"The Creation"

April 2, 2011
Jake Stockinger The Well-Tempered Ear
04/05/2011 By one local critic’s count, Haydn’s “The Creation” has been performed only three times in the past 35 years or so in Madison.
That is too bad for one of the all-time great masterpieces of oratorio writing.  But at least, it seems, when it performed it is generally performed well.  Certainly such was the case with last Saturday’s outstanding performance of “The Creation” by the 45-member Wisconsin Chamber Choir and the 18-member Stoughton Chamber Singers with soloists and a 31-piece pick-up orchestra form local groups.
These are not high-profile groups in a city filled with so many fine classical music ensembles. But perhaps this kind of performance could bring them a bit more publicity and profile. It certainly should.  As Isthmus critic and retire UW history professor John W. Barker (below) pointed out during his crowded pre-concert lecture (below), Haydn’s oratorio was the prolific composer’s single most worked by the great composer of 104 symphonies. And it stands squarely in the middle of the oratorio tradition, looking backward to Handel and forward to Mendelssohn and others.
Everything about the performance, which just got better and better as the singers and instrumentalists progressed and warmed up, seemed appropriate.
Even the venue fitted the piece. It was performed in the Masonic auditorium (below), on Wisconsin Avenue, near the Capitol, and Haydn was a Mason in Vienna for two years. The concert hall itself seems an intimate space with good acoustics, and one wishes it were used more often.
True, the performance was not sold-out. But it was a very good size crowd and an enthusiastic one.  I found the instrumentalists particularly good at the many moments of sound painting used in the score: the bright voices bringing light to chaos; the strings portraying the first dawn of the first day; the flute-made bird calls; the trombone hoof beats of galloping animals; and the double-bass lumbering of great whales.
All sections performed well, but I was particularly struck by the brass (hard instruments to play), the winds and by the constant but never flagging fortepiano continuo provided by Theodore Reinke.  At times the orchestra seemed a bit loud for the chorus, but the balance improved as the performance progressed.
But of course, it was the vocalists – soloists and choirs alike – who rightfully reigned over this creation of “The Creation.”
Some standouts included soprano Deanna Horjus-Lang as the angel Gabriel, who voice often soared effortlessly. Both tenor J. Adam Shelton as Uriel and bass Brian Leeper (below, second from left) as Raphael proved excellent narrators, whose excellent diction allowed us to hear the English text and who sang with both lyricism and an assertive seriousness.
As the newly created Adam and Eve, bass Michael Roemer and soprano Madeline Olson somehow embodied innocence through their young and lighter voices. The seemed perfected matched to my ears. 
All of this is a great compliment to Robert Gehrenbeck, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir’s artistic director since 2008, who held the performance together with the appropriate tightness that deserved the standing ovation it got.
If the work itself seemed less expressive than one might imagine, well that is one of the great contrasts between Haydn and the emotionally deeper Mozart, to whom he is so often – and so unjustly — compared. The underlying belief was the religion of Reason and the Enlightenment, not the profundity of a personal statement, even though Haydn was a devout a Roman Catholic.
In any case, Haydn (below) considered “The Creation” his best work. And to sing it with comparable conviction is not an easy task. But it is one that was fulfilled by this performance, which brought a lot of light of its own to this often-neglected masterwork and to a dark time.