Prophet Sharing

'Elijah' holds forth at the UA.

If you doubt that classical music can be relevant to contemporary life, attend the University of Arizona performance of Felix Mendelssohn's oratorio Elijah this weekend. For starters, the Old Testament prophet, sung by Charles Roe, foretells a drought that will plague his people. And it just gets worse from there.

"Elijah does talk about fire, too," says conductor Josef Knott. "Maybe that's one of the choruses I should have cut."

Nevertheless, the entire 1846 composition--one of Mendelssohn's last substantial works--is being presented by the UA Summer Chorus and Orchestra. The vocal soloists include such campus regulars as baritone Roe, soprano Vanessa Salaz, alto Wanda Brister and tenor Grayson Hirst. Also taking a solo will be 9-year-old Morgan Bothwell, a member of the Tucson Boys Chorus whose older brother sings in the UA-Community Chorus.

At one point, facing a drought of, well, Biblical proportions, the chorus sings a prayer for rain. A few weeks ago Knott was praying for tenors. There's a chronic shortage of them, but Knott finally managed to snag some from the school's Arizona Choir once it returned from performing in Budapest.

Knott rehearses the chorus at night; by day, as the UA music school's director of academic student services, he's been scrambling to find ways to get this autumn's incoming students into their required courses despite the massive budget cuts afflicting the entire university. "You think you've finally gotten one problem fixed, but then you find out that solution has caused five other problems," he laments.

He feels less like the beleaguered Job when he turns his attention to Elijah, which has been funded in part by the UA Summer Session and College of Fine Arts. Although he's working with only 60 to 65 chorus members--he'd been hoping for 100, and the work's first performance in England featured more than three times that many--Knott is pleased with the singers' quality.

"There's a core of really good people singing, and because the numbers are down, I think they have worked even harder than they usually would," he says. "I find that the rehearsals are very focused, and that they actually remember things from rehearsal to rehearsal. They're marking their scores and actually doing on Wednesday what we worked on in Monday's rehearsal!"

There's a lot of material to cover. The score contains about 130 minutes of music, and once you add intermission, that's a two-and-a-half-hour concert. "Bring seat pads," Knott suggests. "But it's a fast-moving piece, and the drama is so intense, that it won't seem that long."

Oratorios are customarily given concert-style, not with action in the manner of opera. But Knott points out that Elijah is so dramatic that until recently the Mendelssohn-mad English have often done staged versions. "We won't be doing it that way," Knott says, "but I can see how it would be a very, very powerful staged work. I've tried to get the choir to capture the dramatic elements, the different emotions that occur in the work, from the fire descending from heaven to 'Thanks Be to God' [the oratorio's most famous choral number] to the calm after the earthquake.

"Those shifts of emotions need to be transmitted in their delivery, so the audience not only hears the words but hears the emotions behind the words. When they sing about fire and the earth trembling, it needs to be portrayed in the voice as well. Otherwise the voice is not heightening the sentiment, and then the work becomes dull and people wonder 'Why the hell did I bother to show up?' I tell them to make pretty sounds most of the time, but not to be afraid to make unpretty sounds if the drama is being enhanced."

As a conductor, Mendelssohn was largely responsible for the mid-19th-century revival of interest in Baroque music, the style of Bach and Handel, who had died 100 years earlier. As a composer of oratorios, Mendelssohn found great inspiration in similar works by Bach and especially Handel. Strip away a little Romantic coloring, and many of Mendelssohn's choruses would fit nicely into, for instance, Handel's Messiah.

One reason Knott programmed Elijah this summer is that he sees it as preparation for doing Handel's oratorio Israel in Egypt next spring. "I know Mendelssohn was very familiar with Israel in Egypt," says Knott, "so I'm using the model to inform the original."

Knott admits that Elijah's most interesting passages rely on massed voices. "The arias, I think, with a few minor exceptions, are dwarfed by the choruses," he says, going on to call one aria in particular a "dud" before rescinding his remark to avoid offending the soloist.

The performance will include an orchestra of students and community members, including several musicians from the Tucson Symphony Orchestra. And with luck it might involve some heavenly participation.

"There are sections with the singers praying for rain," Knott says, "so we're hoping Elijah will foment some of that."