Saturday, November 13, 2010

New York Philharmonic – Mendelssohn’s Elijah; Alan Gilbert, Conductor. November 11, 2010.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, First Tier Center (Seat DD113, $62.5)

Elijah, Oratorio on Words of the Old Testament, Op. 70 (1845-46, rev. 1847) by Mendelssohn (1809-47)

Twyla Robinson, Soprano; Alice Coote, Mezzo-Soprano; Allan Clayton, Tenor; Gerald Finley, Bass-Baritone; Jennifer Johnson, Mezzo-Soprano; Noah Sadik, Boy Soprano
New York Choral Artists, Joseph Flummerfelt, Director

Because of schedule conflicts, we moved our date of the concert from Saturday (trip to New Hampshire) to Wednesday (Anne’s class) to Thursday, which we finally made. I am glad we went. There were quite a few empty seats in the auditorium, and WQXR and Goldstar were both advertizing seats (1/2 off for the latter) throughout the week.

The story is quite simple, describing how Elijah helped a widow, fought with King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, hid in a cave and waited for God, and was finally taken up to heaven in a chariot. Most of the material was taken from I Kings, but Mendelssohn also used quite a few quotes from other books of the Old Testament – especially Psalm – and a couple from the New Testament. I am sure the story can be told equally compellingly by using I Kings only; but let’s not quibble.

From where we sat (we moved after the intermission to be closer to the exit) the sound was quite good. Oftentimes I find a singer difficult to hear because of the acoustics, but didn’t have much trouble this time. The singers all did okay, but not spectacular. Finley as Elijah had a relatively demanding role, and it showed when he sang the aria “Is not His word like a fire.” He seemed to recover after the intermission, though. It must be thrilling for a nine-year old boy to have billing in a New York Philharmonic Concert, and it is understandable that his voice was a bit unsteady. A contralto from the chorus also had a solo and quartet part, but her name isn’t mentioned in the program. Coote as the widow and Jezebel did the best.

I found the oratorio quite captivating even though the story of Elijah is a familiar one. This work has been compared with Messiah by Handel in style. Certainly true in the sense of narratives, recitatives, arias, and choruses. The Program Notes says the aria “Is not His word like a fire” (the one Finley somewhat botched) mimics Messiah’s “But Who May Abide.” Alas, I didn’t hear the parallel. Also, there are very few stand-alone melodies in this piece compared to Messiah. I was wondering if there were any until the second half: the first was the Trio “Lift thine eyes”, and the second was the solo “O rest in the Lord.” It was actually sung by Helen at our wedding! Of course when we picked the song we had no idea of the context in which it was written.

The New York Choral Artists, numbering about 60 people, did admirably. We left right after the conclusion of the concert and didn’t get to see Flummerfelt take his bow. Nonetheless we missed the train, which was okay as Anne had to take a conference call at 10:30 pm anyway.

The libretto in the original version was put together by Mendelssohn himself. For the English translation he asked for help (from William Bartholomew). The translation is so good that it is one of the best sounding English vocal compositions I have heard.

One final interesting fact from the Program Notes. Mendelssohn’s other oratorio St. Paul is “in the style” of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion. One of those days I shall listen to those and compare. Also, I wonder how well this would work if it is staged as an opera.

The New York Times Review is surprising negative. It recalls how Mitropoulos did this in a semi-staged manner, and generally pans the singers (with a couple of exceptions.)

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