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A Mendelssohn Masterpiece Receives Its Due

March 27, 2007

Rarely do audiences anywhere get the chance to hear any full-scale choral-orchestral works other than the Messiah, which tyrannically monopolizes the Christmas season. So last Thursday’s performance of Mendelssohn’s masterful oratorio Elijah, with the inestimable strengths of conductor Herbert Blomstedt, formed the high point of at least my season. Blomstedt’s musicality and concern for details had the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus in flawless style. With him came an elegant roster of fully engaged soloists — especially baritone Alan Opie in the title role.
Besides Opie, the cast included soprano Julianne Banse, mezzo-soprano Annette Markert, tenor Christoph Genz, and the surprising 11-year-old Jack Lundquist performing the Youth lookout in Scene 5. The chamber choir consisted of sopranos Pamela Sebastian and Trisha L. Leavitt, altos Brenda Bonhomme and Elspeth Franks, tenors Kevin Gibbs and David Peters, and basses Joshua M. Henderson and David Varnum, all of whom were drawn from the main chorus. The oratorio was sung in clean, clear English throughout, as it had been at its Birmingham premiere.

The three weekend performances marked only the third time our 96-year-old Symphony has programmed Elijah, which is surprising when one considers the dramatic impact of Mendelssohn’s major choral works. On the other hand, even Handel is slighted by the Messiah cliche. (Dear Joseph Krips once broke with the Christmas tradition, substituting Handel’s Israel in Egypt in its stead.)

But the 19th century saw the creation of many fine oratorios. Besides Mendelssohn’s, the count includes important works such as Liszt’s Christus, Dvořák’s Saint Ludmila, and Schumann’s Das Paradies und die Peri (although the latter is not on a Biblical story, and so technically is not an oratorio). These works are largely ignored without cause. They’re all masterpieces.
The Genius Is in the Details
There were all sorts of suave touches in Saturday evening’s performance. The oratorio opens with a recitative as Elijah prophecies drought, before the orchestra plays the large, fugal overture. Blomstedt opened the overture at a whisper. Then, as the music intensified, he created a long, smooth crescendo until the chorus barged in at full volume with “Help, Lord!” The seamless line of that swelling was amazing. I’ve never before encountered the like.

Blomstedt observed many of the niceties of 19th-century tradition, as well. As has been his habit lately, he employed classical seating of the orchestra: first violins to his left, seconds to his right, rather than all bunched next to one another. Then, too, he reduced the size of the string sections. There were, for instance, only four string basses on stage. The mega string section was not yet fashionable in central Europe during Mendelssohn’s lifetime. (As far as I know, Luigi Cherubini, in the scores of his late 18th-century operas, was the first to specifically demand 28 violins and like numbers for the other sections.)

Mendelssohn, on the other hand, managed to expand his entire Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra to 45 players — “expand” being the operative word. Blomstedt did not go that far, but his scaled-down orchestra made for greater clarity overall, especially for the chorus.
Opie Brings the Drama to Life
Opie sang beautifully, with a rich umber sound and a keen sensitivity to the operatic implications of Mendelssohn’s score. I cannot remember a more moving account of Elijah’s “It is enough, O Lord, now take away my life,” or a more scornful “Call first upon your god: Your numbers are many.” And that was matched by the sense of dramatic urgency as the chorus pleaded, “Baal, we cry to thee.” It was in moments like those that Mendelssohn’s love of Handel’s oratorios shone through most clearly.

There were, however, lyrical moments of pure Felix as Banse and Markert sang the duet, “Zion spreadeth her hands for aid,” and Opie sang Elijah’s famous, “Lord God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel!” There lay another strength of Opie’s contribution: his refusal to gush, as so many performers do. That aria can easily turn yucky-Victorian when blatantly sentimentalized. Opie’s restraint achieved a significant sense of sincerity and dignity, which is surely what Mendelssohn intended.

True, Elijah has weaknesses. It’s a tad too long for its own good. Yet the beautiful choral writing, the lyricism, as well as the overall dramatic power in the piece far outweigh the problems. Mendelssohn’s contrapuntal mastery shone through in glorious continuity with the best Baroque traditions, as well as expanded on them.I do know people who dislike Elijah, and even one old friend who loathes it. Had any of them attended one of the performances last weekend, I’m confident their opinions would have changed.

Heuwell Tircuit is a composer, performer, and writer who was chief writer for Gramophone Japan and for 21 years a music reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle. He wrote previously for Chicago American and the Asahi Evening News.