Mastersingers by the Sea, “The Creation”

April 11, 2008

Mastersingers by the Sea, New Bedford Symphony Orchestra, in Delightful Performance of “The Creation”


Franz Josef “Papa” Haydn would have been proud to hear the performance of one of his masterpieces, “The Creation,” by the Mastersingers by the Sea and the New Bedford Symphony Orchestra at St. Barnabas Church in Falmouth last week. It was a delightful performance, well orchestrated by David MacKenzie, who conducts both the Mastersingers and the New Bedford Symphony Orchestra.

“The Creation” is the Biblical story of the first seven days of the world, beginning with chaos and ending with Adam and Eve optimistically setting forth.

It is an oratorio, which, like an opera, involves an orchestra, chorus, and soloists, but, unlike an opera, is presented as a concert, not as a theater piece. Oratorios have a basic story, but no acting, complicated plot, or scenery, and their subject matter is often, as in this work, religious.

Dr. MacKenzie, in his lively pre-concert talk, conveyed Haydn’s religious beliefs and his feelings about the significance of this piece well, and he seemed just as enthusiastic about the work, telling the story with humor and breaking into song himself at times to illustrate a point.

Dr. MacKenzie noted that the libretto, or text, for the oratorio was based on the Bible and on John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and had been offered to George Frideric Handel 50 years earlier. Haydn, who had been inspired to write an oratorio after hearing Handel’s “Messiah,” in England, brought the English text back to Austria and had it translated in German. He then wrote the music, and, finally, had the text translated back into English. The work took two years to write; Haydn finished it in 1798, having, by his account, prayed for guidance from God every day during that time period. It is considered the first bilingual work, written with the intention of being performed both in German and in English.

The Mastersingers performed the English version, a simple and elegant statement of Haydn’s strong religious beliefs, and his joy and wonder in the Creation. The work, in three acts and numerous recitatives (speech-like singing), arias (melodic singing), and choruses, is presented largely by three angels—soloists John Murelle, baritone; Rebecca Grimes, soprano; and Thomas Oesterling, tenor—accompanied by orchestra and chorus. The soloists represent the angels Raphael, Gabriel, and Uriel, who tell the story of the creation with joy and childlike wonder.

The soloists were well-suited for their roles, particularly Mr. Murelle, whose angel Raphael told most of the story, and who also sung the part of Adam. His voice is warm, rich and powerful, but not overwhelming, and he sang with dramatic flair, using facial expressions as well as his voice to convey meaning.

Ms. Grimes sang her part, the angel Gabriel, expressively, and with a smile, her voice blending well with the chorus and orchestra, and with the other soloists. She did a particularly good job with the birds, her words echoed by the woodwinds. She also sang the part of Eve, harmonizing well with Mr. Murelle’s Adam.

Mr. Oesterling sang the part of Uriel, his voice strong and clear. I particularly liked his introduction of Adam and Eve, and his somewhat sad recitative on the “happy pair.”

Haydn’s work is cheerful and uplifting, and he uses the technique of tone-painting, using the music to illustrate the meaning of the text. The overture, “Representation of Chaos,” reflects this vividly, making use of vague and unresolved harmonies to represent the angel Raphael’s words, “the earth was without form and void.” Individual instruments attempt to establish a melody, but fall back into the churning chaos. Finally, powerful chords are played, “and then there is light.”

As the Earth is created, the orchestra provides the sounds of rain, hail, and “the light and flaky snow,” and, later, the moon and stars, the birds of the earth, and all living creatures, giving all the instruments: flutes, oboes, bassoon, cellos, and others, a chance to replicate the sounds of the lark, the “adoring coos of the turtle dove” (nicely expressed by Ms. Grimes), the nightingale, the roaring lion, the tiger, the “nimble stag,” the “fleecy gentle sheep,” and the “host of insects.” The last brought a laugh from the audience, as did Mr. Murelle’s slow, deep, dramatic reference to the creeping in, “with sinuous trace” of the worm.

The intimate setting, with the orchestra in the center and the chorus divided on either side, and the soloists in front, may have been a little crowded for the musicians, but it provided a lovely visual image for the audience, and the performers played and sang with spirit and professionalism.

The talents of the orchestra, consisting of 33 members of the New Bedford Symphony Orchestra, were shown off well by “The Creation,” giving them opportunity to express the energy and vitality, the softness and expressiveness, and the reverence and majesty of the piece. The 29-member chorus was magnificent as well, especially in two fugal sections in the beginning and, later, when the choir creates a pizzicato-style accompaniment to the singers.

My only complaint, and this should be directed to Haydn, not to the Mastersingers, was that the chorus was not heard often enough. The chorus, either alone, or supporting the soloists, provided a powerful sound of its own, well conveying the work’s of awe and inspiration.

There will be more of the chorus in the fall. The Mastersingers by the Sea, which was itself created only this past fall, has provided the Upper Cape with an opportunity to hear a varied collection of outstanding choral and instrumental music this season, and next season’s schedule includes concerts on November 8 and 9 and February 28 and March 1; an Elizabethan feast on December 16; and another oratorio, Mendelssohn’s “Elijah,” on May 8, 9, and 10, 2009.

Those interested in participating in the chorus, may arrange for an audition on May 10, noon to 3 PM, at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church by contacting Judy Willis at 508-548-3992.

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