Felix Mendelssohn: Elijah
” Mendelssohn’s towering Biblical epic Elijah has frisson, power and drama – a magnificent oratorio.” – Classic FM
Conductor: Christopher Fletcher
Soloists: Catherine Hamilton – soprano, Alison Kettlewell – mezzo-soprano, Christopher Lemmings – tenor, Darren Jeffery – bass-baritone
Date: Sunday 6 December 2015 at 7:30 pm
Location: The Guildhall, Royal Parade, Plymouth. PL1 1HA
Elijah stood up boldly for God in a time when idolatry had swept his land. In fact, his name means “My God is Yah (weh).”
The false god he opposed was Baal, the favourite deity of Jezebel, wife of King Ahab of Israel. To please Jezebel, Ahab had altars erected to Baal, and the queen murdered God’s prophets.
Elijah appeared before King Ahab to announce God’s curse: “As the LORD, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.”
Then Elijah fled to the brook Cherith, east of the Jordan River, where ravens brought him bread and meat. When the brook dried up, God sent Elijah to live with a widow in Zarephath. God performed another miracle there, blessing the woman’s oil and flour so it did not run out. Unexpectedly, the widow’s son died. Elijah stretched himself on the boy’s body three times, and God restored the child’s life.
Confident of the power of God, Elijah challenged the 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of the false god Asherah to a showdown on Mount Carmel. The idolaters sacrificed a bull and cried out to Baal from morning until nightfall, even slashing their skin until blood flowed, but nothing happened. Elijah then rebuilt the altar of the Lord, sacrificing a bull there.
He put the burnt offering on it, along with wood. He had a servant douse the sacrifice and wood with four jars of water, three times, until all was thoroughly soaked. Elijah called on the Lord, and God’s fire fell from heaven, consuming the offering, the wood, the altar, the water, and even the dust around it.
The people fell on their faces, shouting, “The Lord, he is God; the Lord, he is God.” Elijah ordered the people to slay the 850 false prophets.
Elijah prayed, and rain fell on Israel. Jezebel was furious at the loss of her prophets, however, and swore to kill him. Afraid, Elijah ran to the wilderness, sat under a broom tree, and in his despair, asked God to take his life. Instead, the prophet slept, and an angel brought him food. Strengthened, Elijah went 40 days and 40 nights to Mount Horeb, where God appeared to him in a whisper.
God ordered Elijah to anoint his successor, Elisha, whom he found plowing with 12 yoke of oxen. Elisha killed the animals for a sacrifice and followed his master. Elijah went on to prophesy the deaths of Ahab, King Ahaziah, and Jezebel.
Like Enoch, Elijah did not die. God sent chariots and horses of fire and took Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind, while Elisha stood watching.
Some say Felix Mendelssohn (1809 – 1847) was the most profoundly gifted prodigy-composer of all time. There were other talented teenage composers – Mozart, Saint-Saëns and Korngold – but by his late teens Mendelssohn was already producing original masterpieces of supreme quality.
His early talent was spotted by Beethoven who saw him play piano in 1821 and wrote: “Mendelssohn – 12 years old, promises much.” This was not great insight by Beethoven as by this time the young prodigy had already proven himself by composing four operas, 12 string symphonies and a large quantity of chamber and piano music.
At just 16, in 1825, Mendelssohn wrote his String Octet, the first movement of which is one of the all-time triumphs of the string repertoire. Its innovative Scherzo influenced almost every Romantic composer that followed.
Mendelssohn was also a polymath: in addition to his compositional abilities he was an outstanding pianist and violinist, a watercolour artist of real skill and an inspired poet and philosopher. As a conductor of both the great classics and of contemporary music his pioneering style set the style and standard of orchestral management and concert structure still in use today.
Travel was hugely influential to his work. His Fingal’s Cave overture (1830) followed a trip to the Hebrides, and in music he captured the power of the thundering waves on rocks. 1833 saw his “Italian” Symphony completed.
Two years later Mendelssohn became music director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra which he quickly transformed from the mediocre into a truly virtuoso corporate body. The musicians loved him and the vastly increased salaries he generated. The orchestra’s repertoire increased tenfold and included Schubert’s “Great” Symphony No. 7 in C Major, premiered by Mendelssohn and the orchestra in March 1839. Distinguished soloists from all over Europe queued up to perform with them.
The composer’s happiness was increased by his marriage to Cécile Jeanrenaud in 1837, who brought a calming influence into Mendelssohn’s complex character and life. Together they produced five children.
