GRANTHAM — Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra rarely leaves its home in Harrisburg’s Forum, but given the beautiful design and exquisite acoustics of Messiah College’s new High Center for Worship and the Performing Arts, Maestro Stuart Malina and his musicians may be tempted to leave the city more often.
HSO launched its sixth Masterworks program of the season Friday night at the 825-seat High Center, with a lustrous performance of “Elijah,” German composer Felix Mendelssohn’s powerful 19th century oratorio about the life of the Old Testament prophet.
Joining the orchestra were five talented soloists plus three full choruses, the Messiah College Concert Choir, the Messiah College Choral Arts Society and director Linda Tedford’s well-known Susquehanna Chorale, which is a frequent HSO collaborator and ensemble-in-residence at Messiah.
The choruses were arrayed in the High Center’s well-positioned choir loft, behind and above the stage where the orchestra and soloists were positioned. The results were spectacular, as voices and instruments blended before surging toward the audience.
The combined choirs’ first entrance — in “Help, Lord!” — was a thrilling aural experience, without the acoustical cross-currents so common in most auditoriums.
The rectangular concert hall, built in the vertical style of Carnegie Hall with suspended panels that help to contain the music within the hall, is a perfect vehicle for a potent work such as “Elijah.” That likely is a primary reason Messiah officials invited HSO to perform here during the center’s inaugural season.
The subject matter of “Elijah” also is ideally suited to the mission of Messiah, a private Christian liberal arts college in Grantham. HSO, which made its first road trip for a Masterworks program during Malina’s 14-year tenure, likely agreed to come as an acknowledgement of its long association with Messiah — and because of the opportunity to test drive a purpose-built concert hall.
On Saturday night and again on Sunday afternoon, orchestra and singers will travel north to the familiar confines of The Forum for two more performances of “Elijah.”
The two-hour plus work, divided into two parts and thankfully presented in English, is a potent testament to faith, but Mendelssohn’s skills as a composer also make it quite accessible simply as a musical composition. At times joyous, and others more somber, “Elijah” is an impactful work that lingers in the mind.
Mendelssohn said his complex work, which premiered just a year before the composer’s death in 1847, was inspired by the sacred works of Bach and Handel. But “Elijah” is a more modern work, eschewing the Baroque flourishes of Mendelssohn’s 18th century idols for a straight-forward methodology.
The result is a lovely melding of vocals and instrumentation, with the orchestra serving as a full partner in the proceedings, rather than being limited to a role as accompanist. This partnership is potently on display in “Priests of Baal,” when choirs and orchestra, joined by baritone Jonathan Beyer as Elijah, musically recreate a famous biblical showdown between the prophet and the acolytes of a false god.
The soloists are veteran and stalwart performers, featuring soprano Ilana Davidson, a frequent HSO guest artist, mezzo-soprano Susan Platts and tenor Eric Rieger in addition to Beyer. They are joined a few times by soprano Lynlee Copenhaver as the Youth.
Friday was a night for firsts. In addition to HSO’s first venture outside The Forum for a Masterworks concert, it also marked the first time Malina has conducted “Elijah.” He clearly relished both the moment and the venue as he skillfully handled the oratorio’s many moving parts.