Saturday, March 24, 2007

Mendelssohn's Elijah

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."

Shaw continues:
"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.


pjwv said...

I was there last night too! I liked Alan Opie a lot, but all the soloists did seem a tiny bit rough at times -- I wondered if they were affected by the same allergies attacking me. I also hadn't heard the piece before, at least live. I think I did have a recording at one time.
And as you point out, Shaw once again beats everyone to the punch: it seemed like something inspired by Bach and Handel, rather than something inspired by God, though you could do a lot worse than choosing them as your baalim.

Tom Langley said...

You should have gone to last night's performance, it was much better. I agree however, that with the exception of the tenor, the soloists were somewhat of a mis-match.

I think that considering the fact that many of us, including myself, were enduring the effects of a rather nasty cold making its rounds, we did a fairly respectable job. Friday's performance came on the heels of a 7 hour rehearsal the previous day, and for the volunteer members, a full day of work. Needless to say, we were exhausted.

This was our first performance since Ragnar Bohlin has taken the reins as our chorus director. There has been no, "but Vance did it this way" attitude, but still it is a bit of an adjustment. One thing that made this much easier was the intimacy between the chorus and Maestro Blomstedt, it was an old friend returning home and we instantly relaxed when he walked into the room.

One more performance this afternoon and we will see if a daytime event does wonders for it.

sfmike said...

Dear Tom: The performance by the chorus was wonderful. Plus, it sounded like the whole group was having a wonderful time, hideous colds/flu notwithstanding. I really didn't expect to find "Elijah" as enjoyable as it turned out to be, and the chorus was a major part of that.

And your performance in "A Flowering Tree" a couple of weeks ago was beyond praise.