Music of the Baroque Concert Review

By John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune
March 31, 2014

Many scholars and musicians would agree that Haydn's "The Creation" is the composer's masterpiece. Jane Glover, Music of the Baroque's music director, in fact ranks this astonishing oratorio among the top five works in all of Western music.

Yet assembling the forces needed to do justice to Haydn's monumental depiction of God's creation of the world is no easy task, given the sheer size of the work and the demands it makes on performers. Which helps to explain why Glover and MOB have not performed "The Creation" together for nearly a decade.

The Chicago chorus and orchestra did so Sunday evening in a sold-out performance at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie. It was the first of four performances this week that were to include concerts at the Harris Theater in downtown Chicago, Aurora University in Aurora and in San Diego, Calif., under auspices of the La Jolla Music Society. That final performance will mark the first out-of-state concert MOB will have given in more than 30 years: a happy confluence of scheduling all around.

Even with the addition of a makeshift canopy over the stage, the Skokie venue is not the ideal acoustical setting for "The Creation," with its stirring choruses, striking orchestral effects and imaginative and colorful writing for vocal soloists and instrumentalists. Sound carries clearly enough, but there is no resonance to speak of. So Glover and her musical forces, which included a chorus of 34 and a slightly larger orchestra, had their work cracked out for them.

There were a few scrappy moments early on, but, like the cosmic and earthly elements coalescing in Haydn's grand musical narrative, everything soon came together into a vigorous, joyous representation of Papa Haydn's devout Enlightenment ideals.

Glover brought to "The Creation" an academic's understanding of Haydn style and a veteran performer's understanding of how to give this richly varied music living, breathing form on stage. And she infused her palpable commitment in her capable soloists, orchestra and chorus. Especially vivid was the "Representation of Chaos" that forms the orchestral overture, its unsettled harmonies and passing dissonances coming across as uncannily modern.

Also, in the second part of the oratorio, when Haydn the musical humorist comes to the fore, Glover's vocal and instrumental soloists, notably flutist Mary Stolper, regaled us with the sounds of cooing birds, roaring lions, slithering worms and other evocations of nature. The conductor deftly avoided the sticky piety that can make the Garden of Eden section a long sit.

Haydn prepared both German and English versions of the text but specifically wanted his oratorio performed in English for English-speaking audiences, as Glover did here. The three soloists, along with director William Jon Gray's responsive chorus, took conspicuous pains to put the words across intelligibly and meaningfully. The choral body was small enough to ensure rhythmic mobility yet large enough to ensure weight and fullness of sound, crucially in the big fugal choruses that form the mighty pillars of "The Creation."

Of the soloists, baritone Christopheren Nomura, who sang the archangel Raphael as well as Adam in Part 3, had the lion's share of the arias and recitatives. He sang with musicality, power and lyricism, the tone firm from ringing top to saturnine bottom.

The clarion strength and sweetness of Nicholas Phan's firm lyric tenor were beautifully suited to the archangel Uriel's music. There was no need for this intelligent artist to inflate his already ample sound in so stentorian an English-oratorio-singer manner for his opening recitative and aria, "And God saw the light.". He was his usual impeccably musical self from then on.

Worries that a steady diet of Puccini and similarly heavy operatic roles may have taken a toll on soprano Elizabeth Futral's once pure, steady, radiant sound were reinforced by her performance as Gabriel and Eve on Sunday. While her expressive understanding in such arias as "With verdure clad" was never in doubt, her now-fluttery vibrato and curtailed top failed to do justice to some of the most glorious music Haydn ever wrote for the solo voice. Perhaps later performances will bring an improvement.