Lord Have Mercy 

Earthquakes, Drought, Fiery Chariots, Raising The Dead -- 'Elijah' Has It All.

IT'S LIKELY THAT Felix Mendelssohn's final masterpiece, the massive dramatic oratorio Elijah, contributed to his early death. The stress of completing the work and then traveling back and forth several times from Germany to England to conduct its premieres weakened the 37-year-old composer. Already exhausted, when he received news of the sudden death of his beloved sister Fanny just after finally arriving home the following year, he began suffering a series of strokes which killed him within months.

UA will present Mendelssohn's crowning achievement, Elijah, this weekend at Crowder Hall. The performance, featuring the 130-voice UA Community Chorus, the Festival Orchestra and soloists, will be conducted by Steve Zielke, his final appearance as a UA faculty member before he leaves to become director of choral activities at Oregon State University in the fall.

Elijah premiered in 1846 in England with Mendelssohn conducting. The Old Testament-based work was commissioned by the Birmingham Festival and was such an immediate success that four arias and four choruses were encored at that first performance.

"You've got some great stuff in the story," Zielke notes. "You've got fire coming down from heaven, you've got fiery chariots, earthquakes, drought. You have Elijah killing the prophets of Baal, raising people from the dead. So it's a very dramatic story. Elijah is a very strong character, an individual who stood by himself against everyone else. It's a very sympathetic character."

Mendelssohn was England's favorite composer in his day, despite his Germanic origins. In fact, he was following a tradition established by Handel and Haydn, who also found greater acceptance and appreciation in England than on the Continent. A child prodigy, Mendelssohn had written his overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream when he was only 17. When completed years later, one piece of that incidental music for Shakespeare's play went on to become one of the most performed pieces of music in the world: The Wedding March, whose opening "Here comes the bride" phrase has become synonymous with the ceremony.

That we revere the music of Johann Sebastian Bach today was also Mendelssohn's doing. Bach's music had been largely neglected following his death in 1750, his music rarely performed. In 1829, Mendelssohn, an admirer of the then-obscure Baroque composer, organized a performance of Bach's inspired oratorio, The Passion According to St. Matthew, which had not been heard in the 100 years since its original presentation. The performance, also conducted by Mendelssohn, was such a success that Bach's place in history was re-evaluated to the level of esteem he continues to hold.

It was no small irony that Mendelssohn should restore some of Christianity's greatest religious music, since he was, at least by birth, Jewish. He is sometimes referred to as Bartholdy-Mendelssohn, Bartholdy being the Christian name his father adopted in an effort to escape the prejudice of the times. That prejudice dogged Mendelssohn throughout his life in Germany and would even haunt him in the grave. Composer Richard Wagner, writing under a pseudonym in 1850, used Mendelssohn to argue the lack of artistic achievement by Jews. Later, the Nazis banned Mendelssohn's music entirely, forbidding performances and removing his name from textbooks. Thus, Elijah, whose libretto was originally written in German by Julius Schubring and then translated to English (both versions are performed), never attained the stature in Mendelssohn's native land that it has always held in the British and American repertoire.

This performance will feature UA professor Charles Roe as the baritone Elijah. As director of the Opera Theatre, he will be teaming up with his protégée, Vanessa Salaz, in the soprano spot as the Widow. The production reunites them on stage after last summer's roles as Adam and Eve in the UA's presentation of Haydn's The Creation.

"They sing together beautifully," according to Zielke. "Charles has sung Elijah many times throughout the world. The soprano has the second most important role. Vanessa is finishing her bachelor's degree in vocal performance and she's been a student of Charles' for years. She has a beautiful voice and she will have a career singing."

Mendelssohn originally wrote the soprano part for Jenny Lind, the 19th century's most famous operatic singer. As Lind was unavailable, Mendelssohn ended up stuck with a local performer who proved to be a real prima donna, requesting he rewrite her part in a lower key to make it easier to sing. Mendelssohn refused and then replaced her for the London premiere the following year, though retaining a number of the original singers.

UA alumni Korby Myrick will sing the alto roles of the Angel and Queen Jezebel. Myrick has performed in Europe and with the Phoenix Symphony, Pittsburgh Opera and Hartford Symphony among others, since earning her bachelor's degree in piano performance and master's degree in vocal performance. Her performance comes between stints at the Oregon Bach Festival.

Associate professor of music Grayson Hirst will take the tenor roles of Obadiah and King Ahab. Hirst has performed with the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the St. Louis Symphony and the New York Chamber Orchestra.

"They all function as either characters or as solo voices without character designations," Zielke said of his principal singers. "The chorus functions as the people. Sometimes they are pro-Elijah, sometimes they are against Elijah. The work has a good sense of not making the chorus one voice, so the choruses use that polyphony to its advantage."

The 40-piece orchestra includes both professional musicians and UA students. The performance promises to be the kind of emotional tour-de-force that will both appropriately commemorate the composer as well as culminate young Zielke's too-few years on the UA faculty.

Steve Zielke will conduct Mendelssohn's Elijah on Friday and Saturday, July 9 and 10, at UA Crowder Hall, in the Music Building, southeast of Speedway and Park Avenue. Performances begin at 8 p.m. Tickets are $12 general admission, $6 for senior citizens and students. Advance tickets are available at the Fine Arts box office. For reservations and more information, call 621-1162.


More by Dave Irwin


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