The Springfield Symphony Presents Mendelssohn’s Choral Masterpiece


Music Director and Conductor Peter Stafford Wilson will lead the Springfield Symphony Orchestra Chorale.

By Pat Suarez

Felix Mendelssohn’s place among classical music’s pantheon of composers has been secure for going on two centuries. And yet, in the minds of some, he just cannot crack the upper echelons. But he certainly deserves to be there, maybe not at the pinnacle, but within a grace note of it. Robert Schumann called Felix Mendelssohn “the Mozart of the nineteenth century, the most brilliant musician…” Schumann did not exaggerate.

Mendelssohn died at 38 and actively composed for 26 of those years. Despite a comparatively short career, Mendelssohn composed in a wide variety of genres, from chamber music to symphonies and songs to oratorios. On a warm summer evening, play a few of his 12 string symphonies to understand the definition of “sublime.”

In his exploration of different musical styles, Mendelssohn reserved a special place for the human voice and, if his works for that instrument recall J. S. Bach, that was no accident as Mendelssohn was profoundly influenced by Old Bach from Mendelssohn’s youth. Bach’s complex mathematical constructions and their resulting sounds and harmonies appealed to Mendelssohn’s lightning-quick intellect and early love of music. It’s no accident, therefore, that Mendelssohn’s works for orchestra and chorus echo Bach.

Mendelssohn also shared Bach’s inspiration of Bach’s texts: the Christian Bible, whose books overflowed with stories and source material. Both were Lutheran (Mendelssohn was baptized at age 7 on Bach’s birthday, Mar. 21).

In 1836, at 24, Mendelssohn found success with his oratorio, “St. Paul.” A decade later, Mendelssohn wanted another oratorio and debated with himself over the subject: would it be the New Testament’s St. Peter or the Old Testament’s Elijah? He chose Elijah, telling his friend Carl Klingemann “somehow I think ‘Elijah,’ and his going up to heaven in the end, would be a most beautiful subject.” So, Elijah it was.

The premier, in Birmingham, England, was an unqualified success. Countless performances have followed, the first in the USA by the Boston Handel and Haydn Society in 1848.

Elijah was an important figure in biblical history. He was a prophet and worked miracles through God. He lived in the Northern Kingdom of Israel, during the reign of King Ahab, the seventh king of Israel and husband of Jezebel, who guided Ahab away from Yahweh and toward Baal, a pagan deity. Elijah was having none of it. Elijah challenged both king and queen that, if they didn’t renounce Baal, that a drought so severe that “not even dew would form” (and one of Baal’s creations was dew, driving the threat home).

In a showdown before nearly a thousand prophets, Elijah ordered two altars, each with a slaughtered ox, one for Baal and one for God. The challenge: make fire flow from the sky to cook the oxen. Baal’s prophets prayed for hours. Nothing happened. Then, Elijah ordered four large jugs of water be poured over his ox, thoroughly soaking it. Elijah implored God and down came the fire, evaporating the water and torching the ox. Point, set, match. Elijah also had a resurrection (not his own) on his resumé and was raised into heaven, alive, by fire, the event that convinced Mendelssohn to use Elijah as the subject of his next oratorio.

“Elijah” is in two parts and takes its text from 1 Kings and 2 Kings (Mendelssohn had asked Klingemann to write the text, but he declined—Mendelssohn wrote most of it himself). It opens with a dark proclamation from Elijah (baritone), followed by a slightly less dark overture that is not the last time that Mendelssohn combined his beloved Baroque with what was his familiar brand of muscular Romanticism. The full chorus, accompanied by orchestra and organ, follow with a glowing appeal to the Lord for help.

One of the glories of Mendelssohn’s oratorio writing was that he effectively injected his unique Romantic harmonies into a Bach-like Baroque structure. This included not only “St. Paul” and “Elijah,” but also his grand Second Symphony, the choral “Hymn of Praise,” written after his two oratorios. Think “Messiah,” but with an industrial-strength lyricism. Beautiful melody follows beautiful melody for the slightly more than two-hour performance. If you’re thinking that there might be dead spots in a work this long, you’d be wrong. If Mendelssohn could do anything, he could make any composition interesting, wall to wall, not an easy accomplishment.

On Apr. 14, 2018, Music Director Peter Stafford Wilson will lead the Springfield Symphony Orchestra and Chorale in a performance of Mendelssohn’s masterpiece. Soloists will be April Bennett, Soprano; Elise Des Champs, Mezzo-Soprano; Daniel Stein, Tenor; Robert Kerr, Baritone. Ms. Bennett is a soloist and chamber musician with an extensive performance resumé that includes Mozart’s “Exultate Jubilate”. Ms. Des Champs is returning to the Kuss Auditorium’s stage, having performed the SSO’s Mahler “Resurrection” Symphony. Tenor Daniel Stein is a veteran of opera, oratorio and choral symphonies. Mr. Kerr has traveled the world in opera and oratorio work, including “Carmina Burana”. Peter Stafford Wilson has been the SSO’s music director since 2002 and continues the work of long-time music director John Ferritto in building a first
class ensemble.

Saturday, April 14, 7:30 p.m. The Springfield Symphony Orchestra Chorale will perform Mendelssohn’s Elijah at Kuss Auditorium, Clark State Performing Arts Center, Springfield, OH. Opening Notes at 6:45pm in the Turner Studio; Performance Prelude at 6:45pm in the Davidson Grand Lobby. Tickets available through Ticketmaster or www.springfieldsym.org

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Pat Suarez
Pat Suarez has been involved with a wide variety of music for nearly five decades. He has hosted music programming on FM radio and produced and hosted the radio broadcasts of two symphony orchestras. His articles about music have been published extensively in print and online. Reach him at PatSuarez@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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