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The Afterlife at Bard

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun Apr 9th, 2017

Edward Elgar (1857-1934), the first English composer of note since Henry Purcell (1659-1695), was raised Roman Catholic due to his mother’s conversion the year before he was born. His first success was The Enigma Variations (1899) where he found his voice. Early on, he had done unsuccessful choral work. Determined to succeed in this genre, he turned to a narrative poem by Cardinal Newman, The Dream of Gerontius, which with much labor, Elgar completed the following year. Some opine that this remains Elgar’s best work. This concert was supported in part by The Elgar Society.

The performance of this work at Bard’s Sosnoff Theater began with an introduction by Principal bassoonist Adam Romey (whose favorite composer is J.S. Bach); Romey delivered a polished introductory speech with panache and humor. Behind him in silent array stood the Bard College Chamber Singers under James Bagwell as well as the Cappella Festiva Chamber Choir and Vassar College Choir under Christine Howlett. Conductor Leon Botstein raised his baton.

The first part contained marvelous mood music, much like the opening of Wagner’s Parsifal, yet I found the mood created a more satisfyingly meditative immersion than Wagner’s—there was more personal emotion behind the music that was accessible. Elgar had edited Newman’s prolix closet-drama of Everyman with an admirable brevity that permitted emotion to breathe in common parlance. Tenor Jonathan Tetelman provided a wonderful performance for a difficult role, investing his clear diction into the poetry with electric feeling.

Just before Act II, my companion heard a horn warming up to the melody of Ravel’s “Pavane for a Dead Princess,” which we both found amusing because it added some comic relief to a work that shuns it. (Newman had attempted failed comic relief with cardboard demons in his narrative, a theme Elgar wisely chose to neglect.)

As the disembodied soul of Gerontius, Baritone Christopher Burchett led off with his powerful, clear voice, but, alas, he had few lines to deliver. (Angels have more to say about the afterlife.)

The second half contained more music than mood, yet theology displaced poetry, unless you consider stuff about Zoroastrian angels being able to endow mercy an asset to poetry. Thankfully, mezzo-soprano Sara Murphy had no costume wings as she let her winged voice convey Angelic wisdom. This was an extended meditation on death. Since there appears to be no competition in this uncomfortable niche, and the oratorio is the only such one in English that addresses our individual doom, it has achieved canonical status, even among Anglicans.

The Orchestra Now played with tight unity and there were three thrilling crescendos before the solemn and climactic “Amen.” While the first act presented more drama than the second, Victorian morality descended like a heavily ornate tapestry emitting the fluff of medieval legend, yet the music sang on into the twentieth century. In the end oratorios are not about the libretto, but the music and the singing. The music was there and the singing was magnificent.