Not too long ago a friend asked me if I would conduct several choruses from Mendelssohn’s Elijah for our youth choir. I agreed with some hesitation as I have had limited experience with this piece of music and with conducting in general.
The next day, I was informed that no less than twenty-seven pieces had been selected for rehearsal and the final performance was to be held within a month.
“Well there’s no way that’s going to work,” I informed my eager visionaries. Given the complexity of the music along with the varying vocal abilities of the members of our youth group and the lack of time allotted for rehearsal, the suggestion did seem a bit farfetched. “If you want it to work you’ll have to cut it down to no more than four choruses” I told them.
But as soon as we started to page through our newly bound vocal scores, my opinion changed. This really was an amazing piece. It was not merely the Old Testament account of Elijah the prophet, but a lively story illuminated with verses from the entire Bible. Verses of anguish and despair; verses of comfort and hope; verses that fit the story so perfectly that it seemed impossible to leave any out. One of the most striking parts I found was when Elijah despairs of all his efforts to bring his people back to God. He has fled for his life and does not know how to go on: “It is enough, O Lord; now take away my life for I am not better than my fathers!” After waiting patiently, Elijah is given new strength from the Lord and his faith is restored completely. The reassurance of God’s unwavering love that is expressed in the choruses that follow, impressed me tremendously. I decided we would give all twenty-seven numbers a try.
Two weeks into the rehearsal, substantial progress had been made but I was getting the feeling that we had only just begun our scramble to the top of a very high mountain. In the third and fourth weeks when we should have been ascending the summit the enthusiasm had tapered off to a point where we considered giving up. Perhaps every amateur choir goes through a rehearsal or two that just don't come together, but this was bad.
Things didn’t seem to look any better two days before the final performance date. The choir was still fishing for notes, I couldn’t keep the beat, and the orchestra was not following; in short, a conductor’s nightmare. At the end of the practice I told everyone straight: “This is hopeless. If we want to even consider performing, we will need at least three more weeks of rehearsal.” The gloomy silence that met my announcement was enough to tell me that if we didn't perform in two days we might as well forget it.
But the next day was different. We began our practice with the piece we had had the most trouble with previously, the final chorus. But this time, instead of stumbling our way through, we began to actually experience the words we were singing: “And then shall your light break forth as the light of morning breaketh.” As the soaring tones of the trumpet joined the full force of the organ, strings and timpani, the choir proclaimed the words of the eighth Psalm at top volume: “Lord, our Creator, how excellent Thy Name is in all the nations! Thou fillest heaven with Thy glory.” Suddenly we were no longer individuals struggling to follow notes on a page. We were a choir singing praise to God who still strengthens and comforts as in the time of Elijah. We continued singing through the remaining pieces with hardly a fault.
The day after that we performed with the same enthusiasm and vigor, which, in spite of our weaknesses, proclaimed the promise that our God is always with us. There is always hope in the Lord. For one group of young people the promise “Cast thy burden upon the Lord, and He shall sustain thee” had new meaning that day.
Listen as Fox Hill Youth Choir performs Cast Thy Burden Upon the Lord by Felix Mendelssohn: