Concert review: A powerful, satisfying Elijah kicks off Elora Festival’s 33rd season

Brett Polegato sings during the Elora Festival performance of Elijah on Friday night (Bill Longshaw photo).

In a world where conductors flit about from podium to podium, the Elora Festival’s Noel Edison is proof of the power of connecting one person to a community, allowing everything and everyone — including the audience — to grow in the process.

At the opening of the 33rd season of the annual Festival, Edison led a remarkable performance of Elijah, the 1846 oratorio by Felix Mendelssohn that tells the story of the Biblical prophet in two-and-a-half hours of powerful, moving, beautifully layered choruses and airs.

This work, the second most popular oratorio in the English-speaking world after Handel’s Messiah, is one of those works that improves with each hearing — and becomes an object of adoration when performed at the level witnessed by a capacity audience at the Gambrel Barn in Elora on Friday night.

Edison, the Elora Festival’s founding artistic director and principal conductor, has turned the shaping of complex, symphonic choral music into a fine art, melding both power and subtletly over a wide range of moods and effects. On Friday night, he showed how his years of experience could be translated into a performance that moved as much by its execution as it did with Mendelssohn’s elegant musical sructures and aching melodies.

His Festival Orchestra played beautifully. The Elora Festival Singers were joined by the young men and women of the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, blending and balancing perfectly from beginning to end. Edison kept the music moving along at a nice clip.

The five soloists were icing on an already rich cake: soprano Leslie Ann Bradley, mezzo Leigh-Anne Martin, tenor Michael Colvin, bass-baritone Brett Polegato and treble (boy soprano) Daniel Bedrossian did a fine job.

Polegato deserves special mention for the conviction he brought to the heaviest of the singing roles, that of the prophet Elijah, who has to summon hope, courage, anger, despair and, finally, peaceful acceptance of his fate as an underappreciated messener of God’s will. The singer found myriad ways to colour each aria a little differently, adding further layers of meaning to the already beautiful music.

It might sound odd to go hear a famous oratorio in a road-maintenance shed, with moths and other insects crowding the spotlights as occasional wafts of animal manure drift in from the nearby farmers’ fields. But so compelling was Friday’s performance that it removed us from the day-to-day, and took us to a much better, sweeter-smelling place.

Music really can be that powerful.

The Elora Festival continues with a variety of classical and more popular programming to Aug. 5.

John Terauds


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