Sunday, August 19 , 2018, 11:05 pm | Fair 68º


Santa Barbara Music Club Throws an Elegant Party for Mendelssohn

Faulkner Gallery performance offers an intimate sample of timeless classics.

For its “Mendelssohn 200th Birthday Celebration Concert,” at 3 p.m. Saturday, the Santa Barbara Music Club has devised a program that, deliberately or unconsciously, has captured the central fact of this rare genius: like Joseph Haydn before him, Felix Mendelssohn’s unvarying goal was to please his listeners — and, like Haydn, he reached that goal with every single composition. To be sure, also like Haydn, the concert, in the Santa Barbara Central Library’s Faulkner Gallery, is free.

Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1808-1847), genius and gentleman.
Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1808-1847), genius and gentleman.
Members of the Music Club will perform selections from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (pianists Betty Oberacker and Steven Schneider will play the composer’s original transcription for piano four-hands, made for himself and his sister, Fanny); selected Mendelssohn songs (sung by Andre Shillo, baritone, accompanied by Betty Oberacker, piano); and the Trio No. 1 in d minor, Opus 44 (played by Philip Ficsor, violin, Geoffrey Rutkowski, cello, and Betty Oberacker, piano).

The Felix Mendelssohn Story doesn’t have much in common with the traditional narrative of a romantic artist. He was born rich, into a large, intensely loving family. He made friends easily and kept them for the rest of his life. He worshiped his father, a sensible banker, and adored his mother, the kind and sympathetic hostess of the most brilliant salon in Berlin. His was not a life of struggle, of triumph over adversity. He never had to rebel against injustice or oppression. Even his Jewish heritage, which one might suppose would have presented considerable obstacles in anti-Semitic Europe, did not impede him because his father, like Benjamin Disraeli’s, quarreled with his rabbi and had his children baptized as Lutherans. Also, in Protestant Berlin, there were more opportunities for even unconverted Jews than if he had been born in a Catholic city like Vienna — where, as late as 1997, Gustav Mahler had to convert to Catholicism to be eligible for the job of state opera director.

Mendelssohn’s genius was recognized almost as soon as he first sat down at a piano. Each composition was accepted — nay, embraced — as soon as performed. His early death, at 38, was not, like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s, due to prolonged penury or lack of generous patrons. He was simply a workaholic who weakened himself with chronic overwork until the first big bug that got hold of him carried him off. The real wonder of his music is that it did not, like so many other composers who dominated their own times (Georg Philipp Telemann, for instance, or Jean-Baptiste Lully), fall into permanent obscurity at his death. Mendelssohn’s music pleases today as much or more as it did when he was alive. It thrives today because it, like the isle in The Tempest is “full of sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.” Or, as the great Robert Craft says:

“Mendelssohn has been underrated, even patronized, owing to his neo-classicism, the classicist in the romantic being stronger in him than in any of his contemporaries. But precisely that reason allows, if it does not account, for the continuing elegance and freshness of the new spirit that, still in (Ludwig van) Beethoven’s lifetime, burst into the world full-grown in the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributor.

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