Concert Review: NSO’s Elias

Just a week after having finally heard Mahler 2 in concert, we pack into the same hall for a different ensemble and conductor but the same incredible chorus and an equally packed audience. This piece was also part of my season ticket package that I bought almost six months ago, and while I was entirely unfamiliar with the work, I wasn’t going to miss it. Also because a gentleman I’ve stayed in touch with and seen perform multiple times was on the roster for the evening, one 湯發凱. Very exciting.

Big piece this evening, an oratorio, like an opera but (traditionally, in the past) religious, and without the staging and costumes. Cast as follows:

Now, let me say a few things. First, I am frightfully unfamiliar with almost anything choral. I’ve heard a few requiem excerpts, last week’s Scriabin with the chorus, as well as Mahler 2. The difference is, however, is that most everything I’ve heard before (with the exception of Schoenberg’s gargantuan Gurre-Lieder) was symphonic music with choral accompaniment, or assistance. Elias, however, is hardcore choral music, so it’s a good thing we have an incredible chorus to enjoy here, the Taipei Philharmonic Chorus, who appeared last week (three times!) for Mahler 2 throughout the island, who is singing a Bach oratorio next week, and lots of other stuff. Busy crowd, but really wonderful. I had the chance to meet their chorus master and chat a bit; very nice fellow, passionate about and proud of the group he represents, and he should be, so thank you Mr. Ku! Bravo!

Our soloists for the evening also listed above. I’ve heard 林慈音 before (Mahler 2 last week, among other things), as well as 翁若珮 (Mahler 3 back in April), and they were wonderful as always. The real focus of the evening, obviously, was Elias himself, Michael Kupfer-Radecky, an incredible effortless powerhouse, very suave, very commanding an excellent person for the part. My friend 湯發凱 the tenor had a more minor role (but then again, who didn’t compared to Elijah in Elijah?) but handled his arias and recitative with seemingly delightful, carefree poise. I would have liked to have heard more, but that’s the tenor’s part. Also bravo! Bravi!

Oh, also, I’ve never heard this piece before. So there’s that.

The most notable thing was that the stage wasn’t nearly as packed as for Mahler, as in the 1840s, Mendelssohn didn’t use such orchestration as Mahler did, so there was much more empty space. The sound, however, was just as wonderful. A pared-down Baroque-ish Romantic orchestra, still with tuba and trombones, four horns, all that, but none of the decked-out extravagance of Mahler.

This is the most back-seat I’ve ever seen the NSO, as they served as an accompaniment to all the incredible vocalists of the evening; it was the least I’d ever paid attention to them. The work is one to be told, and it helps if you’re familiar with the story; audiences of Mendelsssohn’s time would have been. There was King Ahab, Jezebel, angels, Obadiah, and on and on, all telling their parts of the story at various turns. It’s the first time I’ve ever heard a real oratorio in full, the first actual oratorio I’ve ever heard, recorded, live, anything. It’s a very effective means of storytelling, musical, passionate, moving, all-encompassing.

The highlights of the work were undoubtedly the few quartet sections (between the angels and at the end), truly beautiful writing there, and then the treatment of the chorus not as one body of sound, but as individual sections, featuring the ensemble and realizing what gorgeous color can come from a chorus who knows what they’re doing and can sing in a foreign language clearly enough that I can actually pick out the words!

I will say, though, that it’s not my style of music. Gorgeous it was, genius Mendelssohn was, and powerful and splendid the performance was. No doubt. I wouldn’t have missed it. However, ultimately, it is not a work I will probably ever pick out from my library (or YouTube) to listen to in my spare time. It just isn’t. But, given the chance to hear it with a spot on orchestra, chorus, and soloists, all of whom I greatly admire, there’s no excuse not to go and enjoy a performance of such grandeur, so… thank you everyone involved, and bravo!

(Also, I am having some nice experiences lately meeting people at the concert hall, especially concerts of our NSO and their wonderful patrons. It is, ultimately, a social function of sorts, and it’s very nice to see familiar faces, say hello, and rub shoulders with other people who have come to gather and appreciate the same thing. It’s kind of cozy.)


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