Christian and I went to the Kennedy Center last Sunday afternoon to enjoy Elijah as presented by The Washington Chorus. My friend Price is a bass in the chorus. Not only did I get to enjoy a performance in the Concert Hall of the Kennedy but I also was able to hear a bit about what goes on behind the scenes from Price. I was able to doubly enjoy the performance from two perspectives – mine and Price’s.
Julian Wachner conducted. In house was a guest soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, and baritone. Also performing was the Children’s Chorus of Washington. A young boy who sings with the Children’s Chorus – maybe nine or ten – was a soloist in the production.
The oratorio Elijah generally covers the highlights of the life of Elijah – resurrecting a dead boy, bringing rain back to Israel, a contest to see which god will consume a sacrifice on an altar, Elijah’s prodding of Baal to act like a god, and the taking of Elijah on a fiery chariot into heaven. Perhaps the most moving scene is of a very depressed Elijah hiding in a cave. He desperately wants it all to end. But God, showing great mercy, waits and feeds and nurtures Elijah back to health. God then appears as wind and fire – and then as a whisper to talk with Elijah.
I’d like to share a few lines from the text with some of my observations.
“Give me thy son, Lord, my God, O hear my prayer; turn unto her, for Thou art gracious, and look, O Lord, upon her son. Lord, in mercy help this widow’s son: For Thou art gracious, and full of compassion, and plenteous in goodness and mercy, Lord, my God, now let the soul of this child come once again into him!”
In singing these lines, Elijah repeats several times the phrase For Thou art gracious, and full of compassion, and plenteous in goodness and mercy. Elijah is petitioning the Lord, and as I listened to the words I was reminded of how I often talk with God – I feel that in asking God for something I am also compelled to acknowledge his goodness and graciousness. These words of Elijah well capture an humble and prayerful soul, I believe.
“Baal answer us; Baal answer us, Baal, O hear and answer us! Turn O Baal, behold our offering, Baal, O hear us and answer us! Hear us Baal, hear mighty god! Baal, O answer us! Send down thy flames, Baal, and devour the fire!
This was a special part for me. The chorus sang with a noticeably agitated and anxious tenor – Baal answer us! They literally spewed out the words Baal answer us! because of their uncertainty and fear that Baal wasn’t going to show up and take on Elijah’s God. Baal answer us! Price told me later that, in fact, Julian had had the chorus greatly emphasize these words. He wanted the words to come alive with great vexation and concern. And the chorus did mightily – it was fun to hear them sing this part. And Price concurred – it was a fun part to sing.
“Call upon your god, your numbers are many; I, even I only remain one prophet of the Lord. Invoke your forest gods, and mountain deities.”
“Call him louder! For he is god, he talketh, or he is meditating, or he is on a journey; or, peradventure, he sleepeth; so awaken him. Call him louder!”
“Call him louder! He heareth not! With knives and lancets cut yourselves after your manner; leap upon the altar ye have made. Call him and prophesy; not a voice will answer you. None will listen; none heed you.”
Here, of course, Elijah is chiding Baal and his prophets. Elijah sang this wonderfully – with gusto and power. Each time Elijah speaks he is louder and more insistent. He demands that Baal come out – knowing full well, of course, that there is not a Baal. This is a powerful scene in the story of Elijah.
Elijah ends this confrontation: “Is not His word like a fire! And like a hammer that breaketh the rock into pieces?”
And for me, a very moving piece: “It is enough, O Lord, now take away my life, for I am not better than my fathers! I desire to live no longer, now let me die for my days are but vanity! I have been very jealous for the Lord, for the Lord God of Hosts, for the children of Israel hath broken thy covenant, have thrown down thine altars, and slain all thy prophets, slain them with the sword. And I, even I only am left, and they seek my life to take it away! It is enough! O Lord, now take away my life, for I am not better than my fathers. Now let me die, Lord, take away my life!”
In response: “Behold, God the Lord passed by! And a mighty wind rent the mountains around, brake in pieces the rocks, brake them before the Lord. But yet the Lord was not in the tempest. Behold, God the Lord passed by! And the ocean trembled, and the earth was shaken. But yet the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake there came a fire. But yet the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire there came a still small voice. And in that still voice came the Lord.”
God came to Elijah near the cave as a still voice. How special and meaningful. I’ll admit that this was an emotional part for me – God meeting man to give assurance, strength, and comfort.
A few more thoughts and then I will finish:
– I had a short talk with Price the day after the concert. His voice was still mostly out. He was drinking lots and lots of hot tea, he said. He said that Elijah is one of the funnest pieces that he and the chorus do together.
– Christian had never seen anything like this before. Good for you, my man. It was special to be with you for the evening. I’m glad we were able to do this together.
– Ady – in Romania – and I agree that Elijah is one of our favorite Bible characters. To this end, Ady has procured for me over the years several beautiful Elijah icons. They sit here by me now – I am looking at them. Thanks, Ady. I thought of you often during the concert.
– To be in a beautiful music hall with thousands of people listening to the Word of God being sung majestically in classic form was sobering for me in its own right. I suppose many saw the concert as nothing more than high art or culture, but I found it to be – for me – three hours of worship.
– After the concert, Julian and the guest soloists met with the audience for a few minutes of informal Q&A. And you know what? These people seem to be mostly normal people – excited, happy, high on a performance buzz, talking fast – but blessed with very special gifts of artistry. It was fun when Elijah – Stephen Salters – pointed to the back of the audience and said, “There’s my mom! Hi, mom! Good to see you.” And she waved back. No doubt, very proud.