Mendelssohn’s Elijah is widely regarded as one of the pillars of the choral repertoire, yet performances of this Victorian-era masterpiece are exceedingly rare. This weekend, the Nashville Symphony Orchestra and Chorus is giving its first ever performance of Mendelssohn’s monumental oratorio. Friday night’s rendition will not soon be forgotten.
That’s because the NSO has brought to town one of the world’s leading interpreters of Elijah, the esteemed British conductor Nicholas McGegan, whose reading on Friday was a perfect balance of power and finesse. Of course, any performance of Elijah will be only as good as the bass-baritone soloist who sings the role of the firebrand prophet. The NSO has found a compelling and convincing Elijah in the bass baritone Andrew Foster-Williams.
First performed in 1846, Elijah draws its material largely from the First Book of Kings, and it tells a story that’s about as dramatic as they come. Elijah locks horns with Ahab and Jezebel over Israel’s worship of the god Baal – idolizing false gods was never a good idea around the Old Testament’s jealous Yahweh. The story includes a punishing drought, the raising of a widow’s dead son and the banishment into the wilderness of the Bible’s archetypal prophet.
Mendelssohn treats this story in the best of the English oratorio tradition, with a mix of religious reverence and operatic drama. His arias are filled with unforgettably beautiful melodies – hardly surprising, since Mendelssohn wrote the soprano part for Jenny Lind, the famed Swedish Nightingale. The choruses explore a broad range of emotion, from gentle meditations to violent eruptions of fire and brimstone. The recitatives are as refined as anything found in Handel.
For all its craft, Elijah is hardly a fool-proof work. The oratorio’s heavenly length – Friday’s performance clocked in at over two-and-a-half hours including one intermission – can seem interminable if the performance is anything less than inspired. McGegan’s reading was riveting.
He conducted the orchestra with power and sweep, which kept the audience at the edge of its collective seats during the most dramatic moments. McGegan is known for his historically authentic interpretations. Fortunately, his conducting of Elijah is remarkable more for its spontaneity than its fussiness.
Foster-Williams was by far the most impressive of the soloists, and that wasn’t just because he was singing the title part. He inhabited the role, seemingly becoming the prophet as he engaged in emotional exchanges with the chorus and other soloists. All evening, he sang with a rich, warm, chocolate-colored voice.
Tenor Thomas Cooley was nearly as successful, singing with a diaphanous falsetto voice that rang clearly throughout the hall. Soprano Yulia Van Doren and mezzo-soprano Mary Phillips both sang with silky voices and sweet sensitivity.
The Nashville Symphony’s mighty chorus – 175 voices strong – deserves special mention for its polished and passionate performance. The chorus’ overall sound was beautifully blended, but there was also clarity in every section and precision in the ensemble singing. Naturally, the chorus sang such numbers as Part I’s “Thanks be to God” with full-throttle power. But they could also sing “Cast thy burden upon the Lord” with a pianississimo sound that was almost vaporous in its transparency.
It was an impressive feat, especially given that the chorus has not had a permanent conductor since George Mabry’s retirement at the end of 2011. Nashville Symphony associate conductor Kelly Corcoran has filled in as interim director, and her work with Elijah warrants nothing short of heavenly praise.
Photo credit: Nicholas McGegan by Randi Beach.
IF YOU GO
Nashville Symphony performs Mendelssohn’s Elijah. The performance is 8 p.m. Saturday, May 11 at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Tickets are $28 to $115. Call 687-6400 or go to www.nashvillesymphony.org.