What better way to round off a jam-packed 25th anniversary year than with a performance of one of the most popular choral works ever written? That’s what the Peterborough Singers are set to do this upcoming May 5, with a one-time-only performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah.
“It’s not hard to see why this work is so wildly and enduringly popular,” said Peterborough Singers Artistic Director Syd Birrell, pointing out that Elijah is often mentioned in the same breath as Handel’s Messiah and Haydn’s Creation. “There’s this incredible excitement and drama as the story unfolds. You’re just hauled along from the start, and the choir has a very active role in telling this story. It’s extremely rewarding to sing, and – judging by its reputation – to listen to.”
From the dramatic opening solo, to the ensuing overture, to the final chorus, Elijah is a massive work by every possible description. In its uncut form, it runs a full two and a half hours, although Birrell hastens to add that the Singers’ performance will have a more moderate run-time.
Right from its first performance in August 1846, before an audience of two thousand that had packed the Birmingham Town Hall, Mendelssohn’s Elijah was a hit. The Times raved, eight numbers were encored, and Mendelssohn himself, who conducted the premiere, wrote “No work of mine went so admirably the first time of execution, or was received with such enthusiasm by both the musicians and the audience.”
The fame of Mendelssohn’s Elijah extends into the present. It remains one of the “greatest hits” in the English oratorio tradition. It is also, explains Birrell, one of many works written by German and Austrian composers eager to meet the growing demand for singable oratorios due to the explosion of amateur choirs in England after the success of Handel’s works. Since there wasn’t always a supply of English composers capable of writing works that met the same high standard as Handel, foreign composers like Mendelssohn often stepped in to fill the void.
“I look back and say, ‘Thank you Mendelssohn for your huge part in making the Peterborough Singers possible,'” says Birrell. “He was nurturing a tradition, keeping it alive, and really working hard to write music for amateurs. This work was his gift to the choral world.”
The story of Elijah spans religions, having been told in sacred texts from the Old Testament, Quran, and Talmud to the Book of Mormon and the teachings of the Bahá’í faith. In Elijah, Mendelssohn retells the story of a man’s devotion, persecution, and ascension as it has come down to us in the teachings of the Bible’s Book of Kings.
The Peterborough Singers will perform this grand oratorio on Saturday, May 5 at 7:30 pm. Two of the guest soloists got their start in Peterborough and were once choristers with the Singers: Melody Thomas (soprano) and Adam Bishop (tenor). Marjorie Maltais (mezzo), who is coming off a recent performance of Elijah with Toronto’s Pax Christi Chorale, and Alexander Dobson (bass), who is a favourite of Peterborough audiences, round out the list of performers.
It’s a classic Peterborough Singers soloist lineup: the best of the best of emerging talent, including singers nurtured among the ranks of the Peterborough Singers itself, combined with established Canadian soloists that you wouldn’t typically expect to find singing on a small-town stage. It’s precisely that balance between contributing to the future of music by discovering and encouraging new talent, and bringing the best singers currently on the world stage to Peterborough that has made the Singers a force to be reckoned with these past 25 years.