Life was good for the family until Mendelssohn was seduced away from Leipzig to Berlin in 1841. There political intrigues and petty jealousies quickly reduced him to a state of exhaustion. He escaped to Great Britain where he had many fans, and befriended the young Queen Victoria and her consort Prince Albert he was soon creatively refreshed and back on track and set his creative powers to work once more producing an inspired series of miniatures to complement the overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream that he had composed 16 years previously. Highlights include the light-as-air “Scherzo”, the ravishing “Nocturne” and the rousing “Wedding March”, which has been a fixture at weddings ever since. Now on a roll, Mendelssohn completed his “Scottish” Symphony No. 3 (1842), dedicated to Queen Victoria.
But for many his career masterpiece came two years later: the finalisation of his E minor Violin Concerto. Throughout this Mendelssohn’s inspiration doesn’t falter for a second as one memorable idea follows another. Yet although it creates the impression of having been conceived in one magnificent sweep, the concerto was the result of over six years’ painstaking revisions.
His career in Britain went from strength to strength. In 1846 aged 37 Mendelssohn was appointed director of the Birmingham Music Festival. There he premiered the first performance of his new oratorio Elijah. It was a triumphant success – the 2000 strong audience lost all sense of decorum and, breaking with prevailing custom regarding the performance of religious works, positively roared their approval. Mendelssohn, who was normally painfully self-critical on such occasions, was clearly overwhelmed: “No work of mine ever went so admirably at its first performance, nor was received with such enthusiasm by both the musicians and the audience alike as this oratorio… No fewer than four choruses and four arias were encored!” Such was its impact that for many years Elijah supplanted even Handel’s Messiah as the most popular of all choral works in Britain.
But time was running out. In March 1847, Mendelssohn’s beloved sister Fanny died unexpectedly. This dealt an incalculable blow to the composer, already in poor health and worn out from the pressures of being a celebrity. He never fully recovered and, having poured out his heart as never before in the blazing F minor String Quartet (1847), passed away in the November, following a stroke.
When Queen Victoria heard the news she was overcome with grief and spoke for the composer’s many devoted admirers: “We were horrified, astounded and distressed to read in the papers of the death of Mendelssohn, the greatest musical genius since Mozart and the most amiable man.”
” Mendelssohn’s towering Biblical epic Elijah has frisson, power and drama – a magnificent oratorio.” – Classic FM
We have Birmingham to thank for Elijah. The city’s music festival of 1846 had commissioned Mendelssohn to write an oratorio and he was ready. He had been bursting for many years for such an opportunity and was full of exciting ideas.
His inspiration would be the Old Testament prophet Elijah; a person who fascinated the young Mendelssohn and who would be a perfect musical subject. Failing to find a librettist who shared his passion for the project Mendelssohn cracked on and penned most of the libretto himself.
It became the Messiah of its day: a hugely popular work that absolutely cemented Mendelssohn’s position as one of the greatest composers of sacred music. Two thousand people attended the premiere performance of Elijah, which saw Mendelssohn himself take to the podium at Birmingham Town Hall.
The Times shortly afterwards wrote, ‘The last note of Elijah was drowned in a long-continued unanimous volley of plaudits, vociferous and deafening … never was there a more complete triumph; never a more thorough and speedy recognition of a great work of art.’
PLEASE SCROLL DOWN FOR OUR FOUR SOLOIST’S BIOGRAPHIES
Catherine received a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Music from the age of ten. After gaining a BA Hons in Music and English from Southampton University, she returned to the Royal Academy on the post-graduate opera course and was awarded the Diploma of Advanced Studies, the Camden Trust Award, the Flora Nielsen Prize and LRAM with Distinction.
Catherine is an experienced and versatile performer whose international career has incorporated opera, oratorio, recitals and musical theatre.
Her operatic performances have taken her throughout Europe. Her roles have included Susanna in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, Musetta in Puccini’s La Bohème, and Micaela in Bizet’s Carmen. Closer to home she has sung Valencienne in Lehar’s The Merry Widow and Oscar in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera for Opera Holland Park.
Catherine is in great demand as an oratorio soloist and has sung extensively for choirs and choral societies at major venues across the UK and overseas. Recent highlights include Mozart’s Coronation Mass and Exultate Jubilate in Dunkirk, Brahms’ Requiem for the Shaldon Festival with Sir David Willcocks, Handel’s Messiah in Arundel Cathedral and Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony in Exeter Cathedral.
She has also enjoyed much success on the concert platform, most notably at the Chichester Gala festivities, the Festivale Saint-Eloi in France, Theatre Royal, Bath and the Dukes Hall at the Royal Academy of Music.
