Review by Nan Lincoln
BAR HARBOR — In the first half of Mendelssohn’s oratorio “Elijah,” the newly repentant Israelites beg the Lord’s forgiveness for their pagan shenanigans, and to bring rain to a land he has, in his wrath, scorched with fire and seared with drought.
After weeks of no significant rain here on MDI, it’s pretty certain than the audience attending the Mt. Desert Summer Chorale’s rousing performance of “Elijah,” last weekend at St. Saviour’s Church, were all hoping the combination of the beautiful voices and stirring music would work its rainmaking magic.
What it did accomplish was to make us forget the steaming heat in the church. The temperature did actually overcome a couple of choristers before the concert started.
Singing the role of Elijah was Gordon Hawkins, whose incredibly deep, resonant baritone cut through the fug immediately in the opening verse, when the prophet warns the Israelites not to expect any rain or even morning dew until they cut out all their Baal worship.
This had us quaking in our sandals because Hawkins was very convincing, and also made it eminently clear that he considered us, the audience, to be part of the problem. But it was exciting as well, because we knew, right from the start, this was going to be a thrilling ride, worth the long drive to Bar Harbor, the parking annoyances and the heat we were enduring to be there.
Had the remarkable Hawkins, who kept us on the edge of our pews throughout the evening, been the only soloist of note, it would have sufficed, but the others were equally impressive. Soprano Carole Fitzpatrick is another vocal force to be reckoned with. Mezzo-soprano Robyn Rocklein, like Hawkins, made us feel as if were attending an opera, rather than a concert with her theatrical performance. Especially with her deliciously arch portrayal of the wicked Jezebel commanding Elijah to get the hell out of town and to take his priest-killing God with him.
With all this drama going on, the lyrical tenor of the fourth guest soloist, David Parks, served as a sort of eye in the storm from time to time— a voice of reason, explaining in a gentle but compelling manner, what was happening, why, and what needed to be done to fix it.
Providing the emphasis, depth, color and some impressive onomatopoeia to the whole scary tale was the magnificent 70-or-so member chorus. Director David Schildkret brought a few angelic ringers with him from Arizona State University, who were complemented by the excellent 23-piece orchestra, most of them from the Bangor Symphony.
The collective sound of these strings, woodwinds, brass, and timpani managed to fill the church without ever overwhelming the singers.
While it’s true that the orchestral score in these oratorios are the precursors of the modern movie score, the orchestra’s contribution to the mood of this particular piece seems especially pronounced. There’s the flutter of strings building suspense, the clarion brass adding weight to Elijah’s pronouncements, the soothing strings…and I swear I heard a bit of John Williams’ terrifying “Jaws” theme in there at one point.
Apropos of cellos, first cello Robert Tennen was especially notable, embodying the phrase “pulling at one’s heart strings” when his melancholy cello seemed to represent Elijah’s interior emotions as he finds himself defeated and cast out into the wilderness. Later, Gerard Reuter’s plaintive oboe picks up this emotional thread.
Kudos here as well to timpanist Cynthia Brooks Bastide who not only provided the thumping heart-beat of the story and a few natural disaster sound effects, but also managed, in quiet moments, to unobtrusively tune her drums, whose skins must have been stretching like pizza dough in the heat.
An especially wonderful thing about this piece is that the chorus is given so much to do. Often unleashed for just a few hearty hallelujahs or to emphasize the soloist’s points, the “Elijah” chorus actually gets to drive the story.
In the second part finale the chorus is in total control as they reenact the natural disasters the Lord has visited upon the Baal worshippers— the smashing of rocks, earthquakes, hurricanes and the like.
Now all this responsibility would be daunting even for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. A less confident chorus — one that hasn’t been tackling challenging music for the past 50 years, say — might have turned those fire and brimstone moments into campfire sparks.
But the Mount Desert Summer Chorale’s combination of vocal talent and experience, along with a director who is constantly reminding them that they are not simply note singers but storytellers, brought all of Mendelssohn’s sturm und drang to thrilling life.
And, oh yes, it rained both nights of the performance. Bravo for a job well done on all counts!