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S.F. Choral Society Enjoys the Pleasures of Making Music

August 22, 2017

San Francisco Choral Society

Felix Mendelssohn originally composed his oratorio Elijah to a libretto in German, but since the work had been commissioned by the Birmingham Music Festival, the composer had the text translated into English for its world premiere there, on August 26, 1846. The German version didn’t premiere until February 1848, a few months after Mendelssohn’s death.

It was the English version of Elijah that received two rousing performances last weekend at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco by the members of the San Francisco Choral Society (SFCS), together with a set of exquisite soloists, a children’s choir, and the California Chamber Symphony, all under the baton of maestro Robert Geary, artistic director of the Society.

Mendelssohn was a great admirer of the oratorios of his Baroque predecessors, Bach and Handel. In 1829, barely 20 years old, the young composer conducted the revival concert of the St. Matthew Passion, which had not been performed since Bach died.

If Mendelssohn’s earlier oratorio, St. Paul (1836), is a tribute (of sorts) to Bach, Elijah’s style leans more towards Handel, although unmistakably in Mendelssohn’s idiom. Elijah shows the prophet, in a vignette-style narrative without much of a dramatic arc, during several episodes of his life, as described in the books 1 Kings and 2 Kings of the Old Testament.

All members of the vocal quartet sang multiple parts, except for Eugene Brancoveanu, who performed the title role. As Elijah, he was powerful and grounded, like the prophet’s unshakeable faith in his God.

One of Brancoveanu’s finest moments, the enthralling aria “It is enough,” in which the desperate protagonist begs the Lord to “take away his life,” came in the second part of the concert, as the centerpiece of a cluster of highlights that perfectly reflected the magnificence of the Choral Society’s performance.

The splendid soprano Marnie Breckenridge opened Part II with the lyrical aria “Hear ye, Israel,” which was followed by the invigorating chorus “Be Not Afraid,” plus an exchange between Elijah, the chorus, and velvety contralto Edith Dowd, who showed fierceness and an excellent sense of urgency as Queen Jezebel.

Next, there was an intimate moment between Elijah and Obadiah (one of the roles sung radiantly by tenor Brian Thorsett). And there was an angelic “Lift Thine Eyes” sung a cappella by the first-class ensemble from the Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir, which also supplied the poised youth soloist Kai Estrella Kowal.

Words of praise should go to the California Chamber Symphony, with its confident strings and excellent wind section; and most of all to the Choral Society’s Robert Geary, who can work miracles with any group of singers — and does so time and again.

And then there are, of course, the choir members. Together they form the heart and soul of the organization: the choral society proper. 

One of the things that I admire most about the SFCS is the unique energy that emanates from the group. The sheer pleasure of making music and tackling a project like Elijah jumps at you from the stage. And the fact that nearly everyone in the audience has a personal relationship with one of the performers turns every concert into a remarkable experience.

All of which takes nothing away from the performance quality. Over the years, I have attended many SFCS concerts and I daresay that I have more than enjoyed all of them. But this Elijah deserves to be included in the annals of Choral Society history as one of the best ever. 

Native Dutchman Niels Swinkels is a freelance journalist, musicologist, and sound engineer. Before moving to San Francisco, he was the arts editor and senior classical music/opera critic for Brabants Dagblad, a regional daily newspaper in the Netherlands. As a freelance writer and sound engineer, he currently works for San Francisco Opera, KALW Local Public Radio, Elevation Online, Earprint Productions, and others.