Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Concertgoers Transfigured by 'The Dream of Gerontius'

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Concertgoers Transfigured by 'The Dream of Gerontius'

Article excerpt

Byline: Will Kesling

Tenor Steven Ebel, singing the role of Gerontius, with multiple choruses and the Jacksonville Symphony, takes the listener on a sonorous pictographic journey of the soul passing from life to death to life in "The Dream of Gerontius."

In 1900, Edward Elgar was commissioned to compose a large work for chorus and orchestra for the Birmingham Triennial Festival. He decided to write a cenotaph on the meaning of life, death and what comes afterward.

The libretto, based on the Victorian poem by Cardinal John Henry Newman, has an "everyman" character. The protagonist's name "Gerontius" is derived from the Greek geron ("old man"). The "old man" faces death, meets his guardian angel and goes before his God before being taken to purgatory with the promise of everlasting glory. Superscript helps the listener follow the narrative.

Elgar's massive work is generally acknowledged to be one of the most epic works ever written for chorus and orchestra and is scored for three soloists, two choruses with a semi-chorus, and a large orchestra (throw in an organ, too).

Elgar all but asks the impossible of the tenor who sings the giant role of Gerontius. On the one hand, Gerontius needs the power and stamina of a heldentenor for passages such as "Sanctus Fortis" and "Take me away." On the other hand, much of the role demands the subtlety of a Lieder singer. Furthermore, the singer must convincingly suggest a dying man at the start of the work, yet be capable by the end of expressing a sense of wonder, fear and awe as he portrays the soul experiencing life after death.

Though Ebel's voice is not that of a heldentenor, his musicality and suave, even tone were more than ample compensation; only his outburst at "Sanctus Fortis" could have done with a bit more heft. His is the performance Elgar could only dream of. Ebel's attention to verbal detail was astounding and he perfectly balanced every phrase.

Kevin Desa, bass-baritone, was the priest and the Angel of the Agony. The bass soloist has only two solos that are different in character. The priest is dignified, consolatory without ever sounding sanctimonious, while the Angel of the Agony calls for a commanding presence inspiring a degree of awe. …

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