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Thursday, August 27, 2015

Concert Review: The Shaper of Worlds

Mostly Mozart ends with Haydn's Creation.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
And lo he said, let there be light: Mostly Mozart music director Louis Langrée.
Photo © 2015 Mostly Mozart/Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
The 2015 Mostly Mozart Festival ended last week with two performances of Haydn's The Creation, that highly stylized oratorio built around the early events of the Book of Genesis. Haydn's work is one of beginnings and creation from the void, and was an apt choice to end a successful run by the oldest Lincoln Center event, one that has largely succeeded in reinventing itself and its image in the face of a challenging musical environment.

Written in 1798, The Creation was a product of Haydn's visits to London. Its libretto (performed here in the original English but heard more frequently in German as Die Schöpfung may have been intended for the pen of Georg Friedrich Handel, but instead it became the most popular and recognizable of the Austrian composer's major choral works. In three acts, it tells the story of the first Six Days and the early days of Adam and Eve in a manner that owes more to John Milton than to the Old Testament.

This cosmos opens in darkness, with Haydn's swirling, shuddering series of minor-interval themes and dark, jarring chords that represent primal chaos. This was generated with clarity and force by the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra under the baton of Louis Langrée, living up to the already high standard of performance that they had established throughout this festival. And then it was time for the chorus to enter.

Here, the all-important choral part was taken by the New York Festival Chorus, who sounded impressive in the opening declaration of "And then there was Light." However, they tended to blur as the evening progressed. Texts were sometimes hard to understand, leading one to peer at the libretto, desperately praying for illumination and understanding in the dim church-like light of the concert hall.

The three soloists play angels in the first part of this oratorio. They narrate the complex events such as the creation of the Moon, the filling of the rivers and oceans, and the procession and catalogue of animals, each accompanied by Haydn's sharp pen with appropriate music. Supported by the orchestra, bass John Relyea related the arrival of the Lion, the lowing of cattle, swarms of insects and finally the creep of the lowly worm. His rich and marvelously detailed performance was compelling and entertaining throughout and a highlight of the evening.

Tenor Thomas Cooley was (like Mr. Relyea) a late replacement for the originally scheduled artist. However, he delivered a bold performance with bright ringing tone despite a tessitura that at times sounded as if he was forcing his way into his uppermost register. It's not easy portraying an angel, but he met the challenges of this role.

The last of this cosmic trio was soprano Sarah Tynan in her Festival debut. She sang the part of Eve opposite Mr. Relyea's Adam in a final scene that cheerfully ignores all that messy business about apples, serpents and original sin. Instead, these first humans appear as Candide-like lovers, looking forward to a brighter tomorrow against the accompaniment of Haydn's uplifting major-key homophony. A little optimism never hurt anybody.

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