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Choral Music Review Print

The Creation: Timely Irony

February 14, 2003 - Durham, NC:

\In this country, Franz Joseph Haydn's oratorio The Creation is probably the most frequently performed large choral work after Handel's Messiah. This last weekend, its sunny and cheerful voice, performed by the Choral Society of Durham, the Duke University Chorale and the N.C. Symphony under the direction of Rodney Wynkoop, clashed mightily with the current world atmosphere. The soloists for the performance were soprano Teresa Seidl, tenor Robert Bracey and baritone Charles Robert Stephens.

In contrast to Bach's and even Handel's oratorios, Haydn wrote The Creation for very large forces. At age 66, he was at the height of his powers and fame, and Vienna waited with baited breath for the premiere in 1798. For the first public performance in Vienna he conducted a force of over 180 musicians, and the numbers grew in subsequent performances in the larger cities of Europe. Friday's performance in Duke Chapel continued the tradition with nearly 200 singers in top form. Haydn's oratorio, however, was not written for a chapel or cathedral with its rebounding acoustics, but for a crisp concert hall.

Duke Chapel is Wynkoop's home turf. He knows how to work around its Gothic acoustics, achieving more musical definition than visiting conductors. The orchestral introduction, representing Chaos, is one of Haydn's most dramatic and musically daring works in which he far surpassed the classical constraints by creating its own "chaotic" harmony and voice leading. Wynkoop brought it down to a snail's pace so that every jarring dissonance spoke for itself, rather than via the Chapel's normal blurring process. The chorus sounded smooth, balanced and well controlled. But it did take us a while to figure out whether they were singing in English, German or something else!

The soloists fared well enough and were only occasionally overpowered since most of their arias and accompanied recitatives utilize reduced forces and often feature solo instruments. The dramatic Baritone Stephens, as the angel Raphael, had the most power and resonance. At the beginning, Bracey, as Uriel, had some difficulties making his voice carry, but by his second aria he found his stride. Seidl, as Gabriel, had the most difficulty with the acoustics, especially in her soaring ornaments over the chorus in "The Lord is great and great His might." And, although all three clearly possessed fine voices, they, too, could have been singing with pebbles in their mouths.

The original text for The Creation was an amalgam of excepts from Genesis and Milton's Paradise Lost by an unknown author who had supposedly prepared the text for Handel some 50 year earlier. Haydn took on the project, conceiving the piece in both English and German so that either language is technically authentic. The blurred diction proved more than just typical Chapel annoyance. For those of us who knew the piece well, even the vowels sounded somehow "off." The mystery was solved during intermission - and thereby hangs either a mishap of coordination at best or a scandal at worst. Wynkoop used, not the original English text, but one modified by Robert Shaw and Alice Parker. The NCSO, who sponsored Friday's performance, did not hand out the text - or program notes for that matter and nearly everyone in our eavesdropping vicinity was complaining. During intermission, in a carton at the back of the Chapel, we found the special printed program, with texts and program notes, for Saturday's performance sponsored solely by the CSD! Whether this was a communications snafu between the two organizations or a cost-cutting measure by the NCSO, this was not acceptable.

All in all, this was a first rate performance, given the venue. The Creation was repeated on Sunday in Meymandi where we had hoped to attend what we expected to be a crisper performance until our windshield started icing up on our way to the concert