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Among the many masterpieces Franz Josef Haydn composed in the maturity of his long life (76 years), The Creation is one of the most popular and most admired. It is also one of music's most brilliant examples of tone painting wherein Haydn illustrates the imagined sounds of the Creation as described in the Bible (Genesis II and Genesis I) combined with a Psalm and with the descriptions by John Milton in his Paradise Lost of an earlier century – using only the sounds of the orchestra. And all this 142 years before the Disney/Stokowski Fantasia!
The combined forces of the Wake Forest University Choirs and the Winston-Salem Symphony Chorus, both led by Christopher Gilliam, joined the members of the Winston-Salem Symphony and guest soloists under the direction of guest conductor Simon Carrington. In all, there were over 150 musicians on stage in the unseasonably warm evening in Reynolds Auditorium, which hosts many concerts while the Stevens Center is closed for repairs.
Perhaps the most imaginative and innovative part of the entire work comes at the very beginning when the composer represents Chaos with most unusual muted harmonies, tethered tenuously to a few recognizable harmonic cornerstones and punctuated by staccato chords percolating through the mysterious mists – only to be followed by equally mysterious treatment of the passage of time, with displaced accents creating sensations of timelessness. Chaos, indeed!
Stephen Morscheck, bass-baritone, as the Archangel Raphael, then opened with the fateful… "In the beginning, God created…" His deep and authoritative voice fit my ideal conception of this role perfectly. And the ensuing choral entrance has become one of music's most famous moments when the hundred singers all explode together on the words "let there be LIGHT!" At this point the piece is well under way and we in the audience have become willing participants in the event.
Three outstanding soloists sang the five solo parts (with assistance of an excellent but anonymous mezzo-soprano in the last chorus) each with distinct and endearing personalities; soprano Amy Justman sang the role of Archangel Gabriel and tenor Karim Sulayman sang the role of Archangel Uriel. In the later sections of the oratorio, soprano Justman and bass-baritone Morscheck doubled as Eve and Adam.
Tenor Sulayman burst in boldly with a rich voice like burnished brass to announce that "… God saw the light, that it was good!" and soon it was the turn of soprano Justman to raise her beautifully dark and warm voice in praise of the second day and to announce eruptions of trees, grasses and fruits. And it is here we see the genius of Haydn – in these enumerations of birds cooing (flute trills), whales (slow-moving violas and cellos supported by undercurrents of double basses), insects (strings played with trembling bows, i.e. tremolo), heavy beasts (low pedal "Bb" on bass trombone) and even a lowly worm had its low "D" as Archangel Raphael (Morschek) dug deep!
The audience concentration would have been considerably improved had we been able to see the words of the text on supertitles, now a sine qua non requirement of any opera production, regardless of language – and the distracting QR code requiring audience members to be fiddling constantly with their mobile phones is not an answer!
The orchestra and chorus appeared to be very fond of the visiting guest conductor, Maestro Carrington. He is a no-nonsense conductor, no poses for the balcony or flourishes for fans. Indeed, I worried a couple of times about the clarity of some wind entrances and the precision in the strings as well as the balance of the chorus and soloists. Surely the night's rest will bring clarity and balance to Sunday afternoon's repeat performance. And given the ever-shrinking attention span of modern audiences, it is probably a good thing to have shortened the third part of this memorable oratorio!
This performance repeats at 3 pm on Sunday, April 24. See our sidebar for details.