All Saint's Church, February 2017
Triumphant Elijah from local choir.
They were putting out extra chairs at All Saints Church last Saturday, for Mendelssohn’s Elijah is always one of the best loved works in the choral repertoire. And Phoenix Choir, under director Michael Fields, re-created it triumphantly in all respects. Elijah is a bit of a contradiction - a favourite, and yet not everyone’s favourite. It has marvellous moments and several numbers which are oft-performed as extracts. The scale of the work, an oratorio that touches on opera, is close to phenomenal: this performance ran well over three hours, although that did include a very congenial interval in the packed church.
And yet that very scale is a challenge. The choir has almost a score of quite heavyweight choruses to learn, and that means a deal of note-bashing in all those Tuesday night rehearsals. Phoenix rose to that challenge magnificently. The choir singers did much more than reel off the notes: they caught the spirit of drama that threads through the work, and they conveyed both emotion and devotion. Most of the choral writing, as well as the opening overture, is built on fugal subjects, little lines of imitation and antiphon, and it relies on developing and building to a climax. That means stamina and concentration as well as musicianship, and Phoenix were never, ever found wanting.Tuning was immaculate and balance was excellent, with a brilliant tenor section standing out - but not in the wrong sense. Once or twice, an entry was hesitant, but that is a quibble. This is a choir built on huge experience and on genuine love for the music.
In Michael Fields the society is blessed with a superb director, scholarly, genial and above all a communicator. His touch on the tiller is relatively light, but the beat and the tempi have that clarity in which a large chorus can feel secure. It is an irony for audiences (and reviewers) that the one face you never see is the conductor’s; but Michael surely wears a smile and not a scowl!
The story of Elijah, deep in the Old Testament, is certainly the stuff of drama: An old prophet, defiant against the forces of Baal, challenges the false priests to conjure fire on their altars; and when they fail, he summons the power of his true God. And that takes us only to half-time: in the second half Elijah faces the fury of Queen Jezebel, flees to the desert, and ascends in a chariot of fire. You need to be a Biblical literalist or a Spielberg enthusiast to take it all on board, but the story still has a power which translates in oratorio.
Mendelssohn draws on the oratorio traditions of Bach and Handel, but goes beyond. Elijah himself is actor as well as singer, and Sam Evans carries the work with both stunning vocal range and richness, and with assertive delivery. Most oratorio soloists simply sit, stand, sing. But Michael Fields has them moving and effectively promenading around the church. Fascinating and inventive.
The other three principals were outstanding. Mark Curtis was a lilting, expressive Obadiah. Catherine Hopper and Suzanne Walker each had fabulous range and easy command. And young Jonny Rowland beautifully - and most confidently - carried off the boy solo with its high sustained line. An accomplished, indeed flawless orchestra supported but never overwhelmed the voices.
Several jewels in the musical crown. Sam’s Lord God of Abraham was a moving prayer for modern as well as Old Testament times: “And let our hearts again be turned”. The semi-chorus Lift Thine Eyes was pin-sharp and almost hypnotic in its quality. And perhaps the finest, although not the noisiest, chorus in the work He Watching Over Israel perfectly achieved that quality of building to a climax which Mendelssohn engineers.
Eastbourne’s health and strength in choral singing has never been better. Thank you, Phoenix.
By Kevin Anderson.