Philharmonic gives ‘Elijah’ a powerful voice in commanding concert

The Columbus Indiana Philharmonic and Philharmonic Chorus and four distinguished soloists presented Felix Mendelssohn’s magnificent oratorio, “Elijah,” Saturday at Judson Erne Auditorium in Columbus. It was a huge undertaking, as it would be for any orchestra and choir in the world.

The musicians on that occasion, conducted expertly by their regular conductor, David Bowden, gave a gripping account of this oratorio, second only to Handel’s “Messiah” as an audience favorite and in number of yearly performances world-wide.

Timothy Noble, Metropolitan Opera star and distinguished professor of Music of Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, sang the title role, and from his first intonations it was evident that he was totally in command of the enormous task, both dramatically and vocally. Columbus native Rachel Mercer Holland, soprano, and Hannah Penn, alto, appeared next in the beautiful duet, “Lord, Bow Thine Ear to Our Prayer,” their exquisite voices blending perfectly.

One of the most famous arias in “Elijah” is the tenor solo, “If With All Your Hearts,” sung by Justin Stoltz, a current student of Noble’s. Stoltz’s warm, resonant sound with its even scale from the top to the bottom of his range thrilled each time he had an opportunity to sing.

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The excellent Philharmonic Chorus played an important role throughout as it portrayed both the followers of the god Baal as well as the voice of God’s chosen people. I would have preferred more angst in the passages that expressed the heretical mob with increased projection of consonant sounds. However, this did not detract from the overall impact the chorus consistently made.

The moving scene of a widow begging Elijah to cure her sick son was brilliantly sung by Holland with sensitive answers by Elijah. Some of the most dramatic moments occur when Elijah taunts the infidels as they pray to Baal to bring much-needed rain. As the scene becomes more tense, we hear the followers of Baal become frenzied.

Maestro Bowden roused the singers to the point of desperation. Then Elijah prays to God for rain and sends a small child, poignantly played by Ally Parker, to see if a cloud appears. Finally the torrents come, and the chorus expresses thanks with well-blended, full-throated sounds in the great passage, “Thanks Be To God,” which brings the first part to a stirring conclusion.

After intermission, Holland sang one of the most well-known arias, “Hear Ye Israel.” Her golden, clear voice, soaring on several occasions to a high A-sharp was thrilling to hear each time. In this section, we also hear Elijah in his most famous aria, “It is Enough, O Lord Now Take Away My Life.”

A beautiful cello obbligato was sensitively played by assistant principal cellist Sonja Kraus with a melting, gorgeous sound. Noble brought all of the passion, drama and stentorian quality so necessary for plumbing the dramatic depths of this fantastic aria. Hannah Penn then sang “O Rest in the Lord,” the favorite of alto offerings. Her sense of pitch and rhythm were impeccable, and this coupled with a limpid, floating sound made this one of the high points of the evening.

The Chorus’ “Behold! God the Lord Passed By!” was especially notable for its superb diction, making all the words come alive with fire. Maestro Bowden is known for his careful attention to detail in both instrumental and vocal presentations. This was clear in the choral singing and in the orchestra’s response to every motion that he made.

The last solo in this gargantuan work, noted for its heavenly melodic line, is for the tenor and titled, “Then Shall The Righteous Shine Forth.” Stolz sounded as fresh and florid as he did in his opening aria, an incredible feat considering the length and vocal demands made on all the singers.

This massive work ended with the jubilant chorus, “And Then Shall Your Light Break Forth.” Mendelssohn concludes with a great fugue utilizing the entire ensemble to its fullest capacity.

Each soloist brought outstanding vocal qualities to their individual recitatives and arias, and it was evident that much thought and preparation went into such an undertaking. Maestro Bowden’s command of the score, his obvious love for this exceptional music, and his willingness to spend the time and energy both in preparation of the score and rehearsal of all the elements gave the huge crowd an unforgettable musical and dramatic experience.

The presentation that we heard Saturday would be worthy in any concert hall in America.

Charles Webb of Bloomington is dean emeritus of Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music.