flute in her solo lines, soprano Isabella Kopits was lovely, matching the flute perfectly, and showed an innocence which did not detract from her insistence that there was no response to Elijah’s calls to God. Dr. Brandau also assigned an “angel’s trio” to the Cantores — a perfect choice in vocal tone and weight. The Cantores sang with well-tuned chords and nicely tapered phrases.

Accompanying the chorus and soloists in this performance was a well-balanced orchestra which always maintained a subtle backdrop to the chorus and soloists. The trumpets and trombones were effective in introducing Elijah, and especially in the opening orchestral introduction, one could hear that something catastrophic was to come. Oboist Carl Oswald, clarinetist Pascal Archer, and flutist Mary Schmidt provided elegant solo lines, often echoes to a vocal soloist.

Elijah is a long oratorio, and Dr. Brandau evidently felt the necessity to cut a number of small numbers (including two of the most well-known choruses in the work), but it may not really have been necessary. Dr. Brandau kept a good flow to the performance, maintaining drama which held the audience’s attention. With Pro Musica providing its customary solid work and Mr. Burton clearly a star in the making, Sunday afternoon’s performance went by in a well-performed flash.