For the inaugural concert of their 50th season last Saturday, Masterworks Chorale performed Felix Mendelssohn’s sumptuous oratorio Elijah under the direction of Dr. Bryan Baker. With the help of professional soloists and a small but worthy orchestra, this San Mateo choir sounded more like a professional group than the community organization it is. The concert in the elegant Woodside High School Performing Arts Center was an absolute delight.
The evening’s success began with the choir itself. Though there were certainly moments where a stronger soprano section might have been desired, the joy on these singers’ faces was evident and helped forgive their somewhat wobbly upper register. The choir’s sound was rich, full, and even — a hard thing to achieve with amateur singers in my experience.
Among the finest moments was the halcyon rendition of “For He shall give His Angels,” which sent me on a trip down choral memory lane. If you do not know this piece, seek it out. Another choral high point was the charming “Baal, we cry to thee,” sung by the idolatrous Baal worshippers. Baker brought out the simple rhythm that Mendelssohn humorously juxtaposes with the more complex sounds of Elijah’s prayers, highlighting the ideological and musical differences between the prophet and the straying Israelites.
Baker was a pleasure to observe; he brought dazzling energy and a sense of elation to the evening. The orchestra also excelled through Mendelssohn’s cascading arpeggios and sweetly lyrical accompaniments.
The soloists were a source of strength and sensitivity. Rather than overpowering the choir with operatic prowess, soprano Fatinah Tilfah, mezzo-soprano Michelle Rice, tenor Brian Thorsett, and bass Kirk Eichelberger wove their voices into the texture. The soloists sang without scores and entered and exited the stage as needed, enhancing the drama.
Eichelberger, who sang the title role, had a resounding and facile voice, and was at his best during Elijah’s ardent proclamations of faith, which produced chills. However, during the softer, legato sections, he tended to scoop dramatically and, as a result, continually kissed the lower half of the pitch.
Rice’s dark, full sound shone brightly and gave serious weight to her aria “O rest in the Lord.” Tilfah’s sweetly powerful soprano voice was especially appropriate for the beloved “Hear Ye Israel” as well as her role as the widow in the first half of the oratorio. Of note is the interesting connection between Tilfah, winner of the 1994 Jenny Lind Competition, and the Swedish Nightingale herself, for whom this role was written in 1846.
The pinnacle of the evening, by far, was Thorsett’s unbelievably beautiful tenor voice. Clear, ringing, and luminous, it was a balm for the ear and made me wish that Mendelssohn had reserved more moments for the tenor soloist.
The recitative “Ye people, rend your hearts” and its accompanying aria “If with all your hearts” made me wish that it would go on indefinitely. My one caveat regarding Thorsett’s performance was his rather affected gesticulation. Sometimes the most effective performances are those where the singer stands quietly and conveys the text with the voice alone. With his effortless vocal production, Thorsett did not need to add any bells and whistles!
It is a pleasure to know that we can hear these choral masterpieces in our community. Masterworks Chorale served Mendelssohn well and I eagerly anticipate their future concerts. You should too.