Friday, May 30, 2008

Concert report: BBC Elijah

So, I just got back from the Back Bay Chorale's performance of Mendelssohn's Elijah.

It was quite exciting!

The chorus were the champs of the evening. They were extremely technically solid, and very expressive and intense. They really carried the entire piece. The weight of their accomplishment would seem to require more words, but I can't think of anything else to say other than "Well done." The orchestra was OK, although at the start of a couple of movements they were dragging behind the conductor, and took a few measures to find the tempo. The soloists were all exciting in their own way. The tenor, Yeghishe Manucharyan, was quite good. It's not exactly the biggest tenor showcase ever, but he has a lovely and lyrical voice. The alto, Gigi Mitchell-Velasco, was also quite good. In the first half she just sings the part of "Angel" and the writing is a bit bland, and I was not particularly wowed, but then in the second half she sings Jezebel, and that was GREAT. She really sunk her teeth into that bit. And her "Angel" aria in the second half, "O rest in the Lord" was just lovely.

There was DRAMA concerning the soprano. Apparently the original soprano had to back out last weekend or Tuesday or something (owing I am guessing to illness, but I am not sure.) So they found a soprano to take her place...who had to cancel last night due to laryngitis. So the soprano they finally found, Anne Harley, they found TODAY. You never would have known - she was excellent. And doing accompanied recitative on no rehearsal is not easy, either!

And the baritone. Richard Zeller. Mr. Zeller's bio says, "He is known for his beautiful dramatic voice and presence as well as his outstanding musicianship" which in my opinion pretty well covers it. However, he was responsible for giving everyone a near heart-attack in the first half. During one of Elijah's recitatives, he started a phrase "And --" and then abruptly cut off. Nobody knows what happened, but a friend sitting near the front of the stage says he seemed to choke a bit, so it may have been vocal (rather than brain freeze, which is the only other explanation I can think of.) There was a painful silence, with the conductor frozen, waiting (and that must have taken nerves of steel, I hope that doesn't happen to me on the podium) and then he went on. It was a painfully stressful moment - as soon as it happened every muscle in my body tensed and I was abruptly pushing hard against the back of the seat until he continued.

But my man Zeller recovered and more - he hit the rest of his performance out of the park. He was a splendid Elijah. His two arias in the second act in particular were really special. There are times during a performance when something touches you and you know that you are part of the audience, and you are all being touched together in the same way, and something really special is happening. And then there are times when the music touches you and you know it's personal, that only you are responding that way at that moment. Both types of moments are equally special in different ways. The first aria, "It is enough, O Lord" was an example of the first - it was the emotional high point of the performance. But the second, "Though the mountains shall depart," felt as if it reached out to me personally - it was just so lovely, and such a giving, gentle performance. I don't generally feel a great deal of affinity for Mendelssohn, but I could feel Zeller's performance of that aria physically chipping away at my opinion, and changing my Mendelssohn attitude permanently for the better.

All these bits and pieces I'm reporting don't really give the full impression of the evening. This was a huge piece. A Happening. An Event. And I stayed engaged through the whole two-hour-and-45-minute performance, which is Impressive. Part of that is the composition - for all its length, Elijah really is pretty tightly constructed and composed. But partly credit for that has to go to the conductor. Scott Jarrett established excellent pacing through the whole thing, he consistently maintained emotional intensity with his musicians, and his conducting was expressive and fluid and clear. He used a stick during the first half, and no stick during the second, which I found interesting; I think I preferred no stick, because his conducting seemed a bit more organic that way. I do really wish that he wouldn't mouth all the words (especially at his soloists!!!) But he did a fine job leading a large cast through a grand and exhausting evening of stellar music-making.

Have a drink, Mr. Jarrett (and pat yourself on the back for finding that soprano at the last minute) - you deserve it!


  1. Interesting blog...but somehow a bit misinformed...

    ...there WERE people who "knew what happened"...

    Phantom Girl knows...

    I disagree completely about the orchestra...

    There were wonderful moments that were evidently quite lost on this blogger but that's what makes the world turn I suppose...

  2. And the pause was due to . . . ?