Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 2 (the “Lobgesang,” or Hymn of Praise), is a puzzler. Written in 1840, it celebrates the 400th anniversary of Jakob Gutenberg’s invention of printing with moveable type. Gutenberg’s impetus to the mass production of books was a secular achievement; yet, Mendelssohn uses a religious text to honor the event. The likely explanation is that one of Gutenberg’s major accomplishments was the publication in 1455 of 180 copies of the Bible.
The relatively rarely performed celebratory Symphony is the featured work in “Exploring Mendelssohn and the Gutenberg Bible,” the third annual William and Judith Scheide Concert of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, which takes place Thursday, July 21, at Richardson Auditorium. Three soloists —Maria D’Amato and Sarah Asmar, sopranos, and Joshua Kohl, tenor — and the Opera New Jersey Chorus perform with the symphony. The concert will be performed in German, with a translation in the program.
Richard Russell, general director of Opera New Jersey, says, “Both [conductor] Mark Laycock and I are perplexed at why the Mendelssohn is not performed as often as some of the other big choral symphonies. For a while Mendelssohn was out of vogue and very few of his works were performed regularly. We hope that this concert will help people discover this symphony.”
Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 2 has a unique musical format. A hybrid, it is partly symphony and mostly cantata. Unlike the model of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 (“The Choral Symphony”), where a choral component surfaces briefly at the end of a four-movement work, Mendelssohn’s Symphony is only about one quarter instrumental. Its first three movements are orchestral; the last nine movements take the form of a cantata, with chorus and soloists performing against an orchestral background. The symphonic component typically lasts for 20 to 25 minutes; the cantata portion takes about 40 minutes. Attempting to give a single thrust to the rambling work is a challenge for conductors.
The July 21 concert, which opens with Mendelssohn’s Overture to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” also honors the dawn of printing by including Mendelssohn’s “Festgesang” (Festive Hymn), a never-recorded composition for brass instruments and men’s choir. Written, like Symphony No. 2 in 1840, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of moveable type, the piece was first performed in the open air in the town square in Leipzig, Germany. The “Festgesang” includes the melody that became the Christmas song “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.”
Because of the link to the Scheides the program has particular meaning in Princeton. William Scheide, Princeton’s philanthropist, Bach scholar, and arbiter of musical excellence — and Princeton, Class of 1936 — donated the library originally assembled by his grandfather and father to Princeton University’s Firestone Library. The collection includes a two-volume Gutenberg Bible dating from 1455. Volume one contains Genesis through Psalms; volume two contains the remainder, including the New Testament. Of the 180 copies of the Bible that Gutenberg originally printed, only 48 substantially complete copies are known to exist.
Joshua Kohl, tenor soloist in Mendelssohn 2, puts the piece in perspective. “The Mendelssohn is similar to pieces by other composers to a certain extent,” he says in a telephone interview from his home in Tariffville, CT. “It’s German, and it’s romantic. It’s a symphony/cantata.” Kohl locates it on an evolutionary path that starts with Beethoven and goes to Gustav Mahler. “Mendelssohn was steeped in the classical, but he clearly was not Beethoven. Mahler went a step beyond Mendelssohn. They are a series of three.
“Mendelssohn’s scoring was classical,” Kohl says, “winds, horns, brass, organ, and strings. It was less modern than Mahler’s.
“The Symphony No. 2 is very Mendelssohn,” Kohl says. “I know Mendelssohn’s ‘Elijah’ and his songs. The Symphony seems to match the Mendelssohn that I’ve done. It’s very lyrical. People will leave the concert singing the tunes.
“Musically, there’s nothing treacherous in the piece,” Kohl continues. “It’s very well written. You can really bring out the different dynamics and textures. You can just make music. It’s not so difficult you have to worry about getting through.”
Kohl admits there’s one spot for the tenor that he keeps humming, “the part with the watchman,” he says. He refers to a passage where the tenor asks “Watchman, will the night soon pass?” A soprano replies, “The night is departed,” and the following chorus welcomes the light, quoting from Romans 13:12. Writing in the British publication “The Observer,” Stephen Pritchard considers the transition from darkness to light to be a metaphor for the invention of printing “combining religious fervor with secular recognition that printing encouraged the transition from ignorance to enlightenment.”
Kohl is not sure whether he will use a score in performance, or whether he’ll perform by memory. “It will be memorized, but I will look up and down if I have the score in front of me,” he says. “The tradition is to perform with a score.”
As a performer, Kohl is a team member. “I saw a Verdi ‘Requiem’ once where three of the four soloists used music,” he says. “The bass didn’t use music. He was very powerful. But I was thinking that he should have had his score to keep things uniform.”
Kohl, 31 was born in Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Reading. He earned a bachelor of music degree, magna cum laude, from the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music of the University of Cincinnati in 2002. In 2005 he earned a master of music degree from Boston University, and in 2008 he collected an artist diploma from Yale University. He has participated in training programs at the Des Moines Metro Opera, the Merola Opera Program, Minnesota Opera, and the Opera Theater of St. Louis. His repertoire includes major roles in Italian, French, and German operas, as well as English-language works.
At Cincinnati he minored in German, so he is an advocate of singing in German. “It’s different from romance languages, but it’s not all consonants,” he says. “Think of the most famous composers — Beethoven, Mozart, Bach. They’re German. And then, there’s so much symbolism in German poetry.”
In preparing for the Mendelssohn Symphony, Kohl listened to recordings. “They’re useful for getting a good idea of the overall scope and sound of a piece,” he says. “But I think it’s better to do your own research and learn the piece in a vacuum. For the Mendelssohn I researched the Bible. I wouldn’t mimic a recording. Recording can be a good tool, but it shouldn’t be a crutch.
“We can take from music what we want,” Kohl says. “Opinions make the world go round.” He thinks that independent points of view enhance a performance for listeners, as well as for performers. “If you don’t have an opinion, why would you listen?” he asks. “It would just be some kind of numbing enjoyment.”
Kohl sings Mendelssohn 2 for the first time in Princeton. He is married to Sarah Asmar, who sings soprano two in Princeton and has performed the work before. The couple was introduced by Maria D’Amato, who sings soprano 1one in Princeton. Kohl and D’Amato were colleagues at the Cincinnati conservatory. D’Amato had met Asmar when the two of them were studying in Boston. When Asmar came to Cincinnati to audition for the master’s program, D’Amato introduced the pair. The trio has gotten to be good friends over the last nine years, Kohl says.
About performing with his wife, Kohl says, “We love to sing together because we spend so much time apart. It’s a positive thing and enhances the relationship. If we could work together on every gig, I wouldn’t mind.”
Exploring Mendelssohn and the Gutenberg Bible, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University. Thursday, July 21, 8 p.m. The third annual William and Judith Scheide Concert features an all Mendelssohn program of “Festgesang” and “Lobgesang.” The Opera New Jersey Chorus, including sopranos Maria D’Amato and Sarah Asmar and tenor Joshua Kohl, performs. Mark Laycock conducts. Register. $20. 800-255-3476 or www.njsymphony.org.