Haddo Arts Festival 2018 started in spectacular style last night with a concert by the Haddo House Choral & Operatic Society. Here is the first review, from Alan Cooper:
HADDO HOUSE CHORAL & OPERATIC SOCIETY
MENDELSSOHN’S ORATORIO ‘ELIJAH’
Dr PAUL TIERNEY: Conductor and Musical Director
THE HADDO ORCHESTRA, LEADER GUERA MAUNDER
AMY STRACHAN: Soprano
HEATHER IRESON: Mezzo-Soprano
SAMUEL JENKINS: Tenor
NIALL ANDERSON: Bass-Baritone
Haddo House Hall
Saturday 6thOctober, 2018
There was a capacity audience for the opening event of this year’s Haddo Arts Festival – a full scale performance for large choir and orchestra of Mendelssohn’s epic oratorio ‘Elijah’ conducted by Dr Paul Tierney. I was reminded of Haddo’s glory years with both choir and orchestra giving a proper professional standard performance along with the talents of four superb young vocal soloists and in addition, at two points in the performance, a quintet and later a trio of top notch singers drawn from the choir.
‘Elijah’ is quite a difficult work to follow especially for those who are not regular church attenders and who do not have their Bible stories off pat. Elijah was a Hebrew prophet reckoned to have been active somewhere between 900 – 801 BCE. He is said to rank along with Moses in saving the religion of the Israelis from becoming corrupted by the nature worship (this is the polite version of what they actually got up to) of the Canaanite and Phoenician God Baal. This was happening because Baal was the God worshipped by Jezebel, the wife of the Israeli King Ahab.
Mendelssohn’s oratorio opens with a powerful outcry by the brass players followed by a strong declamation by Elijah, sung splendidly by Niall Anderson, saying that Israel is about to suffer a catastrophic drought because of their deviation from the pure laws of The Lord. The rather magnificent orchestral overture which follows is a depiction of the drought and the punishment of The Lord. Mendelssohn is said to have re-ignited interest in the works of J. S. Bach and you could hear that in this music especially where the trombones punched out the sort of bass line reminiscent of what you find in Bach’s organ music. At the same time Mendelssohn’s full orchestral writing had the full colour richness of the romantic style. Throughout the work the orchestral players were brilliant. Fugal writing for the orchestra and the chorus ‘Be not afraid’ was one of the special delights of this performance.
Niall Anderson was mostly the voice of Elijah although he did take part in the two quartets where the singers are really commenting on the action. The power of his singing was terrific depicting the anger and sometimes the ferocity of the prophet, but his vocal quality also had a lovely rounded warmth that made Elijah a more appealing character than in some performances where he comes across as just ‘shouty’. I found one such in German on the internet. One of the real highlights of the work is Elijah’s delicious aria, ‘Lord God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel’ and Niall sold this to us at full glowing value.
The other soloists tended to change character throughout the work, tenor Samuel Jenkins was King Ahab but also had solos commenting on the action and encouraging us in the audience to obey the laws of God too. I was impressed by the way he blended the idea of Evangelist in his voice with elements of operatic richness and delectability – after all, many of the pieces for the vocalists in this work lean as much to the world of opera as they do to the more austere confines of oratorio.
The two female voices moved characters even more. Soprano Amy Strachan was the woman whose dead son Elijah brings back to life but she was also an angel giving Elijah his instructions from God. Her aria at the beginning of the second half introducing ‘Be not afraid’ was truly impressive.
If Niall Anderson gets one of the high points of the work with ‘Lord God of Abraham’ mezzo-soprano Heather Ireson gets the other ‘big hit’ with ‘Rest in the Lord’. Throughout the work from easily reached high notes to lovely rich low passages, I thought Heather was magnificent.
The quintet of female voices from the chorus were fantastic, led by a soprano with the marvellous name of Toto Coxe and supported by Nina MacDonald-Lewis, Cat Lawson, Fenella Strachan and Phyllis Garden. They gave us another high point in the performance.
Some of the other ‘hits from the show’ if I may be allowed to call them that were Gareth John’s beautiful cello solo along with Niall Anderson and Niall also profited from a fine oboe solo.
At the centre of the entire performance though was the rich full colour singing of the chorus. I have already mentioned their fantastic fugue but time and again I was made to sit bolt upright just listening to the richness of the choral tones.
Paul Tierney is fortunate in being very tall and having very long arms. These he used to great effect bringing in various sections of the chorus right on cue. I noticed this in particular with the tenors, once splendidly with the altos and indeed boosting the sopranos to give their all. I was surprised that Paul was still full of vim and verve at the end of a very long work and yes, the choir were fully with him at the end too.