Mendelssohn In Nairobi: Diary of a Violinist


Mendelssohn In Nairobi: Diary of a Violinist

It had been about three months since I played in an orchestra. I longed to be back on stage, but was waiting for repertoire that was exciting and interesting to me. There had been talk of a performance of Elijah, an oratorio by Felix Mendelssohn (to be put on by the Nairobi Music Society and Nairobi Orchestra) in 2023, and when this was confirmed for April, I could not wait to be part of it.

The first thing I often do when preparing for a show is that I listen to a variety of previous performances of the work via existing recordings. I inhabit that sound world, find the colours I like in the music, moments to look forward to, as well as any moments that are important to the story and need extra attention. And the way Mendelssohn wrote this piece was for the orchestra to play just as colourful a part as the choir. So the orchestra was going to be a character in this work as opposed to other choir-orchestra moments where the orchestra’s part is mostly supportive. Even though a performance of an oratorio does not involve acting out the scenes depicted in the music, all that is achieved by the colour in the voices and orchestra.

One Sunday afternoon in February, I start the journey to Elijah-immersion. I ask myself, does it sound chaotic because I’m doing dishes and my attention is split, or that’s just how the piece was written? I have a rough idea of the story – it’s the typical Old Testament story. The Israelites did something that displeased the Lord (in this case, worshipping false gods – special mention to Baal), he was angry and struck them with some colourful disaster. 

As God the Lord of Israel liveth, before whom I stand: There shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word.

This is the first line of the oratorio delivered by Elijah, performed by a bass-baritone. 

The orchestra then plays the overture, which opens with an ominous-sounding but hauntingly beautiful motif from the basses and cellos that is then passed over to the violas, then second violins then first violins, all the while woodwinds and brass interjecting with certainty of the severe drought the Israelites are about to face. I thought Elijah was an interesting pick at a time when we here in Kenya were desperately waiting for rain. 

I pause dishwashing and check my phone to investigate what’s going on with this story I am having trouble following. Because one moment the Israelites, played by the choir, are crying out to their Lord – Help, Lord wilt thou quite destroy us?, but then shortly after, a cheery chorus from the same choir: Thanks be to God. He quencheth the thirsty land!

How did we get here? When did they make peace?

Alas, my playlist was on shuffle.

I restart the piece, but by now I’ve heard too many juicy bits to continue just listening. I have to try and play that overture! I’m not sure when I finished doing the dishes, or if I even did that afternoon, because, as often happens when I pick up my violin, I intend to play ‘just a bit’, but on a Sunday afternoon when I don’t really have to be anywhere, I’ll blink and it’s Sunday evening and not only did I play the overture but the first, second, third choruses, jumped around sections of the work depending on what caught my attention, probably drifted off to some solo Bach, and then had to stop because I was too hungry to continue.

There’s a few familiar-sounding sections in this music, even though it is the first time I shall be performing it as part of the orchestra. I vaguely remember a colleague mentioning that this work has been performed before. When I search for Nairobi music society/Elijah/Mendelssohn, the fourth photo I find is of myself in the alto section of the choir, white shirt, black bottoms, holding a black folder with thick pages, singing Elijah in May 2012. Somehow, I had not accessed this memory until that listening session, then that photo, which unlocked memories of rehearsals and a particularly dramatic moment for the choir: “Hear and answer Baal!” Here, Elijah has gathered the prophets of Baal and has challenged them to ask Baal to send down fire to a bullock, so they could see who the true god was.

Mendelssohn first had the idea to write an oratorio based on Elijah in 1836. He had just premiered his first oratorio – St. Paul – at the Lower Rhine Festival and wanted to recreate that with another biblical story, but this didn’t materialise with the first librettist he asked. He asked a second librettist for help with instructions to “make the dramatic element predominate; the personages acting and speaking as if they were living beings.” The librettist pastor disagreed as he felt that the subject of an oratorio should stay solemn and any dramatic elements would be inappropriate. It wasn’t until 1845 when the Birmingham Festival commissioned a piece from Mendelssohn that he got the impetus to finally complete the oratorio, working with his pastor-friend to select suitable texts from the Bible and mostly composed the libretto himself. 

In April, the plan was laid out: two rehearsals with just the orchestra, then two with the choir and finally a dress rehearsal and two concerts. These numbers belied the amount of time I had spent immersed in this sound world since February. How fragments of the melodies weaved themselves into my days, sometimes stubbornly on loop, taking up space other thoughts may have occupied. Practising bits of the piece during breaks in my working days, marvelling at the artfulness with which Mendelssohn bounces back and forth between drama and tenderness in the music. 

The lead up to rehearsals is full of exchanges with friends about our discoveries in the music. Sometimes we play sections, other times we just listen. And in the first rehearsal with just the orchestra, we had to play a few pieces under tempo just to have the large instrument that is the orchestra not completely fall apart. We had just under two weeks to bring things up to speed and bring this story to life. At the first rehearsal with a choir of more than 70, our instruments were alight.

The choir as the prophets of Baal: Baal! Baal! Hear and answer Baal!

And later, the choir as the Israelites echoing Elijah:Take all the prophets of Baal and let not one of them escape us: bring all and slay them!

It is a massive work that lasts just over two hours when performed in its entirety. Mendelssohn premiered this piece at the Birmingham Festival in August 1846 before an audience of 2,000 and it was received so well with the crowd clamouring for encores of at least four choruses and four arias, his last big triumph before his death the next year. 170 years on, this piece was recreated at the All Saints Cathedral. A warm evening sun filtered into the church through the stained glass windows, happening to spotlight the quartet of soloists standing at the side of the conductor as they sang their final piece before the last chorus.

And then shall your light break forth as the light of morning breaketh.

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