Mendelssohn’s “Elijah” at the NY Philharmonic

This week's subscription program at the New York Philharmonic consisted of Felix Mendelssohn's oratorio "Elijah," conducted by music director Alan Gilbert.  Gerald Finley sang the part of Elijah.  The tenor roles were performed by Alan Clayton, the soprano by Twyla Robinson, and the mezzo solos by Alice Coote.  Two different boy sopranos alternated in that brief role; when I attended on Saturday night, Benjamin Wenzelberg was the boy soloist. 

The Philharmonic dedicated these performances to the memory of Dimitri Mitropoulos, the Greek-born conductor who was their music director during the 1950s and who died suddenly from a heart attack 50 years ago this month.  This struck me as an odd dedication, for Mitropoulos was most well known for his advocacy of the contemporary music of his time.  Although it is true that he performed "Elijah" with the Philharmonic, I would have thought a more appropriate tribute would have advanced his own agenda of bringing new works to the Philharmonic audience.  Were I doing the programing, I would have made it up of music by Krenek, Gould, Mahler, and would have closed out with Prokofiev's 3rd Concerto, which was Mitropoulos's great show-piece.  (From the time of his debut with the Berlin Philharmonic, he customarily played the piano part himself, conducting from the keyboard.)  The Mendelssohn, by contrast has been played by the Philharmonic under Gilbert's predecessor, Kurt Masur, who as the longtime music director at the Leipzig Gewandhaus — Mendelssohn's orchestra — had a special affinity for this repertory.  I well remember how Bryn Terfel commanded the stage as Elijah at those performances.

And this was a big difference for me.  Gerald Finley is a very fine musician, and has developed into a commanding interpreter of major dramatic roles.  I thought he was very fine as Elijah, although not quite in the class of Terfel as a commanding personality.  All of the vocal soloists were fine, but I was especially struck by tenor Alan Clayton, making his NYP debut.  I wished there were more chances to hear him, as the tenor role is relatively brief.

I also thought that the chorus was a bit too small for the biggest moments, and I was surprised also at how small the double bass section was.  Glancing in the program, I noted that Philharmonic lists only 6 members of the bass section, a bit shocking for an orchestra this size.  There has been some attrition there.  With 13 first violins on the stage, I would have expected to see 7 or 8 basses, and I found the sound light on the bottom.  This wasn't helped by Avery Fisher Hall's deficits in this regard – the lack of a real large pipe organ (they use a portable electric) and the general brashness and lack of good bass sound in the hall.  I hope they are busily auditioning to build up the bass section, because the depth of the Philharmonic string body is compromised with such a small number, no matter how bravely the reduced forces play.

As to the interpretation, I felt that Part II seemed to come together better than Part I.  There is lots of exposition in Part I, some on the boring side, and most of the best bits are in Part II, especially the last 20 minutes or so.  The NYP had drastically underestimated the length of this program in prospect, stating in the program that the concert would last 2-1/4 hours, when actually it ran almost 2-3/4.  Was it a matter of slow tempi by Gilbert, especially in Part I?  At any rate, by the second half I thought they were burning on all cylinders and the concluding pieces were quite spectacular.

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