It is not often that orchestra, soloists and chorus come together as equals in a major performance. But such were the forces under the command of guest conductor Donald Neuen for a masterful reading of Haydn’s “The Creation” on Tuesday night at Portland’s Merrill Auditorium.
The Portland Symphony Orchestra, the Choral Art Society and soloists Lisa Saffer, soprano, John McVeigh, tenor, and Laurence Albert, bass, were at the top of their form, and Neuen’s conducting welded everything together perfectly. The result was a peak experience that generated cheers from a near-capacity audience.
One does not normally think of Haydn as a writer of tone poems, but his musical illustrations of the events of the first six days are remarkable. For some reason or other, the passages about the animal creation made me think of Maine, where, if the first settlers are to be believed, they could walk across Casco Bay on the backs of the codfish, or bag four turkeys with one shot. The earthly paradise, as a lobsterman in Port Clyde remarked one summer evening.
Like Mozart, Haydn enjoyed fooling around, even with the most serious of subjects. The passage where the seas are gathered together and the thunder sounds is accompanied by a minuet.
The creation of insects ends with: “In long dimensions creeps, with sinuous trace the worm.” The word “worm” was sung by Albert, as the Angel Raphael, with a spectacularly low note, after which Neuen interrupted the performance to congratulate him and allow some thunderous applause. Another low note, from the orchestra on the words “heavy beasts,” echoed that humor.
Neuen looks like a jovial old uncle, and his conducting sometimes appeared so casual as to be nonexistent, but the results were outstanding. The orchestral interludes were jewel-like, a series of short symphonies, and its balance with chorus and soloists was almost perfect.
The Choral Art Society sang at the highest level I have heard. The dynamics and delineation of parts were fine, but even more remarkable was the precision of its entrances at full volume. It also sculpted several very long crescendos, from pianissimo to fortissimo, that would have pleased the composer.
Saffer, as the Angel Gabriel, was in good voice, often soaring over the chorus, and ideal in what I think was Haydn’s favorite passage, about the songs of birds before sorrow entered the world.
McVeigh sang the part of Uriel equally well, except for a bit of strain in the beginning, before the correct balance had been achieved. He was at his best in the more tender moments of the score. The voices of all three soloists were well matched in the trios.
The performance received a tumultuous standing ovation and as many curtain calls as any in recent memory.
Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be contacted at: