Chorale Opens New Era With Impressive "Elijah" Accompanied by Boca Raton Symphonia
By Lawerence A. Johnson
November 15, 2008
The Master Chorale of South Florida’s performances of Mendelssohn’s Elijah were scheduled before his appointment, but Joshua Habermann could hardly have wanted a more challenging assignment in his debut as the chorus’s new artistic director. Habermann opened the Chorale’s season with Mendelssohn’s epic oratorio Friday night at First Presbyterian Church in Pompano Beach.
Mendelssohn composed Elijah in 1846 for the Birmingham Music Festival, and the work enjoyed spectacular success at its English premiere. While not linear in its episodic treatment of various events in the prophet’s life, Elijah offers some of the composer’s finest writing for voices, in the solo episodes for the baritone as Elijah, as well as the heaven-storming choruses. Mendelssohn wanted above all to create an engaging and passionate work, writing “I am particularly anxious to do justice to the dramatic element” and that he “would like the representation to be as spirited as possible.”
Habermann is not a demonstrative podium presence, the tall, elegant conductor preferring to cue carefully and clearly, and keep a watchful eye on the proceedings. He seems to prefer a warmly molded, legato approach to the music, and there were times when one wanted more incisive rhythmic bite and tension. Also his handling of the orchestra could have used tighter grip, particularly when accompanying soloists.
But on the whole this was an impressive debut for the 40-year-old San Francisco native, who has also taken up the position as director of choral studies at the Frost School of Music. The Chorale sounded polished and extremely well prepared, with enunciation crisper and ensemble cohesion tighter—at least as much as one can tell in the boomy church acoustic. The tenors still lack ballast, but there was greater refinement in the dynamic detailing and better intonation and blending across all sections.
Donnie Ray Albert has the imposing presence and powerful dignity worthy of Elijah, the bit of wear in his stentorian baritone not inapt for the put-upon prophet. While his words were not always clear, Albert consistently showed dramatic engagement with the text, vehement in Is not His word like a fire?, turning and gesturing towards the choir in Call him louder! and bringing a world-weary resignation and pathos to It is enough.
The over-resonant acoustic didn’t do the other soloists any favors either, but all assayed their various parts well. Mezzo Hannah Sharene Penn contributed a sensitively rendered Woe unto them who forsake Him, and, as Obadiah, Glenn Siebert’s febrile tenor was well-suited to the texts. Soprano Angela Cadalgo was a bit wobbly in Hear Ye Israel, and boy alto Alejandro Pichardo, a 6th grader at The Blake School in Plantation, provided the right artless touch as the Hebrew Youth.
But it was very much the Chorale’s show and the massed singers did all that was expected of them under their new leader’s direction. Boosted by the resplendent sopranos—always this group’s finest element— the Chorale put across the resounding choruses of Thanks be to God, Then did Elijah and the closing And then shall your light break forth with admirable thrust and richly layered tone. Kristen DiNonno, Emily Fuhrmann and Sophia Beharrie sang beautifully in the radiant a cappella trio Lift thine eyes, and the Boca Raton Symphonia played very well indeed, with notably majestic brass playing.