Sunday, June 7, 2009

Mendelssohn's Elijah, Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, Yishai Steckler-conductor

Felix Mendelssohn’s oratorio “Elijah”, with a contingent of almost 400 performers, premiered in 1846 at England’s Birmingham Festival. The composer enjoyed an almost cultish following in Victorian England and the first performance of this major work was a roaring success. The Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra will be performing Mendelssohn’s “Elijah” opus 70 at the Leipzig Bach Festival (June 2009). Prior to this, the JBO, together with soloists and the Tel Aviv Philharmonic Choir, gave two performances of the oratorio in Israel. Israeli conductor Yishai Steckler took over direction of the performances at short notice, replacing Leon Botstein.

“Elijah” remains Felix Mendelssohn’s (1809-1847) last completed work of this scope. Its religious content, the composer’s reference- and devotion to J.S.Bach and the work’s dramatic style attracted a large audience to the Henry Crown Symphony Hall June 3rd, 2009. The conductor raises his baton. The scene is set in menacing tones, with the prophet Elijah declaring a drought to plague the people of Israel. Steckler, who conducts leading Israeli orchestras and is chorus master of the Israeli Opera Chorus and the Adi Choir, took up the intense plot form its very first note, breathing energy and excitement into its detail and pacing dramatic moments effectively.

Polish-born baritone Marcin Bronikowski made his debut with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra in this fine portrayal of Elijah. His voice is stable and rich in colors, his convincing dramatic presence thrilling the audience. His sense of tragedy, together with gorgeous vocal color, made the darkly-scored aria “It is enough” a true highlight of the performance.

The role of Obadjah was played by tenor Felix Livshitz, an immigrant to Israel from the Ukraine. His vocal quality is warm and pleasing. Mezzo-soprano Shira Raz has presence, musicality and dramatic presence. Soprano Rinat Goldmann’s performance was impressive, though somewhat understated at the opening of “Hear ye, Israel”. Ayala Zimbler has fine diction, playing the Queen with anger and vehemence. Young Shira Patshornik, a student of the Thelma Yellin School for the Arts, gave a competent, well-articulated reading as the Youth, addressing and connecting with Elijah.

Members of the Tel Aviv Philharmonic Choir (directed by Leonti Wolf) dealt in detail and competently with Mendelssohn’s fugal textures and four-part chorales (here, the composer is paying his respects to Bach). Their large choral sound, however, sometimes lacked flexibility. The tempest and its abating (Chorus 34) were given front stage:
‘And after the earthquake there came a fire: but yet the Lord was not in the fire.
And after the fire there came a small voice; and in that still voice, onward came the Lord.’ 1 Kings xix 12.

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