This Saturday and Sunday, April 5 and 6, director Peter Boak and the Island Community Chorus will be at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School’s Performing Arts Center with a full orchestra to present the St. Paul Oratorio by Felix Mendelssohn. Each member of the choir, which will number 98 for this weekend’s performance, has been toting around a 207-page copy of Mendelssohn’s choral score for the past 13 weeks, but Mr. Boak’s burden has been far heavier, because it includes the orchestral score as well.
Mendelssohn’s two great oratorios are like bookends of the great composer’s career: his St. Paul Oratorio, written in 1836, and his Elijah, 10 years later. When Mr. Boak led the chorus in a performance of the Elijah Oratorio in the spring of 2008, it was the most ambitious musical project he and the chorus had ever undertaken. This year, he and the chorus are revisiting that challenge.
“When I first got my score for St. Paul,” recalled Mr. Boak, “I thought, oh my goodness, I’m
never going to be able to learn this thing. It’s a massive piece of music — but it’s actually not quite as scary this time, because I can remember the Elijah experience, how we prepared for it and how we performed it successfully, and I’ve been using some of the same strategies to get this performance ready.”
For the chorus, preparing for this weekend has meant practices every Monday night (with only occasional interruptions by winter storms) since early January. Mr. Boak’s preparation has involved a discipline of three hours’ study, every day, to master a program that will last just over two hours, with an intermission.
Mendelssohn’s oratorios are like opera in almost every respect, but with more emphasis on the choir and without staging or costumes. The St. Paul Oratorio is based on both New Testament and Old Testament texts, treating the martyrdom of Saint Stephen, the conversion of Saint Paul, and the apostle’s subsequent career. The work is punctuated by four chorales, lush settings of hymns straight from the traditional Lutheran hymnody and harmonized in the manner of Bach. “But they’re more romantic than the chorales of Bach,” Mr. Boak said, “with more chromaticism, more emotion and drama than you get in the music of Bach.”
For members of the Island Community Chorus, a project like the St. Paul Oratorio is an opportunity to build new musical muscles by tackling a piece from the very heart of the classical repertoire. The semester of rehearsal, when it goes well, follows a wonderful arc from being overwhelmed at the outset to hearing the emergence of real musicality as the concert dates approach.
Said Mr. Boak: “I had one chorus member come up to me after our rehearsal last Monday and say, ‘You know, I can remember thinking in January that I’m not sure we can do this. But we’ve really pulled this together. It’s not like we’re just managing to sing the right notes at the right time — we’re making music.’”
Joining the chorus at the Performing Arts Center this weekend will be four solo singers. The women are two of the Island’s great soprano voices, Abigail Southard Chandler and Molly Conole. The men, both from Boston, are tenor Ray Bauwens and baritone Michael Pritchard. The orchestra of violins, viola, cello, flutes, oboes, clarinet, bassoons, French horns, trombones, timpani, and organ comprises professional musicians from Martha’s Vineyard, New York, Boston, New Bedford, and Rhode Island.
Chorus and orchestra will rehearse together for only one night, on Friday before the concert performances, but this doesn’t worry Mr. Boak. “These musicians in the orchestra are top-notch players and this is their business — this is what they do,” he said. “The choir will be ready to go, and I’ve met with our concertmistress, Susan McGhee, and Abigail to go over the recitatives, so we’re all on the same channel.”
Mr. Boak took heart from the chorus’s rehearsal on March 24 when the group’s stalwart accompanist, Garrett Brown, was ill and couldn’t attend. Making the best of the situation, Mr. Boak conducted from the piano, suggesting that this would be a perfect night for singers to point out spots where they were struggling with an entrance or an interval.
“That was so much fun — people were polishing up these little places they were having trouble with,” he said. “It was a really great rehearsal, and I was actually surprised there wasn’t more of an onslaught of requests. People are feeling pretty much in control of this music, I think.”
The Island Community Chorus, directed by Peter Boak, with accompanist Garrett Brown and orchestra, presents the St. Paul Oratorio at 7:30 pm on Saturday, April 5, and 3 pm on Sunday, April 6, at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School Performing Arts Center, in Oak Bluffs. A $15 donation at the door is suggested. For more information, visit islandchorus.org.