Mendelssohn the master

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Published: 28th May, 2015

Millions might have been watching Eurovision around the world, but for a sizeable proportion of Melbourne, Mendelssohn was top billing. Thanks to the Heidelberg Choral Society and Orchestra under conductor Peter Bandy, what was with good reason hailed as “Mendelssohn’s Masterpiece” drew a capacity audience to the intimate space of the Performing Arts Centre of Ivanhoe Girls’ Grammar School.

Just as Mendelssohn did music-lovers a huge favour by championing the work of a neglected J S Bach, so others have relatively recently rediscovered the merits of Mendelssohn’s formerly highly prized work and brought it into prominence. Commissioned by the Birmingham Music Festival for its 1846 season (two years before Mendelssohn died), it is a work that is operatic in its dramatic power. Handel moved from opera to oratorio when his financial fortunes began to fade and Mendelssohn found oratorio to be not only popular but also full of theatrical possibility.

It is little wonder therefore that singers whose careers have been forged on the operatic stage were chosen to sing the leading parts of this performance of Elijah. The title role is long and demands considerable vocal and dramatic resources. Michael Lewis was an excellent candidate for the role and lived up to expectation. A thoroughly musical baritone in possession of a voice of beauty and strength, he gave a nuanced and intense performance that revealed the drama and emotional depth of not only the music but Mendelssohn’s conception of a charismatic Biblical figure.

Joanna Cole, who sang the wide range of soprano roles, including Woman, Widow and Angel delivered the many declamatory passages, arias and ensembles in a strong, vibrant voice. Vocally and musically assured, her expressive commitment to Mendelssohn’s wonderful writing for soprano contributed to the momentum of the work and the security of the performance as a whole. The ladies of the Choral Society must have been inspired to even greater heights by such a display of gorgeous singing by Cole and by Liane Keegan. The well-known soprano and contralto arias, respectively, “Hear ye, Israel” and “Oh rest in the Lord”, were the highlights they should have been. Keegan’s rich, unforced treatment of her many roles was a constant pleasure. In addition to exciting dramatic moments, her beautifully gentle singing of “Woe unto them who forsake Him!” was full of pathos.

Although the thirty tenor and bass members of the Heidelberg Choral Society were well and truly outnumbered by the eighty sopranos and altos, good strong voices were apparent so that the men made a very good showing indeed. Perhaps they too found inspiration in the soloists, especially Henry Choo’s reliable, ringing tenor. The six supporting singers all sang well, with boy soprano Brock Heavyside making a favourable impression in his short solos.

One of the most pleasant surprises of the evening was the fine work of the orchestra. Following Mendelssohn’s instrumentation, the comparatively small forces, including organ, were ideally suited to the size of the venue. With Michael Lewis setting the dramatic tone for the evening with a resounding statement of Elijah’s authority, the trombones backed him up with firm, secure playing. The horn section was also in fine form, making an admirable contribution throughout the evening. The prominent oboe playing, especially in Elijah’s “For the mountains shall depart” and the duet between a widow and Elijah, and the solo cello at the beginning of his “It is enough” were most affecting.

As is the rule with oratorios, even those as operatic in nature as Elijah, the most important role is played by the chorus. Despite the imbalance in the parts, the members of the Heidelberg Choral Society displayed a level of competence and sheer enthusiasm that made for a tremendously enjoyable experience. It might have been a little worrying that they appeared to derive such pleasure from “Woe to him! He shall die!”, but Peter Bandy’s training allowed them to throw themselves into the dramatic moments with confidence. His direction also produced some disciplined Angelic singing without scores for “Cast thy burden upon the Lord” and some effective transitions of mood and rhythm.

Whatever musical tastes are currently in favour, it is refreshing to hear that vocal music in all its diversity is alive and well in Melbourne. Heidelberg Choral Society is one of several proofs that singing is not just for the viewers and listeners of Melbourne but also for those who wish to participate more actively. Given the high standard of this mix of amateur and professional music-makers, this performance of Elijah is not only a reminder of Mendelssohn’s gifts; it confirms the place of choral music as a vital ingredient in the musical life-blood of a community.

Heather Leviston reviewed the Heidelberg Choral Society and Orchestra’s performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah at Ivanhoe Girls’ Grammar School on May 23.

 Editor’s note: Mendelssohn’s music was also recently at the heart of the ACO concert, Mostly Mendelssohn, and in June features in the Australian Ballet’s The Dream. Reviews of both will appear on this site.