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An Oratorio Lit From Within

March 4, 2008

There is something both intimate and grand about Edward Elgar’s not-oft-performed oratorio The Dream of Gerontius. Perhaps, it’s the challenge of reconciling those dissimilarities that makes this work, written in 1899-1900, a rarity. Or maybe it’s the fact that there are plenty of tricky musical parts to navigate for chorus, orchestra, and soloists?
When performed well, however, Gerontius is certain to make a lasting impression. And when the Sacramento Choral Society and Orchestra performed the work in Sacramento’s Community Center Theater on Saturday, they made a powerful statement, indeed. The SCSO’s 180 choristers, three soloists, and full orchestra did more than just connect with the fervor and grittiness demanded by Elgar’s two-part oratorio. They also made this large-scale work deeply human.

Donald Kendrick

Much of the success of this performance was due to the conducting of Music Director Donald Kendrick, who was able to conduct the entire 90-minute work from memory. He kept the chorus and orchestra tightly focused, and on a crisp pace. This was the second time that Kendrick has conducted the work this decade with the SCSO, and his familiarity with the piece showed in his conducting.
Ultimate Questions
Near the end of his life, Elgar said that Gerontius was the work he wanted most to be remembered by. It’s easy to understand why, for the work is as iconoclastic and personal an oratorio as it is a universal one. Key to that quality is the 900-line poem by the theologian John Henry Cardinal Newman that serves as its libretto. The poem, written in 1865, is composed of Catholic liturgy-inspired thoughts about how terrifying, and rewarding, it can be to meet your maker. It begins with a man named Gerontius (a name derived from the Greek word for “old age”) on his deathbed. In the second part (which, in the oratorio, typically begins after a pause instead of an intermission), Gerontius transits into the afterlife. This, in turn, leads to a redemptive end in Purgatory.

And so Gerontius is, more than anything else, a tale for Everyman. The cornerstone role in the oratorio is, of course, that of the dying man himself. It was handled with subtlety and fervor by lyric tenor Richard Clement. He offered a warm and radiant tenor that he girded with a robust stage presence. Clement’s singing embodied the idea that life is both great and minuscule. He effectively communicated the vulnerability that comes with facing the unknown. And at softer volume levels his singing was deep and meaningful.

Kathleen Moss, in the role of the Angel, displayed a well-rounded mezzo-soprano. Her singing was appropriately brooding, but richly exultant when needed. In the role of the Angel of Agony, Sean Cooper unleashed a booming bass-baritone that filled the hall. But at times his singing was compromised by fuzzy diction. Some wobbly moments also crept in at the end of lines.

The chorus, which Elgar uses sparingly in Gerontius, sang with sophistication and dramatic grit. There are incredibly fluid, but unconventional, choral movements in this work, particularly in the second part during the “Choir of the Angelicals.” Throughout, these musicians handled their parts with a red-blooded urgency.

In the orchestral writing, Elgar mirrors the inner turmoil of the oratorio’s central character. To that end, he deploys a variety of meters and textures. Despite overly loud playing, which drowned out some singing, and a few weak moments among the horns, the orchestra hit the mark.

Although 19th-century oratorios are not that popular with concert programmers, the deep impression that Gerontius makes on audiences and musicians whenever it is performed would justify more regular presentations. But don’t hold your breath. For now, Gerontius’ repertory status remains an unanswered question.

Edward Ortiz is an arts and science writer who has written for The Sacramento Bee, The Boston Globe, and The Providence Journal. He is also a contributor to Symphony Magazine and