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Review: L.A. Master Chorale's Mendelssohn problem

January 26, 2009 |  5:10 pm

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Feb. 3 will be Felix Mendelssohn’s 200th birthday.  The music industry loves anniversaries, and Mendelssohn will get plenty of mileage from his year.  That also means musicologists will once more reconsider the Mendelssohn Problem.

Was the composer a crowd-pleasing lightweight of a few inspired popular works or a progressive whose larger achievement has been underestimated and neglected? 

The problem was not resolved Sunday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall when the Los Angeles Master Chorale presented “Elijah.”  But in his impressive performance of the oratorio, the chorus’ music director, Grant Gershon, brooked on no level the possibility that Mendelssohn could have been a lightweight -- musically, intellectually or dramatically.

The controversy over Mendelssohn begins with his youth.  He was simply too good.

I would vote him the most inspired prodigy in music, if not all art.  His Octet was written when he was 15, the overture to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” when he was 16.  The rest of the incidental music to Shakespeare’s comedy came a year later, which means you may well have gotten married to music by a 17-year-old.  Neither Mozart nor Schubert showed such enduring personality that early.

“Elijah” was written at the other end of Mendelssohn’s short life, a year before his death at 38.  It is a big, bold, literate oratorio that looks back at Bach and Handel at a time when these Baroque figures had gone out of fashion.

But the oratorio also attempts to forge ahead.  Mendelssohn treats the prophet as a proto-Messiah, a dry run for Jesus.  But his Elijah is no man of peace. Rather he's an unambiguously heroic figure in the 19th century mold, unwavering in his purpose and noble in his suffering.  He is as cheerful a slayer of his defenseless enemies as Siegfried.

The oratorio is straight drama.  The bass-baritone is the prophet, but the other soloists take on a number of different roles.  The Master Chorale did not provide a text in the program, let alone projected titles or even, for that matter, a full plot synopsis.  According to a Master Chorale spokeswoman, Gershon believed so deeply in the evocative power of the music and in his singers’ ability to enunciate the English text that he felt the written word would have proved a distraction.

Still, something was needed.  Mendelssohn was a man of the theater, and his teenage “Midsummer Night’s Dream” score is without a false step.  But the composer never fully mastered the art of tragedy.  His little-known music to Sophocles (yes, he scored a production of “Oedipus Rex”) is effective boilerplate.

The frightening firepower in “Elijah” works theatrically, for instance, but all those big choruses and dramatic outbursts in the orchestra are the least original parts of the score.  Music here supports the drama but is not the drama.

So it helps to know what is going on as the prophet faces the people of Baal and challenges their false gods, as he brings the dead back to life and ends a drought.  The chorus was large.  The singers projected grandly to a large hall.  And from my vantage point in the back of the hall, only a small portion of the text -- mostly the quieter passages -- could be understood.

And those quieter passages were the ones in which the narrative context mattered least.  Mendelssohn’s greatness, from his extraordinary teenage years to his late 30s, was in his lyricism.  In the oratorio’s moments of reflection –- Elijah’s, an angel’s, anyone’s –- radiant Mendelssohnian melody suffuses the hall like a sweet perfume.  It softens the heart and moistens the eye.  Next to that, all else seems lesser music.

Sunday’s performance operated at extremes.  Eric Owens was an Elijah of larger-than-life operatic fortitude.  He thundered and raised the heavens.  He lorded over Ahab and Jezebel.  But his sweet side (the rightfully famed “Lord God Abraham” and “For the Mountains Shall Depart”) was his most winning one.  All in all, he filled the role’s very big shoes.

The other soloists were soprano Mary Wilson, mezzo-soprano Diana Tash and tenor Robert MacNeil.  They were sure and convincing.  Jeffrey Keeler was the boy soprano, the youth whom Elijah sends out to check on the weather.

The chorus sang with full force and never lost its focus.  The excellent orchestra, though, was the surprise.  The Master Chorale has clearly been putting some investment into it, and the results were gratifying.

A few in the audience left at intermission.  The rest stayed and cheered.  Let the Mendelssohn debate begin.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Eric Owens sings the title role in "Elijah" at Walt Disney Concert Hall as Grant Gershon conducts. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times

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