The Classical Beat | A chorus for all, an oratorio for all time

In 1829, Felix Mendelssohn conducted a historic performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. It was the first time the work had been performed since Bach’s death, and it ushered in a revival of Bach’s music that took Europe by storm.

Seventeen years later, Mendelssohn conducted the first performance of his own oratorio, “Elijah,” a work strongly influenced by the music of Bach.

The Summer Singers of Kansas City, conducted by William Baker, will present “Elijah” at 2 p.m. Sunday at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral, 415 W. 13th St.

“I think ‘Elijah’ is probably one of the top five major choral works that’s ever been composed,” said William Baker, music director of the Summer Singers. “Mendelssohn was a man of deep faith, and I think because of his Jewish upbringing he was familiar with those Old Testament stories. ‘Elijah’ is operatic in its dimension, with human pathos and a compelling story.”

Mendelssohn’s friend, Karl Klingemann, wrote the text for the oratorio in German, but since it was commissioned by the Birmingham Festival, Mendelssohn had it translated into English for the premiere.

The dramatic scenes of the oratorio include the resurrection of a dead youth, Elijah bringing rain to a drought-stricken Israel through his prayers, and Elijah’s ascension into heaven on a fiery chariot.

“Mendelssohn masterly weaves these scenes,” Baker said. “ ‘Elijah’ takes place when there were tribal divisions among the Hebrews, and they were worshipping many different gods, like Baal, the storm god of lightning, thunder and wind.

“Elijah is promoting the idea of one god, the God of Israel over all these boutique gods. And in the construction of the chorales, you can really hear Bach’s approach. The chorales are almost like a theological commentary on the action.”

Baker, a native of Atlanta, founded the Summer Singers of Kansas City 14 years ago. The group is part of his choral foundation.

“Our choral foundation sponsors 10 choruses in three states involving about 300 people and the whole shooting match is based in Roeland Park,” Baker said. “The William Baker Choral Foundation was founded in 1990 in Atlanta, and when I moved here in 1998, we also moved the foundation from Atlanta to Roeland Park.

“We have 125 members just in the chorus of the Summer Singers and 30 in the orchestra, as well as a solo quartet.”

The summer choirs don’t require auditions.

“That means we accept anyone who wants to be a member, without question. We have people who have never sung a serious choral concert in their lives, and that’s one of the things we’re really excited about.”

Baker, who has a doctorate in choral conducting from the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, where he is now an associate professor of music, is deeply devoted to bringing choral music to people from all walks of life.

“There was a bass player in a nightclub who told me he can read music but all he knows about classical music is what he’s heard on cartoons. He told me, ‘I’m a bass player in a rock band but after I sang in your group, I went to the store and bought eight classical CDs.’

“Connecting people to the music is our whole purpose because we believe music changes lives. Great music changes lives by letting people see something greater than themselves. If we don’t humble ourselves before people like Beethoven and Mendelssohn, we’re fools.

“We join with others for something that is beautiful, holy and worthy. There is timely music that can only be enjoyed today, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But timeless music is so rich we draw something new from it every time we encounter it, even if we encounter it every day for the rest of our lives.”

Tickets, available at the door, are $20 for adults, $10 for students and seniors and free for those 12 and younger.

“We specifically welcome children to the concert because we want to connect children to the music and if they don’t come to concerts there’s no way they’re going to get connected to the music,” Baker said.

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KC Chamber Orchestra

The Kansas City Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Bruce Sorrell, presents a triple blast of Beethoven at 8 p.m. Saturday at Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. The orchestra will perform the overture to “The Creatures of Prometheus” and the jaunty Symphony No. 8.

Robert Weirich, professor of piano at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance, will be the soloist for the Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor. For tickets, call 816-235-6222, or go to



‘Norma’ on screen

Vincenzo Bellini’s opera “Norma,” set among the Druids, takes on an even more epic air when Teatro Antico Taormina presents the opera in the ancient outdoor arena in Taormina, Italy. You can see a high-definition broadcast of the performance at 1:30 p.m. Sunday and at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Tivoli Cinemas in Westport, 4050 Pennsylvania Ave.

Chiara Taigi sings the title role, one of the most demanding in opera. Norma’s aria “Casta Diva” is justly considered one of the summits of the bel canto repertoire. For tickets and more information, go to