Yahweh versus Baal

Mendelssohn's complex oratorio 'Elijah' is built around the Biblical tale of the prophet and broken promises to God

Posted: Friday, August 15, 2003

Bill Hurr, a 38-year-old employee of the state Division of Juvenile Justice, has been busy. On Wednesday, Aug. 13, his mother arrived in town. On Friday, Aug. 15, he will take his last final this semester for his master's course work in criminal justice administration at the University of Alaska Southeast.

And on Saturday, Aug. 16, he will star as Elijah in the Juneau Lyric Opera's Mid-Summer Vocal Festival presentation of "Elijah," Felix Mendelssohn's 1846 oratorio about the biblical prophet and the conflict between the followers of Jehovah and Baal.

"Elijah" is Hurr's first major performance as a baritone. A former tenor, Hurr has been working on his role, and range, since auditioning for the part in December.

"I've had quite the workout," Hurr said. "When I have quiet moments, usually what's running through my head is something from 'Elijah.' "

The show plays once at 8 p.m. at St. Paul's Catholic Church in the Mendenhall Valley. Tickets are $14 for adults, $10 for students and seniors and available at Hearthside Books or the door.

"Elijah" lasts almost two hours, twice as long as the Lyric Opera's recent Mid-Summer Vocal Festival selections. The work includes 10 soloists and a 50-member chorus.

"Elijah" is one of the most complex and difficult choral pieces the opera has attempted, soloist and board member Lena Simmons said. Part of that is because of Mendelssohn's background.

He was born in 1809, he died in 1848 and he trained at the end of the Classical era and the beginning of the Romantic period. His writing combines both styles, as well as his love for the baroque - a movement he helped repopularize. He was the toast of Europe at age 20, when he conducted Johann Sebastian Bach's "Saint Matthew Passion" in Berlin.

"He brought the music of Bach back, and you hear it throughout (Elijah)," Simmons said. "There are fugal counterpoints, and the chorus is singing some of the same words at different times. Sometimes it's the same melody, and sometimes it's not quite the same melody. It's not something that you can sing on instinct. You really have to pay attention to what you're doing."

Byron McGilvray, the director of the choral and vocal departments at Trinity Valley Community College in Athens, Texas, will direct "Elijah." McGilvray has been working with the Lyric Opera since 1990.

He's conducted in 42 countries and 48 states. He was the first American conductor to carry and conduct a choir into mainland China, and he received the Howard Swan award from the American Choral Directors Association for outstanding contributions to choral art.

McGilvray has directed "Elijah" three other times: in New Mexico, Michigan and San Francisco.

"The demands on the soloists are pretty great, especially on Elijah," McGilvray said. "It has some characteristics of Bach, and some writing like you would hear in chorales. (Mendelssohn) constantly shifts keys. Vocally, it's demanding."

Juneau pianist Sue Kazama, a resident and teacher for more than 25 years, will accompany the choir.

"I've worked all over the world, and Sue is one of the most consummate musicians that one could have," McGilvray said. "She plays beautifully. She knows how to bring it out. It's great being in a position where you don't have to worry about what's going to happen with your accompanist."

"Elijah" was first performed Aug. 26, 1846, at the Birmingham Festival in England. The oratorio was an immediate hit.

The story is based on the biblical tale of Elijah from the Book of Kings. God promises to protect the people of Israel if they follow his commandments. But Ahab, king of Israel, marries a foreign princess, Jezebel, and adopts her religion. Ahab builds statues of the pagan deity Baal for Israel to worship, and thus breaks the promise with God.

Part One of the work follows Elijah's battle with Jezebel. Part Two chronicles Elijah's self-examination, self-doubt and his battle with himself. Elijah acts as the narrator, unlike most sacred oratorios in which a non-involved person tells the story. The chorus serves as the children of Israel - worshippers of Baal and the Jewish God Yahweh.

Other soloists include Bill Smoker, John Robertson, Wendy Byrnes, Dan and Kathleen Wayne, Brett and Cheryl Crawford and Kathryn Kurtz.

Simmons, a state employee in the governor's Office of Management and Budget, plays Jezebel. She's been a member of the opera since 1985 and said she hasn't played any mean characters.

"I've been a very nice person, so it was time to try being not so nice," Simmons said.

"This is truly a beautiful piece of music, and I don't mean beautiful as lovely and serene and pastoral," she said. "This is definitely a story told in a tumultuous time. Jezebel is full of passion about her God. Elijah is full of passion about his God. And he's determined to prove that she's wrong and to bring the people back to Yahweh."

Hurr sang in the Lyric Opera's 2001 production of "Carmina Burana" and starred in the Aside Theater Group's two-man production of the comedy "Greater Tuna" in late 2000. He hasn't acted as much in the last two years, as he finishes up his master's work at UAS.

Hurr has been exploring his baritone range for the last year and a half. In the spring of 2002, he took 10 lessons from Seattle tenor Robert Wickstrom, who was in town for six weeks to co-star as Pinkerton in the Lyric Opera and Opera To Go!'s presentation of "Madama Butterfly." Wickstrom encouraged Hurr to work on his lower range.

"Rob gave me a different perspective on how I was singing and showed me a different way of using the body as a whole," Hurr said. "I like exploring, I like interesting things, and for me, this is another way to find about yourself and another way to approach music.

"To me, Bill's always been a baritone," McGilvray said. "He has the ability to sing the high stuff, and I think he's found that he's singing really musically. He's approaching the top notes like a baritone."

Korry Keeker can be reached at korry.keeker@juneauempire.com.

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