Student Groups Join in to Create “The Creation”
May 8, 2012
United States Haydn, Die Schöpfung, Yale Schola Cantorum, Yale Baroque Ensemble, Juilliard415, Masaaki Suzuki (conductor), St. Bartholomew’s Church, New York, 30.4.2012 (SSM)
Jessica Petrus , soprano
Megan Chartrand, soprano
]ohn Taylor Ward, bass
Where better to hear Haydn’s late oratorio, The Creation, than in the resplendent St. Bartholomew’s Church. The Byzantine façade of the church hides a huge but much simpler space, with cushioned chairs instead of pews. On this occasion, most of the chairs were filled. The performance was a joint effort between Yale and Juilliard featuring their three exemplary student performing groups: the Yale Schola Cantorum, the Yale Baroque Ensemble and the Juilliard415, all led by guest conductor and Bach specialist, Masaaki Suzuki.
What does the chaos of creation sound like? Haydn wrote his version of the creation at the tail end of the Age of Enlightenment. The music has its dissonant moments and more surprises than his Surprise Symphony, but still clearly speaks in the voice of Haydn: not his earlier Sturm und Drang voice but that of the late London symphonies. Comparing Haydn’s “Representation of Chaos” with the opening “La Cahos” from Les élemens by the 18th-century Baroque composer Jean-Féry Rebel makes Haydn seem tame:
Haydn’s opening overture has several sudden explosions, the most prominent one occurring a little past the midpoint after an appealing flurry of off-key natural horns. The orchestra twice pounds out a 7-note phrase (7 days of the week?). Later we get an even more emphatic explosion on the last word of “and there was light.” This musical surprise should have the audience jumping out of their seats, but unfortunately Suzuki didn’t turn the volume up quite high enough to shock the audience, and this was one of his few interpretative mistakes.
In an example of early program music, Haydn has the orchestra mimic birds, water and insects. This too had been done before, in Handel’s Israel in Egypt,a work that Haydn likely heard in London. Handel presents a series of orchestral representations of the plagues, more specifically the raining down of frogs and the destruction of crops by locusts.
The four soloists (normally five, but John Taylor Ward sang two parts) are all current graduate students in the Yale Scola Cantorum. All four, perhaps intentionally, sang their parts with softer, gentler and more upbeat voices then those heard in other performances of this work. One critic has called The Creation Haydn’s most cheerful work at the happiest point in his life. This may have been the happiest period of his life, but I’m not sure if I would go so far as to call this oratorio cheerful, although there were cheerful moments, particularly in the Adam and Eve sections. John Taylor Ward was faultless in the roles of Raphael and Adam; he stood in for bass Dan Moore and deserves extra praise for it. Referred to elsewhere as a baritone, he was able to successfully reach down to hit some very low notes, notes that would be hard even for a bass to sing. This was true in both “Roaming in Foaming Billows” and later in “Now heaven in fullest glory shone.” Jessica Petrus as Gabriel truly had an angelic voice, especially when she reached up to the high E at the end of the aria, “The Marvelous Work Beholds Amazed.” Steven Soph had perhaps the strongest voice and Megan Chartrand, who had a small role as Eve, sang formidably. I was lucky enough to be seated near the orchestra, but I wondered if their voices and the church’s acoustics allowed for them to be heard clearly in the back.
There was no doubt as to the chorus’s ability to project to the last row. They sang and the instrumental ensemble played with professional prowess under the leadership of Maestro Suzuki. Having almost completed the recordings of all the Bach cantatas, Suzuki would find this particular blend of chorus, orchestra and soloists a familiar combination for him, and he led them enthusiastically throughout this exceptional performance.