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Symphony labors on 'Creation'
Conductor Rilling misses the drama
Joshua Kosman, Chronicle Music Critic
Friday, April 20, 2001
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle


God created the heavens and the earth all over again in Davies Symphony Hall on Wednesday night, as Helmuth Rilling led the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus in Haydn's oratorio "The Creation." The spectacle had its thrilling moments, but one couldn't help feeling that the whole thing was more imposing In the Beginning.

"The Creation" is a treacherous work to perform, full of inventive splendor and dramatic flatness in almost equal measure. And in a performance whose solemn grandeur was at once an asset and a drawback, Rilling never quite evaded the score's pitfalls.

The problem is that "The Creation" is not remotely a sacred work, in the way that, say, Bach's Passions or even Haydn's own magnificent Mass settings are. It offers no theological or spiritual insights, and approaches its themes with only the most generically religious point of reference.

Instead, like the Handel oratorios on which it was carefully modeled (down to the choice of a biblical subject), it is a work of pure theater -- and Haydn, as his long-neglected operas show, was a composer of limited theatrical technique.

The glories of "The Creation" lie in its individual strokes of tone painting, from the evocation of primordial chaos and the blazing addition of light through the forging of land, sea, plants, animals and finally humans.

Each step in this progressive cosmogony is depicted with magnificent boldness and vivacity. Even when a listener knows it's coming, the C-major explosion on "and there was LIGHT" always takes one's breath away. And who can resist the "tawny lion" (although the Symphony performance was in German) and its trombone-and-contrabassoon roar?

A conductor who takes a sufficient showman's delight in these individual effects can make a listener overlook the lack of a compelling dramatic structure binding them together (only the sequence of six days keeps the oratorio moving forward at all, and the final section, with Adam and Eve in Eden, is unavoidably dull).

Yet here was Rilling -- the artistic director of the Oregon Bach Festival and an acclaimed interpreter of Bach's sacred music -- digging deep below the surface of the music as though there were philosophical rewards awaiting him there. If there were, they were never made manifest.

What the audience heard instead was a performance marked by intermittently forceful moments amid stretches of rhythmic laxity and loose ensemble playing. The orchestra in particular struggled all night to stay together, although from the audience Rilling's beat looked clear enough. Many of the score's more delicate movements tended to sag without the requisite rhythmic momentum.

Still, there was enough to savor, especially after intermission when the concert began to pick up steam. The chorus, led by Vance George, brought some much-needed vigor to its assignment, singing with particular allure in the big showpieces that conclude each of the oratorio's three sections.

Canadian soprano Donna Brown made an appealing Symphony debut as a last- minute replacement for Juliane Banse, who canceled because of pregnancy. Brown's singing, if a little breathy at the top, proved fresh, sweet-toned and full of fire.

Marcus Ullmann brought a lithe, flexible tenor to his Symphony debut, singing with particular grace in the aria "Mit Wurd' und Hoheit angetan" ("In native worth and honor clad"). Baritone Andreas Schmidt sang arrestingly in fast music but tended to let pitch and breath support sag once the tempo slowed. Mezzo-soprano Virginia Gnesa-Chen stepped out of the ranks of the chorus to make a fine (and shamefully uncredited) contribution to the final number.


SAN FRANCISCO SYMPHONY: The subscription program repeats at 8 p.m. tonight and tomorrow in Davies Symphony Hall. Tickets: $33-$85. Call (415) 864-6000 or go to

E-mail Joshua Kosman at

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