Haydn’s oratorio The Creation was all the rage in 1799. A joyful, optimistic, brilliantly composed vision, it jibed perfectly with Enlightenment philosophy, and went on to offer a couple of hours of comfort and relief as war darkened the start of the new century.
Audiences must have marveled at the overture entitled “The Representation of Chaos,” though. One of classical music’s most eccentric pieces, it jumps from chord to chord and theme to theme without resolving, a vivid musical depiction of the chaos the Old Testament describes: “the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.”
The echoey spaces of large churches are not always kind to concert music. But Saint Thomas Church in New York City did right by that wandering overture, the reverberations amplifying the music’s mysteries and uncertainties. Then Daniel Hyde, making his NYC directorial debut, proceeded to conduct the Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s in a performance of the full oratorio with sensitivity to the acoustics as well as to the music’s moods, nuances, pictorials, and jokes as well as its majesty.
Balance in a mixed chorus is always tricky; for one thing, without careful tempering of volume, sopranos can overwhelm the other voices. That’s not an issue with the Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys, whose boy treble voices tend to have a mellow quality. In my experience, the boys of this prestigious choir have always sounded collectively strong and professional, especially given the short time they’ve had for training and their limited lung capacity. Altogether the choir was in fine voice and the orchestra gleamed at last night’s concert.
The Creation also deserves – needs – fine soloists too. Tenor Thomas Cooley, bass Craig Phillips, and soprano Ellie Dehn sang the parts of the archangels Uriel, Raphael, and Gabriel respectively. Phillips and Dehn shone especially in the Part Three when they switched to the roles of Adam and Eve.
The native English text, derived from Milton’s Paradise Lost and the Bible, is of course a benefit for English-speaking audiences. Though the echoey acoustics made individual words sometimes hard to make out even during the arias and recitatives, the printed program enabled everyone to follow along. Some of the language is indeed beautiful, and Dehn displayed a gorgeous, celestial tone as Eve, matched by Phillips’s chocolately-smooth Adam, in their “By thee with bliss” aria, and even more so in the love-poem section (“Graceful consort!…Spouse adored!”), where their performance of the duet was so lovely I didn’t want it to end. Cooley’s tenor sparkled in the beautiful bel canto aria “In native worth and honour clad.” The three soloists excelled as a trio, too, as in the climax of the Fourth Day section.
Hyde and the orchestra brought out Haydn’s pictorial effects with precision and taste: the blaat of the beasts, the roar of the lion, the twittering of the birds, the slinking of the worm, the risings of the sun and moon, the “boisterous” sea “rolling in foaming billows.” From start to finish the concert was a glorious image of Haydn’s great creation.
Beethoven probably attended its public premiere, as Jan Swafford writes in his biography of Haydn’s sometime student, and “The Creation would remain with Beethoven as a challenge and a goad. For the rest of his life, the oratorio weighed on his mind…until at last he found his own ways…to respond to [it].” For us, it’s easier. As long as great ensembles like those of St. Thomas and St. Luke continue to perform it, to respond we need only a capacity for joy.