Three performances of Mendelssohn's grand oratorio from 1846, "Elijah," complete with a huge chorus and a half-dozen soloists, are being held this weekend at Davies Symphony Hall.
I had never heard the piece before, so upon finding out there were rush tickets available at the box office for $20, I decided at the last minute to attend the Friday performance. There are rush tickets available for this evening, Saturday, by the way, though not for Sunday afternoon's matinee, and I'd encourage you to run to the box office because it's hard to imagine a better performance of this music.
Though the two-and-a-half-hour oratorio was originally written in German, the premiere was for a music festival in Birmingham, England so that "Elijah" first appeared in English and some of its numbers have remained as religious choral and solo favorites in Britain and America to this day. As usual, George Bernard Shaw wrote the best commentary, while reviewing a performance in Albert Hall:
"There is no falling off in the great popularity of Elijah. This need not be regretted so long as it is understood that our pet oratorio, as a work of religious art, stands together with...the poems of Longfellow and Tennyson, sensuously beautiful in the most refined and fastidiously decorous way, but thoughtless. That is to say, it is not really religious music at all."
"The best of it is seraphic music, like the best of Gounod's; but you have only to think of Parsifal, of the Ninth Symphony, of The Magic Flute, of the inspired moments of Handel and Bach, to see the great gulf that lies between the true religious sentiment and our delight in Mendelssohn's exquisite prettiness. The British public is convinced in its middle age that Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun is divine, on grounds no better and no worse than those on which, in its callow youth, it adores beautiful girls as angels. Far from desiring to belittle such innocent enthusiasm, I rather echo Mr. Weller's plea that 'Arter all, gen'lmen, it's an amiable weakness.' "
The oratorio is a strange mixture of revolting Old Testament revenge tale (where "He had Jezebel thrown from a window, trampled by horses, and he fed her remains to the dogs" is a good thing) and Mendelssohn's music at its most beautiful. Or as Shaw puts it:
"A vigorous protest should be entered whenever an attempt is made to scrape a layer off the praise due to the seraphs in order to spread it over the prophet in evening dress...who informs the audience, with a vicious exultation, that "God is angry with the wicked every day." That is the worst of your thoughtlessly seraphic composer: he is a wonder whilst he is flying; but when his wings fail him, he walks like a parrot."
The huge chorus was extraordinary all evening, and though the soloists were never particularly thrilling, they were all better than competent.
The real hero of the performance was the 80-year-old vegetarian Jehovah's Witness conductor, Herbert Blomstedt, who was the San Francisco Symphony's music director from 1985 until 1995. Though Blomstedt's tenure here at the time mostly bored the hell out of me, there's no denying that "Elijah" is his kind of music, and I can't imagine another conductor in the world right now who I'd rather hear leading it. The orchestra all night had an energy and sureness of purpose that never let the large piece lag, and the audience walked out enthralled. Plus, Blomstedt is doing something right, because he looks better at 80 than he did at age 60.