Catherine made her West End debut as the younger Maria Callas in the acclaimed production of Masterclass, and toured Germany as Christine in Das Phantom der Oper. She also performed in Sondheim’s The Frogs at the London Barbican.
Among her recordings is the official royal lullaby for HRH Prince William, the album ‘Chansons Tristes’ accompanied by acclaimed pianist, Jeremy Brown, a live performance on Radio Belge of Britten’s Hymn to St. Cecilia and a specially commissioned choral work written for Catherine, by composer Cyril Lloyd.
Since moving to Devon, Catherine has been actively involved in all aspects of music in the area, including her role as vocal adviser for Cornwall.
Future engagements include a concert tour of Rome, culminating in a performance of Fauré’s Requiem in St. Peter’s Rome and The Magic of Mozart for Devon Opera later this year.
A drama graduate, Alison trained at the Royal Northern and Royal College of Music (Opera Course). A winner of the AsLiCo Young European Opera Singers’ Competition (La Scala, Milan) and finalist in the Kathleen Ferrier Awards, she has sung operatic roles throughout the UK and Europe and in concerts at all the major UK venues from the Royal Albert Hall to the Royal Concert Hall Glasgow with orchestras including the Royal Philharmonic, English Chamber Orchestra, Northern Sinfonia and London Mozart Players.
Engagements in recent years have included George and Matilda in Errolyn Wallen’s Cautionary Tales for Opera North, Fricka in Wagner’s Die Walküre and Waltraute in Götterdämmerung for Longborough Festival, a world premiere of Adam Gorb’s “Eternal Voices” with the Band of the Royal Marines narrated by Sir Trevor McDonald, Elgar’s Sea Pictures at Exeter Cathedral (EMG) and with Plymouth Symphony Orchestra, Mahler 8 at the Great Hall Exeter University and Siegrüne in Die Walküre with the Hallé under Sir Mark Elder which was broadcast on radio 3 and released on CD. She has also covered Judith in Bartok’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle and Marguerite in Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust for ENO.
Other operatic roles include critically acclaimed performances of Charlotte (Werther) and Suzuki (Madama Butterfly) for Opera Holland Park, Donna Elvira (Don Giovanni) throughout northern Italy, Giraffe in ENO Baylis’ Early Earth Operas and Kate Pinkerton (Madam Butterfly) and Mercedes (Carmen) for Raymond Gubbay at the RAH. She has also premiered roles in Munich, Strasbourg and Berlin and covered Romeo in Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi for Opera de Montpellier. Her many oratorio engagements vary from the Bach Passions to Verdi Requiem and Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius. She has sung Mary in Berlioz’s L’Enfance du Christ with the Northern Sinfonia and has performed live on Radio 3’s In Tune.
In 2013 she received universal critical acclaim for her performances as Fricka in Das Rheingold and Die Walküre and Waltraute in Götterdämmerung in Wagner’s Ring Cycle for Longborough Festival Opera. This was followed by a successful run of concerts of staged scenes from Verdi’s operas including Amneris in Act 4 of Aida for Devon Opera.
Recent engagements include Mozart’s Requiem for Ashtead Choral Society, The Dream of Gerontius in Taunton, Rossini’s Petite Messe Solonelle at Dartington Hall, Bach’s St John Passion at Bath Abbey, Brangaene in a concert performance of Tristan Und Isolde conducted by David Syrus with the Mastersingers, The Magic of Mozart for Devon Opera and Elgar’s Sea Pictures in Plymouth with the Ten Tors Orchestra.
Future engagements include Elgar’s The Music Makers for the Three Spires Festival in Truro, Verdi Requiem in Guildford Cathedral, and Amneris (cover) in Verdi’s Il Trovatore for Scottish Opera.
The British tenor studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Recent appearances include ROH Covent Garden, ENO, Glyndebourne, Amsterdam, Madrid, Staatsoper Berlin, Nantes, Strasbourg, Paris, Helsinki, Verona and Los Ang
eles, under leading conductors including Sir Simon Rattle, Riccardo Muti, Kenneth Montgomery, Sir Colin Davis, Leif Segerstam and Edo de Waart.
Recent and future highlights include Bob Boles Peter Grimes/Der Bucklige Die Frau ohne Schatten (Flanders), Caliban Tempest (Ades) (ROH/Strasbourg/Lübeck), Sellem Rake’s Progress (Nantes), Il Primo Sacerdote Il Prigioniero (Limoges), Zweiter Junge Offizier Die Soldaten Bochum Ruhrtriennale/Lincoln Centre Festival NYC, Where The Wild Things Are & Higglety Pigglety Pop! (Aldeburgh /Disney Hall, Los Angeles), Batistelli’s Richard III (Strasbourg/Geneva), Gerald Barry’s Triumph of Beauty and Deceit (BCMG) at Carnegie Hall.
