Mendelssohn: Elias – Radio Filharmonisch Orkest en Groot Omroepkoor

On stage: Radio Filharmonisch Orkest (Nederlands Radio Philharmonic), Groot Omroepkoor (Nederlands Radio Choir), Valentina Farcas [sopraan] Maria Valdmaa [sopraan] Paula Murrihy [mezzosopraan] Sebastian Kohlhepp [tenor] André Morsch [bariton].

Even though I much prefer the word Chorus over Choir — a Choir is typically associated with a religious organisation (Church Choir), whereas a Chorus is associated with a secular organisation, such as the Symphony Chorus which many major symphony orchestras have. In this performance, since their name is the Groot Omroepkoor/Nederlands Radio Choir, I’ll refer to them by their correct name, or the Choir. (Related: Is it Chorus or chorus? There is a difference and most people don’t know the difference, even many well-trained musicians).

It’s odd that the image for this video is the guy who sang the role of Elias. That makes sense in a way, but the Nederlands Radio Philharmonic and its choral ensemble, the Nederlands Radio Choir, performed most of the oratorio and they are not even seen in this image.

The orchestral playing in this performance was superb. And from a symphonic choral perspective, this performance from Amsterdam is the best performance I’ve seen/heard on YT where the Nederlands Radio Choir sings with perfect intonation and excellent diction. I’ve heard parts of performances of Elias from France and one from Boston, but those Choruses were not singing with perfect intonation. I heard wobbling and fluttering in the soprano sections of those performances. And if one is going to hear wobbling and fluttering in a Chorus or Choir, it will no doubt be in the soprano section. What is it about that? It seems that there are some sopranos who cannot control their voice, or they are oblivious to the sound/noise they’re making.

The choristers are on the risers in this order:

basses tenors

sopranos altos

The 57 (approximate) voice Choir sounds much larger than they are. They sound like a 150-voice Chorus. That was the guess of a friend of mine who watched part of this performance with me. I asked him: How large was this Choir? He guessed: The usual size of 150-175 voices, like a Symphony Chorus. I said: Well, yeah they sound that large, but their size is about 60 voices. He said: Really? The idea of a Chorus that small performing Elias is unusual. This oratorio is usually performed by a much larger Chorus.

One of the most beautiful parts — of many — of this performance is at about 46.00 minutes into the video where the Nederlands Radio Choir (NRC) sing this hymn-style passage mostly a cappella, with the strings (first violins) coming in at the end of each phrase. There’s a saying I heard when I was in Orchestra Choruses and that’s, “Any Chorus can sing loudly, but only the best can sing quietly and beautifully.” Very true because singing quietly can be difficult — everyone in the Chorus is “on edge” at that point — with staying perfectly on pitch, not getting flat and with very clear diction. And in this case so that when the strings come in the Chorus is perfectly in tune with the strings. And that’s exactly what the NRC does at this place in the score and the strings of the Orchestra are equally beautifully.

As for the vocal soloists in this performance, I especially liked the tenor and bass, followed by the mezzosopraan. The soprano did not match the other three, in my opinion. As is often the case with soprano soloists, she could overpower them all and did at times, and probably all the other musicians on stage! But Sebastian, the lyric tenor, was my favourite. He has a lovely and well-controlled voice with minimal vibrato.

