Halls leads DSO and chorus in a ripely romantic take on Haydn’s “Creation”

Sat May 25, 2019 at 1:33 pm
By Wayne Lee Gay

Franz Joseph Haydn’s “The Creation” was performed by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra Friday night.

By eight minutes in, when the chorus roared to full power on the word “Light,” it was evident that guest conductor Matthew Halls intended a full-blown, romantically intense reading of Haydn’s 1798 oratorio, The Creation, with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra at Meyerson Symphony Center Friday night.

Halls’ approach had, indeed, been obvious from the focused detail and rhythmic flexibility he brought in the opening bars and the subsequent orchestral depiction of primeval Chaos; the subito forte at that most famous moment in the oratorio merely confirmed that this would be a performance focused on the work’s grandeur.

To achieve that grandeur in a modern concert hall, Halls, who most recently conducted the Dallas Symphony in 2017, drew on the Dallas Symphony Chorus at full, 200-voice force—the same power level as for the choral-orchestral monuments of Brahms and Mahler.

The orchestra featured a slightly-reduced string section, typical of the ensemble utilized by modern orchestras for performances of symphonies of Beethoven, but with doubled wind parts and occasional introduction of the organ on the large choral movements, for a fuller, more resonant sound to match the full chorus.

This approach pushes back against the smaller-is-better trend of recent decades for performances of eighteenth-century choral-orchestral works; Halls chooses, for historical justification, to point to the large-scale festival performances of Handel’s oratorios that the Austrian Haydn witnessed during his stays in London during the 1790s, which apparently inspired him to try a hand at the oratorio himself.

The context of The Creation is, indeed, worth noting. Haydn and his librettist Gottfried van Swieten drew the text from Milton’s epic Paradise Lost and the opening passages of the Book of Genesis (translated from English to German for Haydn’s compositional process, then back to English for the oratorio-hungry British audience). Anyone familiar with either of those literary monuments would observe that Haydn and van Swieten pretty much ignored the underlying drama, contained in both works, of humanity’s fall from grace and innocence. Milton’s angels Gabriel, Uriel, and Raphael are preserved as narrating soloists, while his dramatic description of the expulsion of Satan and his followers is reduced to a few quick phrases early on.

The core of the oratorio depicts, day by day, the creation of various elements of creation, culminating in the appearance of mankind. Adam and Eve appear as a devotedly loving couple (likewise drawn from Milton, but without the poet’s erotic undertone) in the final section of the oratorio; audiences in 2019 are likely to wince a bit at Eve’s declaration that her greatest joy is to obey Adam. One brief recitative before the final triumphal chorus hints that trouble may be ahead for the happy couple. In short, Haydn’s Creation is a product of the Age of Reason, written at a moment in which that era was rapidly crumbling in the face of the French Revolution.

But Haydn’s music itself creates a satisfying momentum, and, as in that composer’s prodigious symphonic output, a sense of drama within an orderly structure, with generous doses of humor and lyricism. Halls, conducting without baton, continually explored this felicitous meeting of rigid classical structure and sometimes playful tone-painting. He he maintained momentum with quick tempos (Haydn’s Andantes became Allegros, the Allegros became Prestos), and meticulous phrasing, and a practice of immediate segueing from one movement to the next. Throughout, Halls had no qualms about pulling the combined forces up to full volume at appropriate moments.

One gesture toward historical accuracy was the use of fortepiano, the modern piano’s immediate predecessor (and the instrument which was used in the earliest performances of the work) as the accompanying instrument for the recitatives; Anastasia Markina played with superb imagination and a quasi-improvisational style that provided a key element in the success of the performance. The most arresting example of this performance style arrived at the description of the creation of the stars, in which the fortepianist shifted into a higher range (not indicated in the score per se) to create a breathtaking effect of twinkling stars emerging in the night sky.

Baritone soloist Joshua Hopkins took on the roles of the angel Raphael early on and Adam in the final passages; in the delightful aria “Straight Opening Her Fertile Womb,” a humorously drawn description of the emergence of animals on the earth, Hopkins reveled in Haydn’s depiction of various animals—for instance, lingering on the “L” in “Long,” in the description of primeval worms. Hopkins owns a gorgeous lyric baritone that carried over nicely into the character of Adam, who, in this particular version, is a romantic fellow and devoted husband.

Tenor James Gilchrist as the angel Uriel brought a traditional oratorio soloist’s exacting enunciation and intense characterization of text; soprano Carolyn Sampson’s timbre was sweet, with an intense vibrato, but her voice was rather small when placed against the large choral and orchestral forces behind her.

At the center of all of this, The Dallas Symphony Chorus, trained by Joshua Habermann, provided, as usual, a sweeping, oceanic effect, with relentlessly powerful fortes and equally stunning, whispered pianissimos. As channeled through this wonderful choral ensemble, Haydn’s unfailingly energetic choral writing provided the foundation for a superb realization of this epic vision of a perfect universe under the hand of a benevolent God.

Haydn’s The Creation will be repeated at Meyerson Symphony Center 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. mydso.com; 214-692-0203.

Leave a Comment