The Carnegie Hall stage can’t get much more packed than when the Oratorio Society of New York (OSNY) performs one of the genre’s great classics. The OSNY goes all the way back to 1873. Eighteen years later it gave one of the very first concerts at this now storied venue. For almost a century and a half now, the Society has returned again and again to Felix Mendelssohn’s titanic oratorio Elijah.
The enormous choir, full orchestra, and eloquent soloists at the May 9 performance demonstrated that this masterpiece retains all its force and majesty after more than 175 years. Mendelssohn composed it in the 1840s, scant years before his short life ended. In it he deployed all the methods and tropes of “classical” classical music, elevating them with his individual genius, which included a gift for theatrics. His gift for melody is in abundant evidence here, and Elijah’s melodies do stay with one, especially if one absorbed them when young, as I did.
A Dignified Prophet
A convincing Elijah is important, of course. At first baritone Justin Austin’s portrayal seemed rather more dignified than one might expect of the hell-raising Hebrew prophet. But with his burnished voice and superb skills Austin built the character slowly. He displayed remarkable deftness in difficult recitatives like “Is not his word like a fire.” And by the time the prophet experiences his crisis of faith in “It is enough,” Austin was infusing his singing with varied colors, embodying the complex of emotions woven into the prophet’s mad devotion, religious ecstasy and penchant for drama.
The other soloists in their various roles lived up to the vivid story. Soprano Susanna Phillips gloried in her featured passages, like the “Hear ye, Israel!” that opens Part Two of the oratorio. Mezzo-soprano/contralto Lucia Bradford percolated soft menace and controlled intensity as Jezebel, her voice rich and agile.
Tenor Isaiah Bell brought both fire and clarion clarity to his roles. He touched on an almost Caruso-like tone and vibrato in “If with all your hearts ye truly seek me.” And those high notes in “Then shall the righteous shine forth” made for a stunning climax.
A Large Ensemble in Top Form
Throughout, conductor and OSNY musical director Kent Tritle drew virtuosity and dramatic flair from chorus and orchestra, both of which were in top form. The angelic beauty of the sopranos and altos singing “Cast thy burden upon the Lord”; the natural-disaster tumult of “Behold, God the Lord passed by”; the supernatural apotheosis of Elijah’s ascendance to heaven (“There came a fiery chariot”); and the sharp silences after the Priests of Baal cry in vain for their idol to “Give an answer!” were just a few examples.
The choir’s volume suffered a bit from their wearing masks. Fortunately there were enough singers to mostly make up for it. Moments when the orchestra’s horns overpowered the voices were few. What a joy it will be when those masks can finally come off. But the Oratorio Society of New York has lost none of its dedication to the classics. Here’s to more centuries of music from them.