Recent concert performances include Pulcinella(Aldeburgh Festival), Glagolitic Mass (Brighton Festival), and Rossini’s Stabat Mater (RTE Concert Orchestra/Israel Sinfonietta). Recordings include the critically acclaimed Ned Rorem Auden Songs (Chamber Domaine/Sanctuary Classics) and Michael Berkeley and Ian McEwan’s For You (MTW/Signum Classics).
Darren has recently made his debut at the Salzburg, Glyndebourne and Aix-en-Provence Festivals, at the Chicago Lyric Opera as Kothner, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and as Raimondo, Lucia di Lammermoor for New Israeli Opera.
Darren has sung over fifteen roles with the Royal Opera, Covent Garden and has become well known for his performances at English National Opera which include Leporello, Don Giovanni, Donner, The Rhinegold, Speaker, The Magic Flute, Mr. Flint, Billy Budd and Hobson, Peter Grimes.
He was a finalist in the Seattle International Wagner Competition in 2008 and has received two Grammy awards for his contribution to recordings of Falstaff and Billy Budd with the London Symphony Orchestra, under Sir Colin Davis and Daniel Harding respectively.
Darren studied at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester with Patrick McGuigan. He received the RNCM’s highest accolade, the Curtis Gold Medal and performed the title role in its award winning production of Verdi’s Falstaff. From 2001–2003 he was one of the inaugural members of the Royal Opera Young Artists Programme, where he made his professional debut as Sciarrone, Tosca.
A firm favourite as a soloist in Oratorio and Concert at major venues, Darren has sung Christus in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion with Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra, appeared regularly at the BBC Proms (Elijah, Le Rossignol, Les Troyens, Serenade to Music, Peter Grimes, Haydn’s Seven Last Words from the Cross) and is becoming increasingly well known for his interpretation of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, Handel’s Messiah, Bach’s B Minor Mass, St. John and St. Matthew Passions and the Requiem Masses of Verdi, Brahms and Mozart. He has appeared on several occasions with the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome and collaborated with notable conductors including Sir Charles Mackerras, Sir Colin Davis, Sir Andrew Davis, Paul Daniel, Sir Edward Downes, Sir Mark Elder, Daniele Gatti, Kurt Masur, Sir David Willcocks, Vladimir Jurowski, Sir Richard Hickox, Gianandrea Noseda and Antonio Pappano.
Additional recordings with the London Symphony Orchestra include Fidelio, Benvenuto Cellini and Mozart’s Requiem. He has featured in several DVD performances, most notable of which is Glyndebourne’s Billy Budd.
Recent roles and future plans include the title role in Rossini’s Maometto II, Créon, Oedipus Rex with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Manchester and Vienna, reprising the role of Lt. Ratcliffe at Glyndebourne and in New York, Bottom, A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Opera North, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 and performances of the Messiah with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra and Douglas Boyd.
He studies with Margaret Kingsley.
CHRISTOPHER FLETCHER Conductor
In 1978, Christopher was awarded a scholarship to study music at Trinity College of Music, London, becoming a Graduate and Fellow of the College. He moved to South Devon in 1984, since when he has been actively involved with choirs, church music and teaching. After 8 years as organist and Director of Music of the Parish and Priory Church of St Mary Totnes, in 2001 he was appointed to a similar post at the Plymouth Roman Catholic Cathedral. Since 1996 he has been Director of Music and Conductor of Plymouth Philharmonic Choir. During his tenure the choir has become recognised as one of the best large amateur choirs in the country.
Performances with the choir which stand out include: Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, Mendelssohn’s ‘Elijah’ with Sir Thomas Allen as soloist, David Fanshawe’s ‘African Sanctus’ in the presence of the composer, Karl Jenkin’s ‘The Armed Man’, with the Orchestra of the Royal Marines, which was judged by the Plymouth Herald to be the best classical concert of the year, and the choir’s recent performance of Dvorak’s ‘Stabat Mater’ which many members of the audience thought possibly the choir’s best ever!
In addition Christopher is conductor of the Chagford Singers, the Lupridge Singers and the Stanborough Chorus . He has also conducted the South Devon Choir. As well as being in demand as a choral workshop leader, Christopher helped to found the annual Rotary ‘Come and Sing’ charity concert at Buckfast Abbey in 1999, which he has conducted each year since and which regularly attracts 200 singers from all over Devon and beyond. In 2008 he was awarded a Paul Harris Fellowship by Rotary International. Christopher is also in demand as an after – dinner speaker.