A prophetable night – SSO Opera House concert 14 May 2014

May 15, 2014 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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But hardly profitable, when you consider the colossal forces that had to be assembled  to perform Mendelssohn’s oratorio, Elijah, writes Fraser Beath McEwing.

Initially I thought this was a brave project by the SSO programmers. How many people would want to sit through more than two hours of supplication and praising God, albeit by a very popular composer. Plenty, I had to acknowledge, when I found the Opera House seats about 80 per cent occupied  – although there were significant casualties after interval.


Paul McCreesh

For those who saw the performance right through to a finale that called all the way to heaven, this was an event rather than another concert. Mendelssohn didn’t serve up something that belonged in a cathedral full of bowed heads. Even though the text is based on the Old Testament, there was plenty of theatre as the 42 ‘movements’ switched between various instrumental and vocal combinations before anybody was tempted see if their watch had stopped.

The instruments get first mention. The orchestra was beefed up with extra brass, including an ophicleide, a brass instrument that looks like the offspring when a saxophone mated with a tuba. This hybrid had been included because it was used in the Birmingham premiere of Elijah in 1846. Having said that, it would have taken a better ear than mine to pick it out in the mix.

Other departures from the norm were the inclusion of two sets of tympani, placed at opposite ends of the back row and a similar splitting of the double basses, with three on each side. Again I imagine this was in the interests of recreating the premiere sound, but how do you conduct such a set-up without tearing yourself in half?

In addition to this big orchestra there were four soloists, a treble, (a boy soprano who played the role of ‘The Youth’ and, when not singing, sat in a chair on the front far right that could have been interpreted as the naughty corner), three choirsworth of choristers, four angelic ladies who played quartet roles from various vantage points, other groupings of singers who popped up surprisingly from the choirs and, high up in the rigging, the organist bathed in the light of that beloved instrument. Mendelssohn didn’t let it loose for a solo run but kept to a keel laying role beneath other musical superstructure.

While the physical assembly was impressive enough, when it all slipped into drive the sound was uplifting. There is nothing like a huge choir, big orchestra and organ all getting stuck into it to stir the soul. This, plus wonderful part writing from Felix certainly did it for me. In passing, I discovered that Felix would have grown up Jewish, and therefore probably not have written Elijah if his dad hadn’t crossed over to Christianity.


Fraser Beath McEwing

Fraser Beath McEwing

Of the four soloists, my vote went to Deborah Humble, whose voice reminded me so much of Janet Baker. I’d like to hear Deborah sing Elgar’s Sea Pictures. Most of the solo heavy lifting was done by bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams who sang the role of Elijah. It was a demanding solo but his big voice coped well with the task of being heard above the huge team behind him. Soprano Gillian Webster created some memorable moments and so did tenor Thomas Walker, although he seemed to have several different voices coming out of one person.

A final accolade for conductor Paul McCreesh who apparently makes a specialty of marshalling battalions of musicians for major campaigns like Elijah. He got this mighty machine to work, not just in the roof scouring climaxes but the tiny droplets at the end of a diminuendo.

Although not his most popular, Elijah is probably Mendelssohn’s greatest composition. The SSO last took it on 20 years ago and you can see why when you consider the logistics. Simply giving all the choristers a cup of tea and a bun would bend the budget, let alone paying them to sing. So we might not hear it performed for a while into the future. My advice is to grab the chance now.

Fraser Beath McEwing is an accomplished pianist and commentator on classical music performance and is a founding member of The theme & Variations Foundation Advisory Board which provides assistance to talented young Australian pianists. His professional background is in journalism, editing and publishing. He is also the author of three novels.He is a Governor of the Sir Moses Montefiore Home.


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