The Princeton Glee Club has been around since 1874, and it shows. This past weekend, while students flocked to productions such as “Clue” (the Musical?!) and “Arabian Nights,” the Glee Club performed Felix Mendelssohn’s epic oratorio, Elijah, in Richardson Auditorium, to an audience of senior citizens and music majors. The Music Department-sponsored singers were nothing short of professional: the chorus’ sound was full and mature, transitioning easily between high-volume drama and gentle lullabies, of which the oratorio has plenty. About half of the performers were professionals, as the Music Department hired an orchestra and soloists for the main vocal roles. At first it seemed odd that students weren’t singing the solo parts of Elijah and Olivia (after all, earlier this year the Music Department successfully produced Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro with an all-student cast), but it soon became clear that the solos were as demanding as any opera part, perhaps even more so.
Elijah is essentially an opera without a set or costumes, certainly challenging to listen to as well as to perform (it ran at about two and a half hours). Scored for four vocal soloists, chorus, and orchestra, the oratorio tells the story of the prophet Elijah using biblical episodes as its text. Although Elijah was originally in German, Mendelssohn wrote an English translation that has become the standard for performance. The music, as one concertgoer accurately noted after the show, is “so nineteenth century.” Either conveying God’s vengeance or God’s love (and little in between), Mendelssohn’s score is unabashedly obvious musically: fiery minor, followed by a gentler section in major, followed by a triumphant section in major, and then back to minor for the next cycle (now repeat for two hours). “He will smite you or He will save you!” another attendee summarized.
It is thus hard to call Elijah a masterpiece, despite its beautiful, soaring melodies and sustained, long phrases – which the chorus was particularly adept at conveying. Mendelssohn’s music often falls short of genius simply because it remains comfortably within the musical standards of his time, offering little harmonic exploration or structural variation, as in the music of his predecessor, Beethoven, and his successor, Brahms. As the music theorist Charles Rosen wrote on Elijah: “The music expresses not religion but piety…it substitutes for religion itself the emotional shell of religion.” His criticism is harsh, but essentially true—while Mendelssohn achieves success in his seamless orchestration, his music lacks excitement beyond traditional harmonic climaxes, which, to a trained ear, are all too predictable.
Nevertheless, unsubtle and earnest music is welcome every once and a while, and it was easy to become swept up in the truly dynamic and powerful performance. Perhaps that I was sitting in front of the tenor soloist, who smiled wistfully at all the appropriate places, and seemed so thrilled to sing, colored my appreciation favorably. Unfortunately, he was also the weakest soloist. It was clear that the part was at the top of his vocal range, his voice sliding in and out of tune on occasion. He also became so involved in listening to the chorus that he missed an entrance toward the end. Luckily, the orchestra adjusted and the mistake was quickly swallowed, unnoticed by most. The performance was a testament not only to the talent of the Glee Club but also to the quality of department-sponsored programming. While the Lewis Center struggles with controversial productions such as Roger Q. Mason’s “Orange Woman,” and students keep choosing far-out shows like “Clue” and “The Flood,” the music department quietly continues to put together masterful performances.