Mendelssohn Oratorio: 'Elijah' rises again in song


"Elijah" is in the air, and not just because God has taken the prophet up to heaven in a whirlwind.

Two performances of Mendel ssohn's oratorio and an adult-education course on the prophet himself are converging in the Berkshires. The scheduling is coincidental, but perhaps it's not such a coincidence that the triple play is taking place in the spring.

For one thing, spring is the culmination of the season for community-based choruses. But Elijah's miracles, death and prophesied return bear parallels to those of Jesus, whose death and resurrection are celebrated at Easter.

To Rabbi Josh Breindel of Temple Anshe Amunim, Pittsfield, who is teaching the adult course, Elijah "is a trickster figure. He is an loner/outsider, living outside of conventional authority, who manifests superhuman powers and is prophesied to reappear after his ascent to heaven."

Breindel last week began a five-session course on the prophet for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. The course, according to his description in the catalog, follows "the exploits of Elijah -- and other literary figures whom he inspired -- from the biblical period through the modern day."

The first musical immersion in this tradition comes Saturday, when Tracy Wilson leads the Stockbridge Festival Chorus in the work at 5 in the Stockbridge Congregational Church. The title role will be sung by bass-baritone John Demler. Other soloists are soprano Nellie Rustick, mezzo-soprano Lucille Beer and tenor Doug Schmolze. The Rev. Timothy Weisman will accompany on the organ.

Conductor Brad Wells follows with two performances by the Williams College Concert and Chamber choirs, on May 3 at 8 p.m. and May 5 at 3 p.m., in Williams' Chapin Hall. Keith Kibler will be the Elijah; the other soloists are soprano Kerry Ryer-Parke, mezzo-soprano Katie Back and tenor Richard Miller. There will be orchestral accompaniment.

In standard oratorio form -- recitatives, arias, choruses -- "Elijah" tells a dramatic story culminating in the prophet's ascent in a fiery chariot borne aloft by a whirlwind. The title role requires a bass-baritone with a voice of considerable heft.

Along with "St. Paul," "Elijah" (1846) is one of two oratorios Mendelssohn composed. He drew inspiration from Bach's long-forgotten "St. Matthew Passion," which he revived after a century of neglect.

Mendelssohn, who came from a Jewish family but was baptized as a Lutheran, based "Elijah" on episodes from the first and second books of Kings. Drama was inherent in his conception. He wrote:

"With a subject like ‘Elijah,' it appears to me that the dramatic element should predominate The personages should act and speak as if they were living human beings -- for heaven's sake, let them not be a musical picture, but a real world, such as you find in every chapter of the Old Testament."

Because of the strong dramatic element, Tracy Wilson likens the oratorio to an opera. She points, for example, to the scene in which the chorus becomes a mob shouting to the false gods of Baal for relief from relief from famine. Wells had actually planned to stage the work at Williams but had to abandon the concept because of limited stage facilities.

Stories of Elijah, or Elijah-like figures, are found in Christianity and Islam as well as Judaism, Breindel said in an email, elaborating on his course content.

"In the Gospels," he wrote, "references to Elijah abound, and many of the miracles that Jesus performs (raising the dead, providing unending food, walking in the desert for 40 days) directly parallel Elijah's life. Elijah even appears with Moses and Jesus at the Transfiguration."

Elijah, Breindel said, is also a model for literary and film characters ranging from Melville's Ahab and Elijah in "Moby Dick" to Obi Wan Kenobi in "Star Wars." In "Moby Dick," the pagan King Ahab becomes the sinister captain of the Pequod, and an Elijah in the crew foretells the ship's doom.

Other Elijah examples, Brein del suggested, are Gandalf ("The Hobbit," "The Lord of the Rings") and Dumbledore ("Har ry Potter"). Recent films also include "The Book of Eli" -- "the film makes a strong case for the power of religious faith," Brein del said -- and "Unbreakable."

"We respond powerfully to the idea of a heavenly helper -- someone who will guide us to right injustices and repair our world," Breindel said. "Jewish stories of Elijah abound through the 18th century but his presence can be seen clearly through the lens of literature and film in our own day."

Redemption is the goal in performance as well.

Wilson had been itching to perform "Elijah" for several years, having done it with her Stockbridge chorus 18 years ago as the first community concert to be given in Tanglewood's then-new Ozawa Hall. This year, she said, "stars aligned" for her in having a strong chorus, organist and crop of soloists.

She has been impressing the story as well as music on her 65 choristers. In rehearsal she tells them, "It's not the destination that we're working on here, it's the journey together to get there." In concert

What: Mendelssohn's "Elijah"

Who: Stockbridge Festival Chorus, Tracy Wilson, conductor. Soloists -- Nellie Rustick, soprano; Lucille Beer, mezzo soprano; Doug Schmolze, tenor. Rev. Timothy Weisman, organ accompanist

When: Saturday at 5 p.m.

Where: Stockbridge Congregational Church, 4 Main St., Stockbridge

Tickets: $15 (students under 18 free)


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