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Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Concert Review: The Genesis Effect

The Oratorio Society of New York plays Haydn's Creation.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Conductor Kent Tritle leading the Oratorio Society of New York at Carnegie Hall.
Photo by Tim Dwight © 2014 The Oratorio Society of New York. 
Franz Joseph Haydn is a pivotal figure in music. The father of the symphony and the string quartet, Haydn is too often pigeon-holed as a doddering relic, a composer who churned out similar works to keep a rich patron happy and whose music remains irrelevant today. With their season-opening performance of The Creation ("Die Schöpfung") on Monday night at Carnegie Hall, Kent Tritle and the Oratorio Society of New York showed that the truth about Haydn is something very different.

The Creation is a monumental oratorio based on the Book of Genesis that stands at the very end of Haydn's long career. Inspired by the popularity of Handel's London oratorios, Haydn, who was in London for the premiere of his final symphonies, ordered a German libretto constructed from a Milton-inspired text that Handel himself never got around to setting. The score is replete with innovative orchestrations and a wealth of detail, with Haydn using everything he knew in its detailed construction, which occupied Haydn for 18 months.

Part I of The Creation starts with Chaos, a detailed minor-key overture with orchestra effects creating the swirl of darkness before the entry of voices. The first chorus, climaxing with the phrase "Let there be light" was simply thrilling, with the singers of the Oratorio Society rising over the orchestra in a powerful surge of sound. One can hear the influence on an entire century of choral writing, from the thunderous climaxes of the Berlioz and Verdi Requiems to later works like Mahler's Resurrection.


The soloists (soprano Susanna Philips, tenor Aaron Blake and baritone Sidney Outlaw) played the parts of the angels Gabriel, Uriel and Raphael (respectively) narrating the cataclysmic events of the world's birth. Haydn does his best to give these three sexless figures distinct personalities, with long vocal lines that stress their otherworldly power and presence. Their arias soared as if on wings, songs of praise followed by answering approval from the chorus.

The early pages of The Creation consist mainly  arias that celebrate the construction of the heavenly vault, the separation of the earth from the sky and the ignition of the stars. Ms. Philips' soprano soared in the arias, although her voice is developing a break between her chest range and the head voice required at climactic moments. Mr. Blake sung with bright, noble tone, using his smallish tenor to pleasing effect. Mr. Outlaw anchored the bottom end with dark, grave tone.

In Part II, the world is populated with beasts and fishes, allowing Haydn to add  musical detail and commentary with enthusiasm and his typical musical sense of humor. From the galumphing figure that depicts the whale's first thrash through the new oceans, to the twittering birds ornamenting Ms. Philips' vocal lines, this music offers incredible rewards and was played here with sweetness and reverence. Mr. Outlaw's aria, with its list of beasts--from the roar of the lion to a slow turgid crawl depicting the lowly worm--was another highlight similarly inventive and sung with great gusto.

Haydn's skills as an opera composer appear in Part III of The Creation with its duets for Adam and Eve containing some of his finest vocal writing. Here, Ms. Philips and Mr. Outlaw traded melodies and combined voices in a sweet duet as the first man and woman, happy in Paradise before the inevitable Fall. Interestingly, it is Adam who sings the praise of the fruit of the garden, indicating that he may be the party responsible for original sin. The love-music here looks forward to the Wagner of Tannhäuser and Meistersinger, passionate yet wholly diatonic.

Although the libretto of The Creation abandons Adam and Eve before they are expelled from paradise, the whole work still ends on an impressive note. A fourth soloist (Lisa Barone, a member of the chorus) came forward to lend her voice to the praises of Haydn's supreme Creator, a mighty shout of humanity that looked forward to another key 19th century work: the Ninth Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.