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Review: ORATORIO SOCIETY OF NEW YORK SPRING CONCERT at Carnegie Hall

The concert included Felix Mendelssohn's "Elijah."

Review: ORATORIO SOCIETY OF NEW YORK SPRING CONCERT at Carnegie Hall

For centuries, Bible stories have been told to adults and to children for a variety of reasons. Usually, there's a moral in there somewhere, one which the storyteller wishes to impress upon his or her listeners. Bible stories are not always the easiest to listen to, and sometimes have the net effect of putting the listener to sleep. When Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) was inspired to write about the life of the prophet Elijah, however, he took the story to the next level. Actually, several of those "next levels".

His 1846 oratorio, "Elijah," related these stories through soloists, a young boy's voice, quartets, four part chorus, double chorus, and a full orchestra. With these forces, the Biblical characters, drawn from several Old Testament sources, sprang to vivid life through Mendelssohn's musical tone painting. Although Mendelssohn greatly admired Bach and Handel, and in some ways modeled "Elijah" on their oratorio formats, except for a few moments this was not like an oratorio written by anyone else. It was also an immediate hit at its inception.

Upon hearing "Elijah" as performed by The Oratorio Society of New York at Carnegie Hall under the dynamic direction of Kent Tritle on May 9th, 2022, listeners were swept up by a tsunami of emotions as the chorus and soloists unspooled the story. Susanna Phillips, Soprano; Lucia Bradford, Contralto; Isaiah Bell, Tenor; Justin Austin, Baritone, and Zachary Whelan, Treble were effective and affecting. As the Widow, Ms. Phillips' heartbreaking, purely beautiful pleas to Elijah would have melted a heart of stone.

Ms.Bradford's lush and deeply expressive contralto filled the hall with all of her differing roles.The part of Obadiah, sung by the tenor, gets what is perhaps the most famous of the oratorio's arias ("If with all your hearts ye truly seek Me"). If the concert had stopped right there, it would have been enough for some. Mr. Bell's dazzling, impassioned singing was utterly convincing. As an authoritative Elijah, Mr. Austin had to run a gamut of emotions throughout the more than two hour piece, from magisterial curses and warnings, to tender assurances, and even a crisis of faith. Mr. Austin negotiated all these with seeming ease. The eleven year old Mr. Whelan sang the part of The Boy with sweet innocence and perfectly projected clarity.

"Elijah" crosses into operatic territory in Part 1. Elijah holds a contest between the Canaanite God Baal (and other lesser deities) and the God of Israel to see which one will relieve the draught and then become the one and only God. Mendelssohn conjures up nothing less than a titanic clash between the chorus and Elijah. As sung by the OSNY, it was thrilling, absolutely riveting. Mr. Tritle whipped his forces into a violent crowd one minute, and the next they were a (select) choir of Angels in an exquisite double chorus. In less able hands this might not have come off as wonderfully as it did. Mr. Tritle is one of the foremost choral musicians in the world today, and OSNY is so fortunate to have him at the helm. His command of the fabulous orchestra, which this night did yeoman's duty by portraying characters without words, was sure and effective. Bravi tutti!

Due to Covid restrictions nearly all the performers had to be masked. While the masks definitely muffled some of the glorious sounds the chorus produced, because of Mr.Tritle's careful diction work with them not much was lost. Imagine what the Oratorio Society of New York will sound like once they are allowed to sing without being masked! Imagine how splendid it will be. Even better, attend their concerts and be blown away, masked or unmasked!



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From This Author - Joanna Barouch