And it’s the holiday season 2022, and this seems like the appropriate time for me to post this performance because in Amsterdam back in 2016 they had the intelligence, foresight and creativity to perform Mendelssohn’s Elias in Advent, two day before Navidad (25 December) rather than the over-performed/mandatory performed Messiah ritual. Very impressive that they didn’t take the sheeple route and say, “Oh no, everyone has to get in lockstep and do Messiah for the umpteenth time — which everybody has heard how many times now every year for the past centuries? — in December. That’s required.” They could have performed RVW’s rarely performed Hodie or another symphonic choral work that’s rarely performed and written specifically for Christ’s Mass (which is what Christmas means), but I’ll take Elias. And they performed it in its original language: Deutsch. Excellent. I have to say that Amsterdam has some superb choral ensembles, and this Choir is one of them. Their tenor section is superb, well they all are but I especially pay attention to the tenors since the tenor section can be the worst section of a Chorus or Choir. But not here. The soprano section is also excellent. I did hear occasional wobbling on the odd occasion from some voice(s) in the soprano section. Again, and if one is going to hear that, it’s nearly always from the sopranos. I didn’t hear the same in the altos, tenors or basses. That’s only a mild “complaint.” And this is certainly not the only Chorus or Choir I could say that about. I’ve heard many Orchestra Choruses where that’s the case. In fact, I’ve come to expect it. But overall, this Choir did a splendid job. Also, some of the best choristers had solo roles as well. The quartet comes to mind. The woman with the short red hair has a lovely voice and sang superbly, only with slight noticeable vibrato. I believe I’ve seen her in other Orchestra Choruses in the EU, such as in Deutschland. She gets around. She’s in demand. Well I can understand why with her talent.

I’m not sure who prepared the Choir for this performance, but they did a superb job.

Then there was the conductor. I don’t mean any disrespect, but I presume that’s what he was doing or thought he was doing since he was on the podium. I found him tiring to watch because he does not conduct. His “conducting” movements are pretty much all the same. He just bobs his arms up and down through the entire oratorio. I guess he got a good aerobic workout of sorts. He doesn’t beat time for the most part — other than on the odd occasion — which you’re supposed to do with the right hand and the left hand gives cues and other gestures to the musicians. I’ve seen a lot of different conducting styles these days — not many being the style in which we were trained at the Conservatory — I don’t recall seeing anyone who “conducts” like him. And then I read his bio and he teaches conducting as well. Really? That would be a very short class. Once you get the hang of bobbing your hands in sync up and down for nearly 2 hours, there’s not much more to learn really. My friend said: He looks like he’s trying to swim, doing swimming movements/strokes with both arms most of the time. Yeah, that too. He does not conduct at all the way we were trained to conduct at the Conservatory where I trained. I didn’t know it at the time, but we were trained to conduct in the style of Robert Shaw (Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus) and Margaret Hillis (Founder and Director, Chicago Symphony Orchestra Chorus), as two examples, and other well-trained conductors of that day. I think if any of us had “conducted” like the guy in this performance, we would have failed Conducting.

The Orchestra and Choir are the stars of this performance since they have the most music to perform. Again, I also liked the tenor soloist (Sebastian). He has a beautiful lyric tenor voice. That boy is superb! The bariton soloist is also excellent. It’s too bad that the soloists were parked on the edge of the stage, per that ridiculous tradition, where the soloists can’t see any of the performance. Their back is to it the entire time. What nut started that tradition? There are so many ludicrous traditions in classical music performances. They make no sense to thinking people whatsoever. I was trained per those traditions, but I absolutely reject them now. It’s insane. They should have seated the soloists back on the left side of the Choir as I’ve seen other conductors do in Amsterdam. In fact, it was for these same ensembles — the same Orchestra and Choir — that they did that for their Mendelssohn’s Lobgesang (a choral symphony) performance which was also excellent.

People! Sigh. I noticed some people going on about the soloists as they usually do in YT comments. Interesting since the soloists sit silent some of the time during this performance. The musicians who performed most of the work, those commenters didn’t say a word about. Maybe because they don’t know anything about symphonic choral music — and can’t tell the difference between a well-trained Orchestra Chorus or Choir and your average podunk Church Choir because they don’t have the ear training — and it’s relatively easy to make some brief comment about a soloist even if you know nothing about voice or voice training. The thinking seems to be, “If they’re on the stage, they’re good and deserve to be there,” which of course is rubbish. That’s not necessarily true at all. I’ve seen people on the stage over the years who didn’t deserve to be there. They were there because of music politics, connections and who they knew. Not because they were a superb musician necessarily. Or they rented the venue. Anybody with money can usually rent a space, whether they deserve to be performing there is another issue.

But in this venue in Amsterdam, I’ve seen the best musicians in the Nederlands and elsewhere in the world performing there, such as the Radio Filharmonisch Orkest and Groot Omroepkoor.