Classical music with New Testament themes emphasizes love, forgiveness, transcendence, sacrifice. Jesus may end up on the cross, but he dies for our sins.
Classical music from the Old Testament? Wrath. Woe. Plagues. Warfare. The music may not be as uplifting or emotional in the end, but it can punch you right in the stomach.
Felix Mendelssohn’s “Elijah,” once the second most popular oratorio after “Messiah,” doesn’t fully depict the vibrant, complex life of the prophet. We’d have needed a different composer for that, maybe his contemporary Berlioz. (Mendelssohn also gave us a tame bunch of Druids in “Die Erste Walpurgisnacht.”)
On his own terms, though, Mendelssohn whips up a lot of excitement in the prophet’s battle with the priests of Baal, his warnings to King Ahab (and unnamed Queen Jezebel) that the land will suffer drought and famine for their iniquities, his summoning of the whirlwind that will take him to heaven alive.
The monochrome Victorian piety in the second half of the piece does wear on, as serenity turns to placidity. And the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra cut one of the most emotional sections, an episode in part 1 where an angel sends Elijah to live with a widow for protection from the mob; her son languishes, and he resurrects the boy. (CSO management wanted to keep the concert under two and a half hours for financial reasons.)
Yet what remained was delivered with such vigor and feeling that the best elements of the work shone through. Mendelssohn’s driving rhythms produce a lot of energy, and his strongest melodies stick in the mind.
Guest conductor Giancarlo Guerrero of the Nashville Symphony drew sharply accented performances from singers and musicians, who responded well to him. The CSO chorus, trained by Kenney Potter before Guerrero took the podium, sang with even better diction than usual – which was especially necessary, as the CSO helpfully included the text in the program but left the lights too low for us to read it. (Not everyone knows Elijah’s biblical narrative in First and Second Kings.)
The performance relied most on bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams. Without overacting, he turned the title role into a character: dignified, implacable, ironic, resigned, weary, peaceful, interacting with the chorus. He remained focused on his last emotion when he wasn’t singing and took up a new one when his resonant, flexible voice came into play. His exemplary diction also made clear each utterance of this doom-saying, despairing man.
P.S. The Charlotte Symphony hopefully predicted crowds of 50 per cent for this hard-to-sell concert, but the orchestra section of Belk Theater was as full as I usually see it for familiar programs. Either ticket-buyers scooped up deep discounts offered or simply got the message this would be something special.
The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra and Chorus will repeat Felix Mendelssohn’s oratorio at 8 p.m. Saturday at Belk Theater. Tickets are $12.25-$99. Details: 704-972-2000 or charlottesymphony.org.