Having inveighed against the tradition of choral societies’ reliance on requiems and similar gloomy fare for their spring concerts, we should acknowledge when someone programs more seasonally appropriate material. This the Newton Choral Society did on March 24 when, abetted by top-tier soloists, it and its orchestra, all under Music Director David Carrier, performed Haydn’s The Creation at Sanders Theatre.
Based on a libretto by Baron Gottfried van Swieten drawn from Genesis and Milton’s Paradise Lost, Haydn’s great late (1798) oratorio gives us the wonder of creation in the Biblical telling, and the first reactions of Adam and Eve, but with only the slightest of hints towards the end of the catastrophe to come. Thus, we get creation and Eden in their most miraculous light, without the slightest whissssper of dissent. Haydn’s setting is itself a miracle of complexity within simplicity, taking everything he learned from his symphonic and choral writing and applying it to the basically Handelian genre of the dramatic oratorio.
The first two of the oratorio’s three parts focus on the process of creation, narrated and evaluated by three angelic commentators, Gabriel, sung Sunday by the incomparable Kendra Colton; Uriel, sturdily rendered by tenor Peter Halpern, and Raphael, in the person of baritone David Kravitz. In Part 3, Colton and Kravitz took the roles of Eve and Adam, with Halpern’s Uriel providing prologue and epilogue. Before any of this, though, came Haydn’s stunning orchestral prologue depicting chaos, to the extent that Classical era C minor harmony permitted. Haydn’s art here was both forward and backward-looking: forward in its use of more chromatic harmonies and expanded orchestral coloration for expressive and pictorial purposes; backward in its continued reliance on a formal continuo of harpsichord and cello to accompany recitatives. In between was Haydn’s signature blend of melodic fecundity, sly harmonic invention—for example, setting up conventional cadences that slid off into remote keys—and lightly worn contrapuntal erudition.
The performances by the soloists were all first-rate, but—and we never thought we would ever say such a thing—we felt a bit sorry for the tenor, who was figuratively and, in Parts 1 and 2 literally, sandwiched between two of the finest dramatic concert singers active today, and as a result seemed a bit outgunned on all flanks. Colton is as much a pleasure to watch as to listen to (and listening to her radiant and wide-ranging voice is a pleasure indeed): visibly grooving to the music when not singing, and animating every sung note with a clear understanding of its dramatic significance. Kravitz, too, knows how every word and note functions within the overall context, and conveys that meaning in rich tones with perfect diction and evocative facial and body expression. The interaction between these two in their Adam and Eve numbers was affecting and sometimes even hilarious. Halpern’s intonation and diction were excellent, but his posture was comparatively stiff and his projection varied over the admittedly wide range of his part.
The orchestra, containing many of Boston’s leading free-lancers, sounded superbly if not always as suavely as might have been possible—Carrier was sometimes much more attentive to his excellent chorus’s phrasing and dynamics than to the orchestra’s at those moments. The expanded wind and brass sections delivered admirably, especially in Haydn’s frequent tone-painting in Part 2, notably the comically sudden low growl of contrabassoon and brass to accompany the Edenic menagerie. Carrier hashed the chorus in mixed voices rather than deploying them in discrete sections, something a choir director does only when supremely confident of the singers’ abilities, a confidence fully justified in this case. Nor was Carrier afraid to take his singers through some brisk tempos, and all his decisions on speed, dynamics, phrasing and articulation seemed just right.