On Thursday evening, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus performed the world premiere of “Creation/Creator” by Christopher Theofanidis. Led by ASO music director Robert Spano, the concert-length oratorio was presented in the orchestra’s signature “theater of a concert” format, something that has been absent from the Symphony Hall stage since early 2012 but had become an increasingly familiar mode before that.
Guest artists were in abundance, five solo singers and two actors: soprano Jessica Rivera (performing while six months pregnant), mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor, tenor Thomas Cooley, baritone Nmon Ford, bass Evan Boyer, actors Steven Cole and Shannon Eubanks, and stage director and designer James Alexander. The ASO Chorus was prepared for the concert by ASO director of choruses Norman Mackenzie.
Theofanidis may well have himself a landmark work in “Creation/Creator.” It is only superficially akin to Haydn’s “Creation” in theme as an oratorio. While Haydn’s work dealt with human creativity only as a subtext to the Biblical creation story, it is central to Theofanidis’ oratorio. If considered only from a point of the composer’s choices of texts alone, it is a work that will spark the interest of contemporary audiences.
While the whole is not a single dramatic narrative, what Theofanidis assembled from ancient, classic and modern sources has a good thematic thread and sense of direction. Theofanidis’ music and Alexander’s staging and interactive-media complemented and supported this thread well.
Although some “creation story” was included — the Chinese legend of Pan Gu and James Weldon Johnson’s retelling of the Biblical creation story — the greater theme is that of creative impulse, both human and on a cosmological scale, and how our sharing of knowledge spreads the seeds of creativity.
The flip side of the panoply of such interesting texts is that they are harder to set into full-blown, memorable melody. So much of what the composer has given to the soloists is not all that interesting in melodic terms, mostly somewhat limited and declamatory in character.
If anything, that may be the oratorio’s sole weakness, but it is hardly a conundrum only for Theofanidis — it is something that has plagued many other composers. Prose texts that have meaningful spoken content often don’t tend to set well, or easily, to music in that way. They are better spoken, and Theofanidis was wise in a few movements to utilize some texts as plain narration.
Among the solo parts, Ford’s baritone seemed to possess the lion’s share of melodic interest, combined with a quantity of spoken narrative. Cooley was given a prominent passage for tenor near the end, singing words by physicist Richard Feynman.
Overall, the well-selected vocal quintet, mostly singing as an ensemble, was splendid, as was that of Mackenzie’s ASO Chorus. Aside from text-setting challenges, Theofanidis’ music is very attractive, dramatic and serves well the continuity of oratorio’s literary assemblage. That includes some purely orchestral passages that are particularly notable.
Again, Alexander’s semi-staging and interactive was a great enhancement to the concert experience. For example, the work opened silently, on a purely theatrical note, with baritone Ford leading the other vocal soloists and Spano, blindfolded, onto and across the front of the stage. He left Spano, dressed in black, at the podium while the others, all in white attire, made their way around to a circular platform in front of the chorus.
From that platform — its surface painted with an array of starts and other celestial objects swirling around a black hole — they sang. Like the vocal soloists, the chorus wore white clothing, but also wore reflective silver stickers on their foreheads, as if each chorister were sporting a third eye with which to view their scores.
“Creation/Creator” is the kind of work that brings out Spano’s best strengths as conductor and as artistic director, and that of the ASO and Chorus overall as well. It is exactly the kind of project that the ASO should be pursuing and presenting more, not less.
This is where we should be, what we should be doing as a major city and creative community. A great city does not simply deserve great art, it creates great art. This is one of those new creations definitely worth going to experience.
The concert will be repeated at Symphony Hall on tonight at 7:30 p.m. Both Thursday’s and Saturday’s performances are being recorded for release by ASO Media.