Morris, chorus in vivid `Elijah'

Review: Performers overcome the weaknesses in Victorian oratorio.

June 10, 2000|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Like an overstuffed room in a Victorian house, Mendelssohn's oratorio "Elijah" is a little cluttered, a little dated, a little dull, but terribly, terribly sincere.

It's a grand monument to mid-19th century tastes and high moral tone, an example of "truly reflected emotion and regular harmony," as Prince Albert declared after hearing it. Whatever its flaws, "Elijah" also remains a testament to Mendelssohn's considerable creative power, which a vivid, penetrating performance can unleash.

Such a performance took place Thursday evening in a packed Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. A stellar quartet of soloists, the chorus and orchestra of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, augmented by the Soldiers' Chorus of the United States Army Field Band and Peabody Children's Chorus, gave fresh life to the oratorio.

Except for a few lulls, conductor Tom Hall, music director of the Choral Arts Society, kept the momentum going in each of the work's hour-plus halves. This helped compensate for what is perhaps the oratorio's biggest weakness, the lack of a strong narrative flow.

Dramatic moments, such as the prophet's challenge to the priests of Baal, never fail to grab the ear, especially when the heathen make their frantic, unanswered calls to their god. But other storytelling scenes, notably the widow's plea for Elijah's help with an ailing son, are limp and long-winded.

In the second half, there are several potentially tension-deflating passages, including the anticlimactic contemplation tagged onto Elijah's ascension into heaven. And the final choral "Amen" lacks the satisfying depth and breadth, the all-encompassing finality of the one in "Messiah."

But none of this mattered Thursday, thanks to the overriding vitality behind the music-making.

The evening would have been a success if it had had nothing else going for it but James Morris as Elijah. With a commanding presence, rich-grained tone and telling phrases, the bass generated a palpable electricity in the hall. This was never more evident than in the bold, Handelian aria "Is not his word like a fire?" and his sublime account of "It is enough."

He and Hall didn't always agree on tempo, but that was a minor detail. And when Morris called on high for rain at the end of the oratorio's first part, his sound was so authoritative that it wouldn't have surprised me if the audience had suddenly been drenched.

Sumptuous, highly communicative vocalism came from soprano Marvis Martin and mezzo Marietta Simpson; tenor John Aler pushed too hard early on, but sang with increasing eloquence. Stephanie Barnes, as the child sent by Elijah to search the sky for signs of rain, did not find all the pitches at first, but grew in confidence. The children's ensemble represented the angels sweetly.

But the underlying might of this "Elijah" came from the chorus. It displayed exceptional discipline, articulating with great finesse at any extreme of tempo or volume, and maintained a firm, smooth tonal blend. Theirs was a virtuosic effort.

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