I Was At A Concert: Mendelssohn’s Elijah

Elijah

Elijah

We meet Elijah in 1 Kings, chapter 17.  We don’t know where he comes from (he’s called “The Tishbite” but there isn’t anywhere called Tishbe anywhere in the Bible).  What we do know is that he’s come to call the King of Israel, Ahab, on his bullshit.  Ahab and his wife, Jezebel, rejected the God of the Israelites in favor of Baal (worship my Baals!), and with that decision comes consequences, including Elijah looking like a total bad ass while God miracles the shit out of Israel.  Elijah ascends to heaven in a fiery chariot.  Other notable Elijah facts: he was there at the transfiguration of Jesus; according to Malachi, Elijah will return before the “great and terrible day of the Lord,” which is to the say the First or Second Coming, depending on who’s reading.  With that in mind, Jews leave a cup of wine for him during the Passover seder in the hopes that he will:

a) claim his free booze

b) hasten the coming of the Lord’s paradisiacal reign on Earth

c) both of the above

We turn to Mendelssohn, who may have had a hard time deciding on whether that Coming was First or Second, being a Jew who converted to Lutheranism at the age of 7 (his grandfather, Moses, was one of the great Jewish philosophers of all-time).  Mendelssohn is widely credited with restoring Bach to his natural place at the top of the musical food chain, and surely there is some truth in that (he did conduct the first performance of the St. Matthew Passion since the death of Bach).

Perhaps more importantly than that, Mendelssohn used the influences of the Baroque masters Bach and Handel to craft two masterful oratorios with many nods to the stylings of his predecessors.  Elijah is probably the more famous of the two, for whatever that’s worth, and seems to be the more frequently performed.  I was happy to participate in my first performance of the piece.

The chorus was a new group in Kansas City: Musica Vocale.  They are a chorus of about 30 who managed to double in size through a complicated system of fusion, mitosis, and getting 30 more people to fill out the sound needed to compete with a Romantic orchestra.  Their conductor is Dr. Arnold Epley, who is retiring from teaching at William Jewell College at the end of the year.  I told Dr. Epley after the first rehearsal that he is the coolest conductor I have ever worked with, and I stand by that…he’s witty, had a great rapport with everybody in the room, and was organized enough to pull off a massive work like this in 2 rehearsals.  The final concert of their inaugural  season took place in Temple Beth Shalom on Sunday 10 May 2009. 

The solo quartet was comprised of the following: Ida Nicolosi, soprano; Martha Hart, mezzo soprano; Andrew Childs, tenor; and Douglas Williams, baritone in the title role.  All the soloists were terrific and brought a lot to the performance.  I thought Williams did a hell of a job…it sounded a couple times in the second half like his voice was on the verge of cracking epically, but he kept it together and it never sounded uncontrolled to my ears.  I was particularly impressed with Williams during some of Elijah’s angrier, nastier moments…Williams managed to get a little bit of growl in his sound which I dug (it reminded me of that old Bernstein/Ludwig/Berry Des Knaben Wunderhorn on Sony which has some kick-ass angry singing from Berry in Der Tamboursg’sell).   Nicolosi was also particularly noteworthy to me on the extended “Hear ye, Israel” aria that begins Part 2. 

I thought the chorus was rad.  I thought they did a bang-up job throughout.  Their was some tremendous dynamic contrast ranging through a story with a lot of ins, lot of outs, and the chorus seemed to relish the angry bits the way I would relish them, which is to say a lot. 

I also applaud the diction by everyone involved.  The performance was in English, and while the text was in the program, it was almost never needed to my ears.  I don’t think I’ve ever been associated with a performance involving chorus that featured cleaner articulating of words…it was refreshing.

The orchestra was a nice collection of freelance players from around town, and we did our part to make it a good performance.  On a personal level, I had some tremendous focus problems, particularly in the first half, and I salute the rest of the horn section for playing their parts well to keep me in the right spots.    

Dr. Epley seemed like he knew the score inside and out, had a clear idea of what he wanted, and made it happen in simple terms.  As someone who wishes he was a conductor, it was a great lesson in efficiency and management.  It was, seemingly due to budget restraints, slightly under-rehearsed; there were a couple moments (fermatas for example) that I don’t recall getting much of a look at and it led to some mixed results on the show (from myself as well).  But overwhelmingly it was a terrific interpretation with terrific results.

One last bit of effusiveness goes to Trilla Carter, who played principal cello and served as the orchestra “contractor” which I put in quotes because I don’t know if it’s exactly the right term to use.  I’ve worked with dozens and dozens of personnel people with orchestras over the years, and many of them have been top notch.  Trilla Carter fits right in that lofty space for me.  Everything was handled smoothly, communication was great, the whole deal.  It’s always a great work enviornment when those responsible for coordinating things handle their business professionally and efficiently. 

It’s always fun to perform works with chorus and orchestra because they almost always have one thing in common: they’re epic.  Beethoven 9, Mahler 2, The Messiah, Gurrelieder, etc.  all bring with them a sense of dramatic scope that simply doesn’t exist in even the grandest of purely orchestral compositions (which isn’t to say it’s better or worse…Bruckner 9 certainly has a dramatic scope all its own, for example).  Elijah fits right in there in the grand tradition.  Which is one of the many reasons why I was pleased, if not slightly exhausted by the end, to have been at the concert.

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One thought on “I Was At A Concert: Mendelssohn’s Elijah

  1. Pingback: 2010 in review « Everything But The Music

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