On Sunday, Julian Wachner conducted the Washington Chorus, nine vocal soloists and an orchestra in an impassioned performance of Felix Mendelssohn’s massive oratorio “Elijah” at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Joan Gregoryk directed the Children’s Chorus of Washington from a back balcony.
Mendelssohn was fascinated with the mammoth choral works of his predecessors, such as Handel’s “Messiah,” Bach’s “Passions” and Haydn’s “Creation.” And in his day, Mendelssohn directed gigantic German patriotic song festivals employing up to 1,2,00 choral voices; “Elijah” was commissioned for the Birmingham Festival, one of many large-scale events in an England bursting with imperial pride.
Focused on the biblical figure, the oratorio opens with Elijah’s frightening prophecy of drought and famine for the Israelites, enmeshed in religious dissention involving the champions of Jehovah vs. the zealous followers of Baal. The part of Elijah was sung with commanding majesty and with fine shades of emotion by bass Stephen Salters. In solos and at times joined in a double quartet, Janice Chandler Eteme, Laura Vlasak Nolen, Benjamin Butterfield, Mitchell Galloway-Edgar, Steven Combs, Natalie Conte, Pamela Terry and Jerry Kavinski were as effective in portraying the heavy drama as they were in their tonal ebullience.
Early on, the choral mob scenes exploded with onslaughts of triple fortes that drowned out musical pitches, and diction was muddy. This was magnified by a shaky orchestral ensemble. Later episodes were beautiful and had careful entrances and well-delineated rhythms.
But what did Emerald City Productions intend with its tacky, color-coded sound-and-light display? Lurid blues, purples and red-oranges were flashed onto the organ pipes even though the music amply expressed the story line.
Porter is a freelance writer.
An earlier version of this review misstated the number of choral voices Mendelssohn used in his day.In addition, the review misidentified the soloist singing Elijah. It was Stephen Salters, not Mitchell Galloway-Edgar.