Village Church (Presbyterian) in Prairie Village, Kansas, was host, Tuesday, to the first UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance recital of the new academic year: a presentation of the oratorio, Elijah, by Felix Mendelssohn in partial fulfillment of a Doctor of Musical Arts degree for conducting student, Michael Robert Patch.
Members of Kansas City Civic Orchestra provided a solid, responsive foundation for the entire performance. At times there was a little too much orchestra, overbalancing the moderate-sized chorus. Were the combined ensemble a continuing performance community, some sense of concertante would develop, allowing the hefty instrumentation to ascend when appropriate, and support intuitively.
Presentation personnel included about sixty singers, thirty-five members of the Kansas City Civic Orchestra, four soloists and the conductor. The vocal quartet presented a contrast in voice styles.
Dr. Paul Griggsby, bass baritone, as Elijah, owned the stage; no 35 piece orchestra could overpower his thunder. Even his softest tones bounced sweetly over all other sounds, in tune, and the words usually audible. Once he sang the first few words of the introduction, his huge voice assured all that the evening was in good hands. His operatic experience was put to good use as he taunted the chorus (believers in Baal) in the two recitatives & Chorus, "Call him louder." The first time around he was fairly restrained, increasing to a great reverberation the second time. "Is not his word like a fire," one of the two important bass arias was not only sung with brilliance, but was played well, as the prophet who had ordered the sacrifice watered down, and knew that God would consume it with fire to the dishonor of the priests of Baal.
"It is enough," was, again acted rather than simply sung. The prophet had developed a little push back from King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, and retreated to the wilderness to avoid the hunting party. All of this was reflected in this remorseful, prayerful aria. The prophetic utterances of Elijah were in perfect character with one who speaks for God.
Soprano, Allanah Garnier, was called on for the part of the widow whose child was healed, a consoling angel, and part of a reflective ensemble. In each case, she easily moved through the florid sections and usually competed well with the orchestra. Her bright highs, particularly, filled the room with a full, sweet, sound.
Mezzo soprano, Kristee Haney (who was remarkable last weekend in the Summer Singers' Handel program) was assigned several sections of another angel, Queen Jezebel, and ensemble reflections. She is not the deep contralto, but simply a lower voice than soprano. She sounded devout or cruel, as needed, filled the sanctuary of Village Church with ease, and artfully sang her part. Her interactions with the chorus were particularly effective, both vocally and dramatically.
Tenor, Christopher Puckett, conceded, when asked, that he does a lot of Bach. He has the perfect evangelist voice, controlled, light, agile, piercing (in a good way) and narrative. "Ye people rend your hearts," and, "If with all your hearts," were wonderful vehicles for demonstrating his clear, legato highs, although Mendelssohn made this more of a pleading exhortation rather than the strong prophetic voice of Elijah. Mr. Puckett sang the part of Ahab handily; Mendelssohn, here again, had difficulty deciding whether the king was a villain or a repentant sinner/evangelist. As Mendelssohn was heavily influenced by Bach's, St Matthew Passion, it seems quite reasonable to cast a Bach tenor in this part.
Caitlin Walker, as the youth, had a very nice interaction with Elijah.
All of these variations of voices made the penultimate quartet, "O come everyone that thirsteth," all the more remarkable, because of its balanced blend; it could easily have been Elijah with a back-up group.
The choir was there, accurate, and often could be understood above the overpowering orchestra. It was well-rehearsed, and had some lovely, smooth, crescendi. Its interactions with soloists were particularly effective. "He, watching over Israel," flowed with a sustained legato and strength.
The double octet made a nice contrast with the full choir, although it sometimes had difficulty agreeing on a chord. "Cast thy burden upon the Lord," and "For he shall give his angels," were sung with a particularly inspiring earnestness.
Many in the audience had heard Elijah at least once, if not many times. Whether newbies or veteran listeners, this was a pleasurable evening of a powerful presentation of a great favorite; the full house expressed its appreciation with an extended standing ovation. Best of luck, Mr. Patch, you certainly completed this portion of the degree with distinction.