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'Creation' on Cathedral Day

This review is an Ionarts exclusive.

President Theodore Roosevelt spoke on the grounds of what would become Washington National Cathedral on September 29, 1907, when the building's corner stone was set in place. The anniversary of that event is celebrated as Cathedral Day, for which the cathedral's choirs and hired period orchestra performed Haydn's oratorio Die Schöpfung on Saturday evening. This was a suitable tribute to the overarching theological theme of the Gothic edifice's decoration, the creation of the world. It is represented in swirling quasi-abstraction in the tympanum sculptures by Frederick Hart at the façade portals (pictured) and in vivid technicolor in the cathedral's west rose window. It was a fine performance of an extraordinary but also problematic oratorio, in which Haydn was inspired by the later 18th-century overblown performances of Handel's oratorios he heard in London. Haydn worked with a German text, translated by Baron Gottfried van Swieten from a now-lost English libretto. English "re-translations" of the text are often awkward at best, although scholar Neil Jenkins has gone to great lengths to restore the English text. This was unfortunately not the version used here.

In Haydn's ingenious depiction of the maelstrom of chaos at the opening of this oratorio, conductor Michael McCarthy (on what is otherwise known as his name day, Michaelmas) and his musicians had the huge canvas of the cathedral echo chamber to work with, and the result was messy and beautiful, unfolding amorphously. Canned amplification played havoc with balances when the soloists sang, enhancing some of the least attractive features of their voices: the fluttery agitation of soprano Gillian Keith, who tended to be too often ahead of the beat, and the wooly tone of bass Christòpheren Nomura especially. The treble part in the chorus was performed by the amassed boys and girls of the Cathedral choirs, making a heavenly sound at their first entrance ("And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters"). The less present sound of the adults on the other parts came to the fore in the full ensemble moments, like the majestic introduction to the creation of light on the fourth day, the conclusion of the sixth day, and the conclusion of the entire work. Instruments popped out of the texture in appropriate ways: the rumble of the timpani ("And awful roll the thunders on high"), the pale warble of transverse flute ("Through silent vales the limpid brook"), the blaat of the enormous contrabassoon sticking straight up, and many others in the musical depictions of the animals created on the sixth day (the tawny lion's roar, the leaping stag, a pastoral tune for the cattle, the flocks of birds, the shoals of fish). Tenor Rufus Müller had the most consistently beautiful sound as Uriel, but in diction and musical choices tended just slightly to the precious.

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