Any choral organization undertakes a difficult task in preparing and performing successfully Felix Mendelssohn’s oratorio St. Paul. It requires a choir of some size, excellent voices in all parts, superior musicianship and an understanding of the composer’s musical intentions. These issues did not, however, prevent the Chancel Choir of Edenton Street United Methodist Church, under the skillful direction of Dr. William J. Weisser, Minister of Music, from presenting a very satisfying performance of this work.
This choir might be described, perhaps disparagingly, as the ordinary church choir representing the congregation of a very large church. No matter how solid this choir might be, goes the conventional wisdom, it would require some augmentation — professional singers who are section leaders and soloists as well as other well-trained choral singers for support in all sections — to present even a minimally successful production of a composition of this magnitude.
However, the Edenton Street Chancel Choir is not augmented in any way by outside help. Its members are drawn entirely from its congregation. Its great strengths are its conductor, its willingness to commit many hours of work and musical study in preparation of the music it presents, and its determination to offer to its congregation and the community one of the best of church history’s musical dramas. Four of the three soloists, all of whom sang admirably, were also members of the church’s congregation. Even though this “ordinary” choir did not perform all forty-five numbers in the oratorio, it showed itself to be rather extraordinary in offering a very inspiring production of an abbreviated St. Paul that touched its audience, many of whom left the church uplifted and enthused by the evening’s powerful music and drama.
Accompanied by a number of fine players from the North Carolina Symphony and led by four excellent soloists — Sally Thomas, soprano; Christine Conley, alto; Steve Walence, tenor; and Thomas Janes, bass — the Chancel Choir and instrumentalists kept the music drama moving forward at a pace which underscored the dramatic nature of the work.
The choir’s singing of the many pieces in Mendelssohn’s oratorio was filled with many lovely moments, especially the crisp handling of the difficult contrapuntal sections. The slow, andante passages were equally impressive, as were the well-shaped lines which carried so many of the work’s most powerful texts. The dynamics of each chorus were spot on and did much to enliven the events portrayed in this dramatic music; diction was for the most part sharp and clear; and energy levels were maintained throughout the performance no matter how draining the music became as the concert moved toward its end.
Several of the choruses which best demonstrated these positive musical qualities included the first, “Thou Alone Art God,” with its clear, well-shaped lines; “Great Is the Depth,” a glorious expression of praise, with its magnificent, emphatic phrases concluding Part I; “The Nations Are Now the Lord’s,” a majestic, highly-energetic statement which begins Part II with excitement; a magnificent, soul-lifting anthem; and the final chorus, a long, vocally-trying shout of praise. For me some of the most satisfying numbers were Mendelssohn’s settings of the chorales, which were reverent statements of tender beauty and represented much of the best singing the Chancel Choir offered all evening.
Despite all these kudos I must point out the occurrence in this performance of some musical and vocal problems that most choirs, no matter how professional, seldom avoid. In several choruses, the tenors, outnumbered to a great degree, could not always be heard, and when they could, they often offended sensitive ears with excessive flatting. Also, the predominantly lovely choral sound was occasionally covered up by the instrumental ensemble; at other times the choir seemed out of sync with the players. But the overall beauty and sincerity of this performance enabled listeners to be undisturbed by these problems.
The soloists’ singing was on the whole very beautiful and effective. Sally Thomas’ soprano aria “Jerusalem! Thou that Killest the Prophets” was well done despite what I thought was an excessively slow tempo. Alto Christine Conley’s beautiful vocalism brought out the controlled passion and sincerity Mendelssohn intended to convey in the recitative and arioso, “For the Lord is Mindful of His Own.” Steve Walence, the only visiting soloist in this quartet, possesses a ringing heldentenor perfectly suited to Mendelssohn’s demands and great technical skills which were very obvious in the duets “Now We Are Ambassadors” and “For So Hath the Lord” with bass Thomas Janes. The latter has a fine voice but his vibrato, often too quick, caused him to experience some trouble with pitch in the above-cited duets.
The instrumentalists added many moments of great beauty and consistently supported the singers in every vocal number. The playing of cellist Elizabeth Beilman was especially effective, and organist Josh Dumbleton gave the Chancel Choir the much needed support throughout the performance.