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Elijah a fitting ending to memorable festival

  • Jul 13, 2010
[caption id="attachment_2778" align="alignright" width="220" caption="Helmuth Rilling and Thomas Quasthoff at the conclusion of Elijah"][/caption]From the Register-Guard This summer’s Oregon Bach Festival, which began two weeks ago with the operatic romanticism of Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem, ended Sunday afternoon at the Hult Center with another romantic era masterwork: Felix Mendelssohn’s “Elijah.” Under the leadership of Artistic Director Helmuth Rilling, this carefully paced, dramatic performance of the 1846 oratorio proved a satisfying and memorable festival closer. The soloists were excellent. Mezzo Roxana Constantinescu brought her operatic prowess to bear, as she delivered her arias with riveting passion and drama. Sounding utterly celestial when singing the part of an angel, and full of virulent anger as the spiteful Jezebel, the Romanian-born singer added power and conviction. American soprano Elizabeth Keusch produced a glorious, ringing sound, especially in her upper register — although her phrasing did not always jibe with the musical line or the text. I had a bit of difficulty understanding her words at times. I had no such difficulty understanding tenor James Taylor, whose artful phrasing and clear enunciation made it easy to understand the German words. The American singer doesn’t have a huge voice, but his singing certainly had adequate heft, and his pellucid sound was a joy to hear. Not surprisingly, Thomas Quasthoff, singing the title role, left the most lasting impression. The German bass-­baritone, who made his United States debut at the festival 15 years ago, is well known here for his rich, orotund voice and his ability to communicate the text in a wholly convincing way. Quasthoff projected a huge range of emotion, from the tenderness the prophet shows in his duet with the widow, to the angry derision he directs at the prophets of Baal, to the humility and resignation he feels in the aria, “Es ist genug.” The chorus sang with clarity, vibrancy and drive throughout. And Rilling maintained perfect balance among sections, critical in this Bach-inspired work so full of counterpoint. The score calls for a good deal of full-throttle singing, but the choristers seemed to have an endless supply of vocal ammunition. They proved able to sing with lyricism and sensitivity in the more reflective choruses such as “Wer bis an das Ende beharrt” (“He that shall endure to the end”) and the ultra-familiar “Siehe, der Höter Israels” (“He watching over Israel”). I can’t overstate the importance of the orchestra in this piece. One can easily forget that Mendelssohn was one of the great tone-painters of the early 19th century, and the orchestral depictions of drought, storms, fiery chariots, as taken from the Old Testament, are vivid and brilliantly orchestrated. The Festival Orchestra, truly a first-rate ensemble, played with accuracy and elan. There were times when I found that the orchestral sound overtook the one or another of the singers; I attribute this to the quirks of Silva Hall’s acoustics, not to any overplaying by the ensemble. A footnote: The poorly supported podium tipped during one of the choruses, nearly hurling Rilling into the cellos. The conductor didn’t lose a beat, and this minor distraction was soon forgotten. Terry McQuilkin, an adjunct instructor of composition at the University of Oregon, reviews classical music for The Register-Guard.