Wrapping up my final year with Pax Christi Chorale is a profound, bitter-sweet pleasure. Things will get rolling on the first weekend of November with Mendelssohn’s dramatic oratorio Elijah.
I have adored this piece since I learned it in 1977, at 15 years of age, one of the younger singers in Waterloo region’s Mennonite Mass Choir, conducted by my Dad. I really could not believe that as a choral singer, you could throw yourself into the role of a Baal worshipper, and sing really nasty things. It was delightfully naughty and the big sound of about 230 voices with full orchestra was exhilarating.
My Dad would periodically share his score study with me, and point out how the ‘curse’ motive recurs many times throughout the piece. Even when we sing the final, triumphant Amen, there is an ominous promise of a sequel, and more action to come.
Elijah was the first really big piece I conducted with Pax Christi Chorale in 1998. A year earlier, my first full orchestral concert with the group had been Ralph Vaughan Williams Dona Nobis Pacem, but Elijah is twice the length, and requires more soloists, and more rehearsal. I wanted a big star for my first ‘Elijah’ so my board agreed to book Dan Lichti, the golden-toned baritone, perfect for the role. I pleaded with my friends to come and play in the orchestra for a modest honorarium. I promised them that this would strengthen our choir, and lead to more work down the road. It was a risk since we were relying almost completely on ticket sales to pay the musicians. So I’m happy I can say, 18 years later, that promise was kept. Now we hire a fully professional orchestra for every concert, and many of those original players are still on board.
Since then Elijah has been a party piece – literally – on my piano for after-dinner revelries. There’s a tune for everyone to sing, from ‘O rest in the Lord’ to ‘For the mountains shall depart’ to ‘Then shall the righteous shine forth’ and the whole room can sing ‘Cast thy burden upon the Lord’ and ‘He that shall endure to the end’ even after a glass of wine or two.
Approaching the work again in this new century I have a bigger, stronger choir, with much more expressive capability and musical skill – and we are ready to take another risk. I have admired The Bicycle Opera Project for several years as a group who brings newly composed opera to life in a gripping way. Their passion for new music and their physical engagement in theatre is addictive. I also admire their environmental and social ethos, drawing attention to the potential of alternative ways of living and thinking. They don’t regard opera as a jewel in an ivory tower – it’s something to feed the hungry mind, and challenge complacent lifestyles.
This weekend, I was reading Mendelssohn’s letters to his librettist Schubring. Mendelssohn revealed his own aspirations for the dramatic characters.
“With a subject like Elijah it appears to me that the dramatic element should predominate, …The personages should act and speak as if they were living beings – for Heaven’s sake let them not be a musical picture, but a real world, such as you find in every chapter of the Old Testament; and the contemplative and pathetic element, which you desire, ought to be entirely conveyed to our understanding by the words and the mood of the acting personages.”
This is exactly what we hope to achieve with our unlikely collaboration: an oratorio that speaks immediately to the audience, and breathes life into these fiery Old Testament characters.
Don’t miss it ; )