September 4, 2010

Elijah – A Review

“You can’t play Rachmaninoff on a harpsichord,” said a cellist-composer friend of mine, explaining why modern instruments are here to stay (and will be a permanent problem for historically-informed enthusiast). True, but Mendelssohn had his own way of doing combining the old and the new. He wrote Elijah, an oratorio, modeled after Baroque predecessors Handel and Bach, but weaved in the lyricism and orchestration characteristic of the romantic period.

Albeit the length of the entire work (two-and-a-half hours, excluding the intermission!), it was a well-paced and energetic performance organized by the Halleleujah Oratorio Society, in celebration of Rev Lee Chong Min’s 30 years of choral artistry. Contributing also to the success of the evening were four international soloists and the support from The Philharmonic Orchestra.

After a menacing prophecy by Elijah, the orchestra began the overture with as much intimidation, and a sense of imminent danger. However, they were almost completely drowned out when the choir entered with a thunderous roar of “Help, Lord! Wilt thou quite destroy us?” This choir was really loud!

Although comprising mostly of amateur singers individually, as a whole, the 240-strong choir was formidable. The man to credit for such a high standard of choral performance is Rev. Lee, who founded and trained most of the 7 choirs, some of which are based overseas.
Their diction was impeccable. Energetic and versatile, they could enunciate the fast “Will then the Lord, be no more, God in Zion” without getting tongue-tied. Not only was their diction commendable, their intonation was also pleasing. “For He shall give his angels charge” was so harmoniously pleasant, one could almost imagine the heavenly hosts singing together.

Soprano Cecilia Yap was off to a shaky start, but soon got in control, singing with abundant strength and bell-like clarity. “Hear ye, Israel” was achingly sweet, delivering a powerful, pleading performance with just the right amount of vibrato. Her duet with mezzo-soprano Carol Lin “Lord, bow thine ear” touched hearts as Lin’s mellow voice complemented Yap’s bright tone. Lin proved to be an intelligent performer, portraying the two different characters (Jezebel and the Angel) by varying her sweet tone and with theatrical flair.

Carol Lin in one of her sweeter moments
Tenor Solomon Chong was a let-down. He clearly had no projection power, and looked to be struggling with the higher notes and long phrases. He missed his chance to shine in “Then, then shall the righteous shine forth”, setting his own tempo rather than following the tempo that was set by the conductor. He stubbornly carried on at his chosen tempo, leaving the conductor and orchestra in a state of disarray as they tried to follow him. Such was his intonation, that made an otherwise beautiful quartet “O come ev’ry one that thirsteth” a displeasure to listen to.
Humphreys as a menacing Elijah

Baritone George Humphreys was undeniably the star of the evening. His projection and ability to hold long phrases was impressive. He portrayed the different emotions of Elijah very well with his facial expressions complementing his tone of voice, from the menacing warnings and mockery of the prophets of Baal to the tenderness when pleading and praying with God. His rendition of “It is enough” was a moment of striking intimacy, beautifully embroidered with obbligato parts from principal cellist Lin Juan. Other notable contributions from the orchestra include the unity of the brass section and the sensitive and shapely playing of timpanist Yeow Ching Shiong.

With the accompaniment by a fine orchestra, Rev. Lee managed the massive forces well to result in a moving and powerful performance of the colossal work.

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