Carnegie Hall on a Sunday afternoon. A young child sits next to an old man, while a young couple slides in next to a pair of stately aficionados. There are a few out of town visitors, but this afternoon’s presentation by the New York City Choral Society of Mendelssohn’s rarely performed “Saint Paul” is for us: the citizens of this great, and diverse city.
It may seem strange for a reporter from The Jewish Week to be listening to a seemingly-Christian oratorio—stranger still that Felix Mendelssohn wrote it at all. Born to a prominent Jewish family, Mendelssohn’s parents bowed to societal German pressures and had their children baptized. The composer never seemed to lose his true roots, though, chiding his sister on one occasion for speaking ill of their proud heritage, and being the prime proponent for publishing the writings of his grandfather, the noted philosopher Moses Mendelssohn.
Likely for political reasons, Felix Mendelssohn himself kept quiet about his own religious convictions—but the struggle of a man caught between two worlds is on display in his rarely performed masterpiece, “The Conversion of Saint Paul.”
Employing both baroque choruses, reminiscent of his beloved Bach, as well nods to the Lutheran church music of the day, Mendelssohn’s oratorio is a dramatic work, chronicling Saul’s journey (baritone Mark Delavan, fierce and powerful) from persecutor to persecuted. Tenor Vale Rideout, sensitively voiced and well-acted, reincarnates in several roles—acting as Saul’s counterpart in the martyred Stephen, healer Ananias, and companion Titus. Standout soprano, Sarah Shafer, brings vivacious life to her role as narrator and commentator, with a fluid and melodic voice that conveys urgency and adulation by turns. Rounding out the soloists was mezzo-soprano Haejung Shin, whose aria was lovely and heartfelt.
Conductor and Musical Director of the New York Choral Society, David Hayes, proved himself yet again with this work, delicately guiding orchestra and chorus through the intricate baroque harmonies before rousing all parties into musical ecstasies. Clearly, the dramatic power of the piece was ever in his mind—and perhaps the most striking moment came when Saul, thrown from his horse, is addressed from above—in this case, quite literally by the Princeton Girlchoir hidden in the top right balcony whose haunting harmonies lifted the hearts of those listening, and seemed to tremble through to the respondent chorus who sang: “Look up!” immediately after.
A harmonic innovator, this reporter thrilled to hear Mendelssohn’s love for the deeper voices prominently on display: from the glorious cello counterpoint (who received his own well-deserved bow), to the potent men’s chorus. The women’s chorus was especially lovely in the pianissimo sections—a difficult feat—while the orchestra’s flautist danced musically about the melody.
Sunday afternoons in Carnegie Hall come all too rarely in this bustling city, and all too often our divisions keep us suspiciously apart. But as Mendelssohn himself wrote:
“The essence of the beautiful is unity in variety.”
Fortunately for a Sunday in Carnegie Hall, the New York Choral Society not only graced our city with something beautiful, but with something truly great.
The New York Choral Society performs regularly throughout the season. For more about Mendelssohn and his religious struggles, listen to the NYCS-sponsored symposium.
Emily C. A. Snyder is an internationally published and produced playwright, as well as the Artistic Director of Turn to Flesh Productions. Her original five-act iambic pentameter play, Cupid and Psyche, premiered at The Barrow Group Theatre for Valentine's 2014.