None of us really wants 220 people at our birthday party. Felix Mendelssohn, however, wouldn’t mind. It’s his 200th, and he deserves all the attention he’s getting.
Audiences at the Philharmonic Center for the Arts on Sunday afternoon will celebrate it in a pretty grand style. Two perennial Mendelssohn favorites, the “Italian” Symphony and the Wedding March from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” dominate the first half of an all-Mendelssohn concert. Then, a superchorus — the Philharmonic Chorale, the Fort Myers Mastersingers and the Florida Gulf Coast University Choir — perform Mendelssohn’s oratorio, “Elijah,” in the second half. The potential wall of sound from 170 voices could turn an Imax producer green.
“Thrilling” is how Jim Cochran, director of chorales for the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra, describes it. The oratorio, he said, is a dramatic piece that needs strong voices in all its statements.
“I think it really filled out the four sections that are needed for ‘Elijah,’ ” he observed. “The combination of the mature voices and the young singers from the college is just wonderful.”
The FGCU Choir staged its first public performance last spring, a joint concert of Brahms’ German Requiem with the Mastersingers.
The powerful result caught the ear of Myra Janco Daniels, CEO of the Phil, and she suggested the joint program, Cochran said.
Over the summer, circumstances could have conspired to sidetrack it. FGCU music department director Nancy Cobb-Lippens took a post at Indiana State University, leaving both FGCU and the Mastersingers, for which she had been artistic director, without a rudder. But Jeff Faux (pronounced FOX) has become the Mastersingers director, and Melinda Doyle has taken over the FGCU choir.
Cochran says the three choirs have quickly meshed.
The oratorio is in English, he added, and lucid enunciation has been a given. What he heard at the first meeting, he said, made him feel confident audiences will understand it:
“I was marveling at the diction. But the choral conductors (along with Brice Gerlach, assistant director for chorales at the Phil) got together a few months ago and agreed on what we wanted to do, so we were all together on what we emphasized.”
One thing the directors knew they were going to have to drill was tempo. Jorge Mester, music director of the Naples Philharmonic, is conducting, and his hope is that the audience will hear Mendelssohn that is light on its feet.
“Often Mendelssohn has been performed in the past as though he was from Victorian era, like Elgar,” he said, “too pompously and slowly.
“I think there was a tendency at one time to be believe that if it’s slow it’s more profound.” Mester says Mendelssohn’s music wasn’t meant to drag.
This was the composer who championed Bach, whose name is now a cornerstone of classical music.
“I’m particularly fond of Mendelssohn because he started the Bach revival. He conducted the St. Matthew Passion in 1829 in Berlin,” Cochran agreed.
“I put him up on a pedestal.” Because of its broad requirements, he and Mester both say the audience may not be so familiar with “Elijah,” but Cochran thinks they should get ready for some thrills:
“Some passages are just hair-raising.”