Alumnus to conduct famed oratorio Elijah

When one thinks of exciting drama, shows such as Game of Thrones, House of Cards and Breaking Bad all come to mind. But Elijah? You’d be hard pressed to find a large number of students excited about an oratorio telling of an Old Testament tale. Yet, to contemporary critics of the work, Mendelssohn was focused too much on creating a dramatic, beautiful retelling of the well-known story, and less on the true religious sentiments of the Bible.

Kemuel Wong, UBC music grad, is passionate about his work as assistant conductor with the Vancouver Bach Choir -- Vancouver’s largest mass choral union. They will be showcasing Mendelssohn’s two-part work alongside the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra in a powerful representation of the iconic 19th century English masterpiece.

To listeners unfamiliar with Elijah, the oratorio will sound a lot like an opera -- yet is performed without elaborate sets or costumes, the reason for this being that in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was technically illegal for biblical works to be performed in a manner of entertainment.

Evidently creating problems for composers such as Mendelssohn, the oratorio was born. With all the drama and excitement of an opera or a musical, the sacred texts are set to dramatic music, and comprise of arias, recitatives and choruses. Elijah takes the audience through vignettes of the prophet’s life; beginning with the overture and chorus describing a massive drought, set to befall everyone in the land.

The first part of Elijah follows the prophet during the period of drought, with dramatic challenges between Elijah, sung by baritone soloist Giles Tomkins, and the chorus, who represent the Baal prophets.

"This section has very fast exchanges between Elijah and the choir, ranging from silences to represent the lack of responses from God, and very fast passages to represent the descending fire from the heavens," said Wong, describing one of the most dramatic and well-written passages from the oratorio.

The Vancouver Bach Choir’s concert of Mendelsohn’s work has a timeless quality to it, with themes of humanity’s desperation for natural resources across the world.

"I think even from a dramatic point of view a lot of pieces draw on mythology," said Wong on the historical topic of Elijah. "We all love a good story, and especially one that’s filled with drama and quick action."

Described in review as "a work of art," Elijah is famous for the dramatic imagery it produces. Many artists have attempted to recreate the picture of Elijah ascending into heaven in a chariot of fire; the scene in the oratorio sung with immense virtuosity.

"Back in Mendelssohn’s day it would have been revolutionary," said Wong. "It’s so dramatic, the way he writes the scores and the motifs that Mendelssohn brings back time and again throughout the work."

Elijah is inspiring to all types of listeners. To the casual audience member, the oratorio will display exciting drama, beautiful, lyrical melodies and abounding Vancouver-based talents. Yet to the music aficionado, Mendelssohn’s motifs reoccur in interesting ways.

"I feel Mendelssohn does a really good job at that," said Wong. "Putting motifs together and revisiting them, or even hiding them. It becomes really interesting when you’re aware, using the same melodic lines for doom and gloom with triumphant choruses."

The drama, the action, the fantasy -- it’s all present in the repertoire of the talented Vancouver Bach Choir. Combining two of the great ensembles in classical music for a performance is sure to be something special, and the dramatic story of Elijah is something not to be missed.

Elijah will be presented at the Orpheum on March 28.