The Choral Society of Durham, under the baton of Rodney Wynkoop, presented a stunning performance of Haydn’s The Creation in the still-crisp-and-bright, recently-renovated Baldwin Auditorium. For a work of this nature, composed in the Classical era for performance in the concert hall and not the cathedral, Baldwin is certainly an ideal venue. The acoustics are pleasing and balanced across the range of human perception.

Having heard Handel’s oratorios and seen their popular success on his trip to England in 1791-92, Haydn determined to write a major oratorio of his own using the musical language of the mature classical style. It was not until after his second trip to England that he found material that was sufficiently challenging. When he began to work on The Creation, he was 64 years old and had composed over 100 symphonies, more than 40 string quartets, numerous concerti for a variety of solo instruments, 14 mass settings, and a great deal more. His musical vocabulary was broad and diverse, and his use of it was masterful. All of this plus his devout piety, his well-known sense of humor, and his commitment to the enlightenment he channeled into this masterpiece.

The oratorio is cast in three parts, containing material from the book of Genesis, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and the book of Psalms, all put together in libretto format by Gottfried van Swieten. Part I celebrates the creation of the primal light, the earth, the heavenly bodies, bodies of water, and plant life. Part II celebrates the creation of sea creatures, birds, animals, and lastly, man. Part III takes place in the Garden of Eden and relates the ideal relationship of Adam and Eve before the fall.

There are two camps regarding the performance of The Creation; period instruments and modern instruments. In this performance, modern instruments were used with one exception: the fortepiano played by the CSD’s stalwart accompanist for over 20 years, Jane Lynch. Perhaps the modern brass (trumpets, trombones and also French horns) were a little too much for this performance (not counting the special effect trombone lion roar). There were a few passages where Eve’s tender expressions did not quite cut through the orchestral texture. Never-the-less the ensemble of area musicians, under Wynkoop’s wise and knowledgeable direction, rendered a powerfully moving performance. The balanced dynamics were most impressive throughout and with an especially outstanding treatment of the crescendos in the Trio and Chorus (No. 19).

Most of the members of the Choral Society of Durham have sung under Wynkoop’s direction for more than a few years. They are extremely dedicated to their leader, to each other, and to the cause of music making, and they are very well prepared for each concert. Therefore we had stunning performances of Haydn’s marvelous choruses. Entrances were precise, cutoffs were clean, fugal passages were crisp and majestic. “Awake the harp,” “The heavens are telling,” the beautiful fugue in “Fulfilled at last the glorious work” – all were, to put it honestly, absolutely superb.

The soloists were of the highest caliber. Soprano Kathryn Mueller, a versatile, widely experienced performer who specializes in early music and contemporary works, was solid throughout and gave an especially pleasing performance of the prized aria, “On mighty wings now circling soars the Eagle proud.” Tenor Robert Bracey has performed in the United States and Canada, as well as in Europe and the Far East. His plum aria, celebrating the creation of man, “In the native forests and honor clad” was clearly relished by Bracey and delighted the audience. Gerard Sundberg‘s rich and powerful bass-baritone came over consistently well with eloquent use of a wide variety of dynamics and tonal coloring to point up the meaning of the text over Haydn’s exquisite tone-painting music. He gave an especially delightful rendition of Haydn’s playful and inventive creation of the animals, ending with the creation of the worm, sung on the D that Haydn wrote rather than the octave lower, which many bases singing this role cannot resist.

The most famous section in the oratorio is Haydn’s setting of the creation of light. He sets it up with a depiction of chaos in the key of C minor by withholding the resolution of cadences over which the bass sings “In the beginning, God made heaven and earth; and the earth was without form and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” Sundberg’s rendition of this opening phrase from Genesis set the dramatic stage for the six days of creation. The chorus entered quietly, concluding with the words “and God said: let there be light, and there was light.” This passage that electrified the first Viennese audience is still an awesome experience. A member of the chorus related that Wynkoop advised the choir and orchestra that he wished for the music to flow through this phrase without his making an expansive gesture. It worked! A soft pizzicato note from the strings followed by a sudden surprise fortissimo brought forth the light – and it was spectacular.

From here to the closing chorus, pleasure followed pleasure, with outstanding singing and playing throughout; grandeur, superbly shaped, never over-stated and most gratifying. The audience responded with enthusiastic applause, especially for this marvelous chorus.

The CSD’s next concert will be Beethoven’s Ninth, in early April, followed by a program of music by Barber and Verdi in early May. See our calendar for details.