For a May 16 presentation of Mendelssohn's Elijah , a vibrant combined choral ensemble consisting of members of the Northeast Piedmont Chorale and the Seminary Choir (of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) sang out over a strong professional orchestra funded by a grant from the Recording Industries Music Performance Trust Funds. The note stated further that the grant had been arranged by Local 500 of the American Federation of Musicians.
The well-trained combined choruses matched or exceeded the considerable volume of the orchestra, this fact sometimes limiting their quality of tone but giving constant energy to the presentation. Toward the end of an evening of glorious choral work that was often just plain loud I was touched by a difference. Memorable for the variable dynamics demanded in its exquisite performance was Chorus No. 34. The conductor succeeded in the interpretation of the text, "Behold the Lord passed by... but yet the Lord was not in the tempest... (nor) in the earthquake... (nor) in the fire. And after the fire came a still small voice, and in that still small voice, onward came the Lord." Imagine the possibilities of dynamic range simply by considering the words and you will sense what John Boozer, the conductor, achieved.
"Be Not Afraid, Thy Help is Near" (Chorus 22) is a favorite which could have been sung in comforting moderated tones, with the orchestra playing more softly beneath less intense voices. There was nothing wrong with the singing and playing, but there was a sameness of forte throughout most of the oratorio, except of course for the solos and small ensemble offerings. "Lift Thine Eyes to the Mountains," by a trio representing angels, sung by Melanie Dunn, soprano, and Margie Roberts and Judy Smith, altos, was especially effective as a mellow contrast. This was followed by a chorus of angels singing, effectively, "He Watching Over Israel Slumbers Not Nor Sleeps." These are among selections that many have long since committed to memory. It was moving to experience them during this particular evening of music, alive with spiritual meaning.
The role of Elijah, the principal soloist, carries this oratorio. Bass-baritone Jack Warren gave a magnificent performance. We wish we could have seen his biographical notes for an idea of whence came his strength of impeccable interpretation. There was no information offered about any of the soloists, and it was not clear whether all are professionals. Some were also chorus members.
From Elijah's assertive opening words, "As God the Lord of Israel liveth... there shall not be dew or rain... but according to my word," Warren controlled the story and propelled it along.
A beautiful cello solo preceded Elijah's "I journey hence to the wilderness," leading him there, musically. The brass did not subdue but supported Warren as Elijah continued, "It is enough, now take away my life." Then, at last, the tenor soloist, John Davis, sang appropriately - and without straining - "So now he sleepeth beneath a juniper tree." In other arias, I found it difficult to listen to him.
In the role of the youth, soprano Melanie Dunn, of the Seminary Choir, created a clear boy soprano sound that was just a bit stronger than a child might have sung the role but very effective. Katie McSpadden displayed a strong and beautiful coloratura soprano, yet we needed to read the words "Hear ye Israel" and all that followed until her clearly enunciated "Be not afraid, for I thy God will strengthen thee." Scott Griffin came through as a fine tenor, and Marti Edwards clearly possesses a nice mezzo-soprano voice.
The words were not always there, however, as there were great gaps in the printed copy. Near the beginning of the oratorio, when the followers of the pagan Baal are being challenged, there were numerous omissions in the printed text, including the entire "Baal, We Cry To Thee" chorus. Early on, the strength of the performance soon made me forget that I was annoyed by the pronunciation of BAHL rather than BAIL.
To close this review, I must observe that, most of all, I enjoyed hearing "Cast Thy Burden Upon the Lord," which, as it happened, was one of the items not listed in the program. It was sung delicately, with light orchestral accompaniment but almost a cappella . It concludes "Let none be made ashamed that wait upon Thee." The Wake Forest performance was an inspiration to all present.
Note: Binkley Chapel is accessible by motorized wheel chair or by golf cart shuttle if one calls ahead to arrange transportation from the rather distant parking spaces. There are many steps to the front door, but an elevator is available.