Mendelssohn's 'Elijah' is gloriously rendered

October 25, 2001|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A successful performance of Felix Mendelssohn's oratorio Elijah requires two non-negotiable commodities.

First, a powerful yet sensitive baritone soloist must be on hand so the great Old Testament prophet can chastise idol worshipers, resurrect children from the dead and resign himself to God's word with majestic tone and laser-like attention to dramatic detail.

Next, a large, sonorous chorus must be well-schooled in the dramatic contours of the work to bring out the evocative changes of vocal character that Mendelssohn tucked into every nook and cranny of his score.

Columbia Pro Cantare had both essentials working for it Saturday evening as its founding conductor, Frances Motyca Dawson, and her forces inaugurated the ensemble's 25th anniversary with a ringing account of Mendelssohn's choral masterwork.

Motyca Dawson's 112 singers sounded as engaged by the music as I've ever heard them. Intense preparation was in evidence everywhere.

That kind of preliminary work allows a performance to take flight with authority when it is time to deliver the goods.

Kudos to the tenors for delivering "And the rivers are exhausted" with a pathos that conveyed the desperation of the famine-stricken Israelite nation.

At "Cast thy burden," the choir was angelic to a fault, and Mendelssohn's counterpoint rang out with wonderful authority in "Behold, God the Lord Passed By."

Bass-baritone Lester Lynch may be a young fellow, but he is already a definitive E]ijah, entering the role with an empathic spirit as well as a glorious voice.

Lynch can convey declamatory drama, as in his opening "As the Lord of Israel Liveth."

There was a beatific sheen to his words at "Now behold, thy son liveth," while 'It is enough," Elijah's biggest aria, quivered with emotional intensity.

Lynch was ably supported by Mary Ann McCormick, an uncommonly mellifluous mezzo, and tenor Robert MacNeil, who also was fine in his varied roles.

Only soprano April-Joy Gutierrez seemed on the outside looking in.

She has a lovely voice to be sure, but when the dead child's mother conveys the exact same emotional affect before and after the youngster is raised from the dead, something is missing.

Sour wind intonation and a few ragged recitatives aside, the pickup orchestra complemented the singers nicely indeed.

I especially admired the way the conductor had the strings crescendoing out of the choral textures at "Blessed are the men who fear Him."

Motyca Dawson's manner of working the instruments in and out of the choral activity yielded one felicitous detail after another as the performance progressed.

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