Choral Music Review



Sherrill Milnes & Greensboro College Voices Make a Stirring Elijah

March 27, 2008 - Greensboro, NC:


This season, during which much of the entire state has been experiencing extreme drought, surely was apt for a fervent performance of the oratorio Elijah by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847). Several aspects made this performance in Gail Brower Huggins Performance Center special. It featured the combined choirs of Starmount Presbyterian Church and Greensboro College, and members from various other local forces such as the Bel Canto Company and the Greensboro Choral Society. These forces, an ad hoc orchestra, and an electronic organ were under the experienced baton of Sherrill Milnes, for decades a leading international baritone, and the most recorded American classical artist of all time.

Mendelssohn pioneered the revival of the Passions of J. S. Bach, and organized the first performance of Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion in 1829. Elijah was composed in homage to the Romantic composer's baroque predecessors including Handel. The popularity of oratorios reflects the expansion of musical life into the middle class as evidenced in the growth of choral festivals. Mendelssohn uses episodes of the Prophet Elijah's life taken from the books First and Second Kings in the Old Testament. There is certainly no spirit of ecumenism. After the priests of Baal fail to get their deity to fire their altar, Elijah orders them slaughtered. Mendelssohn set the competing choruses of Israel and Baal to bring out the most lurid, dramatic effects. Queen Jezebel incites a "lynch mob" of the people against Elijah.

The admonitions of the prophet are larger than life. Eliljah was composed in 1846 for the Birmingham Festival in England. Although it was premiered in English, this was a translation from a German language Bible text.

The joint choirs were amazingly well prepared, singing with the clarity of a long established ensemble. I was informed the smaller units had rehearsed extensively before assembling to work a standard number of sessions under Sherrill Milnes. Choral diction was outstanding and even the most complex portions were easily followed. The men's section was unusually robust and solid. There were no ragged entrances, everything held together nicely. The ad hoc orchestra consisted of only string players from throughout the Triad. Concertmistress Corine Brouwer, leader of the Winston-Salem Symphony, had a sensitive, short solo during the Angels' chorus "Cast thy burden upon the Lord." Elijah's air, "It is enough: O Lord," featured a restrained solo prelude and underpinning from cellist Alexandra Johnston. All the woodwind and brass parts were taken by an electronic organ played by Michael Parker. It was hard to get used to this transcription although this was one of the more subtle of such substitutes for real pipes. With no flashy show, Milnes kept close co-ordination between instrumentalists, solo singers, and choir. Balance was excellent.

Some of the Triad's best singers served as soloists for this concert. Elijah is intended as a larger-than-life character and baritone Robert Overman's firm, focused voice filled the hall. Talk about presence! He retired from an international opera singing career in 2000 and now is on Greensboro College's voice faculty and is Director of Music Ministries at Starmount Presbyterian Church. His wife, Rhonda Overman, was effective as the Widow and other soprano parts. Her very bright voice was blessed with clear diction. The mezzo-soprano parts, including memorable Queen Jezebel, were superbly taken by Janine Hawley. She is an adjunct voice faculty member at both the North Carolina School of the Arts as well as Greensboro College. All the tenor parts were given mellifluous, sweet-toned performances by Glenn Siebert who is a Senior Artist Faculty member at the NCSA. The brief high, fluty sound of boy soprano Matthew Brotherton was effective in the role of the Youth who describes for Elijah the approach of "a little cloud" leading to the storm that ends the drought. Greensboro College faculty member Dr. Jonathan Brotherton served as chorus master, laying the groundwork for Sherrill Milnes' stirring performance of the oratorio.