New York Times review of Haydn’s Creation
Thursday, December 27, 2012
Thank you to everyone who helped make our presentation of Haydn’s Creation at Carnegie Hall a success! Here is our recent review from The New York Times:
No Requiem for Earth, Only Celebration
By Anthony Tommasini, published Dec. 24, 2012
The world did not end on Friday as the ancient Maya calendar foretold. But if any apocalyptic forces were kicking around the planet that day, they were combated by a performance that evening at Carnegie Hall of “The Creation,” Haydn’s astonishing oratorio that depicts God’s making of the world, presented by the New York Virtuoso Singers, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and a roster of vocal soloists, conducted by Harold Rosenbaum.
Of course, as Maya experts have been saying for weeks, the doomsday talk was all a huge misreading of the Maya calendar. Friday was predicted to be just the end of a 5,125-year cycle and the start of a new one. This is certainly the view of the Society for Universal Sacred Music, which presented the performance of “The Creation” as a gesture of renewal and reverence for life.
In any event, it was an inspired idea to perform “The Creation” on 12-21-12. Any chance to hear this late-period Haydn masterpiece is welcome. Mr. Rosenbaum is best known for his work as the founding director of the New York Virtuoso Singers, an ensemble that specializes in contemporary music (celebrating its 25th anniversary this season) and also Canticum Novum Singers, devoted to early music. He had only conducted Haydn’s “Creation” two decades ago with amateur ensembles. He drew a radiant and joyous performance of this 100-minute score from the top-notch St. Luke’s players and the skilled Virtuoso Singers, which usually perform with fewer than 20 choristers but was expanded for this occasion to 62.
Mr. Rosenbaum had to contend with the unfortunate withdrawal of a soloist, the soprano Christine Brandes, who was ill and pulled out after a rehearsal on Wednesday. There are three demanding solo parts in “The Creation” for singers taking the roles of archangels. One, Gabriel, is for a soprano, though the singer usually doubles in Part III as Eve, in duets with Adam.
On Thursday Mr. Rosenbaum asked two sopranos who often perform with the Virtuoso Singers to rehearse the solos with him, giving Gabriel’s music to Katherine Wessinger and Eve’s to Marie Mascari. They are both crack sight-readers, Mr. Rosenbaum said in a phone interview. Ms. Wessinger had performed one of Gabriel’s major arias. Otherwise both artists were new to the piece. By Thursday Mr. Rosenbaum was getting replies from management agencies with a potential replacement. He stuck with the singers from his chorus with whom he had worked so well.
Ms. Wessinger’s light, clear voice was beautifully suited to Gabriel’s music. Understandably, there were some shaky moments in her singing. But she has a genuinely angelic voice and sang with charm and grace. Ms. Mascari brought rich sound and sensitive phrasing to Eve’s music. This was an admirable display of professionalism from both artists. The tenor Benjamin Butterfield was clarion-voiced and vibrant as the archangel Uriel. Nathan Berg’s muscular, earthy bass-baritone was ideal for Raphael and, in Part III, Adam.
Haydn set to work on “The Creation” in 1796, having been inspired by hearing performances of Handel’s oratorios in London. The English text, which draws from Genesis, the Psalms and Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” was given to him by the impresario Johann Peter Salomon. Haydn had it translated into German before setting it to music. Both German and English versions were published. Haydn wanted the piece performed in English for English-speaking audiences, as was done here.
The music wondrously animates the rich details of the biblical story. The orchestra overture depicts the “Representation of Chaos” in the cosmos through daring music that at times evades stable harmonic zones and is run through with passing dissonance, like stray motifs in search of cohesion. In a riveting recitative Raphael describes the Earth as being without form. The chorus, in hushed chords, sings “God said: Let there be light.” Still quietly, the chorus adds, “And there was light.” But at the word light, the choristers and orchestra burst into a C major harmony so shimmering and sunny you practically have to squint.
Yet, when called for, Haydn the musical humorist comes through, as when cooing birds are evoked with warbling trills for the soprano soloist and orchestra, and the galumphing trod of heavy beasts is illustrated with bleating low brass.
During whole stretches of this work the music comes across as agreeable and charming. But below the surface remarkably sophisticated things are happening. And in places where Haydn decides a lofty chorus is called for, this master responds with music of awesome depth and intricacy. The singing of the Virtuoso Singers under Mr. Rosenbaum was full-bodied, confident and nuanced.
Against Haydn on this night, the apocalypse did not have a chance.