Before the universe, there was… what?
Haydn ventures a musical guess in the enigmatic introduction to his oratorio ‘Creation’. When the notes first appear in the strings, you can almost imagine the gears spinning in the minds of the audience, at the 1799 premiere: Are We in Major? Minor? OK, minor, of course – but where are we going?
The confusion is not completely resolved until the most iconic moment of “The Creation”, which sent the first audience into ecstasy: a fortissimo Modulation in C major to the words “…and there was light!”
Haydn did not know that his “representation of chaos” would be the “creation” that remained, heralding the coming century. The harmonic sleights of hand which, to his ears, represented shapeless forms became strictly in the Romantic era – just another reminder of how renegade Beethoven and Berlioz seemed to their contemporaries.
The Grant Park Music Festival’s ‘Creation’, which closed the summer season on Saturday in its German version, was also a romantic undertaking in capital R. It didn’t swing its weight, as you hear in some smashing renditions of this work, but neither did it attempt the mannered grandeur of period performances. Musical director Carlos Kalmar’s vision seemed to look up to us here on Earth instead of the heavens, his flexible yet fearless sonic “Creation” showing some interpretive courage. The “and there was light” moment that usually causes eardrums to explode resonated powerfully through sound and gesture, rather than sheer force. And hey, we heard it was good.
Overall, bass-baritone Douglas Williams and soprano Maeve Höglund took on their later roles as Adam and Eve with more sensitivity and vulnerability than their archangel alter egos. Their voices – hers soft and earthy, hers crystalline and nimble – mingle beautifully with their great love duet (“Graceful consort! At thy side”), though earlier recitatives (“Our duty we have now fulfilled “) managed to surpass him in tenderness. . At the oblique mention of the forbidden fruit by the duo, Kalmar thrust the orchestra into a scampish food accompaniment that playfully shed light on the dramatic irony of the section.
Fearing Chicago’s “scandalous thunderstorms” on Saturday, the festival placed the vocal soloists on risers behind the orchestra, rather than in their usual place up front, and Höglund and Williams sounded a bit paler for it. No such warning is needed for tenor Duke Kim’s performance as Archangel Uriel. He was the star of the evening for his easy projection, brilliant tone, and compelling, earnest delivery. Alumnus of young artist programs at Santa Fe, Washington National Opera and Wolf Trap, Kim would be warmly welcomed to Chicago’s operatic stages, judging by Saturday’s performance. Let’s hope he gets the chance.
The evening passed with a few musical hiccups, although the accidental omission from the program book of approximately five minutes of musical text (from the trio “La plus belle apparition” to the bass narrative “Et Dieu dit: Que la land produce”) sent more than a few viewers rummaging through their program. Clarinetist Dario Brignoli played solos in the intro and “On mighty pens uplifted soars” as smooth and richly tinted as sea glass. This last aria was also a reminder of the gift we have of Chicago-based flautist Mary Stolper, who plays her solos here with particular brilliance.
Guest Chorus Director Michael Black has prepared the Grant Park Festival Chorus for these performances, and with as much expertise as you would expect from the Lyric Opera Chorus Leader. The backing vocalists rang out brilliantly in “Awake the harp” and quickly lined up to respond to Kalmar’s dynamic directions throughout. At around 70 voices, the festival choir was well proportioned to both Kalmar’s repertoire and ropier playing. There are still summers to hear the massive repertoire bringing “all your voices” to the Pritzker Pavilion stage – and a year seems, as always, too long.
Hannah Edgar is a freelance writer.
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