Review: Mendelssohn party a model event, even with 170 people singing

A never-before-seen event — the collaborative concert of three Southwest Florida choruses — created a never-before-seen snafu at the Philharmonic Center of the Arts on Sunday.

The show was delayed for 10 minutes while personnel sorted through an overwhelming crowd out front who had ordered tickets to pick up at the box office. But it didn’t spoil the mood or the music in a two-hour tribute to Mendelssohn, with the composer’s most buoyant compositions. Mendelssohn’s 200th birthday was Feb. 3 this year, and if the Naples celebration is some eight months behind, the staging was worth the wait.

The impressive vocal force Sunday melded the Florida Gulf Coast University Choir, Fort Myers Symphonic Mastersingers and Naples Philharmonic Chorale into a 170-voice superchorus. They and baritone soloist Allen Henderson were paired with the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra for eight sweeping excerpts from Mendelssohn’s oratorio, “Elijah.”

“Elijah” retells the prophet’s biblical showdown with a pagan regime that had co-opted Israel’s theology, but Mendelssohn sublimated the heavy morality play to its exciting story. Even the pagan god Baal gets such sumptuous music that choral directors doubtlessly wish it could be retooled for a church offertory.

This performance was all clarity and confidence, from the soaring soprano counter melody in the opening passage to Elijah’s weary plea for death, voiced in plaintive solos from Henderson and principal cellist Adam Satinsky. The power of the blended choruses was sweetened by the younger voices from FGCU so that the vocal climaxes weren’t blasts of sound but more akin to embraces — there was a sense of being warmed and surrounded by the sound.

Credit for the precision timing and flexible dynamics goes to a team effort among the vocal directors: Jim Cochran, Melinda Doyle and Jeff Faux of the Phil, FGCU and the Mastersingers respectively. Brice Gerlach, the Phil’s assistant choral director, worked with a segment as well, so each of them could distill the impact of the piece.

If there was a shortcoming, it was that the English-language text wasn’t always discernible. With 170 voices, however, that may be a superhuman hope. A libretto would have been a thoughtful addition for those of us who insist on knowing the text.

In the first half of the concert, the orchestra scampered nimbly through two of Mendelssohn’s greatest hits: Selections from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and Symphony No. 4 in A Major, Op. 90 (“Italian”). The first is familiar for the physical fun it invokes: There are light, bright staccato violin passages replicating little fairy feet and the full-orchestra sounding of a comic donkey bray. If you want to brush up on your Shakespeare, you’ll find the story far more convoluted than Mendelssohn’s happy music for it.

The allegro is full of quick violin passages and equally tough sustained notes underneath them from woodwinds and bass. The scherzo is peppered with flute trills and themes that reverberate through each section of the orchestra.

Its ending movement is the familiar Wedding March, which to this day accompanies most brides and grooms in the United States out of the church as a recessional. Hearing the Philharmonic’s full-orchestra version, however, means that old pipe-organ arrangement will just never be the same for us.

The entire work keeps the orchestra busy enough to classify as strength training, and Music Director Jorge Mester got a workout as well, executing an upper body waltz through the legato passages to keep the tempo light-footed.

Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony is a personal favorite, with one of the most effervescent themes in Western music. The first movement could suffice as a musical dinner on its own. Although its musicians have probably played this one to the point of memorization, there was never a hint Sunday that they didn’t find it as exhilarating as the audience did.

Last week, several of the rehearsing choir members asked Cochran if they could perform a concert like this every year. Here’s one vote: Yes. Absolutely.

If these choirs do collaborate again, what should they sing? Tell me. E-mail hkheithaus@naplesnews.com or contact me on Facebook or Twitter NDN_HarrietHeit

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