Music of the Baroque delivers a masterful ‘Creation’

By Kyle MacMillan, Chicago Sun Times
March 31, 2014

If George Frideric Handel ranks as the king of the oratorio, then certainly Franz Joseph Haydn is its prince.

Late in his career, inspired in part, it is believed, by hearing Handel's Messiah and other choral works by the earlier composer during a visit to London, Haydn returned to Vienna in 1795 and set to work on his own great pair of oratorios.

Music of the Baroque presented the first and best-known of these works, The Creation,Sunday evening at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie as part of back-to-back Chicago-area concerts.

The ensemble will also present the oratorio Wednesday evening in Aurora, and then, for the first time in several decades, it is going on tour, taking the work to San Diego for a Friday concert as part of the La Jolla Music Society's Celebrity Orchestra Series.

Sunday's superb debut performance, which featured a chamber orchestra and aptly compact 35-voice chorus, captured the full vibrancy, energy and charm of this masterful adaptation of the Book of Genesis.

Echoes of Handel can be heard throughout this piece, especially at the end of Part I, in Haydn's resounding answer to the famed 'Hallelujah' chorus from Messiah, a section realized here with energizing verve.

But make no mistake, this is very much Haydn's creation, from the lightness and buoyancy of the writing to the ahead-of-its-time modernity of the chromatic opening representation of chaos to the imaginative orchestrations.

Also notable in this piece are Haydn's clever evocations of nature, from the soft, gentle portrayal of the silver moon to the loud eruption of the contra-bassoon to convey the heavy beasts, to a flittering flute solo, nicely played by Mary Stolper, to suggest a nightingale.

Music of the Baroque assembled a first-class trio of soloists for these performances, starting with tenor Nicholas Phan, who seemed completely at home in this music, with his appealing, storytelling flair and expressive, cleanly executed ornamentation.

More understated but no less effective was baritone Christòpheren Nomura, who brought a plush, measured resonance and adroit technique, including faultless diction and wonderfully nuanced dynamic control, to his singing.

Easily the best known of the soloists was Elizabeth Futral. She possesses an attractive, luminous soprano voice, but she seemed to overpower this music a bit at times and did not fully embrace its style. That said, she delivered some fine moments, including her final duet with Nomura as Eve in Part III, and her playful, evocative take on the dove's cooing in the opening recitative and air in Part II.

The chorus, prepared by William Jon Gray, was impressive throughout, conveying both the power and subtlety of this work. But the real star of the evening was arguably conductor Jane Glover, who beautifully shaped this performance, infusing it with dramatic sweep and zestful pacing and paying keen attention to its all-important contrasts in mood, tempo and dynamics.

Haydn excelled at virtually every musical form he took on, and, as this captivating performance made clear, he enjoyed a princely success with The Creation.