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Choral Union presents ‘Elijah’

April 14, 2011 By Gwen Evans

The Madison Choral Union was established in 1893, and from the beginning its vision was to be more than a group getting together for casual sing-a-longs. The organizers had grander things in mind.

Stated in its constitution, its purpose was “to unite the musical forces of the city of Madison and of the University of Wisconsin for the study and public presentation of choral work, part songs and glees, ancient and modern, and, in general, to promote the musical interests and taste of the city of Madison and the University of Wisconsin.”

That’s a tall order, but in its 118 years, the group has stayed true to that original vision. The group started large, noble and loud with Handel’s oratorio “Messiah.” At that debut, an audience of some 1,800 heard the 102-member choir perform in the Armory and Gymnasium on May 24, 1894, part of the opening festivities for the new building.

In 1896, the group presented another oratorio, Mendelssohn’s “Elijah.” A review of the concert reported the chorus “has been growing steadily in numbers and zeal,” with some 200 singers, 80 of whom were students. The review also stated that “attendance has been remarkably full this season and to the chorus each rehearsal is a pleasure and a profit second only to the final performance.”

Fast forward through 118 years of presenting major choral works to 2011. Beverly Taylor, professor and director of choral activities at UW–Madison’s School of Music, leads the Choral Union, which is still strong in numbers, zeal and pleasure. She is busy preparing 150 singers and the 60-member Symphony Orchestra for two performances of Mendelssohn’s “Elijah” on April 30 and May 1.

“Elijah” depicts a series of events in the life of the biblical prophet. Rather than tell a narrative story, it presents a series of scenes, including the curse of a drought, rain arriving to a parched Israel, the resurrection of a dead youth, battles with a rival (and false) prophet and Elijah’s ascension to heaven in a fiery chariot in a whirlwind.

All those scenarios provide settings for music with stirring heroics, passionate fury and dignified reverence. “This work is a crowd favorite. It has drama and melodies that are so lovely I can’t get them out of my head,” says Taylor. “Mendelssohn was a master at writing memorable melodies. Some of the choruses have become standards for church choirs and other groups and people will recognize them. The piece really moves, too. There are zippy choruses and fast tempos.”

The chorus and orchestra are joined by soloists who sing arias and recitatives in the roles of Elijah, Ahab, Obadiah, Jezebel, angels, a youth and a widow. The soloists are: Paul Rowe as Elijah; James Doing as Obadiah; Celeste Fraser, soprano; Kristin Schwecke, soprano; and Jamie Van Eyck, mezzo-soprano.

“Elijah” is not performed as often as some other oratorios, such as Handel’s “Messiah” or Haydn’s “Creation,” perhaps because it hasn’t been associated with a holiday. It is also more expensive to produce because it requires a full orchestra, not a chamber group.

The Choral Union still has a mix of community and student singers. Taylor isn’t sure why the Choral Union was first formed. At that time, there was a surge in interest in building community and civic organizations. Another reason may have been that to cover the women’s parts, the university would have had to turn to the community because the university didn’t have large numbers of female students in 1893.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if the Choral Union were the oldest community-student group in the country,” says Taylor. “Having a multiage group has many benefits. I can get the low, low notes from the older basses and vitality, freshness and lightness from the students. Whatever the age of the singer, they are all committed to one exciting goal of being part of a musical whole. That experience is as powerful as any found on a sports team.”

The enduring musical legacy of the Choral Union has involved thousands of students and community members in its 118 years. Assuming a chorus with an average size of 160 singers, with one-half returning and one-half new singers each year, that’s a conservative total of 9,440 people who have come together to rehearse and perform.

Taylor is well aware she has been given custody of something wonderful to nurture and pass on. “I consider it precious. I want to make darn sure it continues,” Taylor says.

“Elijah” will be performed at 8 p.m. on Saturday, April 30, and at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, May 1, in Mills Hall in the Mosse Humanities Building, 455 N. Park St. Advance tickets ($15 general/$8 student) are available through the campus arts box office: 265-ARTS (2787); in person during regular hours at the Wisconsin Union Theater box office, 800 Langdon St.; and online. Any remaining tickets will be available at the door.

Tickets to the 1896 performance of “Elijah” were 50 cents; 75 cents for reserved seats. When adjusted for inflation, 1913 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (the oldest chart available) shows that in 2011 dollars, the tickets would cost $11.18 and $16.77, respectively, comparable with today’s charges.

The program from the 1896 “Elijah” had this to say about ticket prices and the quality of the musicianship: “Special attention is called to the unusually low scale of prices, which has been adopted for the purpose of bringing the best of music within reach of all, and to stimulate popular interest. Notwithstanding the fact that the prices are only one-half or one-third those usually paid in other places, and less than such entertainments have ever before been offered for in Madison, the standard of performance will be kept up to the highest grade. The chorus is large and effective, the orchestra fully equal to the requirements of oratorio in size and quality, and the solo artists are unexceptionable.”