Yesterday afternoon I experienced one of the true summits of my life as a musician, surrounded by some of the former students/ now friends who comprise my group Musici Amici (which is Italian for “Musical Friends.”) The occasion was a concert I organized to celebrate the 200th birthday of composer Felix Mendelssohn, titled “Lift Thine Eyes: The Uplifting Music of Felix Mendelssohn.” The biggest reason I did it is because I looked at the 2008-2009 schedules for both the Kenosha and Racine Symphony Orchestras and was really sad to see almost nothing by Mendelssohn being played. Both groups at least nodded in his direction, but I thought Mendelssohn deserved much more of a tribute than he has been receiving. (Think of the ticker tape parades that were held in 2006 for the 250th birthday of Mozart. The world has done a pretty tepid job with Mendelssohn’s milestone, by comparison.) Maybe it’s that all the party hats and birthday cake icing had already been snapped up for Lincoln’s 200th birthday. For whatever reason, the music world seems to have lit a couple of damp sparklers when spectacular fireworks were in order.
And that’s why when First United Methodist invited me to do something again for their Fine Arts at First series this spring, I decided that it had to be a program devoted entirely to Mendelssohn. . . one of history’s very best composers when it comes to writing for the human voice. And I could tell that he had some fervent fans amongst my Musici Amici group because an exceptionally strong group of 18 singers stepped forward to be part of the proceedings as soon as the invitation was extended. I ended up constructing a program featuring excerpts from his two great oratorios- Elijah and Saint Paul- plus assorted treasures like his most famous song (“On wings of Song”) and a couple of his finest duets. I also thought it would be nice if some instrumental music were included, so my violinist friend Ann Lamar Heide and two friends agreed to play two movements of Mendelssohn’s sublime Piano Trio in D minor.
As with all Musici Amici performances, it had been rehearsed in rather piecemeal fashion over the last few weeks- and the first time all 18 of my singers were together in the same room at the same time was an hour and a half before the concert. . . so it was hard to know for certain just how this was going to go. And although I thought I’d put together a program with a nice sense of cohesive flow yet plenty of variety, there was always the possibility that it would turn out to be one big Snooze Fest, with people looking at their watches and praying to be put out of their misery long before it was over. (Just because a program feels good within the safe confines of one’s imagination does not necessarily mean it will be a stunning success in real life.)
But in fact it was exactly that – and maybe the single most successful program I have ever put together or been part of. To quote Goldilocks, everything was “just right” – and I was especially happy that everybody sang to the very best of their abilities both as a group and in the solos and duets which comprised a lot of this program. And the three instrumentalists who played the trio in d minor really outdid themselves, which might be one reason why my singers delivered the musical goods so splendidly. And for once, I did a pretty good job of keeping my blabbing to a minimum, managing (at least mostly) to say speak from the heart about this composer I love without prattling on endlessly.
Not that everything was sheer perfection. One unfortunate thing was that one of the sopranos in the group began to feel faint during the very first piece and had to step out, right before she was to have sung “On wings of song.” I knew out of my peripheral vision that Megan wasn’t where she was supposed to be, but I just kept expanding on my introductory remarks, hoping that she would eventually appear (thinking she had maybe just stepped out for a drink of water) but eventually someone slipped out to check on her and reported back that she was not feeling well enough to sing, and that song had to be scratched from the program. I felt so bad for her, having driven all the way up from the west side of Chicago and then not being able to sing after all.
Five minutes later, as I was introducing “there shall a star come out of jacob” I discovered that I didn’t have that piece in my pile of scores for some reason – and as I’m finishing up my remarks with half of my brain, the other half was thinking through the piece and trying to decide if I knew it well enough to play it by memory. And in the end I decided to plop down on the piano, whisper a quick prayer, and go – and it went fine. WHEW!
I also have a regret that I didn’t acknowledge the presence in the front row of Bill Roth, who used to be the organist at Carthage- and who led many performances of “Elijah” over the years. I wish I would have said something about that or even invited him to say a few words- but my head was too full of stuff as it was and I just didn’t think of it. Coulda. Shoulda.
But aside from those modest regrets, this was a blessed program from start to finish, from the opening “O Come let us worship” to the closing “Be Not Afraid” – and when that audience instantly leapt to its feet at the end, it felt like an entirely spontaneous, heartfelt ovation … and it sure seemed like Mendelssohn himself was as much the recipient of that applause as we the performers were, which it as it should be.
Favorite moments – among many . . . My Carthage colleague Woody Hodges said a few words about how “Elijah” was regularly performed in the little Kansas town where he grew up – a very nice addition to the afternoon – and I was so touched during the final “Be not afraid” chorus to look out in the audience and see tears streaming down his face . . . Another Carthage colleague, Sarah Gorke, was entrusted with the final solo of the afternoon, “Hear ye, Israel”, but had been battling illness on and off for the last three weeks – and if she had been unable to sing, our big finale would have died on the vine. But Sarah recovered just in time to deliver a truly spectacular performance of one of the toughest arias Mendelssohn ever wrote. . . The singer who came the farthest, Mike Stoehrmann, was also not able to come to any of the rehearsals before Sunday’s dress rehearsal, but I had sent him the music and a study CD, and he came to Kenosha yesterday fully prepared, and did a lovely job with the first solo of the afternoon . . . and in between those two solos came one fine performance after another: Becky Whitefoot and Agnes Wojnicki joining voices exquisitely in the lovely duet “Evening Song” – Matt Story, one of the gentlest souls I know, delivering vocal thunderbolts in “Consume them All!” followed by his wife Beth calming him and us down with a lovely performance of “But the Lord is mindful of his own” – Eric Leitzen and Mike McDonnell singing the duet “now we are ambassadors” as though they had been practicing together for weeks, when in fact they had not actually sung it with each other until that very day – Rita Gentile and Jennifer Cobb doing a glorious job with the duet “I waited for the Lord,” which I have loved since I first heard it on a Luther faculty recital over thirty years ago – Justin Maurer leading off the “Elijah” solo set with a lovely performance of “Lord God of Abraham” – Andrew Johnson spinning long phrases and high notes with utmost ease in “if with all your hearts” – Alyssa Baylen Turner, singing with Musici Amici for the first time, offering a warm-voiced rendition of “O Rest in the Lord” – Nick Sluss- Rodionov singing the magnificent aria “It is Enough” better than I have ever heard him sing it (or anything else, for that matter) before – and Trevor Parker following that with a radiant performance of “then shall the righteous shine forth” which seemed to fill the room with golden light. And after that, someone named Greg Berg tried to sing “Is not His Word like a Fire” and did the best he could. . .
One more thing . . . At the reception afterwards, one of the comments which I received almost more than any other was “it was so fun to watch you” or “it was amazing to watch your facial expressions as your students were singing” or “you looked like you were having the time of your life.” And they are right. I don’t know that I have ever been happier than I was during that concert . . . sharing wonderful music with an appreciative audience, surrounded by former students who are now cherished musical friends. And how appropriate it was to feel such happiness, since Mendelssohn’s first name – Felix – means Happy Man. And 162 years after his death, he is still making people happy.
pictured above: GB at the piano. In the front row, sopranos Agnes Wojnicki, Sarah Gorke and Rita Gentile. In the back row, basses Nick Sluss-Rodionov, Mike McDonnell, and Justin Maurer.