Review: Music of the Baroque opens season with emotional ‘Elijah’

By Alan Artner, Chicago Tribune
September 17, 2017

Felix Mendelssohn’s oratorio “Elijah” is a relic of the Victorian period that has retained a special place among choral directors despite its fall from widespread initial popularity.

In the 1980s, adherents began taking an unconventional view that emphasized the work’s dramatic qualities over its piety. The last major account of it here, six years ago with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Helmut Rilling, was a performance of that kind. And so, too, was Saturday night’s presentation that opened the 2017-18 season of Music of the Baroque at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance.

Rilling’s large-scale re-evaluation had a winning balance of devotion and near-operatic excitement. But Jane Glover’s leaner MOB version — 43 chorus members as against Rilling’s 140 — went further in the operatic direction, fairly pummeling the audience with strong emotion for most of two and a quarter hours. Playing and singing were stellar throughout, but the unremitting “bigness” of feeling, while exhilarating, overpowered the more modestly expressed reverence of Mendelssohn’s day.

Vocal solos in the work give opportunity for the strongest display of emotion. And from Elijah’s first declamation, just one bar in, even before the overture, it was clear that bass-baritone Eric Owens was about to squeeze the juice from every word and, thanks to the lazily repetitious text — sung, as at the 1846 premiere, in English — return to squeeze each one again. Yes, his taunts to the Baalites were powerful, just as the self-recrimination in “It is enough” ached and his ultimate leave-taking proved noble. Yet so steady was the stream of intensity that it was as if the entire text had been italicized, throbbing at different degrees of heat but nonetheless unceasingly throbbing and therefore giving a sameness to all the high points.

Soprano Susanna Phillips was equally commanding of tone, though fussy with rolling R’s that came and went. Her “Hear Ye, Israel” certainly was urgent enough, yet strength of delivery apart, her characterizations overall were more correct as singing than compelling as expression. Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong, by contrast, fully inhabited each of her multiple roles from imperious Jezebel to maternal angel, achieving radiance in gentler passages. The artistry of sounding natural and without affectation also mostly marked tenor William Burden’s roles, particularly Elijah’s supporter Obadiah. Sweet naturalness was especially welcome on the two occasions all four soloists sing together.

Boy soprano Benedict Santos Schwegel, assigned to spotting the clouds that will end years of drought, proved a touching watchman, but unlike with Rilling a theatrical coup was missed in failing to set the child apart, at a distance, on high, as if he were really a sentinel.

Glover conducted with crackling energy, coaxing the most beautiful playing from lower strings in “It is enough” and an atmospherically plaintive oboe in “For the mountains shall depart.” The chorus was keenly responsive.