The New York Virtuoso Singers
The Carnegie Hall performance on December 21 of Haydn's Creation by The New York Virtuoso Singers and The Orchestra of St. Luke's led by Harold Rosenbaum was more than marvelous. It was a lovely gift from music makers to music listeners, an affirmation of optimism and hope, a declaration of creation's fundamental goodness and beauty.
The soprano originally scheduled to sing in this performance was ill. In her place were two sopranos, Katherine Wessinger, singing the part of the angel Gabriel, and Marie Mascari, singing the part of Eve.
Whatever might have been the audience's expectations for the absent singer, listeners were appropriately delighted by Wessinger's and Mascari's performances.
Haydn's Creation is, in its very nature, an exhilarating work. Its libretto – a pastiche of Biblical texts and passages of Milton's Paradise Lost, translated from English to German and then back, by backward indirection, into English – has some passages that sound childlike and na´ve (and somewhat goofy). But the music itself is extraordinary. Haydn's Creation is the product of a great composer's maturity; its meaning centers not on transient giddiness but on enduring joy.
The first two sections of Haydn's Creation tell the story of creation according to Genesis. Three angels, Gabriel, Uriel and Raphael – the most important archangels of the Hebrew Testament – tell the creation story as the chorus supplies context and response.
Katherine Wessinger, as Gabriel, sang with exuberance that managed to be both delicate and hardy. Her voice was lyrical and supple; she radiated loveliness. Her aria about larks, doves and nightingales was a marvel.
Both tenor Benjamin Butterfield and baritone Nathan Berg sang with authority: they relished the narrative and, each in their own style, told the creation story with a sense of pride at being the bearers of so inconceivably remarkable a tale as God's creation.
Butterfield's Uriel was a narrator who relayed his astonishing account with drama and panache.
Berg, singing the Raphael role, brought a sense of grandeur to his presentation of the creation story. Although the libretto text was often awkward, Berg conveyed a feeling of awe about even the lowest and least glamorous of God's creatures. When he sang, “In long dimensions creeps with sinuous trace the worm,” he compelled the audience to ponder with appropriate appreciation the accomplishments and full dignity of invertebrate, segmented annelids.
The third part of Haydn's Creation focuses on Adam and Eve, their relationship, mutual love and shared love of God. The libretto presents their union as the divinely instituted exemplar of marital bliss.
In fact, the prelapsarian purity of this first human marriage is entirely implausible. But Berg's Adam and Mascari's Eve, in spite of the idealistic text, were an intensely human and adoring couple. They made their complex duets seem effortless. They sang to each other ostensibly unaware of the audience's presence in their intimate, limitless love but, as artists, inviting us to participate in their happiness by witnessing it.
Berg made himself into an earthy, burly Adam. Using her lovely voice, at once sensuous and crystal-clear, Mascari created an Eve who was open-hearted and flirtatious, a young woman filled with gratitude for both God and her God-given husband. Berg and Mascari were the sort of deliriously happy honeymoon couple whom we've all occasionally seen and described as 'walking on air' and 'dancing on cloud nine.'
In this concert, chorus, orchestra and soloists captured superbly the first element of the Creation's genius. Haydn's music, beginning with the ominous, dark apparent disorder of the opening and ending with an expression of joy so passionate that we can feel it in our own bones, makes the divine story of creation accessible to our human sensibilities.
Some elements of the work's musical vocabulary were rooted in long established traditions. Dramatic dynamic contrasts in sacred and secular works alike had always been used to examine such opposites as might and meekness, wrath and tenderness. But Haydn deployed them with new techniques to portray creation itself. Centuries-old folk songs about the coo-coo-cooing of doves anticipate Haydn's birds, but his musical aviary is more diverse and exotic than the medieval ones were. Haydn's creative bestiary anticipates Saint-Saens' Carnival of the Animals and Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf.
The second element of the Creation's genius lies in its sheer musical and theological inventiveness. In this work, composed at the very end of Haydn's long career and foreshadowing what will become a familiar Romantic trope, the creation of this music mirrors God's own creation and the artists – composers and musicians – carry out their own endeavors in imitation of God's.
Rosenbaum's reading of Haydn's Creation together with all the musicians' ability to realize his understanding of the piece made this a splendid performance.
Presented by the Society for Sacred Music, this performance of Haydn's Creation was planned many months ago as an antidote to the gnarly anxieties about an apocalyptic end of the world prompted by a popular misreading of the Mayan calendar. According to the Society's mission statement, its purpose is “to foster the creation and performance of music that celebrates the unity and unconditional love of God, and the fundamental Brotherhood and Sisterhood we all share as the children of God.”
Whether or not the December 21 audience members were worried about the dire Mayan predictions, all were shaken by the destruction of Sandy, the “perfect storm,” and heart-sick at the terrible tragedy of Newtown, Connecticut. A performance of Haydn's Creation, no matter how marvelous, does not diminish the violence of destruction that we have seen this fall.
However, it does inspire us to repair the world by rediscovering our human capacity to invent good solutions to the problems we ourselves have created.
The New York Virtuoso Singers: The Creation by Franz Joseph Haydn (December 21, 2012)
Carnegie Hall, 881 Seventh Avenue, in Manhattan
For more information: call 212-247-7800 or visit