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SCRUTINY | Elijah Has The Goods To Punch Us In The Gut And Soothe Our Souls

By John Terauds on November 5, 2016

Pax Christi Chorale with orchestra and soloists perform Mendelssohn's iconic Elijah with Stephanie Martin, conductor. (Photo: Dahlia Katz)
Pax Christi Chorale with orchestra and soloists perform Mendelssohn’s Elijah with conductor Stephanie Martin. (Photo: Dahlia Katz)

Pax Christi Chorale with orchestra and soloists. Stephanie Martin, conductor. Grace Church-on-the-Hill. November 5 and 6.

There aren’t many concerts where, once the lights dim and the conductor’s hands signal the start, listeners can get punched in the gut and have their hair blown sideways. But that was the metaphoric start to Pax Christi Chorale’s opening to Felix Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah at the dress rehearsal on Friday night.

I think Toronto can safely call this Elijah Weekend, as the elect with tickets get to savour one of the masterpieces of Victorian choral music on Saturday and Sunday. Pax Christi offers performances both days at Grace Church-on-the-Hill in Forest Hill, while the venerable Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, itself a Victorian institution, presents its interpretation at Koerner Hall on Saturday night.

It was the 140th anniversary of the premiere of Elijah in Birmingham, England, at the end of August, but that in itself isn’t reason why two of the GTA’s most ambitious choral societies (as well as Chorus Niagara to our southwest) chose to program the work this weekend. Most likely, there’s something in the air, thick with the acrid smell of burnt morals and scorched truth, as we near the end of the presidential election campaign in the United States, and the ruin of innocent lives in places like Syria.

The world as run by human beings is, quite frankly, a mess. That’s nothing new. And many, religious and non-religious alike, hope (and, ideally, work) for a better tomorrow. So reaching for a piece of art that speaks directly to despair and gives hope a grand form and shape is a compelling proposition for a night out.

If you decide to attend Pax Christi’s Elijah, sit in the first few rows, as I did, to get the first blast of full orchestra, pipe organ and chorus, as they sing “Help, Lord! Wilt Thou quite destroy us?”

With the hundred-plus voices at max volume and the organ’s low notes rumbling through the soles of your feet and deep into your chest, the cry of despair becomes real, visceral, captivating. And the words of hope and comfort that follow all the more soothing and welcome.

I sat at the very back of the church for the second half of the concert, and the effect in the resonant space was still powerful, but the seat-of-the-pants vibration was gone. That would be more like the overall effect the audience at Koerner Hall is likely to enjoy, given its more balanced acoustics and the fact that the organ will be a digital facsimile rather than the real thing.

The Mendelssohn Choir experience is also likely to far more like a regular concert, because Pax Christi decided to add an additional layer of interpretation to the already dramatic text, drawn from the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. Inviting the members of The Bicycle Opera Project (as well as boys from St Michael’s Choir School) to be the soloists, this interpretation gives the text a bit of additional life through action and movement, with theatre lights programmed to add atmosphere.

The choir is also given some work as extras in the drama that unfolds on stage, adding poignancy to the narrative, based on the prophet Elijah’s efforts to bring errant and suffering Israel back into line with God’s commandments.

Are the movement and lighting necessary? No. The text and Mendelssohn’s gorgeous, evocative settings, underscored by the powerful musical forces needed to execute them, are more than enough. But Pax Christi and Bicycle Opera did it tastefully, so it did enhance the experience, after all.

Conductor Stephanie Martin, who is stepping down as artistic director of Pax Christi at the end of this season after 20 years, was in full control, deftly shaping Mendelssohn’s alternately sweet and roiling score. The chorus, volunteers supplements with paid mentors, was in top form. The orchestra, a collection of freelance professionals (as is the case with the Mendelssohn Choir’s instrumentalists), was fine, and organist Matthew Whitfield teased the best out of the church’s beefy instrument.

The four soloists from Bicycle Opera must have felt strange switching from their modest, intimate aesthetic (they go on tour to small venues, presenting new works every summer using whatever they can strap onto their bikes) to the bigger-is-better Victorian way, but they did so admirably. Baritone Geoffrey Sirrett was a convincing Elijah, and his three operatic partners, soprano Larissa Koniuk, mezzo Marjorie Maltais, and tenor Christopher Enns, were fine in the assortment of solo and ensemble pieces that help move the story along.

It is very rare to see and hear professionals and amateurs making such fine music together. Combined with a work that, like George Frideric Handel’s Messiah, should be heard at least once in a lifetime for its ability to stir the soul, Pax Christi makes a compelling case for our attention this weekend.

The Mendelssohn Choir makes the same compelling argument, wrapped in a more traditional package. Conductor Noel Edison, whose choir also includes both professionals and amateurs, has crafted an ensemble of great precision over his many years with them. He also has a quartet of exceptional soloists to offer on Saturday night, including bass-baritone Daniel Lichti as Elijah, as well as tenor Michael Schade and soprano Lesley Bouza.

The question of the weekend is not whether to go experience the musical power of Elijah, but which one to choose. Experiencing either offering will help put the world’s woes in perspective, and you may even hum one of the melodies all the way home.

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John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds

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